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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Foching the Tories (more vague musing on how History might help us think about what to do in the present)

This was originally posted on 8 May 2012.  With the Simon Danczuk/Owen Jones row, followed up by Danczuk writing a piece in the Telegraph (yes - a Labour MP writing in the Telegraph) likening the Labour Left to the BNP, I thought I'd move this back to the top.  

[I mentioned recently a blogging crise de confiance.  Who cares what I think?  And what do I know?  Fair questions.  I often blog about things I'm no expert in, like philosophy and politics.  But then again I do care about these issues.  Then I read these blogs in national newspapers here and here and I thought that, whatever I think or write it's no crazier than these opinions (Cameron's government is socialist?  Hard right Tory policies will win Labour voters over by producing social mobility?  Hell, at least I haven't taken the quantities of Class As that would give me those ideas).  So, no I'm not a politician (and could never be) or political theorist but maybe these musings will spark or feed into some better ideas by someone who is.]

A year ago – and more – I penned a piece called ‘So that’s it: we lost?’ at the start of the Coalition’s assault on what is left of the Welfare State, the NHS and so on.  Certainly, the defenders of the State, the Public Sector, the NHS &c., did not give up without a fight.   And they still haven’t.   But we still lost in the end.  The NHS reforms – a charter to sell off what is left of the National Health Service to Cameron’s friends and backers – went through in the end. 

It’s worth, at this point, contrasting the sheer lack of real achievement, of any dismantling of the results of the Thatcherite attack on the State sector, or even the bulwarking of what remained, by a Labour party with a huge mandate for change – a mandate still reinforced in 2001, when people continued to vote tactically  (in a low turn-out, admittedly) to keep the Tories out – with the revolutionary (or, better, counter-revolutionary) excesses of the current Tory government with (let’s remember) no mandate at all: typically arrogant public school boys who have simply steamed full ahead regardless of pre-election promises, parroting their hollow ideological nonsense about The Market, secure in the knowledge that they are, by virtue of their education, social class and money, bound to be right, whatever anyone else might think.  It’s also worth noting just how small a role has really been played by the Labour Party in opposing Cameron and his millionaire cronies.  No attempt has been made by the Labour Party to challenge the narrative (no surprise there: no attempt was made when they were in power).  All the radical information about the Tory donors and their links with private health care providers etc., has been deployed by political bloggers, web-sites, ‘popular’ resistance movements like 38 Degrees and so on.  Meanwhile, the Labour Party continues to waffle about fiscal responsibility, Blue Labour and the rest.  No change there.
So, in the short term anyway, we have lost: there are no two ways about that.  In late 2010 I mused about how this might look to historians of centuries to come, wondering how it was that the achievements of the war generation, the post-’45 settlement etc could have been thrown away (I continued to ponder that scenario after last summer’s Riots).  But the importance of History – I increasingly think – is in showing that things don’t have to go in a particular way, or lead to a particular outcome.  This is, perhaps, a novel (or at least a minority) view of History.  History has tended to derive its shape from end-points.  In Žižek this is called ‘contingent necessity’: a series of contingent choices and events/results of choices is portrayed, teleologically, as necessary by the end-result.  This is a type of history we must reject.

Rejecting contingent necessity, it seems to me, suggests a way forward and an opportunity to build a socialist/radical Left alternative out of the wreckage of Cameron’s Britain.  What the ConDem wreckers have achieved is the final unpicking of the last of the key co-ordinates of the ’45 Settlement.  Now, this might look like a disaster – and in the short term at least it certainly is.  It will make life much worse for a lot of people while cementing the ‘haves’ in their position of dominance.  But, it seems to me, the sheer extent of Cameron’s success could hand those of us on the Left with a real opportunity – by which I don’t mean a cynical, passive Leninist ‘the worse, the better’ stance. 

It must be responded to in the right fashion, and while the iron is still at least fairly hot.  At the moment, as I see it, the fractured Left (or pseudo-Left) offers us a series of limited options:

1: Accommodation.  The classic New Labour option.  In this view, as always, the Labour Party dances to the Tory/Tory Media tune.  The usual gutless triangulation will lead to an acceptance of the Tory narrative of fiscal irresponsibility, austerity, and a vapid promise simply to manage the situation bequeathed to any future Labour government by Cameron and co, not to make matters any worse.  Mistakes will be admitted, in spite of the deficit lies, the continuing refusal to deal with the bankers, Osborne’s manifest incompetence, the corruption of the government, its dealings with Murdoch, Brooks and the rest, and so on and so forth.  You could say that there was never a better time, while the Murdocracy is in such low esteem with the public, to launch an attack without fear of the Sun’s front page.
2: Nostalgia.  This is classic melancholy in the focussing on something lost.  But that cannot radically challenge the Tory narrative, precisely because of ‘contingent necessity’.  The NHS failed and therefore ‘had to be’ changed’.  Thus anyone holding a simple ‘revivalist’ position will be able to be portrayed as arguing against the lessons of history, the weight of history, or the logic of history.  Variants of the nostalgic revivalist position will be found in old-style Unionism and in the Old Left: the Marxists, the SWP, Old Labour.  None of these will be able to mount an effective challenge.  They are too easily countered – indeed disposed of – by populist right-wing propaganda.  In this sense they are as locked within the Tory narrative as the accommodationists of Blue Labour.   The signifying system of the Tory narrative portray them highly effectively as far-left dinosaurs, the Loony Left, as adherents of systems that ‘history shows’ failed (contingent necessity again), as threatening ordinary, decent people.
3: Oh, and then there’s Occupy.  Not that Occupy sees itself as part of the Left, anyway.  Occupy has nothing to say to anyone about anything.  More to the point it doesn’t want to.  It likes to see itself as above such things: as ‘Punk Politics’, as one can see from Occupy commenters on blogs etc.  It presents itself simply as ‘the young people’ doing something new (regardless of the fact that simple occupation is about as old-style a form of protest as there is).  It has no programme (in the UK anyway).  In the UK it seems largely politically illiterate (for example, one Occupy commenter on a blog-post said Occupy ‘transcended Left and Right’ – how is that even possible?).  It’s not interested in thinking about the crucial terms of the debate.  It has, if anything, allowed itself to be demonised by the media, weakening support for whatever it is that it is trying to do.
What we need to do, counter-intuitively perhaps, is embrace the extent of Cameron’s mandate-less successes and excesses.  The very extent of dismantling the state can be a way of breaking free of the Tory narrative.  It cuts the Left free from the hulk of the ’45 Settlement and its attendant baggage.  It is, I suggest, possible to appropriate and thereby to subvert, the Tory master-narrative.  The post-45 Welfare State failed – but do you know why it failed?  A new narrative could be based on Tory Story, one which can put the neo-liberals on the back foot.  Let us negate the negation.  There are multiple new narratives that can be constructed around the failure of the Welfare State in the face of capitalist assault – which dwell, for example upon the way in which privatisation has not been a success, except in increasing the gap between the wealthy and the poor.  How it shows that private companies driven by the profit motive are not more efficient than state operations (indeed how most privatised areas are still propped up by government subsidy, whereas workers and consumers have lost out – how the old nationalised industries are still nationalised, except – farcically – that the nation that owns them isn’t theUK…). 

Foch 'em!
And there would be many others (here is a nice example).  The point is that the programmes should be to create something new; not simply (or overtly) to preserve or revive.  To quote Beckett (not Brecht: thanks 'James'): Try again; fail again; fail better.  The more the neo-liberals dismantle the post-45 settlement, the more they unpick the coordinates of their own ideology.  (More to the point, perhaps, to adopt an analogy from the historiography of the Carolingian Empire, the more they sell off to their chums, the less booty they have to distribute to their followers…)  We should embrace the space opened up by this in the creation of new radical left-wing ideas, to build a better version of the Welfare State, a more effective one, probably using a different name.  This is where my title comes in with its allusion to Maréchal Ferdinand Foch and his famous ‘toujours l’attaque’ quote: "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack."

This might have unexpected results.  It might, if even partially successful, compel the neo-liberals to back-track.  After all they need their ‘other’ – their ‘bloated’, ‘failed’, ‘something for nothing’ post-45 welfare state.  This would be a partial success in itself but it should not be seen as sufficient.  Rather than accepting such a result, the project of a new and better Welfare State 2.0 ought to be pushed and pursued with the support of health and education workers, pushing the Right further into the position of defending what it itself claims to have failed, whilst still maintaining their policies of social division and inequality.  The ground of the debate that is opened up by Cameron’s success should be seized, and this is one way of doing so.  This is the opportunity offered by the debacle of Lansley’s health care Bill.  The question is whether the Left has the political will and imagination to take it.