And so the new year begins. To me, in terms of the UK, it feels like Brexit is monopolising all discussion and debate. It feels like it is consuming all of our collective intellectual oxygen and political energy. And, it is without doubt, a potentially defining moment for the political systems and process in the UK, and across Europe. And of course, it will almost undoubtedly, feed into how the political systems and process across the world behave as they readjust to whatever the powerful have in store for us. But the thing that really bothers me, is how will this impact my relation to, and the relation of my friends, families, neighbours, and colleagues to, the local 1% and the global 0.1%.
The beginning of a new year is always a good time for taking a moment to learn from the past before planning for the year ahead. And it is in this vein that I think it is worth remembering some of the aggravating factors that fed into Brexit. For the last two decades, individuals and groups have all been coming together in increasing numbers to question and confront the powerful over their behaviour both individually and in the institutions they use to maintain their position of power. These confrontations have been in relation to environment, gender, race, economics, warfare, and welfare, among other things. And as that list keeps getting longer, so the wider movement fighting for a fair and sustainable society seems to just keep getting bigger.
However, to think that the national 1% and the global 0.1% are not going to react to this pattern of behaviour is a dangerous fallacy. For over one hundred years now, almost without exception, every time the bottom 90% of the population have begun to organise and demand equality, the powerful have responded in a number of ways. One of their key strategies has been to offer compromises, framed as pragmatism, but that are in truth nothing more than a choice between the manner of our oppression.
New Labour were a text book example of this. As 90% became increasingly radicalised and organised, then certain ‘left-sounding’ sections of the political elite offered the people the first of these fatal compromises. “Lets not focus on the systems and structures that apply power unequally, but rather the few bad apples that have been misusing that unequal power”.
I remember being told many years ago in response to my criticisms of the then “New Labour” government, by a member of the local “New Labour” party, that it was better to be inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in. My response then, was as it is now. And that the argument is only true if you are lucky enough to be allowed inside the tent. If you are forced to live outside the tent, it would be much better if the lucky few would just stop pissing out of their tent and on to the rest of us.
If the first compromise is accepted, it is invariably followed by the second compromise. “You and I are very similar, why don’t you let me talk on your behalf. After all, I know what is best for people like us’.
Interestingly, this is same strategy that has been used in recent decades by both the far-right capitalists and the neo-liberal “centre”. And in both cases, the outcome as far as the rest of us are concerned, has been a systematic curtailing of free and informed debate, disenfranchisement from the democratic process, and ever more subordination within the economic power structure.
Which is why I think it is important to remember, that for many the original purpose of the Labour party, as it was imagined by many trade unionists at the time, was to represent the increasingly organised working class within the parliamentary system of government. But what is now often overlooked was that this occurred at a time when the struggle for equality was fast descending into open conflict, and the threat of revolution was becoming very real. It was in this environment that the British ruling elite, increasingly aware that they might lose control, acquiesced to the compromise position of a narrowly defined system of parliamentary representation for the working class.
Many have argued that for the 1% this was always more about co-opting and silencing an increasingly organised and militant 90% than it was about either a crisis of conscience or a damascene conversion to enlightenment thinking. And as history has proven, dividing the organised Labour movement into voters, donors, members, activists, parliamentarians, shadow cabinet, leadership, grandees, and Lords, has proven to be a very effective way of forcing a structure based on inequality and fragmentation, on to what was a far more democratic, egalitarian and collectivised movement.
The metaphor I keep coming back to, is that this compromise effectively worked as a pressure release valve. Every time the exploited start to build up a head of steam, the system re-presents the “democratic” pantomime, and offers one of them a seat at the table. Albeit the children’s table. This is then further compounded by the inclusion of certain financial and in-kind incentives for those sitting at the table. So the question, how did we get from Tolpuddle to Granita, isn’t really that complicated. The movement was divided, a hierarchy created, and the top tier replaced and/or co-opted.
It is in the most recent history of the Labour party that the response by the self-styled “centre-left” to the regrowth of socialism in the Labour party, is at its most revealing. The response, bordering on apoplexy, was repeated so many times and in so many different voices, that one can only conclude it had come from some sort of officially scripted and approved briefing paper. And like all forms of propaganda, once the mainstream media amplified it, it wasn’t long before the incessant repetition filtered into the minds of large sections of the general public as well, including among the progressive left.
Over the course of several months, it was personally repeated to me in different conversations by a trade unionist, several Labour party members, a self-professed anarchist, and even a tax-dodging 1%er. The argument went something like this. A socialist-led Labour party could never achieve electoral victory because they simply didn’t have the charisma, style, or educational backgrounds needed for leadership, nor the pragmatism to win over the top 10%. And it is this last point that is actually the most accurate. With a slight amendment, it is actually the priorities of the top 1% that trump all others in our system of government.
In a society structured in such a way that it is primarily controlled by the 1%, being handed the whip by the 1% doesn’t make you a successful progressive counterpoint to the 1%. Quite the reverse, it makes you a functionary of the 1%. The fact that you have been handed the whip is all the evidence you need to be sure that the 1% don’t think that you are planning on using it against them. Let us never forget, News International backed ‘New Labour’ in the run up to the 1997 election because the family that owns that company had a much clearer understanding of what Blair et al. had planned for the rest of us.
And once again we find ourselves in a similar quandary. Albeit reversed. The fact that the establishment is still in a rabid-froth about all things socialist, is one of the clearest pieces of evidence that the 1% still feel that they might actually be faced with a socialist Labour party winning the most votes in a general election. A situation that will inevitably highlight exactly how democratic our system of government actually is. But it also raises a new spectre, that of the lengths to which the 1% are willing to go in order to protect their privilege. Which in turn both clarifies and highlights exactly where our strength lies, in case we forget.
The strength of socialism has never been in the polemics, or the speeches, or the intellects, or even the most charismatic individuals. It is first and foremost in our solidarity. It is in each of us coming together, in our homes, communities, workplaces, and with our friends. Our strength is in us standing together, learning from each other, and defending each other. It is only in our collective strength that socialism has any chance. And it is also in our solidarity that the true strength of the current shadow cabinet currently lies.
Because of this, we are fast reaching the point when we will be faced with a series of decisions. These will inevitably be compromises, framed as the pragmatisms implicit in Realpolitik. And they will be different for everyone working, campaigning and fighting for a fairer and more sustainable society, according to our part in the movement and the positions we take. I imagine the Shadow Cabinet, either collectively or as individuals, have been receiving invitations to discuss “mutually-beneficial” futures with certain power blocs for years.
The risk for all of us is in losing sight of what we are trying to achieve and why we are trying to achieve it. There are many groups within society that will use that old trick of presenting an urgent decision between two compromised positions. Brexit is the perfect example, ‘my deal or no deal’. It wasn’t so long ago that the world was being made the same offer in the War against Terrorism, although then it was ‘totalitarianism or terrorism’. The moment we allow them to define the problem we inevitably forfeit a say in defining the solution. And if we have no say in defining the solution, can we be really genuinely surprised if our needs and desires are not part of that solution.