Chris Nineham’s new book is both digestible for those new to radical politics and presents an engaging analysis for experienced activists, argues Martin Hall
Chris Nineham, How the Establishment Lost Control (Zero Books 2017), viii, 115pp.
This book feels timely, coming as it does ten years on from the start of the great recession set in train by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the US. Since then, we have had years of swingeing cuts, disguised under the moniker of austerity, plus a series of responses to that which have functioned as further shocks to the system in the UK and elsewhere: the Scottish Referendum; Brexit; Trump and the General Election of this June.
However, Chris Nineham does much more than present a portrait of the last decade. Rather, he puts this into the context of the post-war consensus, its collapse and the subsequent onset of neoliberalism. He also discusses the turn away from Marx (and more broadly social-democratic traditions in economics) effected by sections of the left and, in particular, the academy, with its concomitant downplaying of class and its replacement with identity and choice as defining categories. Finally, he examines the tendency of the media to replicate and push hegemonic positions, allied to an inability and unwillingness to understand and engage with political events and views outside of their small Overton window.
To counteract this, the book suggests the following: the importance of class consciousness and a material analysis of society, allied to mobilisation from below. Despite being only one hundred pages, the book covers a lot of ground and this review does not have the space to interrogate all that is covered. Instead, let’s look at some sections in a little more detail.
An interesting element in the book, and one infrequently seen in more mainstream accounts of British post-war politics, is Nineham’s contention that Thatcherism did not at any point gain great popularity with the working class. In a discussion of the rise of neoliberal ideology and its spread, into both the Tory party and Labouri, he makes the point that ‘the fundamental problem was not that Thatcher’s ideas had won hearts and minds, but that opposition had not broken through’ (p.22).
He then discusses some of the defeats of the era, namely the Miners’ strike and successive failures by an increasingly rightward-facing Labour Party to gain office. When this is allied to a continual narrative from the forces of capitalism and their intellectual foot soldiers that the only way of organising society is via neoliberal capitalist models predicated upon the individual, their agency as a consumer, and freedom as choice, you would expect demoralisation. While Nineham allows that this occurred, he rightly points to evidence from a number of sources that show the persistence of collectivist ideas within the working class.
The author also discusses the intellectual turn away from Marxism as both a method of enquiry and a model of social organisation. He outlines the ‘new times’ debates in Marxism Today in the 1980s, which functioned as an outlier for the moves made by elements of the left in the subsequent decade or so, providing the ground for the even more moribund turn taken a decade later with the creation of New Labour. He shows how the unpopular, reactive focus-group politics of Blair’s government led to a huge drop in turn-out in general elections, and a disengagement with parliamentary politics. In a section entitled ‘Propaganda’s Limits’, he skilfully outlines how the intellectual currents that came in the wake of structuralism have tended to see power as pervasive, divorced from struggle, and immovable, in doing so making ‘a challenge to it near impossible’ (p.66).
So, what are the answers given in the book and what other problems does it discuss?
In a recent interview for Counterfire, discussing the paucity of postmodern arguments as explanatory tools to understand social relations, the author suggests that ‘the problem with these arguments is that they tend to miss the contradictory quality of consciousness under capitalism, and they cannot explain resistance’, perhaps, as he suggests, Marx’s ‘core insight’ (p.67). What Nineham gives the reader is a response to both the intellectual project of Foucault, Baudrillard et. al. and to the pessimistic view of politics they represented.
It can be argued that they believed power to have become so pervasive as to make challenging it an impossibility. This book takes issue with that worldview. Going back to Marx, Gramsci, Luxembourg and, in particular, Lukács, he makes the case for the continuing efficacy of a material analysis, with attention given to the role of alienation and commodification in hiding the extraction of surplus value from the worker, allied to the ruling class’s control over what Marx called ‘the mental means of production’ (p.68), i.e. the role of ideology in attempting to ensuring the smooth running of this system.
However, ideology is not all-powerful and can be challenged; indeed, it always will be, due to a contradiction inherent in capitalist social relations, which is that people can (and are likely to) organise and fight back against their commodification. This fight is born in working-class experience, which is quite rightly described in the book as ‘the key source of radical consciousness’ (p.70). As attacks upon working-class people increase, so does the reaction.
The author discusses another recent strand of critical analysis; the move towards concepts of post-work as part of the larger project of describing a (non-Marxist) world of post-capitalism. He interrogates recent contributions from Guy Standing, Nick Srnicek and Paul Mason, all of whom in differing ways make the case that the move away from manufacturing and a Fordist mode of production in the West has limited the capacity to base a project of political change on the working class. Nineham makes the point that more people are in work than ever before, the gap between rich and poor is growing and that consequently more people sell their labour power than ever before, even if they are not predominantly making things.
While strikes are rare and union membership is low, the majority of people think of themselves as working class. We also have the objective fact that the majority of the population produce profit for others, regardless of how they attempt to define themselves in class terms. There is also, of course, the global south, which now functions as the manufacturing base for the West.
The book suggests that the contemporary birth of a revivified movement for social change can be dated back to the Seattle protests at the WTO in 1999. This is a view shared by Jodi Dean, among others.ii We then have the formation of Stop the War Coalition in the UK in 2001, further protests against the global elite in Genoa, Seattle, Nice and Washington, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the rise of Syriza in Greece and the formation of the People’s Assembly against Austerity in the UK in 2012. The latter did much of the work in the initial Corbyn campaign in 2015 and brought the energy of activists with years of campaigning between them to the staid world of mainstream political parties. In short, the author argues that we are in a moment of great optimism, buoyed by the shocks to the establishment in the UK, provided by the events listed in the first paragraph of this review.
Brexit in particular opens up possibilities for a breakthrough by a working-class political alternative, coming as it did from a resounding ‘no’ to the political orthodoxy of the last forty years. The author acknowledges that times of crisis leave the door open for the right, particularly when their take on Brexit and the European Union in general is given such media dominance, both during and after the campaign. There has been a push to present it as an anti-immigrant, nationalist occurrence, despite the evidence suggesting otherwise, instead providing a multitude of reasons for people who voted leave. What they all had in common, though, was dissatisfaction with the state of things. The left must take advantage of the blow to British capitalism dealt by Brexit.
The book concludes with a section on the role of mass politics in achieving and securing change, counselling against placing too much faith in democratic parliamentarianism, in particular, giving space to a discussion of the problems that will be faced by a Corbyn-led government, with the forces of the ruling class lined up against it. This can be countered via the revolutionary organisation within the mass movement: as Chris Nineham says in his final line, ‘a time of system failure and class-based discontent is a time to take the initiative’ (p.100).
i He makes the point that the roll back from Keynesianism and the post-war consensus begins during Callaghan’s Labour government, stating that it ‘cut public spending by 9.5% from 1976 to 1978’ (p.16), a more extreme reduction than any achieved in the following decade under Thatcher.