Radical chains: why class matters by Chris Nineham Radical Chains: Why Class Matters by Chris Nineham

In the last extract from Radical Chains, Chris Nineham examines how neoliberalism has undermined the credibility of the system itself

Over the last forty years, the ruling class has enriched itself on an undreamt-of scale, but their system has not been able to solve the central problem it confronted in the 1970s: a historically low rate of profit. As a result, their regime has generated a multilevel crisis in society. Increased exploitation has been accompanied by a frenzy of financial speculation, deeper and deeper economic crises and an accelerated assault on welfare. Far from generating a friction-free world market, as its prophets promised, globalisation has led to a renewed assault by the most powerful economies on the poor of the Global South, including the enforced opening-up of markets, all sorts of covert intervention and open military assault.

The results have included millions of dead, a string of failed states, and migrations on a scale never known before. Meanwhile, the pandemics and the existential threat of climate crisis have revealed that an unplanned and rapacious relation with our environment can only end in disaster.

Despite this, neoliberal ideas have proved remarkably resilient in official society. In politics and the state, in the media, in academia and in mainstream intellectual life in general any challenge to pro-market fatalism is still regarded as eccentric. Given their identification with socialist ideas, it is perhaps no surprise that Corbyn and Sanders were both treated as political imposters, and dangerous ones at that. Even the mildest support for social planning as anything more than a temporary expedient is still treated as an affront to the natural laws of supply and demand, and the necessity of a balanced budget.

As we shall see, continued ruling-class commitment to the neoliberal agenda has real macroeconomic foundations. The extreme lack of dissenting voices in the mainstream is however partly a result of the neoliberal reorganisation of the state. Business and state institutions have integrated to a degree not captured by the cliché of the ‘revolving door’. Governments have stuffed top layers of the civil service with industry professionals for their private-sector experience, their influence within corporations and in order to gain political support from private firms. Industry, in turn, has hired people from government positions as policy to gain personal access to government officials, to push for favourable legislation and government contracts. This process has helped turn what used to be called corruption into a system of government.

The longevity of neoliberal ‘thought’ is also the product of one more important development of the last few decades: the enormous enrichment of the upper levels of the professional and managerial classes. The claim, fashionable on the left, that society is essentially divided between the bottom 99 percent and the top one percent obscures this important class dynamic. As Thomas Picketty has shown, in the advanced countries the share of total private property and income in the hands of the top ten percent have grown as fast and in some cases faster than that of the top one percent since 1980. In Europe, by no means the most unequal region of the world, the top ten percent now owns between fifty percent and sixty percent of total wealth.

In other parts of the world, including for example India and Russia, the rise has been even more dramatic. In the Middle East, the most unequal region on earth, on average the top ten percent earn fully 63 percent of total income. Whereas, historically at least, sections of the better-off professional and middle classes have solidarized with working people, their attitudes have decisively changed as their fortunes have diverged sharply from those of the majority of working people. In the context of a low level of working-class struggle and the capitulation of social democracy to the market, their rapidly increasing wealth has tied them to a toxic status quo and encouraged them to reproduce variations of their rulers’ worldview. In the words of Catherine Liu’s withering take on the ‘Professional Managerial Class’ in the US:

The PMC is deeply hostile to simple redistributive policies that a Bernie Sanders presidency would have implemented: it is against the idea of building solidarity among the oppressed. It prefers obscurantism, balkanization, and management of interest groups to a transformative reimagination of the social order. It wants to play the virtuous social hero, but as a class, it is hopelessly reactionary. The interests of the PMC are now tied more than ever to its corporate overlords than to the struggles of the majority of Americans whose suffering is merely background décor for the PMC’s elite volunteerism.

As a result, many on the left fear that neoliberal thinking has come to dominate society completely. Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval put the case strongly in their 2009 book The New Way of the World, arguing that neoliberalism had generated a ‘new rationality’ that had penetrated so deep not just into institutions but into the collective psyche that it had become a ‘world-reason’. The reality has turned out to be rather different.

Neoliberal dogma has indeed captured the thinking of many of those who run key institutions, the universities, the media, even the remnants of the welfare state and the health service. It therefore has an influence on all layers in society and can appear to be pervasive, depending on the circles in which you move. Rarely however has it come near to dominating popular consciousness. Polls in country after country, including the US, repeatedly show that majorities see inequality as a major problem, want increased spending on health and education, and support trade unions, in other words dissent comprehensively from the ‘world reason’ of the globalisers.

Despite the stereotypes promoted by ‘enlightened’ elites, research overviews show that the working poor tend to have the most progressive attitudes on social issues. Even at the height of Thatcher’s success in 1987, the British Social Attitudes Survey showed that more than three quarters of the population thought that ‘the nation’s wealth is shared unfairly’, 54 percent that ‘big business benefits owners at the expense of workers’, and 59 percent that ‘there is one law for the rich and another for the poor’. As John Curtice, one of the editors, concluded, ‘within the working class there is a large majority with radical or egalitarian views’.

In fact, in the last decade or so, massive numbers of people have come to the conclusion that capitalism is a problem and even to self-identify as socialists. According to a 2021 report published by the right-wing thinktank the Institute for Economic Affairs nearly eighty percent of younger Britons blame capitalism for the housing crisis, 75 percent believe the climate emergency is ‘specifically a capitalist problem’ and 72 percent back sweeping nationalisation. Overall, 67 percent want to live under a socialist economic system. To make matters worse for the establishment, the figures are not so different for other age groups. On the

other side of the Atlantic, a Harvard University study in 2016 found that more than fifty percent of young people in the heartland of laissez-faire economics reject capitalism.

This is of course because it is more than anything the experience of reality that shapes people’s ideas. In Marx’s words, ‘being determines consciousness’, and the lived reality of neoliberalism for working people around the globe has been the direct opposite of that of the small minority it has so spectacularly enriched. The fact that neoliberalism’s key institutions are run by such firm defenders of the status quo may have given it an extra lease of life and caused some confusion on the left, but at a certain point being so out of touch with popular experience becomes a liability for any regime. One recent international survey of trust in institutions warned that more than half of respondents believed that capitalism in its current form is now doing more harm than good in the world. Despite a strong global economy and near full employment, none of the institutions that the study measured, government, business, NGOs and media, is trusted. The result of record inequality, is, it said:

…a world of two different trust realities. The informed public—wealthier, more educated, and frequent consumers of news—remain far more trusting of every institution than the mass population. In a majority of markets, less than half of the mass population trust their institutions to do what is right.

Radical Chains: Why Class Matters (Zer0 Books, 2023) is available to buy at the Counterfire shop

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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