anti-austerity protest Anti-austerity protest in Manchester, 2015. Photo: Jim Aindow

How did the establishment get it so wrong? Alistair Cartwright talks to Chris Nineham about his new myth-busting book

This is a book for friends and allies in the broadest sense, but I wanted to start with enemies. Having seen the British government lose control so spectacularly in the snap general election a couple of months ago, in what appears to be one of the most serious political crises since 1945, some will be wondering what exactly the establishment is doing to get that control back again. How do you think the Tory party will try to regroup? And what about the wider British establishment, what’s their strategy for getting the neoliberal project back on course?

book coverThe analogy with 1945 is interesting. The level of social upheaval is less and this time it is more of a slow burn, but we are once again at a moment in which the social and economic model has lost all credibility and there is a deep desire for change. Perhaps there is an important difference, though.

In 1945 the elites reluctantly conceded the need for change, for more redistribution, some nationalisation and increased social spending. Some of this had been promised during the war, and later the emerging boom made concessions to working people less painful for the ruling class. The situation now isn’t the same. All sorts of factors, including low rates of profit and the importance of international finance for the British ruling class make it harder to force a change of course.

The situation now is one in which, as Nina Power wrote recently, austerity is ideologically dead yet continues to dominate people’s lives. This is a glaring contradiction for the establishment. There really doesn’t seem to be a plan B.

This partly explains the vehemence of the opposition to Corbyn inside the Labour Party, but it also helps explain the lack of direction in the Tory Party. There has been some loose talk about looking after ‘hard working families’ and so on, but in practice what we are getting is more austerity.

Brexit has made life even harder for the Tories. The referendum was something of a protest vote, which they are trying to relate to. But it was also a big blow for the bulk of the British ruling class, who are trying to reverse it as far as they can. So what we are getting is zig-zags on Brexit but no overall change of course. In these circumstances it’s hard to see a leader emerging in the short term who can unite let alone re-energise the Tories.

Before the political upset of the June 2017 election there was of course the Brexit vote almost exactly one year earlier. As you point out, the question of EU membership was not an issue the left would have preferred to fight on, if it had the choice. David Cameron called the referendum to settle differences in his own party, confident in a quick victory that would disorientate the opposition. The campaign was dominated by anti-immigrant racism from the Conservatives, UKIP, some elements of the Labour right and especially the mainstream press. As it turned out though, Cameron didn’t get the result he was expecting; his humiliating resignation was followed by a flurry of Tory backstabbing and the rise of Theresa May. In the book, you argue that despite the propaganda pumped out by the media and politicians, the question of immigration was not in fact the main driver of the vote to leave the EU. How do you explain this measured if not totally sanguine take on the result?

All the research shows that the drivers behind the leave vote were complex. Both exit polls and the academic research that has been done since show that immigration wasn’t the main concern for the majority of leave voters – although it was for some. The concern that came out on top was the question of control. There was a strong feeling that decisions that affect Britain should be made by British people and a sense that the EU was one factor stopping this happening.

There were clear economic drivers to the vote. Areas with strong leave votes tended to be ones with low average wages and poor services. The majority of leave voters thought that things were going to get worse for them and their families, while most remain voters thought things were getting better.

Even many of those who did see immigration as the main question often didn’t frame their arguments in openly racist terms. Anxiety about jobs, services and the future were being channelled through a false argument about immigration.

There is a real problem with racism in Britain amongst a sizeable minority, and of course the mainstream Brexit campaign – focussed as it was on the question of immigration – and the result itself have given them confidence. There has been a spike in racist attacks and some attempts by racists to mobilise and organise. It’s no wonder that EU citizens and migrants in Britain are very anxious.

The left needs to unite now around a high profile, energetic campaign in defence of free movement and against all forms of racism. There is the possibility of real progress here. There are strong forces in British society sympathetic to free movement from Europe. The Corbyn leadership also opens up the possibility of improving rights for migrants from outside Europe, who are treated barbarically at the moment and are very often ignored in this discussion. It is crucial however that this campaign is linked to a fight for a Brexit which delivers jobs and better services for all working people. If the left sees the Brexit vote as simply about immigration, we will fail to appeal to lots of leave voters and we will likely miss these opportunities.

The book’s first chapter traces the long march away from social democracy to the Labour government of the late 1970s, who anticipated Thatcher’s neoliberal project with deep public spending cuts. You argue that despite how ruthlessly Thatcher then pushed through the new free market model, most working class people ‘never bought the dream’. Is there not a case for saying that neoliberalism has created its own kind of impoverished subjectivity, dominated by individualism, opportunism and cynicism?

If capitalism didn’t have the capacity to delude and disorientate people it would have disappeared long ago. There are all sorts of ways in which people have been influenced by the horrible experience of the last three or four decades. But what I try to show is that it is important not to confuse demoralisation with indoctrination or to read public opinion directly from the media. The middle class view of what working people think is very different from the reality.

One of the things I did for the book was to look at the polling and opinion surveys since Thatcher came to power in 1979. The results were very interesting. Although there are ups and down and various complexities, by and large the majority of working people have supported more taxes for the rich, more spending on the welfare state and more rights for trade unions and so on throughout the period.

For most people, the Thatcher years were bleak and bitter times. It wasn’t that most people actively signed up to the free market experiment – more that the defeat of struggles against privatisation and cuts stopped people hoping for, or believing in, change. To make matters worse the Labour leadership at the time and even some of the trade union leaders surrendered to Thatcherite ideas.

The Blair moment that came a bit later in 1997 was also very contradictory. It marked the point at which Labour openly embraced the free market, but also when the electorate rejected Thatcherism. So it is no surprise there has ultimately been a huge crisis in Labour.

Since then, as neoliberalism has become more and more of a nightmare and less and less coherent, there has been growing anger largely unnoticed in the mainstream. More recently, partly as a result of the big protest movements – including the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements – and partly as a result of the banking crisis, this has developed into a popular critique of neoliberalism. It is this more than anything which has given rise to Corbynism and the current crisis of the regime.

The media clearly has a role to play in shaping people’s consciousness. The book’s chapter on ‘The Poverty of Propaganda’ argues that we need to understand the two-way traffic between the mainstream media and mass opinion. When we look at the current media landscape, with its ‘post-truth’ scenarios, it can sometimes feel like the linkage between social reality and the media’s presentation of it has broken down. Are we in a double bind where either the media moulds and mediates the social reality, or completely ignores it?  

No, I don’t think so. What is true is that the mainstream media is probably more dumbed down and biased than it has ever been. It reached peak propaganda during the two Corbyn leadership elections, when sections of the media, in particular the BBC, became organising centres for anti-Corbyn manoeuvres. But what is remarkable is actually how limited its impact has been.

During the Scottish Independence vote and Corbyn’s various election bids almost the whole of the media was working to secure the ‘correct’ outcome. The broadcasters and the ‘quality’ press were all pretty much anti-Brexit too. But to the shock of owners and editors, their efforts had limited success. They immediately started blaming fake news, populism, nationalism, racism, the irrational behaviour of the masses – you name it. The one thing that never occurred to them was that ordinary people might be thinking for themselves. Research into the Brexit vote showed that discussion with friends and family was central to the way people made their decisions.

One key thinker who comes in for particular critique in this context is Michel Foucault. Given that Foucault lies on the more materialist end of the postmodern spectrum, I’m tempted to ask – why him? Do you see any possibility of a useful synthesis of Marx and Foucault, especially in our present age of privatised prisons and the remote discipline of the ‘gig economy’?

Although a vague postmodernism has become a part of ruling class common sense, I don’t think anyone takes the openly postmodernist writers such as Jean Baudrillard terribly seriously any more. As you suggest, Foucault is a bit more nuanced, and some of his descriptions of the way power is inscribed in various institutions in capitalist society can be eye opening. But I don’t think you can call him a materialist.

At the level of his overall theory I think he is very problematic. He collapsed social relations into a completely abstract notion of power. By saying that power was so embedded in everyday life that it was often impossible to perceive, let alone challenge, he did the left a big disservice. He was one of the most influential of a whole series of writers who have developed strong models of elite influence. The problem with these arguments is that they tend to miss the contradictory quality of consciousness under capitalism, and they cannot explain resistance. Class tends to disappear as a meaningful category in their theories, too.

My argument is that Marxism provides a much more complete account of how capitalism works on consciousness, by explaining the way that commodification and exploitation can lead to revolt as well as resignation.

These assumptions about elite power and especially media power are not confined to academia. One of the ways that the Labour leadership justified its shift to the right in the Thatcher years was by arguing that Murdoch’s influence was impossible to challenge. The view of Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader who lost the 1992 election, was “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”. In other words, you have to bend to ruling class ideas about the market and scale back trade union militancy, and so forth. This turn – it was called ‘new realism’ at the time – was disastrous, and we are only just recovering from it. Of course it was mainly the product of industrial defeats and electoral setbacks, but overestimating ruling class ideological power so often tends to take you in this direction.

You argue that if the Corbyn project is to move forwards, we have to look beyond Parliament. What do you think are the crucial next steps?

The experience of the Corbyn experiment itself so far tells us there are big problems ahead. It is not just that the Labour right has consistently tried to sabotage Corbyn, or that most of the media has been hostile. An unnamed general has promised mutiny if Corbyn came to power without learning to love the nuclear bomb. Bankers have been wheeled out to warn of the dire financial consequences of a Corbyn-led government.

Basically they are making threats. If Corbyn came to power with a reasonably radical programme intact, there would be a coordinated campaign by all sorts of elements of the establishment including the banks, the judiciary and the civil service to sabotage or subvert the government. Given the forces ranged against us, the idea that we can deliver fundamental change simply by getting different politicians into parliament is an illusion.

This is why, as well a supporting the Corbyn leadership in every way we can, we need to be building independent, grassroots organisation and a viable extra-parliamentary left. Corbyn’s success is itself partly a product of the mass movements, and we need to be strengthening those movements in every workplace and community in order to defend the project against attacks from the right and to keep pushing it forward.

We have recent history to remind us what happens when the left doesn’t do this. The radical Syriza government that came to power in Greece in 2013 was similarly a product of mass popular campaigning. But the left in Greece failed to keep the focus on popular mobilisation. When the government surrendered to the demands for more austerity from the Troika, the left didn’t have the capacity to mobilise on the scale necessary to force the government into more radical channels. The result was a historic defeat.

The immediate situation itself underlines the need for popular mobilisation. Although it was very good for the left, the June 2017 general election clearly resolved nothing. This is a weak and nasty government. But it is possible that it could stagger on for years if we let it.

Over time all sorts of things can happen to weaken our side as well. So we need to mobilise as strongly as possible whilst we can, to try and land some knock-out blows to the May government.

This can be done. Not only are tens of thousands of people ready to protest against the government, there is also a general sense of exasperation with elite incompetence and callousness – as witnessed in the response to the Grenfell tower fire – and growing signs of industrial resistance too, including strikes by hospital porters, British Airways cabin crew, and staff at the Bank of England, all within the last few weeks. This is another reason why the left needs to focus on drawing together all the different strands of discontent in broad movements and on building vibrant revolutionary organisation at the same time. It’s a very exciting moment full of potential, but the opportunity we have won’t last forever.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright is an activist with the Stop the War Coalition and a member of Counterfire.