In this first of three extracts from How the Establishment Lost Control Chris Nineham looks at the sudden revolt of public opinion against the ruling neoliberal consensus
Chris Nineham, How the Establishment Lost Control, Zero Books (2017).
The British establishment is reeling. For years the elites have been behaving as if serious opposition to their plans had disappeared. Many commentators, including some on the left, internalised ruling class over confidence and worried that no alternative to the free market economic model could ever take hold of the popular imagination again. Elite consensus was equated with commanding authority and any challenge to that authority was judged hopeless. Now there is disarray. ‘The people’ no longer seem enthralled by a future of endless globalisation. And they are not doing what they are told.
Instead they have delivered a series of shocks to the system. A narrow miss for Scottish independence in 2014, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, the Brexit vote and Labour’s spectacular June 2017 general election surge have generated the biggest crisis in British society since 1945. Consternation has grown as shocked commentators across the spectrum sought explanation for these upsets in the rise of xenophobia, populism or general unreason. Many took the Brexit vote in particular to express simply an outbreak of reactionary small mindedness amongst ‘the white working class’ or a turn towards narrow protectionism. Even some of the more radical critics of the neoliberal order have tended to assume that a ‘sudden fracturing’ of politics would automatically lead to a slide into ‘political and cultural particularism’ and a society split by ‘cultural and national difference’.
The 2017 general election forced some to begin to recognise the roots of insubordination in a more rational rejection of an economic and political order. But there is still widespread wonderment. These multiple rebellions should not surprise. This short book argues they are expressions of a multi-level crisis in British society that has been germinating for decades. Popular anger has reached breaking point recently, but it never went away, even in the darkest times. For all the triumphalist rhetoric of Thatcher and her supporters, the majority of the population never signed up for the free market experiment and were never convinced by neoliberalism in action. For most, the Thatcher years were experienced as bleak and bitter, and in spite of the bribes and bullying, most continued to aspire to a more equal and caring society. Some on the left took the view that Thatcher had won hearts and minds, but at different times millions campaigned against her policies, and polls show that opposition grew even as the neoliberal regime bedded down. Thatcher’s staying power was more the product of defeat, demoralisation and disorientation than it was of any popular buy-in.
The subsequent history of neoliberalism is one of the steady accumulation of anger and alienation, barely registered in polite society. Rocketing inequality and deepening poverty have been recorded at the margins of public debate but rarely regarded as particularly significant because, for those in a position to comment publicly, they weren’t. Anger at venal politicians, anxiety about a disintegrating welfare state and outrage at a series of disastrous foreign wars has been briefly noted, but the official narrative always moves quickly on to less troublesome matters. More recent events have intensified indignation. The central idea of the whole paradigm – that the market knows best – took an absolute pummelling in the banking crisis of 2008. In that moment of panic, the authorities were unable to conceal that fact that their beloved market mechanisms took the whole economic system to the very edge of collapse. State neutrality was also exposed as a sham as, heaping insult upon injury, the champions of the small state responded to meltdown with massive state bailouts for the perpetrators of the crisis and used the shock to justify the launch of ‘austerity’. Not only had ruling class messaging gone haywire, not only had its whole economic project been exposed as a shocking failure, but it wasn’t even contemplating a change of course. As the dust settled and life continued, a relieved media was content to recycle official disclaimers and carry on as if nothing much had happened.
Is it really any wonder the country is in a state of mutiny? Despite the confused public debate, actual studies of public opinion showed that all the recent rebellions, for all their complexities and contradictions, were linked to growing outrage at inequality and social injustice. At first there was an instinctive element to this that outstripped conscious political positioning, in which many supporters of all political parties swung around to supporting renationalisation, increased taxes for the rich and an end to foreign wars – all normally regarded as left wing ideas, without necessarily changing political allegiance. But the general election of 2017 revealed something much more alarming for the elites. Millions of people have now developed the beginnings of a joined up critique of the prevailing economics and the way it has impacted on society, and they have started to identify with socialism and the left.
Of course politics is polarising, and relentless bombardment of the public by the media and the political elite with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda has encouraged a nasty, xenophobic current in British society. As the elites get more desperate expect even more hysterical attacks on minorities. But the idea that society is careering to the right was never plausible. The Tories under a right wing leader were the biggest party after the June 2017 election, but not only was their majority much reduced, one of the many interesting and heartening things about the result was the fact that immigration wasn’t one of the electorate’s main concerns. What is more, the red baiting of Jeremy Corbyn, his team and allies didn’t stop the biggest swing to Labour since 1945. Nearly 13 million people voted for the most left wing Labour manifesto in a generation. Despite defeat, the initiative was with the left.
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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