The insights of the great Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci come into immediate focus as Chris Bambery reflects upon the present predicaments of our ruling class
“Sub-Trump” was how I described the Tory Party conference last week. Meaning it combined very nasty attacks on migrants with an attempt to address the fears of many of those who voted for Brexit, with Theresa May telling them the state was there to protect them from the worst of globalisation.
I don’t want to spend too long on last week’s news, but suffice to say how quickly they had to back down from the idea they would “name and shame” companies who employ too many foreign workers (they’re also likely to retreat on recreating grammar schools).
The backlash from big business over this “naming and shaming” showed that, firstly, the employers understand UK Capitalism PLC needs migrant labour. But secondly, they are concerned that in the Brexit negotiations the government would prioritise controlling immigration over securing access to European markets.
Theresa May faces a challenge the scale of which few other British governments have had to face – not simply negotiating Brexit but devising a way forward for UK PLC. In a wider sense it shouldn’t be the government but the ruling class itself which gives a lead in demonstrating they have such a strategy and reassuring us that all will be well.
Antonio Gramsci reminded us that: “A class is dominant in two ways, that is, it is ‘leading’ and ‘dominant.’ It leads the allied classes, and dominates over the adversarial classes.”
The ruling class rules because it secures “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant social group.” Gramsci adds that, “the apparatus of state coercive power... ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups which do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively.”
The elements of consent and coercion, one largely achieved through what he calls civil society, the other through the state, form what Gramsci calls the “integral state.” In other words civil society and the state apparatus aren’t distinct but are two component parts of the same entity.
But to return to my main theme for Gramsci a ruling class “can (and must) ‘lead.’”
Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher did lead. Starting as a minority of both the ruling class and the Tory Party she led in driving through a neo-liberal agenda. That involved coercion in a series of set piece confrontations with the trade unions, culminating in the year long miner’s strike of 1984-1985. But it also involved winning a majority of the ruling class, the bulk of the middle class and a minority of the working class who bought into things like buying their council house.
We shouldn’t exaggerate Thatcher’s success. Her government acted as a sledgehammer to British industry but couldn’t build anything on the ruins, and it couldn’t resolve the strategic destiny of UK PLC, bequeathing a toxic legacy over EU membership. But it did succeed in ensuring Labour was won to neo-liberalism, and Blair and Brown took the “project” even further forward.
In contrast the current Tory administration seems to be making strategic choices up as it goes along. For instance it promises industrial regeneration but there is no serious proposal as to how that could be achieved. It’s clearly split over hard or soft Brexit.
So let us return to the disconnect between May’s government and big business over “naming and shaming.” This is a government and party which is, in comparison to the past, relatively separate from big business. Few ministers or MPs are actually part of the ruling class. That disconnect was very evident over Brexit. UK PLC demanded a Remain vote but key ministers, Tory backbenchers and its membership didn’t accept that.
Obviously major corporate figures cannot be bothered to sit in Westminster or to govern Britain directly, but their party of choice, the Tories, traditionally did contain a portion of business figures or junior members of the ruling class - not so now.
A lack of clear strategy is bad enough but what of the traditional instruments for achieving consent. They would have ranged from the church and education system, through the media to corporate groups like the Confederation of British Industry. They took central ruling class ideas and drove them down and down into society.
The problem the government, and the wider ruling class, faces is that these networks are weaker than at any time in modern British history. And this at a time of real economic and social crisis. The economic reality is that the UK’s balance of payments deficit has been thrown into sharp relief by the Brexit vote, thus the run on the pound. Ideologically the Leave vote showed how disconnected the political elite and big business was from wider society. Potentially it has re-opened the very future of the UK with the likelihood of a second Scottish independence referendum.
Once the Tory Party was a mass membership party with an active youth wing. That’s long gone. Once the Church of England was described as “the Tory Party at prayer.” Since the Thatcher years it, and the Church of Scotland, have been regular critics of free market capitalism. Once professional groups like teachers, academics and lawyers were virtually 100 percent Tory, that’s long gone, the Tories even managed to alienate junior doctors who’d once been seen as natural supporters. Scepticism about the main TV stations and the print media is widespread and respect for key institutions stretching from parliament itself to the banks has been eroded.
Of course the dominant ideas are still those of the ruling class, but to a lesser degree than at anytime I recall. But piece all of this together and you suddenly get an explanation for why they are so uneasy about Jeremy Corbyn’s success and the mushrooming of Labour’s membership. First of all it reverses Thatcher’s success in house training Labour. Secondly, Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott could carry ground down communities like Barnsley, Sunderland and Newport who voted for Brexit. Thirdly, they are capable of turning on neo-liberalism when it is at its most vulnerable.
Rarely has UK PLC needed a government that can lead, and a clear strategy for the way ahead around which it can rally majority opinion. It can muddle through in the empirical way that is a feature of the British ruling class but it is vulnerable to a counter strategy which can galvanise the majority of the British population who paid a price for the Thatcher, Blair and Cameron years. That’s surely the task facing the left?
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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- Civil liberties in Spain? The clampdown against the Catalan independence movement
- What’s changing in Scotland?