The transatlantic conservative movement can be understood as a process Gramsci called ‘Revolution-Restoration’, and the left must stop being spectators to the course of events, argues Mike Wayne
The rise of revolutionary conservative movements and their impact on the traditional parties of conservatism in the UK (the Conservative and Unionist party) and the US (The Republican party) has defined much of the politics of the last decade. Trump’s predictable acquittal in the Senate indicates that this apostle of revolutionary conservatism remains a powerful player within the Republican party for some time to come. The Trump ‘base’ within the party and the party’s political officials at all levels look a long way, in composition and ideology from the Republican leadership of the past. When people like George W Bush think that Trump represents a clear danger to the party he led as President, then you know the split at the top of the ruling class is severe. It is a case of chickens coming home to roost however.
When conservatism embraced radical free market ideologies in the 1980s, under Reagan and Thatcher, they were making a pact with the devil. The free market is no respecter of conservative investments in the past, in tradition, in constitutional norms and conservative mores. It is instead a turbulent engine of change and a remorseless commodifier of conservative totems. That the Republicans had a President so far from family and God as Trump, is a testament to how forty years of free market economics has transformed what ‘conservatism’ means. Similarly, that the UK Conservative and Unionist party is led by a man who has more families than anyone can seem to count, is similarly indicative of how the conservative moral compass has radically changed after forty years of free market culture change.
The free market is also an invitation to a strife-torn war of all against all. But whereas traditional conservatism has invested in the strong state to hold things together through force and pragmatic concessions where necessary, that strand of conservatism that has drunk most deeply from the well of economic liberalism, would like to shrink the state to virtually nothing.
The seeds of Trump were sown in part by the rise of the Tea Party, especially in the last ten years or so. It does not take many billionaire market fundamentalists interested in changing the political establishment to have an effect. The Koch brothers invested heavily in growing a movement that could take over the Republican party. If the slogan of the 18th century American revolutionaries to which the Tea Party alluded was ‘No Taxation without representation’, the philosophy of the modern right-wing movement is even simpler: No Taxation. The market fundamentalist dream of abolishing the state (while still retaining the class divisions which the state has been developed to manage) required an assault on the capitalist state from the right that would be historically unprecedented in the United States.
And Trump duly delivered. His attacks on the judiciary, the FBI, on long term American foreign policy strategy, the mainstream media, his undermining of the electoral process by cynically and self-servingly calling into question the fairness of the Presidential election that he lost and finally his orchestration of the riot at the Capitol on January 6th 2021, need to be seen in the context of a process that Gramsci called Revolution-Restoration. By this couplet, Gramsci tried to capture the dynamic of disruptive change and transformation that is still working within the socio-economic leadership of the dominant groups, or at least sections of them.
The UK has similarly trod the path of Revolution and Restoration, principally around Brexit. Like the Tea Party, the revolutionary conservative movements in the UK had big business backers pouring money into UKIP and then the Brexit party. The partial ‘UKIPisation’ of the Conservative party culminating in Boris Johnson’s leadership looked to be setting itself up for a similar war against the establishment.
It came into unprecedented conflict with the judiciary over Johnson’s suspension of Parliament in September 2019. When Johnson triumphed in the General Election of 2019 his consigliere Dominic Cummings promised to launch an attack on the civil service in a sign that the conservative revolution was not over having got Brexit ‘done’. Yet a little over a week after Trump lost the Presidential election in November 2020, Cummings was out of Downing Street, not co-incidentally. The conservative revolution across the Atlantic, with which the UK version is inextricably connected, looked to have stalled.
For the left though it is important to hold onto both ends of Gramsci’s couplet. If one only looks at the Revolution end, then it is likely that the left underestimates the extent to which a disruptive revolt is already strongly under the leadership of the dominant class and underestimate the extent of the work the left would need to do to change the direction of the revolt. Arguably some of those few currents on the left that advocated leaving the EU, fell into this trap.
But if we only look at the Restoration end of the couplet, pointing out how the agenda being advanced is indeed a low-tax and even lighter regulation of advanced capitalism than we already have, then we are likely to underestimate the genuine if misplaced desire for change which the right are tapping into. This was the main trap which liberalism and the left which it has dominated intellectually and politically, fell into around Brexit. It ended up in a defence of the status quo and had literally nothing to offer to channel the hopes millions had invested in a change of direction. Instead they concentrated on the reality that these hopes were misplaced (the Restoration pole) and ignored the desire for some kind of rebellion, leaving the terrain clear for the right to dominate.
Whether the conservative revolutionary movement has actually petered out is unlikely. With the capitalist system on life support and no sign that liberalism has understood that the status quo ante merely generates Trump the sequel, the revolutionaries of the right are likely to return. In the UK, Johnson has for the moment tip-toed back from embracing Trump’s chaos theory of leadership. There is a tilt towards a more familiar form of Restoration. But the forces that unleashed Revolution are still in play and the historical possibilities for the main players remain fluid. The question is, can the left stop being a spectator to events?
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