Saturday, 16 June 2012

2012 as reverse 1975: further evidence

Shiraz Socialist think Jon Cruddas is hopeless and any new ideas Labour might have are futile.  Well, with the best of respect (and they deserve quite a bit, not least for being one of the few left blogs not to put opposition to "the West" in totality before the right of the Jewish people to a place of safety), they would.  They're theorists, so obsessed with ideological purity that they're above concern about people's actual lives.  The left equivalent, in some ways, of those on the right (and there were quite a lot of them, though very few would admit to it later) who thought neoliberals were already permanently defeated by 1975 so shouldn't even bother trying to seize power.  And this is where the key comparison steps in; as I've written previously, almost every aspect of current British politics is redolent of the mid-1970s, only with the right in the position the left were then, and vice versa.  Dominic Sandbrook's recent work has been well-timed in a manner he probably did not intend, and may well disapprove of.

Raised as my generation have been in an environment where capitalism has seemed unalterable, irreversible and unreformable, we cannot easily consider a time when, having recently made a stalled and overpowered attempt to assert itself over the dominant ideology of corporatism, it momentarily stood on the sidelines, humiliated, forced out of government almost overnight, genuinely seeming doomed in the eyes of quite rounded and educated people (it is incredible how little the Barber Boom / Slater-Walker Government period, so rapidly overthrown and so widely seen as ineffective and compromised, but in fact so crucial as a blueprint for what now had to be enforced much more aggressively and forcefully, is even talked about now, and I'll give Sandbrook his due for recognising its importance - I'd be surprised if 1% of the people who've heard The Dark Side of the Moon, which however codified and vague and globally-applicable its lyrics may be wouldn't exist without that context, know who those people and organisations were).

Hauntingly, a Welsh miner in the 1975 polemic The Miners' Film - repeated, with rueful introduction and epilogue, on Channel 4 during the strike a decade later - says, without irony or ambiguity, "we're gradually understanding now that the greatest power, the most important people, are the people that produce.  And I believe that 1974 was the turning point, when this power was realised for the first time".  At that point, few could see that it would be the turning point, but the turning point for a counter-revolution; not the moment where the working class began to take over, but the moment which unleashed and set free the neutering of that class's political power. There is, I'll confess, not a day - sometimes not a moment - when I don't imagine how different my life, and the norms I came to take for granted, might have been had the Tories won the February 1974 election (and they very nearly did) and the radicalisation of capitalism had not been given the platform to grow.  Might we have become a completely different country; no destruction of industry, no Murdoch empire, no commodification of politics?

But when the radicalisation of capitalism gained irresistible traction - despite having come about merely through an accident and a fluke of history, and despite being institutionalised after its early struggles in government through, as we've all been reminded this year, an even greater accident and fluke - it did so out of a sense of emergency, of absolute determination and now-or-never politics-of-apocalypse, out of a genuine and justified fear that if they didn't get back in next time, their whole world would have crumbled and could never be restored (when do you think you the phrase "late capitalism", which seemed a sick joke by the time I became familiar with it, was first used?  Why do you think, even though Roger Waters is so clearly a nihilistic cynic with little if any faith in the radical potential of humanity, Animals ends with the hint of genuine revolution?).  In Cruddas' Observer interview, the same feelings in reverse - a determination that this radicalisation of a three-decade consensus, by its creators now turned far more fundamentalist and fanatical than they could ever have been when the seeds were first planted, has to be reversed for everyone's sake and not just the sake of the class the party may be seen to represent (part of Thatcherism's genius - and it was a genius; hardly anyone else could have sold such ideas to the working class and won - was its ability to convey essentially pro-ruling-class politics as more democratic than those which had preceded them, to redefine the position of the working class as making Andy Gray rich rather than allowing Trevor Griffiths to exist) - can, fascinatingly, be sensed.

However tentatively, and however problematic some of the communitarian ideas may be in practice, Cruddas is hinting at the idea that what may be presented by the ruling class as "unalterable reality" may, in fact, be reformable by those with the will - in other words that it is time for the left to "think the unthinkable" as the right did then (and this is where many left blogs are, ultimately, as relevant to the lives of the people they claim to represent as those who felt neoliberals should remain in their academic fringe groups rather than push to "change the way a generation thinks about politics" were relevant to the capitalist class and its self-interest in 1975).  His talk of "the edge of a crisis" has not been heard in quite this way from thinkers in a recently defeated party, seen as lacking in vision and confidence and with a need to reinvent itself, since that time, when those with an interest in maintaining their own privileges blamed an economic implosion caused by global forces wholly outside Britain's control, even then, on the strength and power of the British working class, and interpreted any kind of working-class role in the institutions of the state as a harbinger of the collapse of the state itself.  The sense of time running out before neoliberalism becomes utterly irreversible - that the even flow of politics, with one ruling party seamlessly giving way to another and little really changing, has to be replaced with something more dramatic and fervent - is also redolent of the Tory radicals who emerged in the wake of Heath's humiliation; a desire to remake/remodel politics as an urgent battle, a fight to the finish that must be won by the side remaking itself in opposition, lest everything that side has ever fought for be destroyed irreversibly.

Cruddas' refreshing indifference to the power of the Daily Mail and its ilk is redolent of the mid-70s Tory radicals' lack of concern for the Daily Mirror, then still the most read and most important newspaper for the mass of the population and a key cipher in its relationship with the elite, a paper that - even with the fast-rising Sun nipping at its heels - it was still felt you did not mess with if you wanted the working class on your side.  And the fact that the elite ideology of the last 30 years was created in what seemed the least welcoming and receptive environment imaginable to capitalism reigniting itself and owning the near future - and indeed that of its two defining newspapers, The Sun in 1968 did not even exist in its current form and the Mail was on the racks, facing a seemingly insoluble identity crisis and inability to find a niche for itself - should remind us of an important fact; that what seem like unalterable, unchangeable ideologies only become so because a few people think the unthinkable against all the odds and against both subservience to the elite ideology on the side that created it and "you can't change anything now" cynicism on the side that didn't.  This is so both for the current ruling ideology and for the ruling ideology that came before, the one that radicals of both sides were tearing at by 1974.

This is the sick joke behind those who say that rejecting neoliberal capitalism now would be like rejecting breathing or eating, that it is an unchangeable reality on a par with air or water.  It only became so because a few people believed that the world didn't have to work like that.  If it can happen once, it can happen again.  This is the main lesson we can learn from the 1970s; that predictions that a change is "unworkable" and "impractical" may well be viewed by history as, quite simply, wrong.  And just as the knowledge that in the 1930s most of the ideas written into the British state after the war would have been seen as hopelessly romantic and deluded probably convinced many Institute of Economic Affairs ideologues that there was mileage in practical politics for them after 1974, it is this which keeps me away from the anti-political cynicism of the far-left, however accurate some of their other analyses may be.

Of course, I'm acutely aware that I could have got all this wrong. Perhaps, out of sheer desperation and desire to escape from the world that made me and which I rejected as assuredly as the makers of modern Britain rejected the corporatist world they had been brought up to see as unchangeable, I am seeing things where they don't exist. But it does seem as though, just as the radicalism of a minority Labour government convinced a previously marginalised and embattled right that the platform was there for the unthinkable to be thought and the future redefined, so has the radicalism of a government without a mandate, which was formed out of almost nothing and which speaks for nobody except the privileged, opened the door for ideas which it seemed might never have a place in the Labour Party again.

Had the right confined itself to theoretical writings and Peterhouse debating societies, Britain might well have become permanently socialist; that alone should convince far-leftists who see practical politics as beneath them that for those of us who care about any kind of social justice and equality, this is an emergency, a time when normal rules of politesse cease to apply, every bit as much as it was for those of the other side in the mid-1970s.  Just as was the case then, there is a straight choice of outcome for the next general election (the Lib Dems' involvement in the coalition has effectively ended the century-old centre-left divide and, surely, pushed much of their support towards Labour): either the paradigm shift that history teaches us should happen every 35 years or so, or the inverse of the ending that to many seemed most likely in the mid-70s, neoliberalism's long march through the institutions being completed beyond repair.

Last time, they won, and successfully changed the ending from the one widely seen as inevitable to the one that created the only world I've ever lived in.  This time - however much it would compromise some people's self-regard - we need to make sure that we win, and change the ending to our advantage.  They only won because every last one of them joined in.  If we realise that, then 2015 could well be remembered as the next in the lineage of 1945 and 1979.  Anti-political cynics should not complain if Cameron leaves office, never seriously challenged, in about 2021.  They will have got precisely what they deserve.  Amid that 70s tumult, Roy Harper correctly wrote that the victor writes the books but the loser speaks the lines. But in moments of crisis and uncertainty - such as we have now entered again - losers have the chance, which comes along perhaps only three times in a normal human lifetime, to become victors off their own back, a chance that simply is not open to them in normal times of complacency and certainty.  This is such a moment.  Even if "reformism" seems narrow and restrictive, we must remember that the initial ideas of the Centre for Policy Studies, which were to revolutionise much of the world, initially seemed merely the Tory equivalent of reformism.  The door is open.  To help our enemies to close it in the name of our own sectarianism and purity would be the most dangerous decision of anyone's lifetime, one for which our grandchildren will hate us.  The time simply isn't there.  Critique and question Cruddas' ideas by all accounts; there are certainly plenty of holes there.  But don't, whatever you do, ignore them.