During the Q & A session held at the end of Common Weal’s recent “Evening of the Left” (watch Indy Live’s video coverage here) an audience member complained that instead of pursuing the divisive rhetoric of class politics, we should adopt more inclusive language by referring, for instance, to “the people” rather than “the working class.” RIC’s Jonathon Shafi was, as always, to the point in his reply: “We’ve seen some amazing class fighters over the last number of years: George Osborne, David Cameron and the rest of the Establishment. You can’t ignore the fact that a class war is going on right now.”
Following up on Shafi’s reply, however, is it not also critical to point out how, in terms of social class, individuals are as divided internally within themselves every bit as much as they are divided externally into discrete social classes? A (politically progressive) London-based friend of mine recently asked me: “You know quite a bit about politics and economics. Can you suggest when you think house prices in London might fall far enough for me to be able to buy?” Encapsulated in this question was the inherent paradox of class politics today: of course, my friend is as critical of neoliberal housing policies which promote “aspirations” of home ownership as I am, yet at the same time, fear of getting caught in a trap of high rents and insecure accommodation has essentially forced this aspiration upon him.
Channel 4’s near-future thriller series Utopia at one point presents an even starker example of this contradiction between, on the one hand, our rational understanding of a situation and, on the other, our rational self-interest (and, by doing so, the show presents us with a terrifying glimpse down one possible avenue of our own future: the nightmare world of Neoliberalism 2.0, the logic of which can only serve to deepen this contradiction). In the knowledge that a sinister underground organisation (“The Network”, which believes a future crisis of over-population can only be solved by creating widespread infertility) is working within the British government to unleash a disease-and-drug combo it has designed with the intention of making 95% of the population infertile, the outraged PhD student Becky confronts the amoral biochemist, Donaldson, who is banking on the success of The Network’s plan in order to make himself a fortune from a drug he is developing. Candidly, Donaldson admits to Becky that what The Network are planning is economically insane: as he puts it, with a rapidly-ageing population and no more children to take over the running of society, retirement will be hell; but this is all the more reason, he adds, for him to use his knowledge of The Network’s plan to secure his personal fortune (rather than, as Becky would have him do, blow the lid off the whole thing).
Thus, as theorists of the unconscious have long been telling us, we are all “divided selves”, internally conflicted between social/political understanding and self-interest. This is no more so, perhaps, than the economics journalist Paul Mason’s “new sociological type: the graduate without a future“, whose aspiration to someday maintain a middle class lifestyle is an internal psychological barrier to the realisation that the more viable path to their own economic security and prosperity is to renounce direct personal ambition in favour of uniting politically with others who are in a similar situation in order to work collectively to abolish neoliberalism.
What makes this an almost existential dilemma for some people is the fear of ending up on the “wrong side of history” i.e. actively renouncing personal ambition in order to join the class struggle, with all the risk of long-term personal “failure” that might entail (we need the scare quotes around “failure” here in order to acknowledge that, being caught up in the twists and turns of social class and how it relates to ambition and economic security, people are conflicted over the very terms of what constitutes personal success or failure). And, of course, whilst capitalist realism – the Thatcherite claim that “there is no alternative” – actively encourages us to not only believe that (working) class politics is a historically-exhausted dead-end, capitalist realism also offers us a definitive account of success or failure which attempts to exclude gains in social prosperity and wealth achieved through collective working class action and solidarity.
Thus, we arrive at the realisation that, out of everything the Thatcherites privatised, perhaps the most damaging privatisation of all was the privatisation of ambition. Indeed, there is a very important point to be made here which links these themes to the rise of Scottish nationalism. One reason why, after the Middle Ages, the big states of Northern Europe ended up forming relatively cohesive units despite the existence within each of them of many different languages (and therefore many imagined communities and potential states) was that, in most of the big European powers, a primary language usually came forward to monopolise social mobility.
For instance, during the French Revolution, only half of the people in France actually spoke French. But when speaking French became tied to getting ahead in life, that quickly changed. Aggression between the small estates of the Middle Ages underwent a sublimation and moved down a level to aggression between individuals seeking to make a better life for themselves, learning the required language along the way. The same happened in the British Isles with the English language. Thus, now that social mobility is reaching an almost complete standstill (as Paul Mason says, our graduates have no future), it makes sense that in some places where the possibility exists of creating a viable state (like Scotland), the personal aggression that would be otherwise tied to individual hopes for social mobility now binds itself to the collective ambition of creating a state.
We can see the political effects of this privatisation of ambition by reflecting on the recent history of the concept of the “general strike”. As an index of potential collective working class action, the general strike is needed now more than ever, yet it has been consigned to the status of a historical curiosity. In a recent BBC radio documentary on the history of Militant, Neil Kinnock claims he had to reject the request made by a delegation from Liverpool that he – Kinnock – call a general strike. As a member of that delegation, Tony Mulhearn, has since pointed out, in reality Kinnock had no such power over the labour movement in Britain (hence it would have been absurd to ask him to “call” a general strike).
But the key question is: why, then, does Kinnock – the man who killed the Labour left and prepared Labour for the rise of Blair – want us to think that he had that power? The answer is that he wants the general strike to sit in a trash bin (probably marked Ideas Guaranteeing Permanent Opposition) over which the Labour Party retains the exclusive right of access. This is what makes so absurd assertions like the one I recently heard from the Blairite MP Caroline Flint: “Labour, the party of the NHS, the welfare state and workers’ rights, will be taking no lessons from the SNP about social justice.” The truth is that all the positive things Labour brought in during the post-War period were gains achieved when radical tools such as the general strike were understood to be available to working class struggle if agitation ever reached the point of using them. The working class is never more organised than when it has been conscripted into a massive war effort, which is why these gains often happen after large conflicts.
Having joined the Thatcherites in consigning the radical tools of class struggle to the dustbin of history (tools which, as Mulhearn points out, Labour only ever wielded in its imagination), the Labour Party has no right to now try and present itself as the vehicle for working class politics. Which means that if we can accept that the material prosperity promised to each of us individually by neoliberalism is an illusion, we must work with each other in order to renationalise our aggression. We must overcome the split lurking within each of us between social/political understanding and rational self-interest. As atomised particles of neoliberal subjectivity, we must come together to form a new collective reaction. In the different corners of Britain, this process is attaching itself to nationalist and Green politics. This new, anti-austerity politics must be prepared to pick up some very old tools of struggle as well as experimenting with the new. The #Indyref was just Chapter One in this new politics. In just fifty-odd days or so, with GE2015, we begin Chapter Two.