I joined twitter a few weeks ago because it’s what a young and supple academic is supposed to do. Within a week some messaged me to say, “I see you have put on weight.” I have yet to be told that I’m looking depressed, but it’s in the post.
Aside from slights about my newly discovered corpulence, and the rampant visceral misogyny directed at women for having the temerity to venture online with opinions, the most abundant topic on my news feed concerns the forthcoming election. If the world of twitter was to be accepted as an accurate depiction of the election, one would be excused for thinking that there was some sort of genuine ideological contestation at stake; that we will see a drastically different Britain depending on what cohort of preened and screened stage politicians ultimately take office.
In turn, those who have picked their side have flooded the interweb with self-righteous ire at anyone who questions the political expediency offered by the British electoral system and contemporary party politics, or worse still those that refuse to vote and, therefore, forfeit their right to have any political opinion for the next five years. These potential non-voters are told to suck it up, to vote for the party that best represents them, even if they have absolutely no chance of winning a seat or any discernible impact on policy over the next five years. Because you never know. Every time you vote you increase the likelihood that in 50 years’ time the UK may finally adopt an electoral system that’s vaguely democratic. This argument, and this goes without saying, reifies the idea that participatory politics starts with the democratic process and radiates outwards to other, lesser, areas. That is, voting is the most important political act because governments are the defining political actors; every form of political engagement you attempt for the next five years will be defined by next month’s result.
In bolstering the importance of electoral politics a perception that something radical is at stake needs to be cultivated. You need to convince people that voting matters. That something will change. Attempts to create this perception, in turn, have descended into the binary division of politics: it’s us against them, left versus right, etc. And, of course, if you don’t support any side, you’re letting the worse side win. This binary division, however, fails to account for what is happening in contemporary British politics, and fundamentally disrespects those who have genuine doubts about the existence of any clear ideological divide between the biggest parties.
Owen Jones, a person that I like and respect for making a concerted attempt to remain engaged in the direct effects of neoliberal politics on everyday life, has, sadly, been to the fore of this drive to depict British politics in binary terms. Yesterday, he tweeted about the inherent failings of left-wing criticisms of New Labour. Above a link to a Monty Python sketch from The Life of Brian about the meaningless divisions between various Judean liberation movements, Jones stated “What is it about some people on the left who relish attacking other leftists more than the right?” The underlying argument is that we’re all on the same side, so we should be targeting the real enemies on the right: the Tories, UKIP, and DUP. The arrogance of this statement, however, resides in the clear belief that what constitutes left wing politics is clearly defined and delineated, rather than being what is precisely at stake in, not just this election, but contemporary politics in general. In demanding that we support ‘the team’, Jones is attempting to reinforce an ideal of ‘left wing’ politics that I, and many others, view as a continuation of centre-right ideology under another guise: call it New Labour or Tory Lite.
In the introduction to The Inoperative Community, Jean Luc Nancy discusses the reclamation of left wing politics from the ashes of Soviet mutilation and distortion. Nancy contends that while right wing politics has primarily concerned itself with management (managing the economy, managing immigration, managing crime, and so on), the left is, rightly, concerned with community. What Nancy means by this is that a positive left wing response to capitalist orthodoxy must start from mutual relatedness, vulnerability and dependency. In other words, a politics of the left is not simply about managing a society so that it runs efficiently as a wealth generation machine. Instead, the left is exposed to the violence, destitution and marginalisation precipitated by the individualistic self-interest that fuels contemporary capitalist societies, and responds with a concentrated political effort to assist those vulnerable and suffering, not as potential economic instruments, but as the people we need to sustain a meaningful existence. Nancy, of course, concedes that this is simply one depiction of the left, and a true left wing politics must remain in constant debate and disagreement.
What Nancy points toward is a politics of hope: a collective of people driven to challenge the systemic instruments and operations that place certain people in vulnerable and marginalised positions in order to further the interests of others. The hope derives from the belief that we can create a better political system, that we are not stuck within a particular way of understanding, and engaging in, politics. The mantel of hope has also been adopted by New Labour supporters who contrast it to the right’s purported politics of fear. The argument is that the right cultivates fear of immigrants, the poor, economic stagnation, loss of sovereignty, degradation of British identity, and so on, to convince people that left wing politics is a risk to the stability of society itself. Yet the politics of hope that New Labour responds with is merely another iteration of this politics of fear: vote Labour or you’ll get a Tory government backed by UKIP, or even the DUP. This politics of fear has even gone as far as to demarcate constituencies where you must vote Labour (because the race is close) and those where you can vote for a party that better represents your views (because it won’t affect who wins).
This politics of hope represents the most insidious form of anti-democratic sentiment presented during this election. The fact that Labour supports like Jones acknowledge that the ideological gap between Labour and the Tories is far from substantial, compounds the issue. The message is clear: Labour might not provide the genuine left wing alternative some people hoped for, but they’re a step in the right direction and a damn sight better than the Tories. Far from being a politics of hope, this is a politics of the best we can hope for. It is an acceptance that in the pursuit of political impact, those of us that want a left wing alternative to the neoliberal orthodoxy must put our ideological aspirations to the side and vote for the only viable party that has any remaining left wing vestiges. Not only does this sustain the system that maintains the two-party farce that modern British politics is built upon, it also solidifies a new understanding of what left wing politics means. An understanding that presents no political or ideological challenge to the managerialism driving contemporary neoliberal governance.
Let’s take a few examples from the Labour manifesto. In terms of economic policy, Labour promises to increase spending while cutting the deficit, reduce tax for lower earners and raise it for higher earners, reward hardworking people with higher wages and benefits, and back indigenous employers and entrepreneurs. In response to immigration, Labour will introduce new barriers to immigrants seeking benefits, strengthen borders, and usher in a number of new restrictions on people wishing to live in the UK. And as for the crisis of living standards upon which their campaign is founded, Labour will raise wages, improve working contracts and conditions, and give more support to working parents. In total, Labour’s manifesto can be boiled down to one single motif: the Tories have mismanaged Britain, and Labour will manage it in a way that benefits ‘ordinary working people’. Not only does this platform fail to provide an ideological alternative to neoliberalism, it further entrenches the ideal that people are to be valued only in so far as they are workers or potential workers (and consumers) to be harnessed by the economy. Labour do not offer a left wing politics of community, the offer a slightly different way to manage an economy that necessitates a base of workers and consumers. The vulnerable people Labour are willing to help are those who are willing to adapt to the system and work hard in their menial low paid (but slightly better paid than under the Tories) jobs. Nothing within the manifesto challenges the overarching structures that have marginalised so many Britons, and nothing within the manifesto acknowledges that there is anything inherently wrong or unjust about neoliberal economics provided they are managed properly.
The tragedy of the current election debate is that the political response to the 2008 financial crisis offers a clear platform for a left wing challenge to neoliberal managerialism. The traditional critique of the left has been that its ideals are impractical; that they simply don’t work in the real world. However, the spectacular failure of capitalist theory and ideology to function in the way it claims to (what Marx calls the inherent contradictions of capitalism) played out during the crisis underscores that the current structures of society are no less fantastical and unworkable. In stripping away the ontological hard ground upon which neoliberal ideals proclaim their essentiality, the left has the opportunity to imagine a new form of politics and society: distinct from neoliberalism, traditional socialism, and Soviet communism, an aspirational politics of change. Instead, many of those who desperately want change are so afraid of the consequences of failure that they cling desperately to a less abhorrent centre-right party portending toward left ideals.
The reasons for this fear is understandable. Life under Tory austerity has been truly horrific for many people at the margins of society. There is a clear desire to alleviate some of this pain, and Labour seem to offer the only immediate pathway to make this difference. However, the root of this suffering and marginalisation will not be addressed by a Labour government. They will, perhaps, make poverty and marginalisation more manageable for those affected, but this more palatable suffering in many ways makes it harder to challenge the structures that produce it: it makes it less dramatic, less visible and easier for us to ignore.
Labour will also make poverty and marginalisation more manageable for those of us not affected: those of us living in relative privilege and comfort. Ultimately, this is the most lastingly problematic consequence of aligning with Labour’s image of the left. In making the suffering that exists within our communities more manageable, and thereby less visible, a Labour government will allow those of us with left leanings to enjoy our lives relatively unreflectively. In juxtaposition, the stimulation for genuine political change can only come from a daily reflection upon how the privilege, comfort, and stability of our lives is built upon the hardship of others. Above all the Labour manifesto promises middle Britain that their lives will be easier and better under a Labour government. Those who buy into this message see a Labour victory as a part of an incremental set of stepping stones that will magically lead to a fair and just society without any negative consequences. The reality is that any left wing politics worth its salt must tell the truth: meaningful political change hurts. Redressing the deeply rooted imbalances and injustices in British society will costs us in privileged positions, we will have to sacrifice some of our comfort and stability if we truly want to create a fairer society. A new conception of community cannot derive from challenging those at the top (or at the bottom), it can only come if we are willing to risk our own privilege in the defence of those who have been crushed by the weight of neoliberal ideology for the last half century.