Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Margaret Thatcher’s government built neoliberalism into a ‘kitchen table’ common sense, putting walls around our imaginations
This article is taken from the current issue of Red Pepper, produced in partnership with The World Transformed – get a subscription now.
Labour Party membership is at a record high. Momentum now has more than 15,000 paid up members. There’s no question that this is a significant political movement. But is it really, as many of its advocates claim, a ‘social movement’? Jeremy Corbyn has expressed desire for the Labour Party itself to ‘become a social movement’. This is thinking along the right lines. But we need some clarity here, because the fact is that a movement and a party are just not the same kind of thing.
For example, the Green Party is a party: its job is to create and promote a political voice for the green movement. The green movement, on the other hand, is something much bigger and broader, and includes many people who are not members of the Green Party and who may never even have voted for it. The green movement is a political movement to the extent that it has a set of specific political and economic objectives, aimed at using governmental power to address the climate crisis and a range of other ecological issues.
Taking these distinctions further, the green movement is a social movement to the extent that it tries to change a broad set of social attitudes and power relations. This is necessary because green political objectives can only win public support by changing wider cultural attitudes towards issues of consumption, lifestyle and our relationships to the ‘natural’ world
From this perspective, I think there is a key question facing the British left. Do we merely want a political movement, one that tries to reverse the ‘austerity’ programme to which governments have been committed since 2010? Or do we want a social movement that would challenge the whole set of individualistic, inegalitarian ideas that have dominated our culture and society since the end of the 1970s?
There are two key reasons why a political movement against austerity is not enough. The first is that the people Labour most needs to win over are not those who have been most directly hit by austerity. ‘Austerity’ basically refers to the programme of public spending cuts implemented by the coalition and Conservative governments after 2010. Its worst-hit victims have been those dependent on benefits, students, those working in local government and the public-sector workforce. Those who have experienced this as some new, specific kind of assault have typically been constituencies who were in relatively comfortable positions before 2010, such as the students who led the campaigns against changes to university fees in 2011.
The other constituency I am talking about has been given various names. They are the ‘left-behinds’, the victims of globalisation, the post-industrial working class. They are the people who are still suffering the long-term effects of the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. These people are not merely victims of post-2010 austerity. In fact, the communities in which they live have never recovered from the economic and political destruction wrought on them by Thatcherism. Austerity may have been bad for them, but they have mainly experienced it as a continuation of the same set of circumstances they have been living with since the 1980s, rather than as something new and specific.
The advance of liberal consumerist culture in recent times has not benefited these communities much. They do not have enough disposable income to buy their way to freedom, which is what members of more affluent social groups have been enabled to do. Cheap travel, flexible labour markets, easy credit and the wonders of digital communications are what have made life tolerable and exciting for many of us during this era. But for the ‘left-behinds’, those things have added up to lower wages, worse jobs or no jobs, and crippling levels of debt. They are suffering from not just six years of austerity but 40 years of neoliberalism.
Since the 1970s, Tory and Labour governments have collaborated with the private sector in a long-term ‘neoliberal’ programme to privatise public services, weaken unions and reduce the power of local government and other democratic bodies, while increasing the power of corporations and wealthy individuals. They have colluded with such corporations and individuals to build up the retail and financial sectors of the economy, while doing nothing to rebuild manufacturing and weakening much of the public sector. This project has been accompanied by a deliberate effort to disseminate a particular set of values and assumptions throughout our culture, via the education system, the press, television and so on. These values and assumptions tell us that the natural form of human relations is an endless competition between individuals for status and rewards.
It’s not that most people necessarily believe this to be true. But we all live in a society in which the people who govern our most important institutions believe it to be true, or behave as if they do. And this forces all of us to comply with this neoliberal ideology to some extent. An example of this is what happens when teachers are forced to teach in a way that will maximise their students’ SATs scores – because if they don’t the school will slip down the league tables and the students won’t enter the labour market with the right high-value qualifications. This is despite the fact that they know that their students might derive more real benefit from more creative and less formulaic forms of education. Living in a culture where such norms of behaviour become habitual tends to make people much more willing to go along with the neoliberal political programme than they might otherwise be, because its emphasis on private profit and competition comes to seem, if not desirable, at least unavoidable.
At the same time, perhaps more importantly, in such a culture people find increasingly that the only areas of their lives where they seem to be able to exercise some real control are those in which they get to choose which products to buy. At the mercy of an an erratic labour market and an out-of-control property market, unable really to choose where they live or how they earn a living, the only thing that gives many people a real sense of agency is their capacity to buy the clothes, the food, the holidays, the TV packages, the books and the music that fill much of their non-working time.
And so it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade voters to support any course of action which isn’t aimed exclusively and immediately at increasing their private levels of consumption. They may say they want better hospitals and schools, social equality and publicly-owned railways. They may know on some level that the endless expansion of household debt cannot go on forever, and that a better economic system must be possible. But many of them will still vote against all of these things, as soon as the right-wing press frightens them into thinking that pursuing them might in any way compromise their immediate capacity for private consumption.
A socialist programme would not necessarily reduce anyone’s capacity for private consumption (although from an ecological perspective it is clear that we must find ways at least to consume differently). But getting support for such a programme, or even just for our current ‘anti-austerity’ programme, requires that people are willing to put faith in the possibility that people working together really can build a better society, and that there may be other ways to feel free and secure than simply maintaining your bank balance or credit rating. In the context I have been describing, this is not an easy task. It will require a real social movement, promoting values of co-operation and democracy in many different areas of society, for us to be able to break down the walls around people’s imaginations built up over the past four decades.
So what does this mean for us in practice? For one thing, it means that Labour and Momentum must continue to embrace values of radical democracy in our own practices and ways of organising. The party itself must be democratised, with mechanisms introduced to hand real power over policy and strategy to the membership.
At the same time, as figures such as Caroline Lucas, Clive Lewis and Neal Lawson have argued, a party that preaches co-operation and democracy cannot go on refusing to co‑operate with and denying democratic representation to other parties that share the same objectives. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent announcements promising radical democratic reforms such as participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies are very welcome. But ultimately the party must accept the need for proportional representation and a collegial relationship with parties such as the Greens and the SNP, which share so many of our goals. A political movement might be able to succeed with only one political party as its voice. A social movement on the scale that we need cannot hope to do so.
Beyond this, only by promoting democratic values and methods of governance across the public and private sectors – radically democratising the governance of schools, universities and hospitals, actively promoting workers co-ops and co‑operative housing – can we really challenge neoliberalism’s fundamentally anti-democratic legacy. For example, simply promising to provide more council homes does not address the reasons why the privatisation of council housing was such a popular policy for Thatcher in the 1980s – because municipal housing was perceived as bureaucratic and infantilising, while home-ownership offered a route to autonomy and independence. By contrast, creating a vastly expanded co‑operative housing sector could offer millions of people an experience of a different kind of agency, allowing them to experience independence from the state or private landlords by sharing responsibility and living space with others.
The choice before us, then, is not really a choice at all. If we carry on as merely a political movement against ‘austerity’, we may succeed. But the deep suspicion of politics in general, the scepticism about democracy and the mistrust of collective solutions that neoliberalism has actively encouraged will make it very difficult to build the levels of electoral support for such a programme that we would need. Only a social movement will be able to overcome the effects of 40 years of neoliberalism on the millions of people outside our movement and party with whom we will need to connect to have any chance of success.
We cannot will such a movement into existence by ourselves. But we could give it an enormous boost by working openly with members of other parties who share our key goals, and by putting forward a radical programme that appeals to people’s desire for control over their own lives, communities, workplaces and residences, in order to challenge the obsession with privatised consumption as the only possible route to autonomy and happiness. This is what it would mean for our movement to become a social movement. And this is what it would take for us to win.
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee