It’s time to really take control

Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics

January 31, 2017
9 min read


Andrew DolanAndrew Dolan Red Pepper co-editor. @Andrew__Dolan


  share     tweet  

Photo: Flickr/Darren Johnson – a protest at Yarl’s Wood detention centre

This article is taken from the forthcoming issue of Red Pepper – get a subscription now.

From Brexit to Trump, 2016 brought political upheaval that shook the liberal democratic order in Europe and the US. Amidst the instability any claim to certainty carries little value. The only predictions that seem remotely convincing are the ones that promise yet more chaos.

In many ways this state of uncertainty is typical of contemporary capitalism, especially as the securities once provided by the state are dismantled. Unrestrained market forces flood over what barriers remain, inducing a profound sense of powerlessness among those they affect.

It is this powerlessness that lies at the heart of the appeal to ‘take back control’ – now a ubiquitous right-wing mantra. The possibility of determining the conditions of one’s own life is doubly tempting in a system in which power is frustratingly diffuse yet seemingly absolute: ‘the forces of globalisation’ are many but they elude easy classification. What little power and choice we do have seems, at least for those who have the financial means, attainable only within the context of consumption. When it comes to our choice of TV or refrigerator, we’ve never had it so good.

The opportunity to ‘take back control’ offered by the right is in reality no such thing. It is an expression of the worst prejudices in society and a political vision predicated on mass exclusion and persecution, overwhelmingly of immigrants and those at the bottom of the economic ladder. In this offer, one’s life only improves in the relative sense that somebody else’s gets worse. It is a false solution to a problem defined in entirely the wrong terms – unsurprising when its premier exponents are typically those who have benefited most from the system as it is, or as they would have it.

Collective control

In recent years the institutional left in the UK has offered a watered down version of this vision, specifically tighter immigration controls, the punitive treatment of asylum seekers and the essentialisation of what it means to be British. ‘Control’ is reduced to an ideology and policy of nationalism and borders.

In reproducing this politics the left has not only added to the confusion that clouds the identity of social democratic parties across Europe; it has legitimised its more extreme variants. The more it finds voice in the Labour Party, the less extreme Farage et al. sound. Yet while this political vision is one the left should not attempt to reclaim, it must recognise that the sentiment of ‘taking back control’ does resonate with millions of people across the country, connecting with desires for greater autonomy in a world where the ability to effect change is greatly diminished.

It would be irresponsible to adopt uncritically the language of the right or disregard the role of racism in structuring a considerable portion of contemporary anti-establishment feeling. Yet it is possible to give language new meaning. What it means to take back control is contestable and the left must take up this challenge and offer a vision of control on its own terms.

There is nothing particularly new here. The majority of the historical movements for progressive change have fought for control – of work, resources, time, space, bodies, representation. Yet so too has the left often retreated into a politics of centralisation, of hierarchy and ultimately of disempowerment, be it through the state-led economy, welfare bureaucracies or the surveillance state. Power was invested in the state, its managerial class and unaccountable political elites. Market forces may have been subdued, but for many people power was still experienced as something affecting them from without – power over, or power as domination, as Hilary Wainwright has noted in previous issues of Red Pepper. Real control was and is absent.

The left’s failure here was the right’s gain. While the Thatcherite project was fundamentally authoritarian and disempowering, its discourse of liberty and the individual, however limited in practice, chimed with the sense of dissatisfaction felt by many at the more restrictive and conformist elements of the post-war UK state, economy and society. Thatcherism may have created a new subject, but it did so in part through the capture of an emerging subjectivity formed out of resistance to the post-war status quo.

In a similar fashion, the left must look to build on the anti-establishment sentiment that exists – while challenging its racist expressions – and help shape its form around issues of control and, in particular, autonomy. This latter element is crucial if the left is to move beyond simply a return to the limited politics and economics of the post-war settlement and towards a vision of the future rooted in collective and individual empowerment.

‘Talk of taking back control can seem meaningless when set against a backdrop of decades of economic devastation’

There is a narrative that can be built here and for those deprived of any sense of economic independence and effective political representation, and for a younger generation arguably inclined towards more horizontal forms of activity, this message could have considerable force.

This process, however, cannot be reduced to the mere appropriation of slogans, powerful as they can be in symbolising desire and constructing identity; nor to a messaging strategy, important as it is to communicate ideas with purpose and consistency. It must be conceived as part of a broader political and material strategy. After all, talk of taking back control can seem meaningless when set against a backdrop of decades of economic devastation, employers with near absolute authority over employees and a state prone to managing its population in increasingly authoritarian ways.

What are needed are policies and projects that give force and meaning to this sentiment and tackle the problems outlined above. Here the left has a considerable advantage over the right. While limited critiques of capitalism can be made from the right, as evidenced by neoliberalism’s current far-right critics, real control is only possible through radical democracy and economic redistribution – historically the terrain of the left.

Such policies might include the expansion of public services, the construction of social housing, the reduction of the working week, the introduction of a universal basic income and the closure of detention centres, among others. Equally as important is that the left works to map and support grassroots projects that already, in a limited form, embody popular control and autonomy. These range from cooperatives to radical social enterprises, and a host of different forms of peer-to-peer production – ultimately, projects that as much as possible enable communities of people to reproduce parts of their life outside the dictates of the market, but also free from unwanted state interference.

For the radical theorist André Gorz, this ‘autonomous activity’ should be expanded to occupy a ‘primordial place’ in society. This, in turn, would reduce the sphere of (‘heteronomous’) activity currently determined by external forces such as the state and market and characterised by the social division of labour. It is control, but of a democratic kind.

From populism to popular participation

It may be tempting to see the divide between the ‘policies’ and ‘projects’ outlined above as mirroring the ‘divide’ between the Labour Party and activist/community groups. But it is vital that the former moves to support the latter and avoids transitioning towards a crude populism in which emphasis is over-weighted on the perceived or projected characteristics of the party leader (in this instance Jeremy Corbyn) and within which voters are understood as primarily passive recipients of messaging and policies. In this sense, there is a danger here of simply reproducing the same alienating and disempowering politics that characterised the Blair years.

Of course, given the hyper-mediatised nature of electoral politics, it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of communication and representation. Yet the leadership of the Labour Party, while providing a symbol for people’s desires, must also look to empower them. Where possible, this means using what power and resources it has – both as the official opposition and where it is in power locally – to support the types of projects discussed earlier and to give people a say in the political process. Ultimately, it must look to facilitate a sense of control now markedly absent and in turn help build the autonomous economic and social power – in and outside of the trade unions – necessary for the Labour Party to take political power.

Admittedly, given the time-consuming nature of politics – and the fact that time is an increasingly rare resource in a system that tends towards its commodification – it is all too easy to dismiss the possibility of genuine grassroots participation. But if you give people the opportunity and support to act, experience often tells us they will, as grassroots groups such as Take Back the City have demonstrated.

As Amina Gichinga from Take Back the City told me, ‘People are not blind or apathetic to the inequalities around them. We live and experience these inequalities every day and often have ideas of how we’d like to improve life in our communities. Mainstream political processes and institutions don’t offer an opportunity for people to participate in decision-making in any exciting or meaningful way. Participation needs to be creative and accessible so that people . . . feel that their chance to make a difference doesn’t swing by once every five years.’

This reminds us that while the left must offer people a progressive vision of the future, it must also allow them an opportunity to determine what form it takes and how we get there. Only then will taking back control really be possible.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Andrew DolanAndrew Dolan Red Pepper co-editor. @Andrew__Dolan


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

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.


84