How the left can win

Jeremy Gilbert says that no single party can defeat neoliberalism. A broader social movement is needed

October 21, 2016 · 10 min read

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?

Anti-austerity is not enough

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.

The ideology 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.

What we can do

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.

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