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.
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.
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.