Living in England and able to vote through a useful piece of Commonwealth legal archaeology, the recent UK election appeared to me at first to resemble the Australian 2013 election: two unpopular parties jockeying for control amidst an increasing tendency to opt for third parties. While to many the Conservatives were anathema, the option of Labour carried little appeal, an insight which has handily been proven by their staggering defeat. The dominant narrative on the left, seemingly the obvious and correct strategy, was to elect Labour as a holding motion and to press onwards afterward for greater progressive change: on 8 May it was to be ‘more democracy, more democracy, more democracy’, to use the words of Russell Brand. Similar sentiments were echoed by his contemporary, Owen Jones: that voting Labour is the first step towards turning away from an increasingly ugly and transparently unequal society.
It is simple to dismiss Jones and Brand as petit-bourgeois liberal-leftists who sold out their base by becoming complicit with the Labour party. The political implications of this argument notwithstanding – as if ‘pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will’ is somehow irrational – both commentators nonetheless have an obvious affinity with and concern for the great masses of marginalised Britons: drug addicts, single mothers, the homeless, long-term unemployed and unimportant, and if their welfare was a priority over political purity then it was not unreasonable to strive for the most immediate if admittedly partial remedy. Nonetheless, it did not pay off: there was too great a hope in the potential for the UK state to be able to reincorporate the kinds of people that Bruce Springsteen writes songs about.
How long can these people really hold off, before things become not just ugly but violent? Where do the Joneses and Brands go now that their hope for the reconsolidation of power has failed? Underlying their message is a notion of urgency, a patent sense of disconnect between the lived experience of society and the ruling power bloc. For them, Miliband’s Labour bloc represented at best a partial reconciliation or reorganisation through its seeming recognition of the plight of the alienated in society, of the crisis that British liberal democracy faces, standing in stark contrast to the triumphalism of the Conservatives, now apparently vindicated in their regime of austerity and deliberate social marginalisation.
Yet these forces which lie beneath the pronouncements of Jones and Brand will not simply disappear. Even cynical interpretations of liberal democracy, such as Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s evisceration of the Weimar Republic, still operate on the basis of power being effectively shared at some level. It may be through political conflict that power occurs, as opposed to governmental administration in liberal democracy, but Schmitt operates under the assumption that these various forces are actually representative of political groups in society. It is this logical corollary of Schmitt’s diagnosis which is explored by Marxist Antonio Gramsci in his attempt to theorise the changing bases of power in liberal democratic societies. What Gramsci would find in modern Britain is a society ever closer to populist revolt: one in which the sovereignty invoked by the ruling class is paper-thin, reliant upon the power of repression and ideology, in the thin, propagandist sense of the term. Lacking in organic intellectuals or any connection to civil society, political society knows not its own fragility.
We should not forget how tenacious these power bases are and how effective their co-option of social unrest has proven to be. It bears repeating that the second greatest economic crash in modern history has not induced a left-wing backlash but a formal tightening of the screws, one which has been accepted as harsh but nonetheless legitimate. The successful exploitation by governments worldwide of people’s genuine sense of guilt, be it social, economic or ecological, has cultivated a society-wide admission of neglect which accepts the corresponding punishment of austerity. It is not a coincidence that austerity appears to be administered from above, by nameless networks of power operating in mysterious ways.
Various attempts to predict the death knell of austerity, neoliberalism and capitalism have proven to be optimistic and improperly formed at best: the writer is allowed to engage in speculation precisely because it is their business, and throwaway predictions are a regular part of this social function, a fact which Marxists and other social theorists would do well to remember. Nonetheless, what is captured well by populist writers such as Jones and Brand is this very keen understanding of the disconnect between the power postulated on television by various politicians, and the daily lived experiences of most Britons. The victory of Cameron’s Conservatives, far from a consolidation of a new regime à la Thatcherism or New Labour, is more akin to the crude joke of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: first as tragedy, then as farce. Far outside the seemingly-regular progression in history in which the various populisms of the left and right would have come to conflict in parliament, an insurgent UKIP against a bolstered Labour-led left with the Tory ruling class attempting to hang onto power, these social forces have been entirely unrepresented. As a student of Hegel, it is plain to see that the contradictions of society have simply not been borne out. Similar occurrences, such as the rise and demise of the US Tea Party may indeed be contradictory, but its initial electoral success established it as a progression of some form. In Britain, what was plainly present in society in the form of inevitable coalition government was silenced upon its impact with the actual political sphere. The election result was not even a mitigation as much as a complete lack of acknowledgement.
As a left-wing Australian living within Tony Abbott’s own electorate, the Coalition’s victory in 2013 was a dismal result, but one which was nonetheless an accurate representation of the state of affairs in Australian politics. Unlike the UK election, it did not totally dissolve civil society into the realm of a single reified number. This has little bearing on politicians’ personal disconnect with voters, real as that may be. Rather, the dominant narrative that the Conservatives have secured power is simply misguided: they have not. What at least was a passive revolution in Scotland – a wholesale change in the composition of political elites if not in political structure – was unmatched in England, in which no new power bloc was constructed. While successfully playing upon an obviously illogical and anachronistic voting system in combination with the brute force of propaganda and fear mongering, this victory will be tendentious at best. With no formal representation, there is little need or inclination for the populace to accept the legitimacy of the UK state or the sovereignty invoked by its ruling class. What the Tories have affirmed is the reductionist orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory of the state, which sees its power embodied in its brute force, money and ideological opiate for the masses. Aside from these very real power bases of the military, police, big business and newspapers, there is no organic coalition of conservative strength in Britain. It sought a plebiscitary endorsement and received all 25% that it required to continue its rule.
This was obviously effective enough to overcome the attempt at partial reconciliation embodied in the Labour Party, running a fine line between maintaining establishment policies and acting as the listening ear which Brand claimed to have witnessed in Miliband. What Owen Jones can hear with his ear to the ground does not necessarily translate into a coherent political project, let alone electoral success. The anti-establishmentarian politics of left populism, while deeply sympathetic, are rooted in a republican invocation of ‘the people’ which is necessarily tied to an assertion of state sovereignty: it is not difficult to see how a genuine concern that society is failing its citizens can transmogrify into support for UKIP. When the subject of citizenry is at hand, its nature can never be far separated from its boundaries. The populist anti-immigration perspective can be summarised as an assertion of reconsidering the individual’s rights in society in relation to their welfare, in order to redefine who society should belong to. This subordination of the individual to the needs of society is an argument uncomfortably close to those proffered by Italy’s Fascists, and represents the dark side of all forms of populism.
The result of the UK election is that this populist assertion of sovereignty will only grow stronger. What could perhaps have been at least partially resolved in administration, through a broad easing of austerity and tightening of immigration, now gives way to an entirely unencumbered party rule. The Cameron government will ride high upon the tempest of decisionism, declaring its orders and imperatives with a Zeus-like might. Beneath the tides vast currents swell, their tremors and murmurs unheard by the good ship Tory, its newspaper masts buffeted by an unexpected wind, full speed ahead into the dark clouds that it declares as sign of its own mastery over the world. Storms may be weathered, turmoil may not lead to defeat, populist victory may be harbinger of a much more brutal state than liberal democracy. ‘The old world is dying away, and the new world struggles to come forth: now is the time of monsters.’