Tuesday 2 May 2017

Theresa May and Tory Decadence

The leak of what took place across the Downing Street dinner table when Theresa May sat down with Jean-Claude Juncker last week was, and is, deeply troubling. In an excruciating, embarrassing account, we learn that not only is the UK government ill-prepared for the Brexit negotiations, but that the Prime Minister is clueless, incompetent and delusional. "Living in another galaxy" is how the president of the European Commission put it. A far cry from the image and slogans the Conservative press operation is feeding our most quiescent media.

Is evidence of May's wibbling and wobbling likely to have much of an effect on the election? We shall see, but by rights, it should. May is exposed as someone not fit to run a bath, let alone navigate the rough waters of an unnecessary and self-inflicted crisis. This then begs a bit of a question. How is a stateswoman of 20 years (to the day) in Parliament, 18 years in frontline politics, including six ensconced in the Home Office, and almost a year as Prime Minister so transparently awful and rubbish? And no, Tom Newton Dunn, the leaked dinner conversation isn't an artful Machiavellian master ruse on her part.

It comes back to the structural crisis of the Conservative Party. For decades, it has not been a suitable vehicle for the interests it's supposed to represent. It has become decadent, and this decadence compounds and is compounded by its historic, long-term decline. With the Tories poised to carry the election, this seems like a perverse argument. Decline when they have double digit leads over Labour? Yes, and I'll be returning to this after the general election.

On decadence, as we noted recently, political parties are coalitions of interests and these more or less correspond to classes and class fractions. A banal observation this may be, but it's an abominable claim to some. All the more reason to forcefully restate it at every opportunity. Classes and class fractions are condensations of social relations. They are inhabited by collectives of people that have contradictory and antagonistic (but also mutually interdependent and constitutive) relations with other collectives around the disposal of the social surplus. This means classes are dynamic. They shift and change with the pitch and movement of struggle. Different organisations have developed over the course of modern history that organise and articulate these interests, parties merely being the vehicles developed to advance them politically. It follows that when a party not only ceases to push these interests but actively works against them it has passed into decadence.

By way of example, let's consider the case of West European social democratic and labour parties, the corpses of which are making an unseemly mess of the political scene. These parties were either killed or punished by their voters because, to put it simply, the parties swapped the interests of their coalition for the interests of capital. The Netherlands. France. Italy. Hold on though, social democratic parties in government are hardly a new thing. They've pushed policies before that have harmed the interests of working people and they haven't collapsed. Why now? They got away with it in the context of Keynesian/welfare state capitalism because the regime of accumulation, how the political economy of advanced capitalist countries were organised, formerly depended on the institutionalisation of workers' organisations. The organs of class collaboration, with some variance across these states, organised workers on a corporatist basis. Unions and bosses organisations fed into and assisted economic policy, giving a veneer of employer/employee cooperation in the national interest. This organising carried on even when social democratic parties implemented wage controls, attacked living standards, and so on. After 1979 and the institutional basis of Keynesian capitalism was eroded, so similar attacks on workers' interests, particularly when they assumed the form of marketisation, managed to disorganise and break up the voter coalitions that powered them. And this is what has left them in their decrepit state, though that might be a glimmer that the penny is beginning to drop.

Decadence works differently with conservative parties. As they articulate, organise and prosecute a coalition of class interests whose dominance is 'spontaneously' generated by the capital/labour relation and underwritten by the political economy of the state, their politics is one ultimately of management, maintenance, and continuity. They don't become decadent parties by adapting to and adopting too many demands from below, that is central to their raison d'etre. For example, May's One Nation programme, in as much as it exists at the rhetorical level, isn't decadent. It's a classic example of conservatism's adaptability and opportunism, and it has served them well throughout their history.

Conservative decadence comes about when a conservative party cannot and will not do this, when from the standpoint of the interests of capital as a whole it is counterproductive and undermines them. In the case of Britain's Tories, this has been the case since the Thatcher years. At the end of the turbulent 70s, capital as a whole had an overriding interest in curbing and diminishing the labour movement. Clearly, for obvious reasons, the Labour Party were politically and structurally unable to do such a thing. This, as we know, was accomplished by Thatcher's governments at great cost. While the state dished out cracked skulls and broken limbs, the destruction of manufacturing capital on a huge scale was the blood price capital-in-general paid Thatcher for her services. Sections of their class, not quick enough to take advantage of the subsequent privatisation spree, went to the wall. The brutal class struggle of the 80s changed the character of the victors. The Tories increasingly became the party of finance, of the privatised industries, of retail and service capital. It was becoming a sectional party.

The sectionalisation of the Tories was accelerated by the emergence of New Labour, itself the product of a defeated labour movement. In accommodating itself to the new realities bequeathed by the Tories, Blair and co. courted finance and retail capital, it especially flattered the growing creative industries and let employers know there would be no return to the bad old days. i.e. The enhancement of workers' collective rights. Labour offered itself up as a supplicant at the moment the Tories were exhausted and broken, and business would have had to find accommodation with Labour anyway. The result? For the first 10 years, New Labour was the natural home of business. Like Thatcher, it obsessively "created" new markets - mainly through deregulation, outsourcing, and competitive tendering for contracts for work ordinarily undertaken by the public sector. Like Thatcher, finance capital was prioritised over other fractions of capital. And, like Thatcher, Labour drove a wedge between the party of its opponents and their 'base'. If Labour was the home for capital and its interests, what use for the Tories?

That changed with Dave. After Gordon Brown bottled an election in Autumn 2007, the economy tanked as the financial crisis broke, Labour's reputation for economic competence was destroyed, and politics was badly damaged by the MP's expenses scandal, the Tory party underwent a limited process of recomposition and rehabilitation. Dave dumped their opportunist commitment to Labour's spending plans and made it quite clear austerity was on the cards if they won in 2010. They were determined and were largely successful in repainting a crisis of capitalism as a crisis of the public finances. As a big thank you for Brown's 'prudent' stewardship during the good times, he was dumped and the city backers, retail, and new sections pf capital grown fat on public procurement and PFI followed. It meant that the years of the coalition government, Dave's Tories - aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats, in case you had forgot - oversaw a weakening of the economy, the extension of marketisation - most crucially in the NHS - and other sectional policies that held down wages, stripped back public provision and social security, fought shy of regulation, and studiously avoided state-led investment strategies that got other advanced countries out of their hole earlier. The Tories were a coalition of the most dynamic but socially useless section of capital, allied to labour intensive capital interested in low wages and plentiful labour supply, and capital that, in all essentials, parasites off the public sector. This was a recipe for deepening Britain's investment crisis, long-term structural problems, and worsening its competitive position in the global marketplace. And to underline Tory decadence it all was the outlook of Dave and what were to become his Tory Brexit opponents. In failure they saw nothing but virtue.

This brings us now to May. She ostensibly offers a programme attractive to capital-in-general, it has something in it for everyone, and clearly grows out of the patrician, Christian Toryism she got dosed up on back in the vicarage. Yet she came into frontline politics when the Tory party was at its most useless and idiotic, was present as it rebuilt itself and was a full participant as it imposed its decadent politics on the country. Part of May's presentation is in contrast to Dave's Flashman qualities and his cavalier approach to governing and crisis management, but she is of that culture. 20 years a Tory MP, 18 years a leading light, the toxic culture of decadent idiocy has clearly made inroads. The assumption the EU is going to accept the UK cherry picking the rights with none of the responsibilities reeks of complacency, that we don't have to prepare because the EU want a good deal because Britain, it's the half-arsed, reckless Tory approach that has characterised everything they've turned their hand to for decades.

Theresa May is rubbish not because she's uniquely incompetent, but because she's all too typical of the Tories. The product of a decadent party, it's entirely appropriate she stands prepared to deliver up Britain for ruin.


Unknown said...
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Boffy said...

"the parties swapped the interests of their coalition for the interests of capital".

Phil, where I would disagree with this is that those social-democratic parties always represented the interests of capital. They represented the dominant form of capital, which since the latter part of the 19th century has been socialised capital - large scale capital organised in joint stock companies, co-operatives, and state owned capital. In so doing, they also represented the short term interests of workers, particularly organised workers in the trades unions that operated on a mutual basis via collective bargaining with that capital. It was symbolised by that strata of professional manager, technicians, and administrators that actually ran these companies on a day to day basis, and created the set of ruling functionalist and managerialist ideas that characterise social democracy, which tries to create social harmony by balancing and negotiating the interests of workers and capital.

The difference over the last thirty years has been that conservative social democrats became dominant from the the 1980's onwards. The Tories in the 1980's had to continue to recognise that it is socialised capital that dominates the economy, even as they played to their own base of small private capitalists, and they did that by creating alongside it the huge rise in private household debt.

They were followed by Blair et al, who played not to the interests of capital per se, but to a part of the same constituency that the Tories had played to. That is they played to the owners of fictitious capital, to the owners of the controlling shares, to bondholders, and all those other speculators who had amassed huge paper wealth from the speculative bubbles created by the Tories, as the consequence of the rise in private household debt.

The 2008 crisis showed that option of inflating those bubbles had hit the limits, though the massive money printing since, and all of the measures to keep the property bubble inflated, shows they were not going to give it up easily. But, it has clearly now gone even beyond its limits. Central banks admit they can do no more, interest rates are rising, and that means that all of the stock, bond and property bubbles will burst.

What the Tories are trying to do, is to build a reactionary coalition around one constituent of their base. The part of their base that resides in those large scale owners of shares and bonds, know that their future revenues - dividends and interest - depend upon social democratic measures, of long term planning and stability, and expansion of markets via the EU etc. The Tories are turning away from them, because to pursue the social democratic measures required to achieve that would alienate the bulk of their base.

So they are orientating to the most reactionary part of that base, the small private capitalists for whom the big capitalists are an enemy, and to that associated layer of backward workers, atomised and alienated from the organised working class.

Boffy said...

"At the end of the turbulent 70s, capital as a whole had an overriding interest in curbing and diminishing the labour movement. Clearly, for obvious reasons, the Labour Party were politically and structurally unable to do such a thing."

I'm not sure that this is necessarily true, as opposed to teleologically true. Had the Bennite Left not been entrenched in a Stalinoid "Social-Democracy In One Country" mentality, but instead had embraced internationalism, in relation to the EU, I think that other aspects of the Alternative Economic Strategy, for yet greater regulation and control of production, greater planning extending from the company level, to the national and European level was actually what was really in the interests of the dominant form of socialised capital.

That was after all why the EU and its predecessor organisations, and other transnational, para state bodies like GATT (WTO), the IMF, World Bank etc. had been established by Keynes and his devotees after WWII.

There is no theoretical level why British capital could not have been modernised and rationalised along these more planned and regulated lines, much as happened in Germany. Wilson himself had laid some of the basis for it with the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy, which would have only put British industry on the same kind of footing as workers in Germany had enjoyed since the end of WWII, and the EU itself with the Draft Fifth Directive on Company Law, proposing the same kind of plans to have Company Boards made up 50% from elected trades union representatives went in the same direction.

Its actually one of those tragedies of history that at a crucial point, the Left of the movement headed of in a nationalistic dead end symbolised by the various "National Roads to Socialism", and made that the fulcrum around which struggles were organised, which divided the movement, set the right-wing of the movement into fright mode, as they saw the potential for the workers running ahead of them into increasing industrial struggles - much as happened in the Revolutions of 1848 - and led to that right-wing lining up with its own ideological opponents in the camp of conservatism.

Boffy said...

"She ostensibly offers a programme attractive to capital-in-general, it has something in it for everyone, and clearly grows out of the patrician, Christian Toryism she got dosed up on back in the vicarage."

But I don't think it does! The largest shareholders and bondholders know that Brexit will be a disaster for them, and they are opposed to it. The period of falling global interest rates, that caused asset price bubbles in stocks, bonds and property is over. It was effectively over in 2008. The asset price bubbles have only been reflated and prevented from bursting by unprecedented levels of money printing used by central banks, commercial banks and the very, very rich to speculate even more in those paper assets, in the sure and certain knowledge that whenever prices started to fall central banks would print even more money.

But, the cost has been to drain money-capital from real productive investment - why would you risk money building a factory, or buying new kit, when instead you could use your money to buy government bonds guaranteed to always rise in price by the central bank, or stocks whose price is similarly guaranteed, or for that matter property. That has been the case even though the other side of this astronomical rise in asset prices has been that profits as a proportion of those prices, and thereby dividend, bond and rental yields were driven down to near zero and sometimes below zero. Again, why bother whether you can obtain 1% yield, when every year guaranteed asset price rises provide you with a capital gain of 10% or more?

But the central banks know they can do no more. The representatives of those big owners of fictitious capital also know its over, which is why people like Bill Gross are saying that the bond bubble is going to burst. Its why the US Federal Reserve is raising interest rates, but also people like Andy Haldane at the Bank of England have talked about the fact that whereas in the 1970's only 10% of profits went to dividends the figure today is around 70%!

You can't produce additional profits if you don't invest the current profits in additional productive-capital. Simply using profits to pay out dividends, interest and rent, which is then used to speculate in stocks, bonds and property creates no additional surplus value, and reduces yields further.

There is a need for large scale investment in real productive-capital, and that is only going to be done if there is some longer-term stable framework in which the investment can be undertaken. It requires more regulation and planning, it requires a larger field of operation, such as an EU state, and it requires a measure of state intervention on that larger scale to create that framework.

May's proposals, and the proposals of Trump and the other right-wing nationalists are reactionary in the true sense of the word. They are against the interests of modern capital in general. They are an attempt to turn the clock back to how things were at the start of the 19th century. And for that reason they are doomed. The only question is what catastrophes they will create in the process of failing.

Ken said...

This is an excellent post, succinctly putting across a wealth of analysis. Well done.

Blissex said...

«If Labour was the home for capital and its interests,»

That's a bit too sweeping, a bit like the rest of the piece, which is broadly agreeable, but focusing a bit too much on the traditional "big picture".

My impression is that the most relevant aspect of the evolution of class interests in the past 30-50 years has been the elevation of large parts of the working class into the lowest rungs of the rentier class, thanks to widespread property ownership and to pension ownership.

The newly elevated rentiers then changed their voting from Labour to New Labour or Conservatives, switching between the two whenever they failed at pushing up property prices.

It is mass rentierism that has enable the transformation of both New Labour and Conservatives into sectional factions for finance capital. Because it cut across the previous divide between low-middle income workers and high-income rentiers: there is now a mass of low-middle income rentiers.

Mass rentierism is a quite new phenomenon and I reckon that the "traditional left" has not come to terms with it yet, despite G Radice's "Southern discomfort" essays, still thinking in terms of traditional class/level of income divides.
The mandelsonian/clintonite "new left" has come to terms with that mass rentierism by entirely surrendering to it, and adopting "identity politics" or even "cool Britannia" :-) as the new shibboleth of the left.

Anonymous said...

Where I have an issue with your commentary is the phrase - which I have seen you repeat before - "It has become decadent, and this decadence compounds and is compounded by its historic, long-term decline." You again supply a link to an earlier (2012) posting but there is virtually nothing to support your thesis - that the Tories are in long-term decline. Sadly, they are actually experiencing a revival (in Scotland and Wales too!) whilst it is Labour that is experiencing the long-term decline.

I'm afraid that the Tories know how to tap into anti-Johnny Foreigner populism and whilst mopping up Ukip votes and bringing forward a 'no-deal' Brexit they will dominate our politics until 2022 and maybe beyond, depending on how far the economy has collapsed by then. But 'long-term decline'? No evidence of this.

Phil said...

There is ample evidence the Tories are in long-term decline if you bother to look.

There's this


Under 40s favour Labour over the Tories too.

Blissex said...

«there is virtually nothing to support your thesis - that the Tories are in long-term decline. Sadly, they are actually experiencing a revival (in Scotland and Wales too!) whilst it is Labour that is experiencing the long-term decline»

«There is ample evidence the Tories are in long-term decline if you bother to look»

What our blogger is really implying is that *politics* as it was understood up to the Thatcher-Mandelson era has been in terminal decline. The obvious symptoms are the collapse in party membership, which has been reversed for Labour, and the collapse in actual votes obtained.

Too many people, but not out blogger, look just at percentages at general elections; looking at absolute number of votes is far more revealing:

1974: Labour 11.45m, Conservatives 10.46m, Liberals 5.34m
1979: Labour 11.53m, Conservatives 13.70m, Liberals 4.31m
1983: Labour 8.46m, Conservatives 13.01m, SDP-Liberals 7.78m
1987: Labour 10.03m, Conservatives 13.74m, SDP-Liberals 7.34m
1992: Labour 11.56m, Conservatives 14.09, Liberals 6.00m
1997: Labour 13.52m Conservatives 9.60m, Liberals 5.24m
2001: Labour 10.72m Conservatives 8.34m, Liberals 4.81m
2005: Labour 9.55m, Conservatives 8.78m, Liberals 5.99m
2010: Labour 8.61m, Conservatives 10.70m, Liberals 6.84m
2015: Labour 9.35m, Conservatives 11.30m, Other 6.00m

For example from the absolute 1997-2010 numbers it is evident, especially in comparison with 1979-1992, the collapse of the Labour vote because of the effect of an unelectable leader. Toxic Tony kept losing elections, but the Conservatives lost them even more.

Ben Philliskirk said...

Sorry, but Newton Dunn is right, unfortunately. May and the Tories benefit no end through this type of 'us against them' story. This all goes down a treat with the Labour Brexit voters, and also rallies UKIP supporters who, if they were willing to vote UKIP in the first place, do not object to stupidity, irrationality and delusional behaviour.

We will be on a war footing for the next month and beyond, and, as no-one will be getting killed, it will benefit the Tories even more than the Falklands did.

Anonymous said...

Phil, sadly you persist in claiming that the Tory party is in decline but your evidence is found wanting.

Firstly, the Hoskins article (2015) that you cite above: “In 1951, over 40 per cent of all registered voters backed the Conservative Party into government. In 2005, only 22 per cent did likewise for Labour. This is the consequence of declining turnout and less support for the two main parties.” His article cites no evidence for a relative decline of the Tories in terms of electoral success – the key aspect - as against Labour. I guess you can easily say that within our fragmented and FPTP system BOTH parties are in relative decline, compared with former levels of support.

The Spectator article (2012) that you cite: “one indication of how well Cameron might do in 2015 is the erosion of support the Conservatives are experiencing at grassroots level. ConHome has also found that Tory party membership now stands at between 130,000 and 170,000, down from the 300,000 that Cameron inherited from Michael Howard.” Again this is no objective source for a thesis of Tory decline. Membership decline - relative to Labour (and other parties) – yes. No question! But the key issue is *electoral success* rather than decline. Your own local monthly council election surveys should tell you that the Tories are certainly not in decline in terms of seats delivered.

You add - “Under 40s favour Labour over the Tories too.” True that – but any political sociologist will advise you that that means little in practice. If age cohorts determined eventual outcome it might be inevitable that Labour would triumph every time nowadays. But the decline in class voting is a function of Tory party strategy today. Voters are fickle and the terrain of preference is often dictated more by the tabloid media than by class OR age cohort. Those that once voted Labour, once retired they quite often vote Tory – or for another in a multi-party FPTP system. There IS an argument for Labour doing much more to attract the pensioner vote.

Blissex said...

«Phil, sadly you persist in claiming that the Tory party is in decline but your evidence is found wanting.»

Please look at the figures I have provided above: in 2015 the Conservatives got 11.30m votes, which is less than Labour got in the historic defeats of 1979 or 1992. Despite the electorate growing considerably.

Labour has also declined during 1997-2010 due to the unelectability of "toxic Tony" (who was lucky that the Conservatives in 1997-2005 tried hard to be even more unelectable), but in 2015 it started to recover thanks to E Milliband's popularity.

The absolute numbers for Conservative club membership are even more dramatic.

In large part it is a decadence of "politics" in the England, not just of the Conservatives, as "politics" has become largely just the defense of the interests of the mass rentier class clustered in southern marginals.

Blissex said...

«Those that once voted Labour, once retired they quite often vote Tory – or for another in a multi-party FPTP system. There IS an argument for Labour doing much more to attract the pensioner vote.»

That is exactly the plan of the Progress/mandelsonian faction.
The problem with that is that by and large pensioners are rentiers and property owners, and by and large Labour is the party of workers and renters.

it is a very serious political problem for Labour: by making a lot of workers and renters better off with good wages and good pensions, it has transformed them in well-off property and pension rentiers, that is in tories with a small "t", and those small tories feel that their interests are better represented by the party representing big tories.