Sunday 9 September 2018

Our Decadent Tory Elite

As claims making goes, accusing Theresa May of "wrapping a suicide vest around the British constitution and handing the detonator to Michel Barnier" is strong stuff. Then again, in a political economy of, um, politics in which there is a lot happening, you have to do something really attention seeking to command the spotlight for more than five minutes. Even if you're a favoured Westminster personality accustomed to bathing in the media glow. Well, putting his criticism of May's Brexit plan in such crass terms ensured Boris Johnson got the headlines he wanted. What is more interesting is the reaction, which we haven't hitherto seen when he's indulged similar stunts in the past. Tom Tugendhat responded with a description of the scene of an actual suicide bombing while he was on tour in Afghanistan, saying "some need to grow up". More vituperative were Alan Duncan's words: "For Boris to say that the PM’s view is like that of a suicide bomber is too much. This marks one of the most disgusting moments in modern British politics. I’m sorry, but this is the political end of Boris Johnson. If it isn’t now, I will make sure it is later. #neverfittogovern". The Tories have received frequent criticisms here for putting their short-term interests before all else, including the class interests their party articulates and enforces. Is this a case of Johnson jeopardising his medium and long-term leadership prospects for a few talking points on Andrew Marr?

It is worth remembering the Tories are a thoroughly decadent outfit. This isn't a moral condemnation, though immorality clings to them like a reeking miasma. It's an observation. As Marx wrote in the Manifesto, the state is a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. This is because as a class, business is internally fractured by their competition with one another for markets. Yet they retain interests in common, such as the maintenance of the wage relation, ensuring the value of labour doesn't get too high, an educated, healthy and subservient workforce, and so on. The state's business is ultimately the management of populations so the social arrangements of which it is part do not face an existential challenge and this does, typically, involve compromises with rising strata to try and incorporate and accommodate as many of their interests and aspirations as possible. The Conservative Party for its part, despite its reputation as the natural party of business actually isn't, if you take business and interpret it in neutral, technical terms of economic development and employment. This is secondary to the role proper of the Tories: the prosecution of class struggle on behalf of the class interests it champions. Now, because business is internally divided there is never a straight correspondence between the collective interests of the class as a whole and the policies of their party. Not least become some bourgeois interests have, historically, also found a home in the other parties. Yes, including Labour. This means Tory positions constantly shift and change as alignments and alliances are made and unmade in the drawing rooms, the secret members' clubs, the boardrooms, the garden parties and dinner gatherings, the association meetings and industry-wide lobbies, and the hundreds of other places where they talk and plot. This means at times one or two sections of capital get the upper hand and we see the party push interests that are sectional instead of serving the general good.

Thatcherism is just one example of sectional triumphalism we can take from the party's history, but one that is pertinent to the situation the Tories find themselves in today. Elected as the old post-war consensus collapsed into crisis, in her view the preservation and future prosperity of Britain depended on attacking the organised working class, and imposing labour discipline on a group of upstarts asking for a good hiding. Her chosen method was to privatise or close down as much state owned industry as possible to disorganise and weaken the wider labour movement, while preparing for a set piece confrontation with the miners. In addition to the hardship and misery this caused, it would also - and did - mean letting whole sections of industry go the wall. That is thousands of businesses and a whole section of capital, which is indeed what happened. Manufacturing collapsed, and they found their traditional party turned a tin ear to their concerns. What enabled this to happen was the removal of patrician, 'one nation' Tories from key positions and, as the Thatcher years wore on, their total side-lining and replacement by pugnacious, self-identifying 'self-made' Tories. These were petit bourgeois Tories made good, a nouveau rich unencumbered by ties with the big manufacturing concerns of the post-war years. The old bourgeois types couldn't carry the sort of reaction from above the Thatcher governments presented because they were compromised by formal and informal webs of allegiances, chumminess and business interests. In effect, small, "enterprising" capital did what big capital was unable and unwilling to do. An instance of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution with petit bourgeois characteristics, you might say. The result? A successful campaign against the labour movement, but an elite coalition lop sided toward other sections of capital - finance (the city), landlords, and (immaterial) labour intensive sectors like hospitality, retail etc. The only manufacturing capital the Tories remained totally on board with was aerospace and arms. This imbalance wasn't so bad as long as the Tories had a mass base feeding into the party, but its decline became sharp under Thatcher and has dwindled ever since. This was crucial because it provided ballast vis a vis the pull of imbalanced elites at the top.

Then came 1997. Nothing could have won that election for the Tories, not even a Labour leader gracing the Cenotaph wearing a donkey jacket. Yet while New Labour proved that Thatcherism was hegemonic when it came to it shared first preference for markets, for regulating labour markets, and privileging finance over making stuff, Blair did render the cause of socialism a valuable service. Yes, you read that right. In as far as he theorised the New Labour project, Blair lamented the splitting of the forces of radicalism, i.e. Labour and the old Liberal Party, at the beginning of the 20th century. New Labour was the inheritor of this, in his view, and he desired it to become the favoured party of government - hence the continual placating of capital and disdain for labour all throughout his (and Gordon Brown's) tenure. Bad news then for labour movement recovery, but bad for the Tories too because it deepened the fracturing of British capital. That is while in their weakened state some capital - the most backward and socially useless sections as it happened - stuck with them, the bulk threw their lot in with Blairism. That is until the crash came along. Gordon Brown saved their system, and they demonstrated their gratitude by abandoning him for Dave's shiny, socially liberal Toryism. Nevertheless the damage was done, Blair had driven a wedge into the organic relationship between that party and its class. The relationship of the latter to the former became more mercenary, conditional, detached and disengaged. And with disastrous consequences.

During the Dave years the shrivelling of the Tories at the top and the bottom started catching up with it. For all Osborne's talk of the long-term economic plan, Dave's liberal Toryism amounted to a doubling down on the Thatcherite settlement in the hope that somehow the hidden hand would become a magic hand and allow the country to bounce back from its 2008 cardiac arrest. In practice we saw more privatisation, a naked assault on the poorest, more tax cuts for the rich, mushrooming foodbank use, more homelessness, a deeply dysfunctional property market and an inauguration of a permanent, highly casualised, low paid, and precarious work force as a significant constituency of workers. Truly a shameful record, even by Tory standards. This was the outcome of the Tories ties to finance as well as the most backward sections of British capital - Osborne's budgets ensured there were plenty of opportunities for profiteering, plenty of opportunities to employ cheap, disorganised labour. This imbalance at the top was matched by imbalance below - the bleeding of the associations left them largely in the hands of the right, which wasn't interrupted by the loss of thousands of activists to UKIP in the wake of the same-sex marriage controversy. In effect, the party input, the elite input and, of course, the press input steered Dave well away from where most of his people were, manifesting in incredibly short-termist policies and, notoriously, the concession of the European Union referendum. It was the diminution of a whole class approach that led Dave down the alley of privileging short-term party interests, the partial disarticulation of the Tories meant the country became a gambling chip in a series of increasingly reckless bets.

As Theresa May was fond of saying in the 2017 general election, nothing has changed. Despite her (initial) one nation rhetoric she has proved as equally decadent and useless. Brexit has exacerbated the Tories' difficulties, but even the correspondence Dave retained with finance and labour intensive business has deserted May. While some sections of capital look on with alienated horror at the madness engulfing their party, others are desperately trying to reverse or water down Brexit. Some are concerned with saving their own skins and looking at moving operations oversea. Some are even accommodating themselves to a Corbyn government. In the Tories proper, continuity remain has a very tenuous grasp through the meagre numbers remain MPs can muster. Finance and their backward bedfellows are now aligned with the hard right European Research Group - the prospect of a low waged, anti-union tax haven off the shore of the world's largest economy appeals to them. Yet even these whose interests so recently mastered the Tories correspond to a rump of about 50 or 60 MPs. The alienation of UK capital-in-general, the dying membership, the shock loss of their majority, and the splintering of the parliamentary party around the petty ambitions of this or that cabinet minister and backbencher, this compounds the dealignment of the Tories from their ruling class roots. Instead, with May we see a weird form of Bonapartism in her party. Rather than contending factions cancelling each other out and the administration in the middle rising to power from a position of strength, May's authority - such as it is - derives from the fact none of the competing factions want her job. Not even Boris Johnson. Well, right now at least. This means each are more or less free floating, buffeted by inner party intrigues and the occasional blast from the Tory party editorial offices in the media. It also condemns the Brexit negotiations to their being driven by the perceived needs of party management.

Boris Johnson, like May, like Dave, is an embodiment of Tory crisis. But, from his point of view, his strategy of saying outrageous things and being racist does have the virtue of realigning the party's class compass. To win he needs to gobble up the ERG vote, who are disproportionately represented in but are by no means a majority of members, re-absorb the UKIP vote that, in his view, May's Chequers compromise gave away. His Brexit is one in which the sectional interests Dave championed are hegemonic. Unfortunately for Johnson, what's left of the membership are not behind him - only 35% according to the recent Conservative Home members' poll. His emerging strategy also has a real snag. Just as Blair reasoned that Labour could move to the right because its traditional voters have nowhere to go, Johnson is assuming that once his feet are under the Downing Street table some point after Brexit is done that his voter coalition will stick together. There is a possibility, albeit an outside one that centre leaning Tories could decamp to form their own party, and with them could go the layer of occasional, liberal-leaning Tory voters who find his faux bonhomie and racism less than congenial. Especially if the LibDems get their act together and start to realise there's greater profits to be had from targeting the Tories. In other words, by adopting a deliberately reactionary politics because it suits his ambitions he's ceding ground all over the place, gifting space to the other parties to try and tie capital into episodic alliances of convenience. And this is assuming Johnson would be able to get on the leadership ballot paper in the first place.

It's difficult to see how the Tories can extricate themselves from this mess, as it's a crisis like no other it has faced in its long history. To survive and thrive as a going concern, it needs to re-establish its relationship with capital as a whole, draw deep from that one nation well and give significant numbers of voters a stake in the wealth of the nation, and become a more inclusive, moderate and socially liberal outfit. This requires much more than a lick of paint and requires demands work and, yes, struggle. The odd purge wouldn't go amiss either. When you look around the Tory benches, can you see anyone who's up to this task?


Speedy said...

Thank you for the informative analysis.

The one thing that saves the Tories (and, to some extent, Labour) is the FPTP system which leaves voters with nowhere else to go.

I accept what you say about decadence, house owning etc, but while only these two products remain on the shelves (and they own a monopoly over the retail outlet) they will reinvent themselves internally, like wot Thatch did.

But like you say, the Lib Dems could reinvent themselves as modern Whigs and pull the centre from both parties.

Brexit was the ultimate result of a system no longer fit for purpose, but if there was a "fairer" system, you might not like the consequences - as things stand, it would be an open door for populism (as was the Brexit vote itself).

Within the context of the Western democracies, it is hard to see a positive outcome - they appear to be the architects of their own downfall.

Boffy said...


I was pleased in reading your post, because from the title, I was expecting something reflecting the current objections to Boris's comments from the snowflakes whose disagreement with him has been on the rather inventive and powerful imagery he conjured up, which I actually think does credit to his talent as a wordsmith, rather than them objecting to the actual content of his ideas. Unfortunately, that seems to be the case with snowflakes who appear to lack the intellectual tools to confront ideas, and who, therefore, hide behind often feigned offence and indignity, as a substitute.

The Labour Right, and opponents of Corbyn, and McDonnell have used such confected offence and indignation over the last three years so as to pick up on any word or phrase that could be construed in such a way as to provide a basis for attack. Its then perhaps no surprise that when Umunna gave hostage to fortune by using the common phrase "attack dogs", he found himself having that tactic turned back on him.

Still, it would be better if McDonell and the leadership were to actually confront the hypocrisy of the Right, and start giving a lead in dealing with them, as Chris Williamson has been doing, rather than accommodating to them, and playing word games with them.

cian said...

Finance and their backward bedfellows are now aligned with the hard right European Research Group - the prospect of a low waged, anti-union tax haven off the shore of the world's largest economy appeals to them.

I think it's probably more accurate to say that a sub-sector of finance are aligned with ERG. It's essentially the parts of finance that are concerned with either tax dodging, or gambling (hedge funds). It's also traditionally been quite a stupid sector, so this isn't that surprising. Investment banks, insurance and the service sectors that surround them know that a large chunk of their business will inevitably move to Europe. Part of the reason that we haven't heard from them is

a) they've given up on the Tories
b) They're too busy working out how to migrate their business to Europe.

This is one of the most fascinating breaks - the Tories have not only lost elite finance, but have treated them with contempt. Bankers meetings with the cabinet were rough, at least going by the accounts of the bankers present.

Dipper said...

how is Boris Johnson racist? I don't like him, think he is all mouth and no brain, think he first and foremost represents Boris Johnson, but racist? where and when?

And don't start on that business about burqas. He wrote an article defending the right of women to wear the burqa, even if some people think it looks ridiculous. That's the point about freedom. Freedom to wear things that other people don;t find offensive isn't freedom, it is conformity. Freedom means the right to do things other people don't like. And wearing a burqa has as much to do with islam as wearing a bowler hat and an orange sash has to do with christianity.

Tmb said...

It seems that the patricians and the nouveaus are at war in the Tory Party, although it's hard to tell really. The Blairites in the Labour party have made the Labour party so ineffective with purposeful infighting, that they are neither use nor ornament. If we had an effective opposition, and a non partisan media, Labour would have probably gained a lot more ground. My views on the situation regarding anti-Semitism in the Labour party, is that it has been whipped up magnificently into something it never was. Criticism of the state of Israel is not criticism of Jews nor anti-Semitic. Criticising Hamas is not anti Palestinian, either, I would say.

That aside, it all seems to have become a protracted pantomime played out before us, like it really means anything. It all seems for the most part, to be sound and fury signifying nothing, or at least very little. You have to look under the surface of everything now to make any sense of it all. That we should have such an uninspiring, dull and frankly inauthentic bunch of politicians at this time doesn't help either. Lions led by donkeys ...

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

Superb piece.

Dipper said...

@ Tmb

"Criticism of the state of Israel is not criticism of Jews nor anti-Semitic. Criticising Hamas is not anti Palestinian, either, I would say. "

... "Hamas" and "The state of Israel" are not equivalents. One of them is a political movement and the other is a nation state. Perhaps "criticism of the Israeli government is not criticism of jews ... "