Monday 20 May 2019

Case Studies in Political Atavism

What do Change UK and the Brexit Party share in common, apart from ego and a celebrated associations with dairy products? They are, in a manner of speaking, throwbacks to ages past. There is something about them that cuts against the grain of 20th century politics, let alone the situation of the 21st.

Despite some political distance between the two, there is no role in either for the rank-and-file. Indeed, there isn't even a rank and file. You can't join Chuka and friends in their slapstick campaign for a second referendum. You can't join Nigel Farage's touting for the most stupid and ruinous of Brexits. You can give money, add yourself to a contact list, and go along to a campaign rally (or not, in CHUKa's case), but all the time you are a bystander. Hand over the dough, freely donate your time, but your input, your talents, your opinions (especially your opinions) are not wanted.

In the Brexit Party, Farage's word is The Word. What the policies are, its candidates, its messaging, the logo, media strategy, he is a one-man executive. Apart from useful idiot, no other status is possible in Farage's party. For CHUKa, party sovereignty lies in the parliamentary grouping. It decides on the policies, sorry, "values", the branding (the branding!), the candidates, and how the monies are spent. For Farage, his one-man set up has the advantage of not having to deal with annoying little people. When you look at UKIP's 25 years, again and again it proved a dysfunctional bawdy house with a moderately successful electoral machine bolted on. Why would Farage willingly put himself through that again? For CHUKa, as far as your Chris Leslies, Gavin Shukers, Joan Ryans, and Angela Smiths, why let members have a say when you, snort, understand things so much better than them? What they share then is a party model - neither aspire to be mass parties, they are resolutely, proudly, cadre parties: unashamed organisations of political elites.

CHUKa and the Brexit Party resemble the old cadre parties that were common before universal suffrage. There were no memberships as such, just semi-formalised networks. As parties they were more caucuses of political elites who cohered around mixtures of ambition and interest. They sorted stuff out behind closed doors, and cycled through government in joke elections only small numbers were eligible to vote in. However, as universal suffrage was won one awkward step at a time, a widening electorate meant the cadre, clientelist party model tipped into crisis. Social democratic and labour parties led the charge, leveraging the collective strength of labour movements and workers against elite networks and the exclusion of a politics from below from nascent parliamentary systems. Number was something bourgeois and aristocratic politicians did not have, and we are many, they are few appeared to spell their political doom.

Unfortunately, politics is never this mechanical. Masses of enfranchised male workers, and later women did not automatically turn to their parties and in many cases preferred the outfits of their masters. The reasons for this are complex, but one contributor was the 'contagion from the left', as Maurice Duverger put it. That is the adoption of methods of mass recruitment by liberal and conservative parties. For example, the Tories before and after the war used to organise village fetes, travel the countryside with mobile cinema to deliver "news", and encourage a mass membership through local association facilities - typically a bar or club, and actively place themselves at the centre of charitable and philanthropic efforts. They promised a social world for social climbers, where one could rub shoulders with one's betters. Membership became a trapping of status and by the early 1950s, almost three million members had bought into it. The Tories didn't just borrow mass politics, they reworked it, innovated, and became masterful practitioners of it.

The direction of travel wasn't all one way. Simultaneously left parties were cut across by a contagion from the right. Despite the mammoth membership, at its heart the Tories retained some important qualities of a cadre party. Up until the 1960s, Tory leaders emerged, Kremlin-style, from the magic circle of parliamentary notables. Most MPs, let alone members, had no say. On the other hand, while a mass party Labour was never synonymous with the term proletarian democracy. Its own oligarchical tendencies were present from the beginning, and the bureaucracy ensured officialdom tended to win out over constituency=based democracy. If anything this accelerated as the electorate started feeling the pressures of fragmentation toward the end of the post-war boom. The importance of the mass media meant a growing requirement for specialists, a centralisation of messaging, and with it a marginalisation of the membership from the democratic powers it did possess. The Blairist model realised this contagion within a mass party - a large membership, at least initially, who were there to leaflet and door knock. I.e. they knew their place, and those who frequented Blair's sofa knew theirs too.

This was not a neutral, technocratic adaptation to new conditions - it was a response to labour movement defeat, and then required two decades of inner party struggle to accomplish it. The result was an exodus of members, reinforced by a dogmatic belief that the path to electoral fortune went through the editorials of the right wing press. It came with significant costs which the Labour right are still paying. It's oft-overlooked, but a similar process happened in the Tories under Thatcher too. Membership imploded as her attacks broke up working class communities and forcibly closed down manufacturing, in the process destroying large amounts of small and medium-sized capital who depended on these communities and these industries for their commercial survival. The associational life of the 1950s, which continued to persist into the 70s, withered away and the dog-eat-dog culture that found favour among young Tories put off older hands. Status was better symbolised by cars, foreign holidays, and the size of your house than a Tory poster in the window. After Thatcher, the Tories tried making sops to their dwindling membership - including giving them a vote on the party leader - but it was too late. Long-term decline had set in.

Establishment politics between the late 1980s and, arguably, saw the tendency to cadreisation win out over decades of development in the opposite direction. This was not without consequence for politics. Turn outs trended downwards, disengagement and apathy were the concerns of the day, and opposition started assuming right-populist forms: UKIP and the "detoxified" BNP. This was post-politics, post-democracy, a time when parliamentarians didn't worry about what people thought because the people were largely absent. And politics felt all the better for it. This pathetic shadow, this impoverished wretch of a polity is what the likes of our centrists look back fondly on, and finds its miserabilism celebrated in cloyingly nostalgic paeans.

Today, politics is sharper, coarser, but alive again. The Scottish referendum catalysed dissent and brought mass politics back to Scotland. The 2015 Labour leadership election concentrated discontent, building the party into the largest in Western Europe, defying expectations in 2017 to land the Tories a bloody nose and pitching them into their worst crisis since the early 19th century. And even the LibDems can now boast about a membership into six figures. Polarised politics, irreverence, new media, new class formations, alienation, all are working to politicise millions of people and fill out the parties again. All parties, that is, save the Tories and those closed to members - our latter day cadre parties.

There are two big problems CHUKa and the Brexit Party have in going against the grain. Without opening themselves, even partially, to the wisdom of crowds they are vulnerable to the ebbs and flows of politics. We see this most spectacularly with our centrist friends and their legion of stupidities, but Farage is potentially weak too. If anything derails him, the project is sunk. And the second problem is longevity. In her Crowds and Party, observing of communist parties Jodi Dean argues that, for all their faults, they preserved the spirit of revolt and egalitarianism one finds in crowds in highly charged political moments. This isn't a problem for CHUKa, as they generated zero enthusiasm. But it is an issue for the Brexit Party. Farage is generating a great deal of support in the context of the EU elections, but where does that go in a month's time? In two month's time? He can hope it will magically persist in the country without direction or focus, but unless Farage finds a way of harnessing it by opening his party to these people then it's ripe for the taking by others who covet it.

In this sense, as atavist throwbacks CHUKa and the Brexit Party can survive for a time. They could initially thrive, as Farage's outfit is doing, for a short period. But ill-suited as they are to 21st century politics, the challenges of contemporary politics will start tearing at them. CHUKa's looking like it's on its last legs already, and Farage is haunted by what next? Their future is the older parties facing them, otherwise they won't have a future at all.


Phil said...

[Thatcher] broke up working class communities and forcibly closed down manufacturing, in the process destroying large amounts of small and medium-sized capital who depended on these communities and these industries for their commercial survival.

This reminded me of a friend of mine who worked for HMRC in Sheffield at the time Corus were 'rationalising' what remained of British Steel. He said the former steelworkers themselves were mostly OK, or at least didn't come to the taxman's attention; the people who hit hardest were the "little mesters", self-employed sub-contractors whose main source of work had just dried up. He had endless phone calls from people who suddenly couldn't pay their tax bills, pleading for another extension, swearing blind that business would pick up in another six months - and he knew it wouldn't. How many of those guys were going to carry on voting Conservative?

What's interesting about this story is that it only happened 10-15 years ago, long after Thatcher. I think sometimes on the Left we forget how uneven all social developments are; we identify big processes when they're just kicking in, highlight the first few people caught up in them, & forget how long they take to work their way through to everyone else's lived reality (and how long they can continue after that). See also austerity, which in a lot of LA areas is starting to bite hard round about now.

chris s said...

I agree with your assessment on ChangeUK. Think the jury is still out on the Brexit Party though -- I think there's some chance that they evolve along the lines of one of the digital only parties that we see on the continent - against this is that their social base tends to be a lot older than is the case in places like Italy, but equally there's nothing to say that the same strategy can't be run as an astroturf operation (on which basis the inclusion of spiked members among their candidates may be an ominous sign).

Boffy said...

I don't think this is right. I remember my dad, who was an AUEW shop steward, working in the maintenance department of a tile manufacturer telling me about the 1950's, when a car company was considering moving to Stoke. There was widespread opposition from pottery manufacturers, and other small businesses. The reason? Car companies paid high wages, employed lots of people, and provided better working conditions than average. They feared the competition for labour and the effect of pushing up wages and conditions that a car company would bring.

In contrast, under Thatcher, in many areas large scale manufacturing was closed down. Yes, some of the older workers employed in those industries were okay due to redundancy payments carrying them through to retirement, but the main effect was that those jobs themselves, stable, better paid jobs, were no longer there for their kids. It meant that the pressure that existed to push wages higher, was removed, and as Marx demonstrates that always benefits the smaller capitalists, who are more labour intensive, but also whose tight profit margins depend on paying low wages, subsidised by welfare and so on. That is precisely what Thatcher;s regime brought in, and it was the start of the reactionary political dynamic in favour of small capital that has carried through in the Tories today, and is behind their support for Brexit.

Anonymous said...

I think we generally considered the pop music of the 80's to be Thatcherite music but I would argue it was late 60's 70's inspired music because the people who made that music lived their formative years in those decades. Thatcherite music was late 90's ear;y noughties.

So I think as Phil points out above we think of things happening now being affected by events happening now but actually they can take a long time to come to fruition. Having said that austerity really is killing people right here and right now, but the people being killed are the poor and vulnerable not the if I missed a few pay checks I might be in trouble petty bourgeois. Maybe their time will come as the reverse multiplier takes affect!

We live in hope!

Anonymous said...

The drive for lower wages, terms and conditions is not some Thatcherite phenomenon but is the tendency of capitalism coupled with numerous historical developments. And that tendency has occurred in high tech Germany along with many EU nations, whose welfare systems puts the UK’s to shame! In fact such is the development of capitalism that the EU passed laws to protect workers in the ‘gig’ economy! So it is happening everywhere.

Boffy reverses everything, he sees in Thatcher the cause of so called deindustrialisation rather than what she really is, the conduit for various developments that had taken place, technological, geographical, socio economic, demographic etc etc. Thatcher was merely an expression of a general development.

Of course to counter balance all this there has been imperialist dominance, which is more of a tendency of history that capitalism has exacerbated, which has allowed these nations to engage in grand rape and theft along with super-exploitation which it continues at the time of writing.

I agree the political dynamic of all this results in reactionary politics to a certain degree but reactionary politics is also a reaction to so called progressive identity politics, which is a cesspit of subjective assumptions and assertions. So in itself this is an historical development, not just the result of Thatcherism.

There is no shortage of reactionary politics in the affluent middle classes who have highly skilled and well paying jobs, the reaction comes precisely because of the growing inequalities and undermining of trade unions (who fought for more equal pay grading, so the gap between skilled and unskilled was lessened) etc. In Denmark for example the biggest reducer of poverty is precisely its welfare state, switch that off as Boffy always advises and you have reaction tenfold!

It is a simplification to imagine all this can be stopped by anti Thatcher policies and presents a genuine problem for the left. One which the left is messily trying to come to terms with, without much success at the time of writing!