A dialogue on voting, with a Labour Party supporter

In response to the argument that we need to encourage greater participation in voting, as declining participation in voting is responsible for the success of neoliberalism; furthermore, that voting for the Labour Party is the most progressive option. [I’ve been asked not to repost the original arguments, hence paraphrase.]

A few thoughts.

I think, basically, that your understanding of neoliberalism is inadequate, particularly the focus on voting (I don’t say that as an insult). I think, if we’re to identify (in a schematic and general way) the key characteristic of neoliberal political strategy, this would be the careful, strategic and systematic destruction of the economic, social and political basis of the working-class Left.

So, capital dismantled those industries where working-class organisation was very strong (most famously, the coal industry). It fought and defeated left-wing political organisations (chiefly, trade/industrial unions, but also the Labour Party), and then reconfigured a new, limited role for unions (the LP reconfigured its role in line with this). Neoliberal capital consequently developed new economic sectors, in which working-class organisation and hence political consciousness was not strong. It gradually broke up and gentrified the inner city and working-class neighbourhoods (also e.g. selling off council housing), undermining the social basis of working-class ‘belonging’. It encouraged working-class people to invest themselves in the new arrangement, particularly through new types of work, credit and participation in the housing market. And, of course, neoliberal capital developed effective ideologies that legitimised this attack, shifting public discourse to the right, at the same time as it materially and politically shifted things to the advantage of capital.

So: a monumental economic, social and political shift. The Labour Party responded to this, with Blair, by taking on board the developing neoliberal consensus. It encouraged and facilitated the trends identified above. From appealing to new and established middle class strata, to elaborating ideologies of the dysfunction of the ‘underclass’, as opposed to the strength of the working class, to encouraging the elaboration of financialisation, to participating enthusiastically in neoliberal imperialist projects (Afghanistan, Iraq).

Where does the decline in voting that you identify figure in this? Not as a cause of the success of this neoliberal project, but as a symptom of its success (but also its weaknesses). Firstly, the traditional working-class bases of Labour Party membership have been destroyed, emptying out the party of members, whilst the political roles of other working-class organisations – particularly unions – have been strictly limited. Unions are no longer political organisations; they are workplace negotiators. Secondly, carrying out this shift has involved what Stuart Hall called ‘authoritarian populism’: although there has been popular support neoliberalism, there has also been a lot of resistance. But, the neoliberal project has been pushed through anyway. Indeed, as neoliberal capital has worked to create favourable conditions for itself, it has elaborated new political instituions to ensure and legitimise this – e.g. the EU. Capital has really been able to politically solidify and strengthen its position, to the point where the governments of nation states have very little room to manoeuvre (look at Greece, for example); this is the situation in which debates over the EU are taking place, although this debate is currently dominated by the Right, and mystified through all sorts of bigoted ideologies. This situation – the growing strength of capital; increasingly authoritarian processes of decision making and law and order; the weakness of the Left – has resulted in an undermining of democracy: in the workplace, in the community, in government. The result has been that the political process has, to a large degree, lost legitimacy. Somewhere around here the decline in voting participation figures appears as a symptom of the general malaise.

Do neoliberal capital and its representatives worry about people voting?

I think you are right that capital is concerned when people begin to form movements that might shift the balance of political forces to the left. We saw that, for example, with the harsh repression of student protest and the Occupy movement. These movements were literally described as “terroristic” and dealt with under anti-terror legislation (brought in by Labour, btw: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/jan/22/explainer-terrorism-legislation). That is, apart from ideological battles (mostly lost), the neoliberal state rapidly mobilised to materially contain and destroy these movements, in their infancy. Crucial here, in allowing this to happen, was the Labour Party’s complete failure to ally itself with these movements and to assume any leadership of a growing anti-austerity movement (of young people and public sector workers), which peaked in 2011 with around 1m marching in London, before collapsing in the absence of any coordinated political representation and leadership.

However, this concern with regards to social movements should not be confused with voting. What the neoliberal state fears is the sort of crisis of legitimacy that we saw in 2011 when national rioting occurred. The state gets very concerned when people step outside of the narrow confines of established channels for political action (particularly when it must also negotiate with a disgruntled police force). Participation in voting, in a moment of neoliberal consensus across all contending parties, does not concern capital in the slightest. Rather, it actually encouages it, since it aids legitimacy.

Arguably, this consensus is troubled at the moment: but not from the Left. Rather, it is  Scottish Independence and UKIP that are putting pressure on the consensus. The Right is making gains. In this context, a vote for Labour is a vote to protect neoliberal consensus politics against those elements of the political right that are troubling it. It is not a politically progressive gesture. Anyone who thinks encouraging the ‘masses’ to vote for Labour troubles the neoliberal consensus is deluding themselves.

Hope that sets out my position, and clarifies my disagreement with you. All best.

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Back to the Future

Neil Montier, ‘The Belt’ (2009-11).

Nicolas Moulin, ‘Blanklümdermilq’ (2009).

“The best art comes from the shit.” (Moulin)

Brutalist architecture has become quite abstract – forms without function, when they used to be functional forms. (Moulin, paraphrase from memory)

The ‘contemporary’ was a postmodernist concept. Now, when we think about the present, we must also think about the present in relation to the past and the future. (Moulin, paraphrase from memory)

See also: Owen Hatherley’s interesting review of Moulin’s Site Gallery exhibition.

See also: Rowan Moore’s interesting discussion of the Park Hill estate renovation.

Following from Moulin’s description of brutalist architecture in the present as ironic ‘forms without function’, along with Hatherley’s critique of ‘pseudomodernism’ in A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, we might note of the Park Hill renovation that it is literally a kitsch appropriation of the forms of brutalism evacuated of its radical content. That is, it is the architectural shell evacuated of its working-class inhabitants — the vitality of modernism recycled (gentrified) for middle-class consumption.*

CW — with thanks to Brian Baker.
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* Cf. Clement Greenberg, ‘The Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ (1939) in Art and Culture (1961): as much as I would distance myself from CG, his description of kitsch is (despite himself) prophetic here.