The Return of the Political:

How Labour can win with an offer to radicalise democracy

‘To win hegemony’, Terry Eagleton notes, is to diffuse ‘one’s own ‘world-view’ throughout the fabric of society as a whole, thus equating one’s own interests with the interests of society at large.’ The ideology of the dominant bloc sinks down into the bedrock of reality, appearing ‘as indossiciable as a sleeve and its lining,’; achieving an omnipresence without conspicuousness, an indispensable foundation of normality. Indeed, the currently hegemonic neoliberalism is particularly adept at achieving this denial of the political. Conceived as the ‘disenchantment of Politics by economics’, whereby the state is levered to impose market modalities (price, competition, etc) across previously insulated domains, neoliberalism amounts to ‘a new mode of political optimisation.’ As Ong writes:

‘neoliberalism is reconfiguring relationships between governing and the governed, power and knowledge, and sovereignty and territoriality. [It is crafting a] new relationship between the government and knowledge through which governing activities are recast as non-political and non-ideological problems that need technical solutions’

Perhaps most emblematic of this is the recalibration of the civil service, its institutional code hacked to the benefice of the neoliberal bloc. Yet such edits bare no sign of tinkering to those interpellated most effectively. From the pernicious New Public Management techniques and ‘one-in, three-out’ regulatory requirements, to the corporate vetoes of the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) and the revolving door cartel, Thatcher began to embed neoliberal governmentality deep into the fabric of the state. Such measures materialise the premises of neoliberalism, embedding the “market principles of discipline, efficiency, and competitiveness.” (Ong) It is telling that the Blair government, which Thatcher herself crowned her greatest achievement, simply saw no fundamental problem with this, embracing the “mantras of privatisation and marketisation as simply ‘good public management’”

Convinced by the apoliticality of late capitalist dogma, what with its undisputed emphasis on corporate nimbleness and the virtues of the entrepreneurial self, the states administrative arm was blind to its own instrumentalisation. When the RPC thus refuses policies on the basis of them being not conducive to the aims of the particular corporate monopsony in question, neoliberal actors may see only the preservation of the public interest, inextricably attached to the (false) temperance of a hyper-capitalist ‘modernity.’ Despite those ruling on such policies being those who would suffer from them, filled to the brim with industry representatives and benefactors, a clash of interest simply cannot be present. It does not matter that ‘they are not mandated to look at any other aspects of the assessment,’ weighting as well the distinct values and ends of broader society or the environment. For in this hegemonic imaginarium, the interests of the corporate class are tightly interwoven with those of the rest of us.

This is not to say they can never be discerned. There are moments — what Goran Therborn calls ‘breaches’ — whereby the regimes ‘matrix of affirmations and sanctions’ (that is, what it exemplifies and normifies as good and righteous, and what it marginalises as chaos-prone and perverse) fractures, plunging its legitimacy into question, no longer able to ensure ‘compromise or acquiescence.’ Bourdieu, too, speaks of such a rupture in reference to his notion of doxa as the field of taken-for-granted knowledge, the ‘undisputed and undiscussed’, which ‘naturalise’ the ‘arbitrariness’ of ‘every established order’. Where cracks emerge in power structures and previously yielding social actors begin to challenge the ‘discourses of power’ embodied by the doxa, it’s supposed naturalness and universality give way to an apparent arbitrariness. ‘Once social classifications [knowledge, normativity, imaginariums] becomes the object and instrument of class struggle,’ Bourdieu writes, the beleaguered hegemonic bloc must ‘undertake the work of conscious systematization and express rationalisation which marks the passage of doxa’ to peculiarity.

On the small scale, we can see this illustrated in anthropologist Jane Cowen’s Dance and the Body Politic, an ethnography of a village in Northern Greece that is riven by gender and class asymmetries. Here, taste preferences were arbitrarily structured according to gender, with the Kerasma (hospitality offering) for women being sweets and sugary coffee, whilst being salty food and sour coffee for men. Underpinning this was a heavily gendered segregation of space, with women confined to the domesticity of their homes as men flaunted wealth and power in Kafenios (coffee shops). Intrigued by how such a dynamic was reproduced, Cowen observed that all spoke as if it were natural and axiomatic. Yet the continuity of this rationalisation was shattered upon the arrival of globalisation, its fingers of capital unfurling to reveal a kafeteria, a hybrid caffe that did not care for this patriarchal demarcation of space, serving coffee and cola indiscriminately. Such a material event triggered a breach in the ideological matrix, precipitating a debate over who should be allowed to socialise there, making the silent assumptions of doxa explicit and forcing ‘defenders of the status quo […] to produce […] justifications for what had previously been accepted without question.’ (Sneath)

Zooming outwards, it is those capital flows and the social powers they regulate that are at the centre of our story. Here, we may see the collapse of the global financial system and the subsequent recession, imposition of austerity and life-support measures of quantitative easing as comprising the epochal breach of late capitalism. If the integral foothold of hegemony is the conflation of the common interest with your own, then the foundation of the dominant social order is increasingly unstable. For there is quite a perceptive and pervasive folk-narrative surrounding the Global Financial Crash that captures the antagonism between the agents responsible and those who paid the price, how those in the trading floors and boardrooms that began to sink the ship were not those that were thrown overboard to save it. The frenzied trading of speculative instruments, conjuring as it were toxic ‘value’ out of thin air, and heaving with the resources such practises entrapped within its vortex, served only to obesify their bonuses. The falsity of the insistence that the market does always know best, that the state shouldn’t ever intervene, is clear. And once boom bust, punitive fiscal contraction was transplanted onto the majority who did not condone, nor take part, nor benefit from the crisis-ridden exchanges, whilst the gamblers stock was refilled and the game restarted, commencing right were they left off. With society still reeling from its consequences, it is no longer the case that finance confers much respectability, least of all a claim to benevolence. Rather, it is evident to many that what makes the hearts skip of the financiers and executives is deeply poisonous to the rest of us, the finance curse tightening off our arteries as the body politic convulses.

Herein the breach precipitates a race between the counter hegemonic forces that seek to further cleave this disjunction of interests apart, and those hegemonic forces, rallied around the preservation of their material power as its legitimacy splinters, desperately seeking to conceal such fault lines. Following Therborn, such an ‘ideological mobilisation […] involves a common agenda for a mass of people; summing up the dominant aspects of the crisis, identifying the crucial target, and defining what is possible and how it should be achieved.’ We can simplify this into two components, that of opposition and proposition.

Situated within the contradictions played out in the crisis of 2008, the need to further explicate the fundamental power divisions that were responsible for such a crisis becomes paramount. Most pertinent here is the painting of ‘the crucial target’ as denoting the importance of populism, defined by its capacity to reassert the inevitable antagonism that is characteristic of politics through designating an ‘agonist’ — a Schmittian ‘enemy’, but one that can be kept within the confines of liberal-democratic tolerance and recognition — against a ‘people’, various social agents connected as links in a ‘chain-of-equivalence.’ For Mouffe, the imperative of this counterposition is to map the counter-interests which are caught in struggle; to incorporate and exclude so as to reveal the true texture of political life, an ‘us’ mobilising against a ‘them’, respectively propulsed and repulsed by a programme of radical material change.

Indeed, what made Thatcher so distinctive as a politician was her real understanding of populist politics. Long before this moniker began to haunt the chattering classes, Thatcher wielded it expertly. A kernel of her genius, as Stuart Hall elucidates in The Great Moving Right Show, was to condense an ambitious ‘theoretical ideology into a populist idiom,’ refracting Hayek’s confabulation of the tyrannical collective through Thatcher’s individualist declaration of ‘no such thing as society’. Such civic nihilism constructed its own heroes and villains, counterposing the nimble entrepreneurial self against the ‘creeping collectivism’ embodied by the ossified institutions of labourism, and the pathetic ‘scroungers’ and obstinate unions that they protected. Hall writes:

‘the essence of the British people was identified with self-reliance and personal responsibility, as against the image of the overtaxed individual, enervated by welfare-state ‘coddling’, his or her moral fibre irrevocably sapped by ‘state handouts.’’

The left appears to have taken this onboard. A left populism is evident in Bernie’s excoriations of the billionaire class and Corbyn’s denunciations of a rigged economy to be displaced by one that works for the many, not the few. What is lacking, at least on the part of Corbynism, is the painting of this target squarely on the forehead of the hegemonic finance capital. There have been encouraging signs: ‘when Morgan Stanley declared him a bigger threat to British business than Brexit,’ Christine Berry and Joe Guinan observe in People Get Ready!, ‘he seized upon the opportunity to hit back with a short video riposte that quickly went viral’, declaring that ‘their greed plunged the world into crisis and we’re still paying the price’, before warning that ‘we’re a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few.’ While this belligerence is welcomed, it is a shame that it does not appear more. Labour seems far more comfortable lamenting the record of the Conservative government, pointing out the blight of poverty and homelessness and budget slashes and so on, then it does highlighting the systemic rifts that extend beyond the Tories malfeasance. (Or indeed — as we will return to shortly — making vibrant propositions about what the future may resemble, aside from as a negation of austerity.)

In some sense, this appears to be deliberate. As Guinan and Berry note, the Labour leadership is making a strategic calculation with its relative congeniality toward the City, with the Shadow Chancellor embarking on a ‘cup of tea offensive’ to dispel any of the nightmarish visions financiers may harbour about having a Marxist in charge of the economy. Whilst understandable, it is my instinct that such a ‘strategy of accommodation’ risks hindering their capacity to construct an effective agonism between the people and the most regressive, and powerful, fraction of capital. Of course, there is a need to avoid a loss of ‘business confidence’ that could prove catastrophic to an incoming government, as it did to Francois Mitterand’s in 1981, wherein the rapidly increasing leakages of capital out of France converged into a flood ‘in the ten days between [his] election and his investiture,’ carrying away ‘a third of the country’s reserves.’ To begin governing in a state of siege, locked in a war of attrition as the possessing class starves the citizens of resources, may mutate Labour from ambitious to acquiescent before a single piece of legislation has been passed.

There are disanalogies here, most notably that of the massive strategic miscalculation of Mitterand’s administration, determined from the start to nationalise the virtual entirety of the financial sector. Given that a Labour government’s policy toward the City would pale in comparison to the French precedent, even when pushed further than where it currently stands (Guinan and Berry argue it should entail ‘breaking up the big commercial banks, and pushing out speculative financial activity through regulation, taxes and levies’, amongst other things), we have good reason to suspect that a preemptive, even immediate confrontation on the same scale would not come to pass.

In this sense, Labour have room to place such antagonism centre stage. It is necessary that the Left plays to the strength of the current conjuncture, incorporating the premade folk-devil of greedy bankers (foregrounded, in large part, by the Occupy movement and its affines in the Long 2011 of social uprisings, proffering up the stroke of genius that was the ‘99% versus the 1%’) into a systemic critique of what Berry and Guinan call the extractive economy, so as to neither reduce dysfunction to bad apples, nor suffer from vague and perhaps limp condemnations of the ‘system’. Talk of the City presiding over a ‘casino economy’ should be ramped up, encapsulating the negligence of finance capital as against the British people. And a wedge should be driven between the predation of finance and the ‘genuinely productive section of the business community — the ‘makers’ rather than the ‘takers’’, so as to divide capital as a social bloc and seek to escape ‘any simplistic pro vs. anti-business dichotomy’. In Mouffe’s terms, the division should be drawn between the people, defined inclusively, and ‘the oligarchy’, denoting a class characterised by an extractive, egregious wealthiness interconnecting with powerful political influence.

However, to say there is more room to be combative is not to say that confrontation will not occur. Nor that the crushing of Mitterand offers no sage advice. Berry and Guinan are particularly illuminating on how such a rupture (or indeed, series of ruptures) might play out, taking lessons from two key strategic documents of Thatchers administration to provide a loose roadmap for how it might be negotiated. Most adroit, I think, is their exploration of what material measures might be necessary to counter a backlash from the City — for instance, how an alternate, publicly-owned ecology of finance and production could serve to stabilise economic activity; taking the sting from the tail of capital flight. What I’m interested in here is the way this plays out discursively; what defenses are marshalled to plaster over people’s intuitions around finance as anathema to their own ends, and how such weakened narratives can be decisively buried.

The construction and outward display of an ‘identicality’ with the market is central to finance’s social power. To the extent that this is achieved, they can present themselves as interlocutors of natural forces, channelling and reflecting the immanent invisible hand. This, in turn, disguises their contingent and self-serving practises as an unchangeable, universal quality inherent to ‘modern’ economies. Any government that disrupts the Market is thus not contesting a legitimate site of social struggle, challenging the particular formations and interests that constitute the network of stock-exchanges and hedge funds. Rather, they are guilty of rampant political and economic recklessness; ideologues hitting up against reality, like a physicist attempting to make an apple fall upwards. Contra to this naturalisation, a more accurate understanding of market discord in response to a radical administration — currency crisis, inflation crisis, capital flight, capital strike, etc — is to see them as structural vetoes by capitalist class, able to pressure government to reverse popular wills that violate its interests. Theorist Adam Przeworski terms this phenomena ‘the structural dependence of the state on capital’: by virtue of the capitalist class’ monopoly on the ‘investment function’, substantive challenges to their social power are met by a ‘serious crisis of disinvestment, flight of capital, attacks on the currency and so on’. For any radical project to resist and break from this structural dependence, it must transpose the mystifying discourse of an apolitical market, of which finance merely emulates, with an ambitious critique of class power that derides the exclusion of the populous from control over the economic sphere.

Insofar as market instability is naturalised, this will serve to attach the interests of the public to the maintenance of the status quo. Such a device of conflation is to be found in the metric of growth, dependent upon the ‘confidence’ of the investor class. Policy A will result in X amount decrease of GDP growth, they will declare, because capital lacks enough incentive to grease the gears of the economy. There are two ways in which this can be refuted, though they both must be wrapped within the aforementioned narrative of class domination; exposing the perversity of economic autocracy. First is to, in a sense, call their bluff. That is, we should insist that productive investment, as opposed to risky speculation, misallocation and predatory extraction, is already absent — so to threaten not to do something they are already not doing is not much of a threat at all. As Guinan challenges, “we should say to them: ‘Off you go to Singapore!’ The left shouldn’t be afraid of a little creative destruction.” Indeed, when coupled with the ‘levelling up’ of the democratic economy — a mosaic of participatory and socially-owned institutional forms, from municipal utilities and community land trusts, to co-ops and local wealth building strategies — the most exploitative segments of capital may find their departure met with little more than a shrug. In affirming societies independence from such actors, Labour can avoid scrambling to win back their affection in a show of self-defeating moderation.

Second is to challenge the veracity of growth as an indicator of social wellbeing, a claim which need not require a high-level of abstraction to assert given its obviousness to those whose lived-experiences have proved stubbornly contradictory to the sunny uplands of GDP figures. As a wealth of recent literature has demonstrated, (and even the explicit apprehensions of its inventor, Simon Kuznets) this disjunction between social value and growth is not an apparition of the disillusioned subjectivities of the ‘left behind’. Rather, it is quite a reasonable observation of the narrow and counter-productive purview encoded in GDP, one that is shared across the political spectrum, in portions of left-wing academia and the business press. Despite the potential of GDP-skepticism to refute the protestations of the city, this may not be fully realised if it remains merely rhetorical. By actually dispensing with growth as the fundamental metre stick of government policy, substituting its rapaciousness with holistic index’s like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Common Good Metric, and so on, the left can instantiate new techniques of governmentality that could expel the managerial talons of capital accumulation. In recalibrating the rubric upon which a government is judged, a radical administration can draw the public eye towards its social and environmental progress and away from potential hits to GDP.

Imperative, though, is that both these immediate rejoinders must be wrapped within a deepened oppositional discourse. It is not enough to be against falling living standards and endemic instability. For when the die is cast, the lines of attack launched by the City and its adjacent executives, rapidly diffusing through the billionaire press, will turn such bread and butter inadequacies against the left. Without the movement capable of articulating the social contradictions played out in this hostage situation, (or at least being receptive to such articulations) aware of how it is the result of a self-interested and unreasonable bourgeoisie, wielding their undue influence to overrule the popular will, the consent needed to withstand the barrage will not be forthcoming. If the base believes the war is won when austerity is over, with Britain reclining into the tepid embrace of continental social democracy, the project will grind to a halt. If the CBI goes on the offensive and inflation creeps up, potential suffering will seem cruel and arbitrary. As such, we must “control the narrative about why economic disruption is happening”, weaving the designation of agonists in the form of the City, the agents of disruption, into a philosophical objection to the structural unfreedom of capitalism; one that offers a vision of a world of autonomy as the hegemonic proposition.

There is hope that such a principled, long-revolutionary mindset can be cultivated. For all of Brexits gratuitous foibles, it has proved staggeringly capable at canalising the public’s pre-existing animus toward the disorientation and disempowerment of late capitalism. Entrapped in a web of unbounded capital flows, supravening democratic structures, the world drifts increasingly out of our control. It takes upon a quality of malevolent disorientation, where nothing is solid. It is no surprise, then, that Brexit’s offer to take back control, albeit it from the scapegoats of Brussels, captured such a potent mixture of aggravation and hope. Even now, when the economic cost looks to be graver by the day, the faithful subordinate these worries to the ideal of democracy that the referendum embodies; a ‘floating signifier’, to use Laclau and Mouffe’s term, fervently activated by its perceived violation by, initially, Eurocrats, and now — in the frustration of the process of extrication from such Eurocrats — sceptical parliamentarians and the forces aligned behind a so-called Peoples Vote. Democracy is rarely so present in contemporary politics. It is a principle that is left latent, perhaps wheeled out in a platitudinous garb from time to time. We all know, at least nominally, that we live in a democracy. But it is remarkable that it has taken upon such emotive power. It would be amiss for the left to not seize this opportunity, to contest the matrix of signification that gives vitality to Brexit as a political project; to redefine what it means to live in a democracy and what or whom is antithetical to this; to seek to wield such forces for our own emancipatory agenda.

‘Thatcherism’, Hall wrote, ‘far from simply conjuring demons out of the deep, operated directly on the real and manifestly contradictory experiences of the popular classes under social democratic corporatism.’ The New Right thrust an ideology of ‘freedom’ through the stifling conjuncture that defined the last days of Keynesianism, wherein “‘the state’… above all, interfered, meddled, intervened, instructed, directed — against the essence, the Genius, of the British people.” This mobilisation of freedom was at the ‘foreground of the coservative ideological repertoire’, serving to bridge the oppositional with the propositional. From this, we may take further inspiration. If the left can speak to the tactile sensation of liquidity that pervades the current conjuncture; that ‘economic/social/existential precarity’ that the late Mark Fisher understood was the consequent of neoliberalisms pernicious faux-liberty, then the Corbyn project may yet remodel the socio-economic consensus beyond the fractious hegemony of Thatcherism.

“What does it really mean to be free?”, Bernie Sanders inquired, in his usual mix of curmudgeonly compassion, at a landmark speech at the George Washington University in early June.

“Are you truly free if you’re unable to go to a doctor when you’re sick, or face financial bankruptcy when you leave the hospital? Are you truly free if you cannot afford the prescription drugs you need in order to stay alive? Are you truly free when you spend half of your income on housing and are forced to borrow money from a payday lender at 200% interest rates? Are you truly free if you’re …”

And so his powerful refrain continued, distilling socialists central objection to capitalist unfreedom into a media-friendly rhetorical device. Sanders certainly outstrips his fellow British firebrand in operating on this communicative terrain (despite lagging behind on policy). Perhaps there is something in the particular national character of the United States that makes such messaging more viable, what with its self-aggrandizing epithet as the ‘land of the free’. But nevertheless, the overarching mythology of capitalist freedom, and its weaponization by Thatcher on our own shores, suggests that this is an axis ripe for struggle.

There are, however, some caveats here. It does not appear that the dominant sensibility is a yearning to be set more adrift, unmoored from power structures and loci of influence. If nothing is solid, the ground beneath our feet shifting too fast, a politics premised upon a negative freedom — a ‘freedom from’ — seems destined to fumble in its attempt to capture the public imaginarium. What is more alluring in the concept, as Brexits winning exhortation to take back control suggests, is the positive component, a ‘freedom to’. Articulated in the frame of the insular Brexiteers, this becomes a freedom to reduce our labour and environmental standards, or to set our own immigration controls, more so than any truly emancipatory vision. But if we reroute such libidos towards a revolutionary democratic programme, countering the delirium of a capitalist gigantism with participatory, place-based and communal social forms, the left may finally be able to play on our own turf. And this — a class politics to secure collective power — delineates the proposition of the post-crash ideological mobilisation.

If there is something that links the proto-fascism of Le Pen’s Front Nationale, Austria’s Freedom Party, Trumpism and so on with the radical socialism of Podemos in Spain, Greece’s ill-fated Syriza, and Corbyn and Sanders — that is, that links right populism with left populism — it is a shared conception of the political. For Mouffe, the supremacy of neoliberalism brought with it a condition of ‘post-politics’, whereby the link between the people and their representatives has become more strained, and oppositional demands have vanished amidst a miasma of ‘consensus’ politics. As governance becomes insulated from democracy; as the status-quo is solidified into an ugly permanence, the backlash from such a ‘democratic deficit’ portends the ‘return of the political’, where a vision of sovereignty is channelled into populist movements determined to reformulate the status-quo. ‘The fact that so many resistances against various forms of oppression’ Mouffe observes, ‘are expressed as democratic demands testifies to the crucial role played by the signifier democracy is the political imaginary.’ After wilting under the neoliberal attack on collective sovereignty — the ‘independence’ of monetary policy; new public management as simply ‘good management’; PFI schemes, outsourcing control to unaccountable private bureaucracies; dependency on ‘apolitical’ financial markets through pension funds, property ownership, and so on — the ideal of democracy is insurgent once again. Appeals to ‘modernity’ as a transcendent, immovable, unchallengeable state of continuity can no longer be sustained.

What is perhaps peculiar about this discursive challenge from the perspective of the Left is that it is not “a direct rejection of financial capitalism and of neoliberalism but of an indictment of the establishment elites seen as having imposed, without popular consultation, policies that privilege their interests.” The suppleness of this populism, not moored to any particular ideological programme as a vision of political conduct, means that such indictments can be in service to radically contradictory platforms. That Le Pen marshalls the people in opposition to an elite that nefariously dilutes the essence of France’s national character with the importation of barbarians is but one way of constructing the aforementioned ‘chain-of-equivalence’; one that is repugnant and dangerous but one that is nonetheless able to echo the real disempowerment and marginalisation of a (racialised, exclusive) collective body. It is imperative, therefore, that the Left contests these signifiers to prevent them solidifying into a vehicle for xenophobia, articulating its anti-capitalist proposition in the form of what Mouffe calls a radicalisation of democracy, seeking to ensure that the “principles of liberty and equality become effective in an increasing number of social relations.” After all, the ‘movements of the squares’ in the Long 2011 “did not call for socialism but for a ‘real democracy’. Remember the motto of the indignados in Spain”, Mouffe implores us, “‘We have a vote but we do not have a voice.’”

As such, the populists Lefts challenge to neoliberal hegemony must be about causally connecting its various violences — the ravages of offshoring, endemic precarity, metastasizing inequality, and so on — to the absence of popular sovereignty over the economic aspects of existence, demanding a freedom to subordinate the economic to our collective needs and aspirations.

This, of course, requires a certain boldness of register. But it also poses interesting explanatory challenges. A report conducted by the think-tank NEF, a key player in the burgeoning field of intellectual heavy-lifters for the Corbyn project, into how the public conceptualised economic issues discovered, rather unsurprisingly, a complete absence of any notion of economic democracy. When pushed, the informants best guess was of relentless referenda on every aspect of economic life; an image that, given our current plebiscitary clusterfuck, is surely indicative of hell. Now, I am uncertain as to what precise language was used, but it appears to me that workplace democracy has greater potential at capturing support than any broader idea of economic democracy, at least as explicitly emphasised. The former has greater comprehensivity by virtue of immediacy; it is far more difficult to envisage how one may democratically control something as nebulous and unwieldy as the ‘economy’ itself.

This being said, the latter was central to framing a populist narrative, premised upon the metaphor of ‘reprogramming’ the economy to realise values of equality and economic strength. ‘We need to reset the password and give control of the economy back to the public’, the sample message reads.

‘Creating a good society means taking back the password to the economy from corporate elites and reprogramming the economy so it runs smoothly and makes a good life possible for all users.’

Taking this computer metaphor, NEF were able to foreground the corrupting influence that corporations have, malevolent hackers out only for themselves, thereby further counterposing the public interest, ‘locked out’ from control over our economic lives, with that of the 1% bloc; whilst drawing the link between such antagonism to the necessity of popular control, democratic control, as the precondition for justice. In such a way, the British left is able to step out from the brittle confines of anti-austerity into the robust parameters of material power; decrying the system that concentrates it and elevating one that disperses it, putting ordinary people into the driving seat. Situated within this democratic frame, the proper contours of the new socialist agenda comes into view.

What, then, could this radicalisation of democracy look like? To make such a proposition watertight, to withstand the barrage that is invariably faced by any radical project, this notion of collective power must be connected to concrete institutional forms. Workplace democracy may bridge this gap. Hoping to avoid the ill-fate of the Swedish Meidner Plan of which it is modelled, Labour’s inclusive ownership fund proposal — legislating that every company over 250 employees must put 1% equity into a fund for its workers each year for ten years, from which they receive dividends and significant voting rights — and Sanders recent emulation — the details of which have yet to be published — is indicative of the character of this politics. Alongside substantive policies to boost the cooperative sector, democratising control of incoming nationalised industries so as to avoid replicating the Morrisonian bureaucracies of the post-war period, and participatory planning with a purview from land use to local budgets, Corbynism fits firmly within the rich libertarian-socialist tradition, owing as much to the religious leftism of Englishman R.H Tawney that it does to the bogeyman of Karl Marx. Animating this politics, this vision of the ‘democratic economy’, is the axiom that “economic power and control must rest more equally”; a demand that entails its seizure from the misanthropic forces that now clutch it greedily.

It seems readily apparent that, were appeals to workplace democracy to be deployed, they would be uniquely hard to rebut. Granted, it must be done effectively, careful to define and detail enough to prevent sinking into our opponents frame, but not so much that it sends the audience into a coma. The essential message — that ordinary people are capable enough to govern their own economic lives — traps any sceptics into a corner. They can reject this contention, at risk of approximating the whines of pampered aristocrats fearful of the democratic mob by calling the electorate, well, dumb. Or they can exhort us to not fall for the statist ruse; the momentary indulgence of people power concealing the authoritarian agenda of the leadership and those adjacent to it. Neither, it seems, would do particularly well. If screeching Venezuela as many times as possible and accusing a man who owns an allotment and wears knitted vests of being a Stalinist hasn’t worked yet to decimate the Lefts support, I’m not sure it ever will, however many different ways you can dress the same paranoia up.

This all leaves the left in a very interesting position. The anthropologist David Graeber, to whom Occupy’s slogan is often attributed, has suggested Labour adopt ‘Common Sense Socialism’ as one of its taglines. This will, of course, ruffle the feathers of those indigent at the prospect of something as pernicious as Socialism being portrayed as prosaic. (Queue the column inches devoted to relitigating the crimes of Mao.) More interesting, however, is its discursive force. For Gramsci, hegemony depends upon the construction of a common sense, whereby the contingent and particular ideology of the hegemonic bloc becomes coextensive with social reality itself. When Blairites professed the virtues of ‘good public management’ as synonymous with corporate logic, they were doing nothing but stating the ‘obvious’. Neoliberalism’s capacity to be ‘non-ideological’, and, for that matter, any hegemonic project, is so because of this way of reshaping the doxa of society — what is considered natural, inevitable, beyond critique and replacement. To the extent that we may recognise this ‘undisputed and undiscussed’ as actively constructed, owing its existence to the vacillation of power struggles rather than to any obstinate social laws, the interests concealed and violences mystified emerge into the light. The corollary is such that if we wish to break free from the present hegemony, a new common sense must displace it.

This is precisely what the ‘demcoratic economy’ offers. The activation of this signifier through an egalitarian, emancipatory programme ‘constitutes a powerful weapon in the hegemonic struggle to create a new common sense.’ As Gramsci counselled, it’s immanence means that it is “not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life, but of renovating and making ‘critical’ an already existing activity,” rearticulating the revered values of freedom and autonomy that are crushed underfoot by capital’s supremacy.

In this sense, the radicalism of the democratic economy is not to be found in its resistance to the small state fetish that has ravaged our social contract, but in its allusion to a novel way of being, with others and with ourselves. It revitalises our atrophying collective capacities, portending individuals that are no longer passive, caught in the vagaries of an ever expanding, ever hallucinatory capitalism, but active participants in their social world, engrossed in the democratic dance, replete with its awkwardness and ecstasies. Indeed, “the new economics, suggests Berry, isn’t really economics at all. It’s ‘a new view of the world’.”

Its precise morphology is beyond the purview of this piece. But what I have sought to do is provide tools with which to expose and exploit the breach in neoliberalisms ideological matrix. 2008 shattered its axioms; we now sit amongst the ‘ideological rubble’, jostling for the creation of the New. If a Left politics is discursively constructed predominantly as a shallow denunciation of austerity, it will not produce the affects necessary to sustain itself in the face of severe sanctions from capital. This is in two senses, relating to each component of an ideological mobilisation laid out above. In the oppositional sense, it shies away from designating the deeper, systemic fault lines between the oligarchy and the people that socialism seeks to confront, leaving the adversary concealed. If one does not know who they are supposed to fight, unaware where resistance must be directed toward, we will not succeed. In the propositional sense, it’s vision is truncated inasmuch as it leaves economic power asymmetries, and the logic of commodification and rapacious accumulation that flows from that, intact. Such a politics is thus unable to guarantee motivation beyond an absence of scarifying the state, glossing over the substantive potential of an adversarial populism that can deepen, rather than further enfeeble, democracy. In short, it refuses to launch a counter-hegemonic project, instead accommodating itself to the parameters of a profoundly elitist capital.

Ironically, it is the left’s tentativeness — at least condensed in its parliamentary arm — that may be its undoing. Faced with a world-historical chance to build socialism in the place where capitalism began as the current hegemonic formation falters, stumbling over its repressive contradictions, we cannot overstate the necessity of steely ambition. A combative agonism must be bridged to a propositional frame that centres and naturalises self-governance as the core of a common sense. It must ‘mesh with its subjects lived experience’ of the post-political moment, whilst pointing to the systemic processes and agencies that bare responsibility for the various crises we see before us. If 21st century socialism refuses to go beyond the shallow waters of anti-austerity politics, or step out from the comfortable inertia of post-war social democracy, unable to mobilise its bloc behind anything more than ample NHS funding and a sprinkle more social housing, then its promise will remain unreleased. To win in what R.H. Tawney called the ‘toughest and oldest plutocracy in the world’, it is going to take far more than this.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Trey Taylor

Trey Taylor


22. BA Political Theory and Sociology, Cambridge University. Currently studying an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory at Kingston University.