The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower in north Kensington has exposed the reality of forty years of neo liberal economics. At the heart of the richest borough in the country, cheek by jowl, are some of the poorest people in Britain. It is they who have paid with their lives because of wilful neglect and a refusal to provide adequate safety in the drive to maximise profits for the already obscenely wealthy.
The first person’s body to be identified from the tower was Mohammad Alhajali a Syrian refugee. He fled his country due to wars started by western powers and died in a tower block administered by a remote body that ignored tenants’ concerns. His death symbolises most fully the failure of a system that has put the pursuit of unbridled wealth for a tiny minority as its priority.
This corporate murder happened at a time when the political system has just had one of its biggest shocks. The success of a far-left politician with a radical manifesto who gained 13 million votes and came within a few percentage points of winning office.
These two events reinforce each other. Both have succeeded in putting an end to the common sense understanding that has dominated economic, political, academic and cultural life for almost half a century. Mainly they have challenged the assumption that a tiny minority of individuals and their families can continue to live a life of unfathomable luxury and security at the expense of the deterioration of the lives and conditions of the vast majority.
The question now is how does the majority seize this moment to ensure that we achieve a society that reflects a new ‘common sense’.
The new ‘common sense’- born out of struggle
Many commentators are now becoming wise after the event. They have realised that there is a new mood – a new ‘common sense’. Millions of people no longer accept the explanations that have been given as to why there is poverty, war or insecure employment.
The new ‘common sense’ can be defined as one where working people’s views of the world contradict the prevailing ideas. Values of solidarity and unity as opposed to individualism and division, and planning and collectivism rather than marketisation and competition are the ones that millions of working people adhere to.
This of course does not mean that anti-immigrant xenophobia doesn’t exist. The terrorist attack on Muslim worshipers outside a Mosque in North London is a testament to that. But this is not the overriding view that the majority of working people hold, as Corbyn’s astonishing vote revealed.
But why did the vast majority of journalists, MPs, politicians, trade union leaders, pundits, academics and many on the left not get this until now?
This is not the first time, and probably won’t be the last, that the opinion formers have misunderstood the mood of the people. There are times that the old barometers that were used to gauge the mood of the working class such as strike days lost, turnout at union meetings or the number of left wing newspapers sold, no longer fit. The commentators never look beneath the surface of society. They are detached from the realities and experiences of working people’s everyday life.
Corbyn did not create the new ‘common sense’. It is a result of working people’s experience of thirty years of marketisation and their resistance to it. Professions like nursing, teaching, lecturers and public-sector workers in general who were once seen as a conservative layer in society have been at the forefront of this resistance. Once these workers opposed strikes on the basis that they were professionals. Today for a nurse be able to heal, a teacher to teach or a social worker to care they have to take to the streets and strike to be able to fulfil their role as a professional.
It is out of this experience that the new ‘common sense’ was born.
It took Corbyn’s election campaign to reveal to millions that they were not alone in feeling angry and frustrated with the way the world was being run. This then allowed Socialist ideas, that in the past had been the preserve of a small minority of hardened activists, to become the preserve of millions.
Today in Britain the political establishment is traumatised. They have suffered shock after shock. May’s performance reflects the confusion, fear and uncertainty of the ruling elite. Like a boxer who has been continually bashed round the head by their opponent they are staggering around the ring dazed and unsure what to do next.
Class not Brexit explains how people voted in the general election.
Many have attempted to understand Corbyn’s historic vote through the lens of the referendum on Europe.
Whilst Brexit was a factor for some in the general election but, as focus group after focus group has shown, it was by no means the decisive or even the most prominent issue on people’s minds as they went into the polling booths. The parties that made Brexit a central issue in their campaign, like the Liberal Democrats, did very badly in the election.
The Brexit vote was a rage against austerity. What Corbyn’s campaign did was put forward real alternatives to austerity. He conducted an argument that said austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity and that Britain is an incredibly wealthy country which could afford to have decent wages, health care, education and security of employment for the many not just the few.
He also argued if we are to achieve a better society we must treat with utter contempt those who wish to divide us through race, religion, gender or sexuality. It was on this basis he appealed to win some working class voters away from UKIP and others out of their, understandable, apathy about voting.
Labour’s vote was about class. The vast majority of people voted for a party that they thought would best represent their class interests as opposed to how well or not the nation would do at the Brexit negotiations.
Putting class as the main driver that led to Corbyn’s success leads to a very different approach to working out the next phase on the road to Number 10. Those who see Brexit as the key factor in people’s voting behaviour want Corbyn to tack right. The need to win votes from the Tories means, for them, softening Labour’s position on immigration and dropping some of their more radical economic policies. The call to invite Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna and Owen Smith back into key positions is a part of this attempt to drag Labour to the right. This would be a disaster if it were allowed to happen. Any such move would stem the tide of support for Corbyn and allow voter apathy to set in.
Whatever you voted in the referendum it is now important to unite behind Corbyn and get him into number 10. The working class have.
The state, alliance building and the working class
Paul Mason in an article for the Guardian recently argued that Corbyn won due to an alliance of ‘of ex-Ukip voters, Greens, first-time voters and tactical voting by the liberal centrist salariat’ which allowed a new anti-austerity common sense to emerge. He argues that there is a split between the business class and the British ruling elite. Where the ruling elite have become ‘middle men’ for a global elite of hedge mangers and property speculators.
He finishes by arguing that if the Tories tie themselves to the global ‘Kleptocrats’ rather than the interests of ‘British business and the British people’ then Corbyn will be in Downing St. It seems that Mason is encouraging Labour to put forward a strategy that seeks alliances with British business against the ’Kleptocrats’, through ‘cross-party institutions’ to guide Brexit negotiations to force May to keep Britain in the single market. He urges the left to stop thinking about class as the main actor in history as it has been replaced with what he calls ‘networked individuals’.
He also calls upon the left to stop ‘obsessing’ about the state and instead concentrate on fighting the ‘war of position’, a long cultural war to continue to take down the state’s defence networks.
These arguments sound familiar. For those of us who were around in the 1980s and remember the debates around the Communist Party Magazine called Marxism Today which put forward similar ideas as Mason’s. They argued that class was an outdated method to understand how society works.
Capitalism, they argued, had developed into a system in which workers were disconnected from one another working in small units that were able to swiftly respond to the needs of the market. The great 19th century mass strike was a weapon of the past and therefore a new strategy was required to bring about a more equal society.
Their conclusion was that Labour could never win a majority government again because its traditional base had disappeared. Labour would have to seek alliances with other parties like the SPD/Liberal Party, in a ‘Broad Democratic Alliance’ if it were to have any chance of regaining power.
Marxism Today and their ideas were very influential on the left and provided the theoretical foundations to what was to become New Labour. Although Labour proved that they did not need alliances to win office the theories of Marxism Today were instrumental in shifting Labour to the right and made sacred the idea that you can only win elections from the centre.
Like Mason, Marxism Today used the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Revolutionary Marxist, to justify their strategy. Gramsci living in a society where the state had developed a range of intermediary networks to defend its interests, argued that, borrowing from military terminology, Socialists needed to adopt a strategy of a war of position (long patient entrenched cultural battle against civil society).
It is important to understand here though Gramsci firmly believed that when the working class have been successful in tearing down the defence networks that expose the rule of the unelected judges, generals and the like, the working class would have to move quickly to the war of manoeuvre (out of the trenches and a frontal assault on the state to seize power).
Why is this important today? Because if Corbyn is successful in becoming PM, taking another trench in the state’s networks, which increasingly looks like he will, then the state will not stand back and allow policies to be implemented that harm the interests of the 1% that rule. They will do all they can to destabilise his government. It is worth dusting off copies of Chris Mullin’s book A very British Coup or watch the excellent TV series. Just replace Harry Perkins with Jeremy Corbyn….
In this situation Socialists cannot remain in the trenches fighting the long cultural war of position. They have to climb out and mobilise in their millions to defend Corbyn.
No going back
The left is in the driving seat. Be aware of those who wish to rip the steering wheel from our hands. Ideas don’t stay static. If those who wish to steer us back to the centre are successful then disillusionment will set in and all the energy and excitement will disappear. The old common sense can then creep back in.
Clearly for the Tory Party holding on to office with the support of the Orange Order is not a serious long term, or for that matter, a medium-term strategy. Some Tories perhaps have started to think that it would be best to lose the election. Choosing to be out of office is not a strategy they prefer but perhaps the only one that allows them to regroup whilst in opposition. They no doubt believe the economy will take a dive and Corbyn will be crucified on the cross of office. It is a desperate strategy and reflects the deep problems one of the most successful ruling class parties in history have found themselves confronted with.
The new ‘common sense’ won’t hold unless working people are actively involved in shaping their own destiny. This is why John McDonnell’s call for a million people to take to the streets is an important one. We need to do all we can to make sure the People’s Assembly Demo on July 1st is as big as possible. We need to link the parliamentary debates with the activity on the streets and in the workplaces. When Corbyn puts forward his alternative Queen’s speech we need to get thousands outside parliament in support of it. When Labour puts forward a motion to scrap tuition fees and reinstate EMA we need to surround parliament demanding that MPs vote for it.
By doing this we are not only helping to march Corbyn to office but also marshalling the forces that can deal with the forces of the state that will be unleashed to prevent Corbyn carrying through his mandate.
We are only at the beginning of the road that could usher in real change. And yes this will mean using all the weapons in our armoury. From creative cultural campaigns that continue to expose the old common sense. This will include ‘networked individuals’ that are social media savvy but who are also workers. This also means building broad alliances with all those who wish to see a society based on people’s needs not a minority’s profits. But we cannot build alliances with people whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the working class.
This movement for change must have the working class at its centre – those who Marx described as ‘the grave diggers of capitalism’.
Sean Vernell UCU NEC