June 08, 2009

Now the Party's over


    "It was like being on a liner in mid-ocean when all the engines have stopped. Just drifting silently. The civil service just backs off. If they thought Gordon Brown was going to lose power imminently, that would happen again." - James Callaghan's senior policy adviser, Bernard Donoughue, talking to Andy Beckett in 2008 about the Whitehall response to Callaghan's impending defeat.
    "For too long, perhps ever since the war, we [have] postponed facing up to fundamental choices and fundamental changes in our economy.... We've been living on borrowed time... The cosy world we were told would go on for ever, where full employment could be guaranteed by a stroke of the chancellor's pen - that cosy world is gone..." - James Callaghan at the 1976 Labour Party conference at Blackpool

What we're seeing now is perhaps the end of a sequence that began, not in 1979, but in 1976. As Andy Beckett points out in his enthralling and expansive study of the 70s, When The Lights Went Out, it was in 1976, that Callaghan - under pressure from the neoliberal IMF - first introduced the Labour Party to capitalist realism with that notorious Blackpool speech. "At the time, "I called the change of attitude the New Realism," Peter Jay, the main architect of Callaghan's fateful speech told Beckett. "Later, Thatcher used that phrase quite a lot." What would have happened if Callaghan's Labour had managed to capitalise on capitalist realism a little more effectively? That is one of the many 'what ifs' which haunt Beckett's book, many of whose chapters read like treatments for David Peace novels. There were many pivotal moments: the bitter Grunwick dispute as pre-echo of the Miners' Strike (with strikebreakers co-ordinating a defeat of the postal blockade, prompting one aghast witness to note, "It made us all realize at the time that when the working man was striking, how much was engineered against him"); the vote of confidence in Callaghan's government, lost by only one, leading to the historic election of 79, which was actually far closer than the myths of the near-past would have us believe.

Or perhaps the sequence which we're seeing limp towards its grim terminus goes back even further, to the beginnings of the twentieth century, and the formation of the Labour Party itself. New Labour's years in power have done more than superficially change the party's image, they have returned us to the conditions of the late nineteenth century when the working class had no representation in parliament at all. At this point, and for a number of resons, it's worth reminding ourselves of Badiou's argument that the left's subsumption into capitalist parliamentarianism cannot be understood using the category of individual moral 'corruption':

    None of the parties which have engaged in engaged in the parliamentary system and won governing power has escaped what I would like to call the subjective law of 'democracy', which is, when all is said and done, what Marx called an 'authorized representative' of capital. And I think that this is because, in order to participate in electoral or governmental representation, you have to conform to the subjectivity it demands - that is, a principle of continuity, of the politique unique - the principle of 'this is the way it is, there is nothing to be done', the principle of Maastricht, of a Europe in conformith with the financial markets, and so on. In France, we've known this for a long time, for again and again, when left-wing parties come to power, they bring with them the themes of disappointment, broken promises, and so forth. I think we need to see this as an inflexible law, not as a matter of corruption. I don't think it happens because people change their minds, but because parliamentary subjectivity compels it. (Interview in the Appendix of Ethics - emphasis added)

What is habitually underestimated - and this might be the defining illusion of all entryists, all would-be reformers who believe that they can change management from within - is the power of structure to generate subjectivity. If Callaghan could invariably, even in the most stressful moments of his immensely stressful premiership, come across as 'Sunny Jim', it was because he was never under many illusions. He was built for (and from) compromise. He accepted disappointment from the start - rather like the Freud who thought the point of psychoanalysis was to deliver patients from excruciating mental agony to 'ordinary misery', Callaghan believed that in politics there were only bad and worse decisions. Yet what counted as 'realism' for Callaghan was partly conditioned by forces outside the parliamentary machine and the financial system - so too, for Thatcher in her first term, when she backed down to the unions. Now, outside parliament anf finance, there is a discontent without focus or organisation: not necessarily a bad thing, if, as I believe it will, it leads to new forms of organisation. But in the meantime, the Nazis will profit, not - thank goodness for small mercies - by increasing their vote but by holding onto it while the Labour vote disintegrates. Grotesquely, the Nazis can present themselves as the actual alternative to an end-of-history consensus which has eliminated all alterity; and every howl of abhorrence from inside the media-parliamentary machine risks further feeding their outsider allure.

In the New Statesman two years ago, Martin Bright summoned Callaghan's spectre. "The ghost of Callaghan hovers over Gordon Brown and those around him," Bright wrote; the parallel then was between Callaghan's failure to call an election in 1978, at a time when the goverment was recovering after the sterling crisis and the IMF debacle and before the Winter Of Discontent, and Brown's similar dithering when he took office. Brown will surely always be haunted by that failure to call an election in the very brief window of time when he might have won one - but all such conjectures belong to another world, another era. We're in a different time now, but one without any heralds - there is no equivalent of Thatcher ready to lay claim to these new times. "There's a world-wide revolt against big government," excessive taxation," said Thatcher on May 1, 1979. "An era is drawing to a close.. At first... people said, 'Oh, you've moved from the centre.' But then opinion began to move too, as the heresies of one period became, as they always do, the orthodoxies of the next... It's said that there is one thing stronger than armies, and that is an idea whose time has come." But our time awaits its idea.

It seems as if we are tumbling and stumbling back towards a version of Callaghan's era, living through a negative 1979... tumbling and stumbling out through a political-economic event horizon that marks the end of neoliberalism (which now fits Nick Land's desription of cybergothic postmodern power: "it's dead, but it carries on") ... with national bankruptcy looming, as it did in 76... and chaos and the Right looming as they were then.... but this time unopposed by any organised labour or a credible hard left ... And the grandfatherly Callaghan, chirpy and self-possessed, rarely depressed, even amidst the Winter of Discontent that would bring him down, could not strike a greater contrast with the morose Brown, a resentful Richard who carries a wintry discontent with him always, on his heavy brows. For Callaghan stood only at what he thought would be a moment of painful transition for the Labour party, whereas Brown looks like the mortfied personification of the final death of the labour movement itself.

I feel satisfied that my analysis of Brown a year ago has been vindicated. For a very brief time, in the immediate moment of sick shock when it became clear that the Blair Boom was definitively over, never to return, it seemed that Brown might, for once, have been the right man for these wrong times. His glower and gravity allowed him to be media-anointed for his preferred role of global statesman, "a serious man for serious times". The glower was real enough, but the gravity, like so much about Brown, was only a simulation, and an unconvincing one, an effect not of moral seriousness, but of the ponderous, painful heaviness which is the ineradicable signature of Brown's anti-style, a residue of wrongness which stains his every gesture, his every move, his every smile. Now Brown must know that he will never be free of Tony's joker hysterical face; Blair's timing turned out to be immaculate, holding onto power for what it is now clear was just the right amount of time, leaving Gordon with the most poisoned of chalices... the cup of bad cheer for the dwarf at the end of history... with Tony laughing and smiling forever...

As for the Nazis, Sarah Ditum is completely right: it's not time "that the BNP’s arguments must be addressed", it's time, instead, that we focused on the real roots of the Nazi support, not in some alleged spontaneously-occurring working class racism, but in "[a] popular media which propagates a constant sense of hostility and anxiety towards non-white, non-Christian groups, and a government which derives its idea of consensus from the opinion pages of the press and vomits up the rhetoric of fear and hate." As Sunny Hundal added in The Guardian: "our media tell people every day that their crumbling infrastructure is the fault of those dastardly asylum seekers (rather than lack of investment, which might mean higher taxes). Immigration wouldn't be such a big issue if local councils presented information more quickly about population movements, so resources could be poured in or taken out in response, ensuring local public services didn't suffer." "This," Hundall adds in a moment of massive understatement, "is also a result of the lack of investment in social housing." One of the most despicable tricks that New Labour has pulled is its collusion with the anti-immigration agenda, which has provided a smokescreen for the party's failure to provide local services and council houses. Exploit cheap immigrant labour in order to keep wages down, and play dead while the popular media blame immigrants for 'taking all the council houses' - which I can assure you, many working class people really do believe is the case. Why wouldn't they, since this is the relentless message they are getting from the mainstream media, a message that is rarely if ever emphatically contradicted by a mainstream parliamentary politician? It's a good job that the working class are not the inveterate racists that many of their patronising 'betters' in the middle class believe them to be, or they would have been voting for the Nazis in their millions, not in their hundreds of thousands.

Here we are, in our new zero, reverse 79, and it's not only the extra-parliamentary force of organised labour that is lacking. What is also missing is the pre-political, anti-protest dysphoria that provoked punk and postpunk; or rather, the dysphoria may exist, but it has not yet found forms of articulation that can differentiate it from the cynicism proper to the capitalist parliamentary spectacle. In their empty administrative acquistivism, MPs reflect back to the voters the realism which they claim is imposed upon them by those selfsame voters. "Worldly realism," writes Dominic in Cold World knows nothing of truth; it is wholly absorbed in deliberating between greater and lesser 'evils', which is to say that it moves entirely within corruption, employing corrupt means in the pursuit of corrupt ends. Such are the 'mechanisms of power' with which we are encouraged to acquaint ourselves. The cold world is the world in which these mechanisms are shown to be incapable of upholding a truth, but to operate rather through a kind of generalised power of falsity." Now we have only the "generalised power of falsity" exposed for what it is... but there is no cold world to see it from, only the collapsed kingdom of lies, in ruin and dereliction, with scowling Gordon at the battered battlements, and the Nazis warming their hands inside the citadel...

Posted by mark at June 8, 2009 06:00 PM | TrackBack