If you’re not yet radical, you haven’t been paying attention
Photograph of Jeremy Corbyn by Chatham House
by Raoul Martinez
There seems to be a consensus that we are in a political crisis. I don’t dispute the claim, but I would suggest that this crisis predates Brexit by a long way. It’s a crisis that cuts right to the heart of our society and has been worsening over a period of decades. The failure to recognise it, and adequately respond, has played a decisive role in creating the conditions for Brexit, Trump and the politics of hate that has been gaining momentum across Europe.
There are various aspects to it. One of the most obvious is inequality. For decades, inequality has been rising in this country. People have been working longer for less, and wealth, rather than trickling down, has been flowing upwards. An investment deficit; soaring house prices; insecure, low-paid work and rising tuition fees created a population with dwindling disposable incomes. To function, the economy required vast sums of private debt. A deregulated financial sector was happy to oblige, engaging in reckless lending. As we now know, this paved the way for the financial crash of 2008.
The response to the recession that followed has been a politics of austerity that continues to punish the most vulnerable in our society. It’s led to over a million people using food banks; to 16 million Britons with savings of less than £100; and to four million children living in poverty, the vast majority of whom have at least one parent in work. It’s led to roughly 24,000 elderly people a year dying because they can’t afford to heat their homes properly, and to workers suffering the biggest fall in wages among the world’s richest countries. The worst off are being hit hardest. A couple of years ago, it emerged that the most deprived area in the country was suffering cuts worth £807 per household while the most affluent area was getting away with per household cuts of just £28.
Today, many children and chronically sick people are being hit by multiple cuts all at once. The impact on disabled people has been so extreme that a UN inquiry recently concluded that there have been ‘systematic violations’ of the rights of people with disabilities. This was after ten thousand people died shortly after being declared ‘fit for work’ by our government. At the other end of the spectrum, the richest 10 percent of UK households own more wealth than the other 90 percent combined, and we have more billionaires than ever before. Compounding the problem, researchers estimate that over £100 billion a year is lost to tax avoidance, with some of the largest corporations paying no tax at all.
Was austerity necessary?
Now was this austerity necessary? Not according to textbook economics which tells us that reducing spending during a recession is pretty much the worst thing that can be done. In fact, economic historians have shown that policies of austerity have never managed to revive a flagging economy. Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis found that austerity after 2010 slowed our recovery, costing the nation over £100 billion. Austerity was and is a crisis for millions of people in this country — it has destroyed lives, well-being, wealth and mental health on a significant scale. Yet it was widely accepted as necessary by both major parties and the media. A banking crisis that had its origins in the irresponsible and illegal behaviour of the private sector was repackaged as a crisis of government spending. The question was not whether we needed cuts but where and how quickly they should fall. Mervyn King, while Governor of the Bank of England, summed up the situation, when he said ‘The price of this ﬁnancial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it’ and ‘I’m surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has.’
Growing inequality is bound up with another aspect of the crisis we face: the erosion of democracy. The last few decades have been marked by a turn towards market fundamentalism — an approach that has transferred wealth and power from the public sphere to the private, and on a global scale. Today, one percent of humanity owns as much wealth as the other ninety-nine percent combined, and some of the largest corporations control more wealth than many nations.
The most powerful actor in the market, the corporation, is driven by the profit imperative. This commitment to profit not only results from market competition, it’s enshrined in law — corporations have long been legally obliged to maximise profits for their shareholders. A corporation can increase profits in various ways. Some of these can benefit society as a whole, such as creative innovations. But there are many easier ways to generate profits that are seriously damaging: increasing demands on workers while reducing wages, using natural resources without paying for them; polluting while leaving others to pick up the bill; manufacturing unhealthy wants through manipulative advertising; and extracting subsidies, tax breaks, and bail-outs from the state.
Here’s a striking example: the IMF calculated that the world’s governments are subsidising the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $10 million a minute. In the UK, while cutting vital subsidies to renewable energy, the Tory government’s contribution to the fossil fuel industry stands at £9 billion a year. All of this is going on as climate scientists warn that we are on course to create a planet able to support less than a billion people by the end of the century. In other words, business as usual for the fossil fuel industry means wiping out most of humanity — and our taxes are helping them do it. And because of the warming that’s already occurred, millions are dying and being displaced each year. Today, few acts are as violent as the burning of oil, gas and coal.Today, few acts are as violent as the burning of oil, gas and coal.
When democratic power fails to regulate the market to protect the public interest, market power will regulate democracy to protect corporate interests. To defend citizens, workers and the environment, a democratic state must limit the ways in which corporations are allowed to pursue profit. The state has the power to impose regulations, extract taxes and cordon off parts of the economy from the market, such as healthcare and education. This enables the public to obtain with their votes what they cannot afford in the market. From the perspective of the corporation, a well-functioning democracy is an obstacle to profit. The obvious solution is to take control of the state through the capture of regulatory agencies, the lobbying of government, the funding of political parties, the establishment of think thinks, and by ensuring that the revolving door between high level industry and government keeps on spinning.
There have always been two ways to gain the consent of the governed. The first is to change the government to please the public, the second is to change the public to please the government. Almost a century ago, the influential US intellectual Walter Lippmann wrote about the need to ‘manufacture consent’ as a solution to the threat of democracy. Since then, techniques for controlling the flow of ideas, facts and perspectives through society have been increasing in sophistication. There’s a rich, though little known, history about how public relations, informed by psychological research, have been used to subvert democracy — it ought to be widely studied. The latest developments draw on big data. You may have heard of a company named Cambridge Analytica, owned by a US billionaire. According to a recent Guardian investigation, by exploiting the growing field of psychometrics and drawing on vast stores of personal data, this company has played a decisive role in influencing electoral outcomes, including the EU referendum.
People are rightly outraged by this. But such meddling isn’t new. Every election is interfered with by politically motivated billionaires — some foreign, like Rupert Murdoch, others domestic such as Lord Rothermere. Almost all our media is owned by a handful of billionaires. This elite group controls close to 80 percent of the press. Being billionaires, their interests tend to conflict with those of most ordinary people. In their hands, media becomes a political weapon to ‘manufacture consent’. This isn’t simply a matter of opinion. Decades of academic studies have demonstrated the systematic right-wing biases of the UK media — including the BBC — on a range of issues, and poll after poll shows how public opinion reflects this distortion and bias. Take austerity.Of 347 articles, only 21 per cent showed any opposition to austerity.
Ignoring history and economic orthodoxy, the media has functioned as a megaphone for the government’s austerity narrative. Researchers at University College Dublin examined the coverage of austerity after the 2010 UK election, looking at four leading national papers: The Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian. They found a clear pro-austerity bias. Of 347 articles, only 21 per cent showed any opposition to austerity. Another way of demonstrating this bias is to analyse which ‘experts’ were invited to comment on the cuts. Most were bankers, politicians and economists who failed to predict the crash. Only 1 per cent came from a trade union.
A look at public opinion over the period shows how inﬂuential the austerity narrative became. According to YouGov polls, from 2010, public opposition to austerity steadily declined with each passing year. As this decline occurred, the proportion of people who believed the cuts were ‘too slow’, doubled. The most popular cuts were often those that targeted the most vulnerable: the disabled, the unemployed and those receiving housing beneﬁt. By 2014, an ICM poll showed that the public, by a wide margin, trusted the Conservatives most ‘to manage the economy properly’. As Malcolm X put it, ‘If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.’
This year the UK has dropped to 40th in the press freedom world rankings. This suggests that journalists in the UK are less free to hold power to account than those working in Jamaica, Chile or South Africa. Although we all have the same freedom to speak, we do not all have the same freedom to be heard. Most of the time, that freedom belongs to the wealthy few who own and subsidise our media. It’s a freedom that comes with a hefty price tag.
There’s much to say on these issues, but the central point is this: in our society, the principle of one pound one vote has overwhelmed the principle of one person one vote. We have a system dominated and corrupted by concentrated wealth, one that has left millions of people behind to struggle on under increasingly adverse conditions. Combined with our hopelessly outdated first past the post system and ongoing gerrymandering, it’s clear that our system is in crisis. But it’s a system that exploits the crises it creates, feeding off its own failures. The financial crisis is being exploited to dismantle the welfare state and the NHS. And Brexit is being exploited to tear up workers’ rights and environmental protections.It’s a system that exploits the crises it creates, feeding off its own failures.
Many who today are outraged by Brexit have long failed to recognise and respond to the deeper systemic crisis. Sheltered by privilege, and taking our lead from the media, too many of us have been complacent about the multiple ways in which our system is failing, and the scale of the suffering and anger it’s causing.
When we fail to respond to crises that do not yet affect us, we pave the way for others to exploit them for their own gain. Invariably this takes the form of ugly scapegoating which channels people’s anger where those doing the channeling find it politically useful. In recent years, people of colour, Muslims, Jews, LGBTI communities, disabled people and immigrants have all been targeted. The resistance to acknowledge, let alone confront, the root causes of our failing system created the conditions for Brexit, Trump, and the rise of hate politics. So yes, Brexit is a significant and unwelcome development, one that if mishandled may compound many of the problems we face. But it’s a symptom not the disease.
Business as usual
Many commentators appear to have learned the wrong lesson from the turbulence of 2016. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major have identified the problem as one of ‘political extremes’. Blair has warned against the ‘far-right’ and ‘far-left’, positioning himself as the defender of the voiceless middle ground, while Major recently urged us to return to the ‘solid centre’. But the centre ground of political opinion, where many feel most comfortable, is not where extremes are avoided, it’s where they are normalised.But the centre ground of political opinion… is not where extremes are avoided, it’s where they are normalised.
Today’s centre ground is part of an ideological spectrum distorted by concentrated power. It’s a social construct, commanding most loyalty from those whose privilege protects them from the ravages of the system they support. There is nothing moderate, reasonable or balanced about occupying this political terrain. To do so is to favour business as usual: the ongoing erosion of democracy, the acceleration of inequality, the support of abusive regimes, the destruction of the conditions for our existence, and the dehumanisation of those whose suffering is politically inconvenient, whether they be drowning in the Mediterranean or queuing up at food banks.
So how should we respond? We should reject the centre ground and embrace radical, compassionate, bold politics, and support it in all its forms: whether we’re talking about general elections or public protests.
To clarify, the meaning of the word ‘radical’ is bound up with the idea of getting to the root of something, getting to the core or origin of a problem. And that’s what we must do. For many years we’ve been facing at least three profound crises: a democratic crisis, an inequality crisis, and an existential, environmental crisis. There’s simply no way to tackle these crises without subverting the wealth-concentrating, expansionist logic of capitalism. So without a surge in radical politics, these crises will only deepen. After all, the political and corporate elite has shown itself more ready to accept the destruction of the ecosystem, and with it most of humanity, than to question capitalism.
Radical politics, even diluted versions of it, have always been opposed by the establishment. Its figureheads have always been attacked. We saw this very clearly during the Democratic primaries, when it was well understood that Bernie Sanders stood a far better chance of beating Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton. Polls indicated that Bernie’s rejection of establishment politics, his willingness to confront Wall Street, big business and the corporate media resonated with more Americans than Hillary’s message. Despite this, the liberal media and the Democratic establishment rallied behind Hillary: a defender of Wall Street with a history of supporting new wars and escalating existing ones, who wrote during the campaign that environmental activists fighting to protect life should instead ‘get a life’.Frankly, if you’re not yet radical, you haven’t been paying attention.
By failing to provide an honest, compelling, analysis of what had gone wrong with society and how to make it right — something Bernie came far closer to offering — the liberal establishment paved the way for a dangerous demagogue who gave the wrong answers to some of the right questions. Hillary’s defeat is symptomatic of an establishment, on both sides of the Atlantic, committed to holding the amiable mask of liberalism firmly in place over a corrupt, exploitative, unsustainable, system.
Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn we have seen our own version of this dynamic play out. Under the leadership of Ed Miliband, Labour was committed to ‘austerity-lite’: cuts were needed, they claimed, but not quite as many or quite as fast as the Tories were planning. After losing the 2015 election, Miliband resigned, and the only anti-austerity candidate on the ballot, outsider Jeremy Corbyn, surged to victory on a wave of popular support, earning the largest mandate ever won by a party leader.
The media onslaught that followed has been quite remarkable. As subsequent research has shown, the British press, including the BBC, have ‘systematically undermined’ Corbyn with ‘a barrage of overwhelmingly negative coverage’. It’s worth noting that in Scandinavia, Jeremy Corbyn would be regarded as something like a mainstream social democrat, which only shows how far the UK centre ground has shifted to the right. This is Tony Blair’s legacy, and the reason Margaret Thatcher described him as her greatest achievement. This legacy helps to explain why it’s not just been the Tories and the media attacking Corbyn — from day one he’s been actively sabotaged by an intransigent bureaucracy and powerful figures within his own party. What we’re seeing is an ideological struggle for the soul of the Labour Party.How far the UK centre ground has shifted to the right… is Tony Blair’s legacy, and the reason Margaret Thatcher described him as her greatest achievement.
In truth, the Labour Party has always been two parties crammed into one. Since its creation, a struggle for what it would stand for has raged between those who offer a deeper critique of society – let’s call them ‘radicals’ – and those who embrace and defend the status quo but want to curb the worst excesses of the system – let’s call them ‘liberals’. Over the last century, time and again, the liberals have shown that they are willing to undermine their electoral chances rather than allow Labour to be turned into a vehicle for radical politics. For much of the party’s history, this group has maintained a tight grip on the Parliamentary Labour Party. For the first time in my life, that grip has been seriously loosened. This is a rare and valuable opportunity.
It should be said that the campaign against Jeremy Corbyn has been extremely effective. Even now, weeks before a general election, you’ll find prominent authors, journalists and celebrities – themselves Labour supporters – using their substantial public platform to chip away at Corbyn’s credibility. Given that this election is a life and death affair for many of the most vulnerable in our society, this is deeply irresponsible behaviour. Personally, I find much to admire in Corbyn. Of course, he’s not perfect – mistakes have been made – but to focus on this is to miss the point. It’s foolish to echo the superficial narrative of the establishment and personalise this historic political moment. Our focus should always be on the broader struggle for democracy, equality and survival – a struggle in which the virtues of unity and solidarity are paramount.
Shifting from personality to substance
When we shift from personality to substance we find that Labour are committed to scrapping Theresa May’s Brexit plan on day one. They are committed to introducing a bill to ensure workers’ rights are protected, to guaranteeing that EU nationals can remain in the UK, to negotiating tariff-free access to the European market and to allowing MPs to vote on the final deal.
Beyond Brexit, Labour are offering one of the most progressive manifestos in living memory and the boldest environmental policies of any major party in British history. If such a desperately needed policy platform proves to be unelectable, it will not be one man’s failure. It will be the failure of each and every one of us to create the conditions for its success. But we still have time. Let’s use it well.
Piece originally published at Open Democracy |
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