First published on OpinionPanel, April 5th 2013
If there is one kind of conversation that the political elite should be grateful for, it is not the discussions in the background of conservative party conferences or the frequent appearances of right-wing think-tanks on Sky News. It is apathy. What could praise a government more than saying, defeated, that the political situation is “as good as it’s gonna get?” The acceptance of, and indifference to, global capitalism, supports it immensely. It is treated more and more as if it is the natural norm, here to stay.
It might be hard to believe, but the financial crisis of 2008 has not been politicised enough. Everyone Labour and left of Labour has consistently blamed the irresponsibility of bankers. There is no problem with this – it is better at least than waving a finger at the work ethic of a ‘broken Britain’. But if it was not one group of bankers, it would have been another. Truly politicising the problem would mean challenging a basic ideal that allows such crises. Systemic criticisms should always be favoured in place of individualistic attacks. Anyone can moralise and denounce an individual politician, or economist, or media baron. It takes no thought. When an anti-capitalist journalist denounces David Cameron or calls out a business for the pollution it has caused, this is not being uniquely anti-capitalist. A liberal or even politically undecided person can moralise in the same way and it will change nothing about how we think about governance. Karl Marx was rather sympathetic to ‘the capitalist’ in the Appendix of Capital Vol. 1, in which he briefly talks about how even the wealthy are enslaved to capital: “The functions fulfilled by the capitalist are nothing more than the functions of capital.”* Pointing to contradictions in current political methods takes more courage and is answered with more ridicule but, if it becomes persuasive and popular enough, could trigger a better aim that would prevent future financial crises and politically corrupt practises: a fundamental reorganisation of society.
Isn’t the polarisation of “scroungers and skivers” the result of not properly politicising the problem of unemployment? The subtext of this is much stronger than the explicit meaning: it implies that there is something horribly wrong with the values of much of the working poor and unemployed, and that there is nothing particularly bad about the current government or the one that preceded it. Ideology is here experienced as non-ideology: an entire class – and often the benefits system – is demonised by what appears to just be an annoyance at some inherently Bad People. Being aware of this manipulative rhetoric is especially important when the reactionary papers use it for their own political aims. We have just seen the Daily Mail front page using the bizarre, tragic case of Mick Philpott and calling him and his family a “Vile product of welfare UK”.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats are essentially ideological allies, but enough can be made of their differences to create the illusion that the coalition is a real compromise between two opposing parties. This is done by focussing on smaller matters of law and order, and occasionally nationalised versus privatised industries. The debate over the Equal Marriage Bill was of course very significant, but is just one of many issues dragged out and eventually used to illustrate how progressive the Conservative Party can be. The bill does not truly address the shockingly high rate of hate crimes committed against LGBT people. By focussing on tiny, incremental increases in welfare and social liberalism, the capitalism that we know is never challenged as we become easily distracted from its alternatives.
Probably the most common general criticism that any kind of anti-capitalist faces is that “you’re just too utopian.” I’ve never been too sure what this means. Am I expected to believe that once railways are renationalised, Britain will start to look like a Stalinist socialist realism painting? Either way, it is the usual response from anyone who personally benefits from the social order the way it is. All that is clear is that economic and ecological disasters will not be permitted to keep on reoccurring. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek said it best: “The only true utopia is that things can go on like they do now indefinitely.”
*Marx later elaborates: “The self-valorisation of capital – the creation of surplus-value – is therefore the determining, dominating and overriding purpose of the capitalist; it is the absolute motive and content of his activity. And in fact it is no more than the rationalised motive of the hoarder – a highly impoverished and abstract content which makes it plain that the capitalist is just as enslaved by the relationships of capitalism as his opposite pole, the worker, albeit in quite a different manner.”