Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Waiting For the Great Leap Backwards?

I had been wondering exactly what the Coalition now expects to happen. They've pushed through the budget, they've handed down the pain to the operational bits of the public sector in eye wateringly-tight financial settlements and they've (just about) got through the first really tricky Commons vote, the one on tuition fees.

Were they, I mused, now hoping a spirit of grim, 'post Dunkirk-like determination in adversity' to take over the country and we all pull together through these straightened times till the sunny uplands of a private sector led recovery are reached? That we collectively roll up our sleeves and build the Big Society out of whatever happens to be at hand?

Andrew Rawnsley says not: they want to unleash revolutionary cultural change on the country, and especially its public sector. He makes a rather far fetched analogue with Mao,

"I have heard one important figure in the government talk of unleashing a "cultural revolution" in the public services and another hailing devolution of power away from the centre using Mao's old slogan: "Let a thousand flowers bloom."

.... I have actually heard more than one member of the cabinet explicitly refer to the government as "Maoist".

Just about anywhere you look in Whitehall, there is a secretary of state unleashing upheaval. Ken Clarke challenges two decades of orthodoxy about the criminal justice system. Michael Gove battles the educational establishment to create his "free schools". Iain Duncan Smith has ambitions to be the man who definitively reformed welfare. Chris Huhne is dramatically recasting energy pricing. Nick Clegg wants to rewrite large parts of the constitution. Over at health, Andrew Lansley proposes the greatest upheaval in the NHS since its foundation. They are urged on from within Number 10 by the prime minister's principal strategist, Steve Hilton, who is probably the most Maoist person in the government. He has been heard to tell colleagues: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."

Rawnsley manages to weave into his case the blurted out remarks of one Nick Boles MP , who claimed that chaos in local government is not only coming but is to be welcomed, as it is an alternative to intrinsically impossible planning. (In other news: Tim Worstell manages to work this up into a moment of Hayekian purity, somehow implying an obscure linkage between butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon and the socialist calculation debate. Or something like that.)

Rawnsley's wrong. He's looking in the wrong bit of Marxist history for his analogies. I think I'm coming round to the view that what this lot are doing is much more akin to Stalin's scorched earth policy in WW2. They're not engaged in a 'regressive modernisation' as Stuart Hall so famously called Thatcherism. They're simply trying to lay waste to territory they don't expect to occupy for very long, to make it unusable by their opponents.

I suspect, deep down, they know their moment is passing, that the political and economic conditions which allowed neoliberal economics to become the default consensus of governments throughout the Anglo-American world have come to an end. The Great Moderation is over, it went down the pan in the Credit Crunch. The systemic default modes of managerial and political thought based on neoliberalism continue for want of a positive alternative, but the old certainty is gone. This may be their last chance to shrink the state for a long, long time. They're going to take it, come hell or high water.


  1. Charlie,
    I think you argued before that Labour depended upon a coalition of the old manual working class and white collar workers in the public sector, and that at some level the assault on the public services was an attempt to lay waste to the Labour Party's last redoubt. What you argue above seems to develop that line, although I think Rawnsley has a point about this being a sort of cultural revolution.

    There's a couple of things I've been thinking: first of all the public sector unions might as well take the gloves off for this one. Like the miner's strike this is a fight to the death. So following the students' example.

    And talking of students (and also UK Uncut's campaign) something new is stirring, isn't it? It's not the old politics of parties and vanguards and leaders, it's something else. The Tories may be in the process of killing one old adversary (the public sector) but they may in the process be inducing the birth of a new 'gravedigger'. Should we be thinking about multitudes instead of masses?

  2. This hits the nail on the head, "They're simply trying to lay waste to territory they don't expect to occupy for very long, to make it unusable by their opponents."

    To give one example, Suffolk County Council was run for about a decade (during Labour's swing upwards in local government) by a Labour-led and Lib-Dem supported administration. Labour only got that far because of support from the two most populated areas in the County, around Lowestoft and Ipswich, which are urban islands in the rural scene but outnumber the rest.

    Indications are that this crew will face, even here, a strong electoral challenge in the coming years (though the County elections are unfortuantely not for another 3 the Borough, which is a right-wing Lib-Tory coalition, has seats up in the coming May).

    The Suffolk Tory leadership (helped by their organisational chief, ex-Barnet Council and in BT pay) want to destroy all public services. Or, to put it another way, to hand them over in perpetuity to local cliques, county oligarchies, and private companies.

    My review of 22 Days in May and the Big Society is heavily influenced by this - a scene I know really well.

    Your summary of their national strategy is spot-on - the Observer also gave me food for thought.

    Tendance Coatesy whose Identity could not be verified.

  3. Hi Rab & Andy,
    Firstly, do go over to B&T, who knows A Lot of Stuff About China, for another take on the Maoist metaphor.

    Secondly, UK Uncut is desperately interesting: I can't recall hearing about 'political' flash mobs before. I dunno if you're on Facebook, but I am and I get roughly six updates from then every hour via that source alone. If I twittered as well I suspect I'd never hear from anyone else at all. I just hope they're not a passing phenomenon, like the Howard Dean presidential bid.

    Thirdly - 'multitudes'? Hmmm. I tried reading that Negri book some time ago and ended up deciding I didn't understand a single word. Nano, zilch, sod all. Might as well have been in Etruscan as far as I was concerned. Now this may simply be my age/inability to shake off my very '20th Century' political blinkers. But ages ago (in the 'Age of Extremes'?) Hobsbawm, a leftist intellectual I do understand, floated the idea of a movement 'back' from class solidarities to solidarities 'of the people'. This made sense to me 15 years ago but perhaps it has taken the fluidity of 21st Century communications to make something real of the idea. (& perhaps Hobsbawm was using the wrong phrase but intelligibly so, whilst Negri was using a better one but expressed in incomprehensible prose - I haven't quite got my thinking sorted out on this one yet).

    Len McCluskey seems to be preparing for a death struggle, which, of course, I welcome. But if it is a struggle fought on the traditional grounds of jobs alone I fear it will fail: local government workers are not the NUM c1983.

    What I'm finding as interesting is the quiet defection of 'apolitical' managers from the Tory/Lib Dem 'small state' project - see Flip Chart Rick, or the Local Government Officer for instance. The people for whom 'politics' is a sort of distraction from 'getting things done in the real world' are suddenly realising that, actually, this lot in power are apeshit crazy. So we get well known lefties doom-sayers like, ahem, the Institute of Fiscal Studies saying, er, actually, those Housing Benefit changes are going to drive 100,000 children into poverty.

    If these three elements (interwebby flash mobs a la Uk Uncut composed of 'people'/'multitudes'; traditional Labour movements; and the folk actually responsible for running the system day-to-day) come together next year I think our government might find itself seriously destabilised.

    Or so I very much hope.

    P.S. Yes, Andy, I know from your point I'm a irredeemably irritating Popular Frontist/Euro trying to adapt to the modern world, but hey, I do agree with you about Suffolk County Council..... sadly i remain

  4. I've been reading Paolo Virno's Grammar of the Multitude, so I'm very learned on all things multitudie at the moment, except I'm not, 'cos like you Charlie, I struggle with the impenetrable language of our continental cousins. But I know something's going on and it's not the old vanguardism. All that twittering and tweeting ain't democratic centralism as I know it, thank God.

    Tell you what though, I just bought a new mobile phone so that I can be part of the revolution when it happens.

  5. Rab,
    I'm a total dunce at languages per se so this may be an entirely personal thing, but I always find anything translated from Italian almost impossible to read. How can such a beautiful language to listen to be so difficult to translate into plain English? This is a different question from the whole French structuralist/post modernist terminological diarrhoea problem as exemplified by Althusser/Lucan and all the rest; I suspect it is something pretty basic to do with what counts as lucidity in the two languages....but as a sad monoglot I may never know.

    Two thoughts:

    1. You don't need to tweet to organise a flash mob, you just need mobile phones per se. I've had a sudden realisation that what UK Uncut most reminds me of is those rightwing fuel protests at the turn of the century. They predated twitter and all the rest of it - but depended on mobile phones/texting. They were put together outside of convention organisational forms, seemed to (temporarily) paralyse the country, mobilised new and previously inactive strata etc. So this form of politics isn't necessarily leftwing per se, even though I'm very glad to see it being used for sensible purposes at the moment.

    2. I hope your new phone is Android, not an iphone or Blackberry: I think you'll find that revolution doesn't get tweeted on proprietary software...

  6. I think there is a difference between Twitter and text-messaging, and it's just the sheer numbers of people you can reach with one message. As a Media Studies-bod I'm still trying to work out what's going on here. I don't like the hyperbole that tends to accompany ever new piece of technology, but as I sat watching BBC 24 News of the students protests, while following it on Twitter, it struck me that this is significant. To be frank, the mainstream news just looked dumb in comparison to the story that was emerging from those on the ground. The BBC sat fixated by a dodge old police van that had been vandalised (rumbled as a decoy on Twitter very quickly), while the social networks carried news of the kettles, assaults by police on school children, cavalry charges etc, which the mainstream only caught up with much later.

    It looked to me like a very serious challenge to the definitional authority of the mainstream news - the collapse of news as a 'grand narrative', if we can go all continental for a moment again.

    Here's Laurie Penny at the NS on the whole Twitter-thing

  7. Rab,
    I've never twittered (tweeted?). So you could well be right for all I know, although I do notice that the discussion under Laura P's piece in the NS includes a link to a Malcolm Gladwell piece (I know, I know - but he must sometimes be right about something, surely?)which distinguishes between the uses of ('strong')organisations and ('weak') networks in political activism. I thought that was a useful alternative view.

    I'm very partial to a spot of old fashioned Grand Narrative, me. I've missed having one in my life.

  8. Charlie, have just caught up with you via FCFT. You are spot on.

    Maybe this has resonance too..? http://pinkpolitika.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/tory-dictatorship-of-the-moment-libdems-where-are-you/

    The Tories as you say are in a desperate rush because they do 'know their moment is passing'; but will the LibDems let them get away with it??? Unbelieveable (or maybe not? depends how you see them), if they do.

    Lots of questions about LibDem motives need to be asked, very publicly, right now.

    PS Have only just started twittering myself; interesting experience...

  9. Hi Charlie,

    Long time no chat.

    Let's demand a general election, this government has no mandate for cuts....


    Mike (of 777 fame)