Dead Men Left

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Low interest rates (and the antiwar movement)

Whilst writing about something else entirely, the comments boxes at Marc Mulholand's Daily Moiders hit upon a couple of interesting points (you'll need to open them yourself). Michael writes that:

One of the interesting features of 'late capitalism' is that as capitalist domination assumes the increasingly abstract form of domination by money - so working classes in many 'advanced' capitalist nations have become intertwined with capital via individual and household credit and debt. They no longer stand as starkly seperated and alienated from aspects of capital and its expansion as they perhaps did pre-WW2. While still alienated from the product of their labour, and from the system-wide tendencies of capitalism as a whole, they are more closely integrated than hitherto into the individualising logic of capital in its monetary form. In part, this is underpins the emergence and generalisation of legalistic subjectivity as the most developed form of social subjectivity under capitalism.

To which Marc replies:

To pile ironies upon ironies, the Tories for about 100 years convinced the propertyless to vote in defence of property by appealing to deference, notions of economic competence, certain gender constructions, patriotism etc etc. In the 1980s Thatcher, by flogging off the council houses, at last reached that holy grail - a genuinely property owning democracy - which, at the very least, gives the majority a real stake in low interest rates, and the attendant labour market discipline. But the Thatcher revolution also attacked all those whiggish institutions - church, academia, civil service 'experts', etc - that had underpinned Tory dominance. The new property owning democracy had its faith in the traditional elites knocked out of it and voted on purely instrumental grounds - for New Labour!

Michael responded:

New Labour recognised more clearly than most Tories that the depoliticisation of production and consumption entailed by the re-regulation of society by money, pointed to the increasing managerialisation of politics and state institutions - a process started by Thatcher, but which lacked momentum, focus and credibility once it hit the buffers of deeply rooted Tory authoritarianism and love of arbitrary power.

At which point I stuck in my oar, saying

I'd be a bit dubious about claiming that "labour market discipline" was accepted by the electorate as the downside of maintaining lower interest rates. Bearing in mind that throughout the Thatcher and Major years interest rates were much higher than we have become used to under New Labour, yet this was precisely the point when a so-called "property-owning democracy" was created, alongside the initial tightening of "labour market discipline".

I think it's more likely that structural changes in the financial market - especially those relating to personal finance, like the continued deregulation of personal loans - were what mattered for "property-owning democracy", which were quite deliberately introduced from Thatcher's first election victory onwards. There's no necessary connection between them and "labour market discipline", except as part of the ideological offensive mounted at the time.

I did once hear an academic hack (I forget who) describe Mrs Thatcher as a "Leninist" for believing in social engineering to redefine consciousness: give the proles mortgages, and they will all vote Conservative forever more. (The only reference, via Google, to anything like this claim can be found here, where someone makes an entirely different - and equally wrong - point. If anybody else can find the source I'm talking about, I'd be grateful.) Certain strands of "Eurocommunist" thinking in the early 1980s, particularly around the now-defunct magazine Marxism Today, bought into this analysis: Thatcherism had helped creat and then exploited a new "popular authoritarianism", the electorally-successful conjuction of the "strong state" and the "free market", in which - as Locke wrote, years ago - support for the State and its rulers went hand-in-hand with the wide dispersion of private property.

It's quite a mechanistic reading of class consciousness, and one that absents the Labour Party, or the Left more generally, from any share of the blame in Thatcher's domination of British politics: what could we do - they all own their homes? It's also one, as Marc's comments suggests, that leads to an interpretation of Labour's 1997 election victory as a positive endorsement of New Labour qua New Labour, rather than a negative rejection of the Conservatives. Marc implies that the electorare accepted a broadly neo-liberal political settlement in 1997: "labour market discipline" and "low interest rates". As I said in my original comment above, this leaves out an important feature of Thatcher and Major governments: their historically high interest rates. The "property-owning democracy" itself is a myth: personal wealth became more, not less, inequitably distributed under the Conservatives. We left with only the ideological attempt to persuade the public that this new, privatised mode of social life was the only game in town. TINA - There Is No Alternative, alongside "There is no such thing as society."

There was no "natural", market-led mechanism that could produce acceptance for Tory or New Labour policies. (There is, in point of fact, no reason to suppose "low interest rates" inevitably demand "labour market discipline".) What we have been left with, instead, is a drive towards managerialism in government - the gradual acceptance that TINA applies, always - but little base for its popular consent. Attempts have been made to build consent: New Labour in government could be thought of as attempting an ideological variant on the older Thatcherite theme, with Gordon Brown particularly assidious in promoting the Third Way ideal of the market as producing "social justice"; but the drama of the anti-war movement strongly suggests that this happy-face neoliberalism has not been accepted by major parts of the electorate. Millions do not march against governments whose popular support is assured, and there can be little other way to explain the popular feeling against the Iraq war except as part of a wider rejection of Blairite norms. (The major alternatives - spontaneous altruism or mass stupidity, depending on your point of view - do not merit serious consideration.)

There's no doubt, too, that the implicit rejection of Blairite neoliberalism in the antiwar movement can mix with economic disadvantage to great effect: most dramatically amongst British Muslims, a broadly working-class, solidly Labour-voting constituency; but now, more than 18 months after the invasion, the movement's after-effects in other disadvantaged communities are becoming more apparent:

Senior army commanders have expressed fears that the increasingly vocal anti-Iraq war movement is discouraging thousands of young men from considering a career in the armed forces.

They blame high-profile campaigns against the war, often led by bereaved parents and supported by celebrities and political figures, for worsening recruitment problems, particularly into the infantry.

According to military sources the high media visibility of bereaved parents, such as Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son was killed, and the unpopularity of the war have made recruitment and retention a problem, exacerbating an already acute recruitment crisis in areas such as Scotland. The problem is now also spreading to the north of England and Wales, forces officials say.

The political and organisational conclusions from this combination of economic disadvantage and political opposition are not immediate. Serious, new political forces on the Left, most especially around the Respect Coalition, can certainly hope to build in such circumstances, but only with serious and persistent work. Elsewhere, the apparent quiescence of the British working class faced with Blairite neoliberalism, with strikes still at historically low levels, can be explained in part by the major organisational defeats inflicted by Thatcher, in part by the union leaderships' ties to the Labour Party itself, but also by persistent macroecnomic stability over the last few years: "labour market discipline" is much the easier to bear if real wages are rising. What none of these contingent factors indicate, however, is a long-term shift in people's thinking against the Left; with the ideological field tilted markedly against New Labour's neoliberalism, shifts in any of the economic or political factors can produce explosive results - as the antiwar movement indicated.