Dead Men Left

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Common sense, "good sense", bombs in London

An opinion poll confirms something we all knew - the public aren't buying it:

Two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq and the London bombings despite government claims to the contrary, according to a Guardian/ICM poll published today...

Only 28% of voters agree with the government that Iraq and the London bombings are not connected.

The gulf between official politics and the politics of workplaces, streets and homes looks wider than ever. Despite extraordinarily concerted efforts by the guardians of public discourse, government and media working in tandem, it is widely (and correctly) believed that the invasion of Iraq and the London atrocities are connected.

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, once drew the distinction between "common sense" and "good sense" in popular politics. "Common sense", he wrote, consisted of all the widely-accepted beliefs about society and politics that acted, without intention, in defence of the existing order of things: so protests never work, nothing ever changes, "they" always know best. In largely liberal-democratic societies, lacking easy access to overt means of repression, common sense in this way constituted a major support for the ruling class.

"Good sense", by comparison, was in those hard-learned lessons about effective working-class politics: not crossing picket lines, joining a trade union, not voting Tory. Good sense could emerge to challenge common sense in the course of a popular struggle; moreover, good sense may itself take on an institutional form, like the trade union movement, or the working-class political parties. By these organisational means good sense has been able to reproduce itself, even if - in recent decades - in considerably straitened circumstances.

Remarkable about the mass rejection of the official line on the London bombings is the fact that "common sense", in Gramsci's understanding, is not functioning: the government, and official politics more generally, has resorted to heavy-handed ideological and political ruses, and yet still cannot convince more than a third of the population to follow its lead. Instead, an oppositional "good sense" has become common: one some level, and with varying degrees of feeling, a substantial majority believe that this same government bears a responsibility for the London bombings.

That this occurs without the significant organisational resources widespread "good sense" once relied is still more surprising. Trade unions and other organisations, most notably the major working-class party, have failed to provide any lead, or even acted in defence of official politics. It has been left to a few brave individuals, perilously positioned in the interstices of official politics, to voice an opposition.

This situation is only intelligible with an appreciation of the anti-war movement's importance. Both as an loosely organised political force, and - more importantly - as an ideological bulwark against officialdom, the protest movement against the Iraq war prepared the grounds for the response we know observe in the opinion polls.

Away from the relatively simple questions posed there, this clear picture becomes murkier: unlike Spain, where a simple left-right divide separated those opposing from those supporting the invasion of Iraq, in the UK it is the leadership of the alleged party of progressives that argued for and then initiated the invasion, and who continue to argue vehemently in its defence. But, even with the resources of government, access to the media, and of the Labour Party's history, they have been unable to close the gap between official and unofficial politics: they have singularly failed to persuade the rest of us of their own virtue. It is in that gap that any future for the left lies.