When it comes to anarchist activities, we are often in search of physical space that we can occupy and use. In this search we are subject to outside influences such as the law, ownership of spaces and competition for it as a resource. We have to take our opportunities to use space in anarchistic ways or else those opportunities just disappear.
The same is true of political space. For the last four decades the political space around ideas such as common ownership has contracted, thanks to successful governments pursuing small State agendas. In 2022 it seems that political space is shifting in ways we haven’t seen for decades and common or public ownership of industries is back on the agenda. It remains to be seen if the Labour Party will occupy the space and make it their own. In any case there may be opportunities in the physical world for anarchists to take advantage.
During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government intervened in the economy with a furlough scheme, effectively paying a portion of the wages of millions of people. Conservative politicians were horrified at this abandonment of free market economics, coupled with a lockdown. What horrified them more was that the public on the whole seemed to agree with the measures.
With the end of lockdown they tried to go back to small State business as usual. In September 2021 there was a shortage of lorry drivers in Britain and this caused a brief crisis at petrol forecourts as fuel pumps ran dry. Industry figures claimed that it was caused by Brexit, with some drivers returning to their European Union countries of origin. Former transport secretary Grant Shapps retorted that the industry had known about Brexit since 2016 and they should have ensured that enough British lorry drivers had been trained up. This incident showed us that the Tories believe in capitalism so much that they are willing to tell industry bosses that it is their fault if their industry falls short in some way, regardless of government policy.
After a period of large scale State interference in everyone’s lives, the country finds itself in multiple crises which are off the scale. The public have got used to the idea that the government exists to help them through such crises and yet they only seem to help after being dragged kicking and screaming. People might reasonably assume that if government exists then it should actually do stuff. Yet the same messages have come from the government during the summer, regarding the cost of energy bills and the various strikes. Shapps (again) spent much of the summer claiming it wasn’t down to the government to intervene in the rail dispute — despite some of the parties needing government approval for any deal.
Moreover, the public might well have noted that inaction is, in fact, an action. This is an obvious contradiction at the heart of neoliberal thought. On energy bills the government were pushed into half adopting the Labour policy of a windfall tax in the spring and then spent the summer on the backfoot as their two leadership candidates tried desperately to out Thatcher one another.
While physical space is tangible and detectable, political space is ephemeral and emerges over time. It can creep up on you and it appears to have crept up on the Conservative Party. While their leadership candidates were arguing about tax cuts, radio phone-ins were discussing with the general public the idea of nationalising the energy companies. The public mood has clearly shifted and presents possibilities for discussion on the role of the government and public ownership.
Whilst left wing ideas could flourish it should be remembered, however, that a powerful Tory government is still in place. They could win another election and force this political space closed, because general elections normally settle the direction of our politics. A Labour win requires them to command this political space and be bold, but under Kier Starmer the party has shown a distinct timidity thus far. They will need to show they are the change the country needs.
Any likely media criticism will form around the idea of turning the clock back to the 1970s, except the Tories have already got us there whilst simultaneously praying to the ghost of Thatcher. This new political space requires forward thinking, not harking back to the past. For that reason, Labour would do well to rethink public ownership so that it need not resemble simple nationalisation. On the Tories’ own terms, privatisation of the energy companies and railways simply hasn’t worked. There isn’t a market in these areas for them to get excited about being “free”.
We should note the change in public mood, note the possibility for political change that it can bring, and be ready for the possibilities.
~ Jon Bigger
Pic: Grant Shapps, who was transport minister under Johnson
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.