This article is the first in a series by Jon Bigger looking at gains the voices of social conservatism have made in recent years and what that means for anarchist politics.
In 2016 the political landscape has changed around us. A resurgence of conservatism resulting from changes within the Conservative Party leadership following the EU referendum has been followed by Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election and the possibility of populist parties and personalities winning elections in Europe next year.
In Britain, the much of the left has put it’s heart and soul (and hundreds of thousands of activist hours) into keeping a left-wing leader at the top of the Labour Party. They seem to have spent more time doing that than getting stuck into the ruling class, although I suspect they think this is exactly what they’ve been doing.
I’ve seen all the immediate analysis from Brexit and the Trump victory and it’s not surprising that much of it is poor and ill thought out. This changing landscape may be something we don’t fully understand for years and I don’t think anyone has got the definitive vision yet (and you shouldn’t expect to see it here either). However, at the end of the 2016 it’s time we took stock and prepare for whatever will come next. This is my contribution to that process.
Neoliberalism appears to be facing its most important challenge, and it’s not us. Since 2008, when the financial crisis we’re all still witnessing started, socialists of all types have been winning the arguments on austerity, being both anti-Establishment and anti-elite. But the right has won power. Think for a moment about how this anti-Establishment feeling has manifested around the world since it started: the Arab Spring, Occupy, Brexit, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Momentum and Corbyn. We have seen a global public response that has encompassed revolutions, student debt protesters and changes to parties of both the left and the right. The response to a disaster within global capitalism hasn’t been one simple global revolution. Instead people have responded in ways that reject a simple left / right ideological perspective. When things settle at home and abroad there will be a new alignment, a new politics which may well conform to a clearer ideological split.
In many ways this could look like the old politics but with new people, aligned to different causes. The political battle for the last 30 years has always been about conservatism and liberalism. Whether Thatcher, Major, Blair or Brown it was some form of liberalism in the ascendancy. Alongside brutal economics we got identity politics and a shallow pitch on individual and minority rights, particularly in the final few years.
The Conservative Party has for many decades been a fine balance between liberal and old Tory values with the former gradually taking prominence, until this year. The Tories are now pragmatically shifting their focus to a perceived conservative element of the working class they think they can get votes from.
The Labour Party has for decades been a mixture of social democratic and liberal values with liberals in the ascendancy. They, however, are currently attempting a strange experiment. It’s a Marxist wet dream where they get to model a social movement in an Occupy mould, but from the top down and within a political party. For decades they’ve watched anarchists and wondered how they could steal what they thought were our best bits — lots of young people in groups practicing direct democracy.
For socialists there has been no real parliamentary voice for decades. With its champions defeated in the 1980s at home and abroad, anarchists have led the way for socialism. We were the banner bearers. Throughout the years of globalisation it was our umbrella of groups which resisted the excesses of the free market, with trade unionists, Marxists and social democrats tagging along and marvelling at the decentralised approach.
Now neoliberalism and globalisation appears to be in retreat. Trump has already vowed to pull the US out of multinational trade deals. Brexit could see Britain out of the single market. Suddenly governments are thinking about protecting certain industries and jobs for the good of the nation. Suddenly nationalism and not globalisation is sound economics. Suddenly we are bracing ourselves for the oncoming new style of capitalism in which exploitation will continue unabated whilst the gains made for minorities could be offset or eroded. It will be the worst of both worlds.
This new politics and economics is in no way set in stone though. The political landscape is realigning. How politics works right now might not be how it works by 2020 or 2030. If Corbyn’s Labour can convince people that it is worth voting for then in Parliamentary terms this resurgent conservatism has a fight on it’s hands. That doesn’t seem likely though. The recent Richmond by election victory for the Lib Dems shows that the Brexit split can make a very real difference to British politics. It isn’t inconceivable to see the British public split along the lines of the referendum for years to come, with the Conservatives and UKIP on one side and the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP on the other. Note that as things stand there isn’t any real role for the Labour Party in this scenario. If the country remains split and they want votes they have to come down on one side or the other or else hope they can heal the split singlehandedly and with policies that satisfy both camps to a certain extent.
Labour and indeed labourism (the link between socialism, trade unions and a party for working people) could well die in Britain over the next few years as Labour voters move to the Conservatives, UKIP, the Lib Dems and the Greens. The SNP appears to have already taken their votes in Scotland. The main political battle is, as it was, between conservatism and liberalism. Socialism in parliamentary terms appears dead, despite Corbyn.
So we are undoubtedly witnessing the end of one era and the start of something new. If the scenario that the Labour Party is dying is correct then we need to give some thought to how we develop our alternative. The people who have joined the Labour Party and it’s faction, Momentum, may stay and fight it out or they might start drifting away from mainstream politics again. Anarchism should offer a political home to as wide an array of people as possible. That is our challenge. We have to be able to show that we have the answers to the problems of the majority. Anarchism is in this sense both an end result and a living process.
The end of capitalism and the State is a tough thing to explain to people who see no possible alternative to either. People often get bogged down in visualising that end result. How would an anarchist system work in practice? But the process is more accessible and one in which we can gather the politically dispossessed around us.
The process starts with a simple question: how can we speak truth to power? It is in answering this question that we will find our pathway through the changing political landscape. We may carry on doing the same things we’ve always done. It might be direct action, striking, anti-fascist action, green campaigning, animal rights etc. It might still involve a class analysis alongside identity campaigns. It might even involve the occasional petition signing (I bet you do). Some of the tactics we use will always be effective, others will depend on circumstance. The exciting position we are now in is to find the tactics that work the best. The objective is to speak truth to power and in doing so to disrupt their harmful practices. Along the way we will find new comrades and they will inspire and reignite our anarchist community. Together we can challenge capitalism and the State. Together we can shake things up and hopefully shape the political landscape for ourselves.
It is only the landscape, the terrain, that has changed. The war remains the same.