Conter editor David Jamieson warns that the left is being warped by its relationship to rival factions of the capitalist class. A culture war prompted by elite interests is inferior to an offensive strategy which attacks the ruling class when it is divided against itself.
The breakdown of political consensus since the 2008 economic crisis has raised major strategic questions for the socialist left.
Strategic alternatives that had been partly submerged in the triumph of neoliberalism in the 90s and 00s, have re-emerged in a chaos touching every political tendency. Like all matters of political orientation, they relate fundamentally to attitudes about the relationships between social classes.
Recent weeks have seen a plethora of eccentric stratagems for ‘national unity governments’ led by leftwing liberals as the Brexit crisis intensifies, and exposed how deep divisions in different parts of the left are, based on fundamental theoretical readings.
Having suffered decades of retreat and the loss of organisational and political capacity, substantial elements of the left have found themselves drawn to the defence of opposed ruling class positions during the crisis.
Few could have missed the degree of acrimony that has infected ruling circles since in recent years, as rival factions of capital deploy contending interpretations of what’s going wrong and how to find a new course to stabilise and revitalise the system. Karl Marx said that the ruling elite were “hostile brothers” who sometimes diverged over the governance of the system.
But they have also shown an enduring capacity to form historically contingent regimes, “historic blocs” in Antonio Gramsci’s phrase, that both consolidated the ruling class around a given strategy and extended their support base further down the class hierarchy to promote stability.
In Britain the neoliberal era has been characterised by such formations, drawing together leadership from finance with industry and creating an alliance with sections of the middle class, particularly through the Conservative party. What we are witnessing is the unwinding of this historic bloc.
Insights into these dynamics are always welcome, and this is undoubtedly true of the “dark money” controversy as investigated by a range of journalists and publications, none more so than Open Democracy (OD).
The investigations found a trail of dodgy donations and secretive dealings involving the DUP in Northern Ireland, the Scottish Conservatives, the Vote Leave campaign and rightwing movements and parties around the world.
The investigations are very much worth the reading for the insights they provide into the nexus of wealth and power that structures the supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ world of the hard and far right. They also expose the heated antagonisms which have developed within and between some factions of the ruling class as the world transits out of a hegemony of power and economic relations that characterised political order in recent decades.
But the elements being investigated here represent a small minority of the ruling elite. Much of it is the activity of outriders with highly particular interests or even just axes to grind.
What does the ideological and political reproduction of the majority faction, the crisis-ridden leadership of the ‘historic bloc’ look like?
OD is openly in receipt of what we might call ‘light money’.
In 2017-18 OD received donations from (among many others) Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. All endowments from super-rich families, all of which seek to develop a civic sphere capable of reproducing the capitalist system and its wider social operations.
One of the largest donors to OD is the US state funded outfit, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – an infamous enforcer of US imperialist hegemony.
The NED has funded a vast range of operations, from the relatively pedestrian to the downright fascistic – its funds finding their way to the brutal anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua and Honduras, the overthrew Hugo Chavez in the short lived 2002 Venezuelan Coup, and even a far-right student movement seeking to undermine Francois Mitterand’s social democratic experiment in France in the 1980s.
The point here is not that OD is a conspiracy, or part of some grand conspiracy. Indeed, the frailty of the conspiracist outlook is that it cannot account for the effectiveness of combining substantial funds and institutional power with earnest endeavour and a real, articulated civic sphere.
The journalists who uncover scandals like ‘dark money’ couldn’t do so effectively as part of a conspiracy. They can only be effective in these efforts with a high degree of journalistic independence and by following their own political attitudes.
The more interesting question is, why so little ‘follow the money’ type scrutiny of these operations by big capital and big state power towards overtly political ends? Indeed, how can a website so effectively investigating the impact of big capital on politics so proudly display the biggest of all as major donors on its own website?
The simple answer is hegemony.
It’s not that people don’t know that the NED is a malevolent CIA proxy operation, or that the endowments and foundations of the billionaire class are self-serving, or indeed that the EU is anti-democratic. It is rather that these institutions represent the interests of an historic bloc which has spent decades bedding-in its moral and ideological legitimacy.
The nature of hegemony here is not that it goes unchallenged. Ideological hegemony doesn’t work if it can’t tolerate dissent. But hegemony cannot tolerate existential challenges.
This is why ‘Remain and Reform’ is the quintessential ‘intra-hegemony’ slogan of the left. It posits change within the institutions not just of capitalism, but even within the current, and historically contingent, formation of capitalism.
It is not surprising that the initiatives proposing this strategy in relation to the EU – including the overtly corporate People’s Vote campaign and ostensibly leftwing Another Europe is Possible – receive funding from some of the same sources. But it is important to remember that this is only one of the instruments by which left activism and ideology is contained within the wider ambit of the hegemony. The wider picture is more broadly sociological; breaking up the existing institutional life of the historic bloc is a disturbing prospect, because it can result in the transference of power to a new bloc, or to ruling class outriders carving a path outside (or more often both within and without) the established bloc with unpredictable consequences.
The consequences of accepting the ‘intra-hegemonic’ strategy are clear. If even the historically contingent formations of elite rule cannot be challenged, for fear of the development of future formations, no offensive against the elite can be mounted.
The logic of this position is brought-out explicitly in an essay by one of the journalists most responsible for the ‘dark money’ revelations, OD UK co-editor Adam Ramsay, on the Bright Green blog:
“A decade ago, the financial crisis holed [the] neoliberal model under the water, and for the last ten years, capitalists have been developing new models, working out how to protect and expand their wealth once the temporarily re-inflated debt bubble bursts, once the world has warmed, eco-systems collapsed and the last corners of our states have been privatised.
“The battle now is the fight against their attempts to establish this new model – where they hide their gold behind ever bigger walls or far offshore, and secure consumers and social control through what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.”
Ramsay calls this rebel faction behind ‘dark money’ Trump and Brexit the “global oligarchy” or “disaster capitalists” and in a 2018 Twitter broadcast he explained its relationship to the split in British capitalism:
“...old corporations and the CBI, owned mostly by British pension funds, and the British middle classes, are basically afraid of change and want to keep Britain as close to the EU as possible...disaster capitalists...seem to represent the interests of the new global oligarchy and of a kind of American capitalist world...who are very keen to take the UK as far away from the regulation of the EU as possible. And that historic split between the oligarch class and the British capitalist class is wreaking havoc in the British Conservative party and therefore the British Government.”
This is explicit; “The battle now is the fight against their [the oligarchy’s] attempts to establish this new model”. Ramsay believes this is the strategic focus for the left – prevent the enemy elite faction from advancing, and do this by defending the entrenched positions of “British capitalism”; of the existing hegemony.
Ramsay goes on to argue that this defence cannot be mounted without radical social change; the left must go to work “digging in our heels, and refusing to allow a shock doctrine Brexit to be imposed”, however, “if the attempt to stop Brexit feels like an attempt to restore the pre-Brexit regime, it will fail”.
Ramsay goes on to make the case for an unelected government led by Green MP Caroline Lucas, with Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and SNP ministers organised by “careful behind the scenes negotiations”. This would not be a “national unity government” he says, but would engage in a whole-sale constitutional reform, and agree a series of referenda before any elections are called (perhaps with a transformed electoral system).
The improbability of this scenario (especially after a version of it was proposed by Lucas and shouted down by many on the left) is not the concerning factor. The danger is that strategies are being envisioned that eschew conflict between the social classes for the significance of (much more limited) conflicts within the ruling elite.
Whole sections of the left are being drawn into a confrontation between opposed factions of the ruling class. Spiked, a contrarian opinion website whose claims to being ‘leftwing’ are by now exceptionally thin, has rightly drawn scrutiny for its acceptance of funds from the Koch Foundation, the vehicle of Charles and (the recently deceased) David Koch – the rightwing money behind initiatives such as the US Tea Party.
Complaints by that publication that identifying this funding amounts to “McCarthyism” are only as absurd as claims that identifying the gathering of funds from George Soros’ Open Society outfit constitute antisemitism.
It is a necessary observation, because the costs of ‘light money’, and the wider ‘inter-hegemonic’ strategy, are considerable. Sooner or later the politics have to be tailored to fit the material prerogatives of the confrontation; The rich are equally bad, but the enemy faction of capital is more equally bad than others.
The institutional life of ‘our’ faction, the EU, the UN, the BBC, Open Society must be defended, at least in so far as it is preferable to the enemy faction. In the most consistent cases (Paul Mason), this even involves support for the west’s military alliance, Nato. After all, most thinkers who advance the ‘disaster capitalist’ or ‘oligarchy class’ theories also link this element to Russia – the ‘oligarchic state’.
The alternative to the ‘intra-hegemonic’ strategy that seeks to defend existing institutions (with whatever progressive augmentation) is an offensive strategy against the whole ruling elite.
Practically, this involves focusing efforts against the historic bloc, during the process of its weakening and disintegration. This is “the battle now”.