How Come Labour got that many votes?
The Tories in the General election of 2020 got 14 million votes, but Corbyn’s Labour got 10 million votes? How did he do that in the face of a culture war waged for over three years against him and waged for decades over his ideas? This is a tear in the ideological veil, but the veil is still intact. The ruling ideologies are in place, but as the votes indicate, this is not total acceptance in the number of votes, even if it is total as a form of power.
What did Corbyn, and Miliband before him (and Foot, Kinnock, Blair) face? What I would like to point out is that in 2020 in the UK we have a dominant set of closely interconnected ideologies that I would estimate, given the 2019 election result, that 14 million Tory voters, 4 million Liberal Democrat voters, an unknown number of 10 million Labour voters and perhaps some of the 1 million Green voters, have just endorsed explicitly or implicitly. It comes in various guises and names, some of which are:
Libertarianism (Right Wing).
‘One Nation’ Conservatism.
“There Is No Alternative.”
Empire, Military and Monarchy.
Tony Blair, did not take these on, he adopted and adapted them and so in effect reinforced them. Corbyn’s ‘mistake’ was to challenge them head-on.
Yet they are not seen as, at times loosely connected at other times highly interconnected, ‘ideologies’ obscuring the congruence of vested interests of the core cabal of capital monopolists and the political power elite – the 0.01%. This cabal has over the decades managed to manufacture the consent of the 99% into resigned, apathetic, or cheerful acceptance of the economic rules of the game. I realise that just writing that statement runs slap bang into the hegemony of right-wing thinking that makes many readers experience dissonance of some sort, perhaps even some form of visceral disturbance.
To continue to entrench acceptance of the cabal’s core ideas, we hear and see a ‘People’s Government’, a phrase used as a blanket to cover up the fact that there is a turd between the sheets. It must be noted that this phrase has a darker authoritarian history which Johnson’s promised overhaul of judicial review of parliamentary scrutiny and the disregard of parliamentary scrutiny of the next phase of Brexit harks back to. What next down the authoritarian road?
‘Vested Interest’ has an ideological state apparatus. These include the higher civil service, the central bank, ‘think tanks’ such as the IEA, ‘elite’ private schools, Oxbridge, or indeed any other institutions such as the press and the broadcast media and now, of course, dark money funded social media campaigns. If these should fail, they have the repressive state apparatus of the police and the military. Historical accounts of their use in crushing dissent are myriad. This ideological apparatus is used to ensure certain ideas are widespread and accepted, as ‘normative’, in order to manufacture the consent of the governed. This is what Foucault referred to as ‘Governmentality’, i.e. the techniques, rationalities and mentalities through which subjects are governed and come to govern themselves.
There are countervailing voices, but the political discourse is increasingly ‘one dimensional’ old fashioned thinking for a world that does not exist, and it is willfully blind to the coming climate catastrophe which will surely overwhelm it.
The ship is sinking, but it will not be saved by steering it back into the ice field.
In the UK right-wing ideology is dominant, and almost hegemonic in actual power if not in common acceptance. For example, consider the following assertions, beliefs and theory:
Free market capitalism is a necessary condition for democracy.
The Government never backs winners, and should ‘get out of the way’.
Innovation is best left to private sector dynamic entrepreneurs.
Low rates of taxes are good for everyone.
Hard-working people should not be taxed to pay for shirkers.
The State should deregulate Business.
The State’s main role is to only provide a legal framework for enterprise.
Union power should be very strictly controlled.
Labour bankrupted the economy
Public Ownership of Utilities and Industries is always a bad thing.
Welfare benefits create dependency.
We are rational beings always capable of exercising free choice as individuals.
There is no such thing as ‘society’ only families and individuals.
Hard Work and Aspiration leads to success.
The poor are feckless and lazy
Tax is theft.
Top cornflakes always rise to the top.
Inequality is necessary for motivation.
Inequality in wealth and income does not matter (much).
“We are all in this together”.
“We all share the same interests”.
The Rich should be hailed as ‘tax heroes’.
“Heroes” (applied to anyone in the military).
Marxism and socialism are threats to national security
“We don’t talk to terrorists”
The UK must have an independent nuclear deterrent
The country is full and can’t take many more immigrants
Many of these statements are ‘normative’ – they are ‘good and permissible’ outcomes, necessary, or common sense. They exist well within the Overton window of acceptable political discourse. Many of them are contested, but not by many people with wealth and power.
An ideology is a set of ideas, beliefs, principles, that serves a vested interest. An ideology is an integrated set of assertions, theories and aims that constitute a political programme. It contains concepts that explore and explain human life and culture and serves as the basis for political organisation. It can serve either end of the political spectrum.
An ideology has two dimensions:
- The Goal – how society should work, e.g. Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- The Methods – the most appropriate ways to achieve the goal, e.g. Liberal Democracy, free-market capitalism.
Right Wing/Centrist Politicians will state the goals and values of the society they wish to see, while the methods are often taken for granted as common sense. They have powerful backers to ensure this view prevails.
Louis Althusser defined ideology as:
“the imagined existence (or idea) of things as it relates to the real conditions of existence”.
Under feudalism, the justificatory ideology was Religion, including the concept ‘Divine Right’ as it relates to the Peasant-Serf-Lord-King social relationship. Under Capitalism, justificatory ideologies include liberalism, right-wing libertarianism and, to a lesser extent, social democracy. Since about 1980 we can talk about ‘neoliberalism’ as the ideology and increasingly right-wing libertarianism as one of the dominant political projects to deliver it. Lucáks suggested that under capitalism the dominant ideology is merely a projection of class consciousness of the ruling class. I suggest that neoliberalism itself is an ideology that exists in rhetoric and not in reality, precisely to fulfil its ideological goals. In 2020, a Tory government plans to spend State money in amounts that a true neoliberal would blush at.
Ideologies are used to justify and obscure the real conditions of social existence. Currently, in January 2020, one has to justify the fact that FTSE 100 CEOs have received 117 times the annual pay of the average worker, getting £3.46 million or £901.30 an hour. The ideology is also used to obscure the conditions in which this is possible so that ordinary people either do not know or do not understand how this comes about. The High Pay Centre who produces these figures is a ‘countervailing voice’ to the dominant ideology which is promulgated by a far bigger and wealthier apparatus of dissemination of justification and obscurantism.
Right-Wing Cultural Hegemony.
Any class that can get another class to accept its rules, values and norms can become a cultural ‘hegemon’, i.e. an entity that can dominate another entity. Hegemony is the ways in which a governing power wins consent to its rule, unlike an authoritarian rule it requires those affected by it to consent and to struggle over its common sense. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) described one way this consent is manufactured using mass media.
Antonio Gramsci in the middle of the 20th century noted that socialism had failed to take root and that the fundamental tenets of capitalism were more entrenched than ever. We have surely to note that the world today is characterized by almost a total right-wing hegemony, regardless even if the government is ‘communist’ China. This near-total acceptance has been achieved not only through violence, economic coercion or repression but through ideology. A hegemonic culture has been developed to propagate the values expressed above, via the mechanisms already described. The norms and values of capital and capital cumulation have become the ‘common sense’ values of almost everyone. That is how you get working-class people to vote Tory, or for Trump or for Bolsonaro. Gramsci argued that to break this hold, the working class needs to develop its own cultural hegemony, a task which seems even harder and more distant than it did in the 1940s, during the heyday of Welfare capitalism which gave way to Financial capitalism in the 1970s. Domination of one class cannot be done just by advancing its own economic interests, or by violence and coercion, it must also develop intellectual leadership and an acceptable moral framework. To oppose the current hegemony, a new ‘historic bloc’ – a union of social forces – is required to produce and reproduce a new cultural hegemony through a network of institutions, social relations, and ideas. These are part of the political and ideological superstructure which maintains or fractures the economic base.
Corbynism was an attempt to not only win an election but also to develop a new alternative ‘historic bloc’, but it ran straight into the mighty brick wall that is right-wing hegemony. The question is not so much why did Labour lose, but why did it manage to get 10 million voters despite the vast machinery of manufacturing consent organized against it?
Why did many voters not trust Corbyn? Why did they think he was antisemitic? Why did they think he was a threat to national security? Why did they want ‘Brexit Done’? How many of them actually read his speeches or heard his talks which were not filtered through the biased lens of a hostile cultural hegemony?
The answer lies in decades-long anti-socialist propaganda by newspapers such as The Sun, vicious proto-fascist anti-immigrant rhetoric, a compliant and complacent BBC an organisation which draws its staff from the very institutions that accept the dominant narrative, dark money funded think tanks and social media campaigns, a higher civil service recruited from the same organisations as journalists, the military, the judiciary and political careerists in both Labour and the Tory party. The role of the Monarchy cannot be overlooked as a repository of enormous symbolic power propping up the status quo.
Lukes’ Three ‘Dimensions’ of Power
Lukes argued that power has three faces:
- Decision-making power
- Non-decision making power
- Ideological power.
The first we can see operating out of Executive Government and the policies they enact. This power of A modifies the behaviour of B via a decision making process. The political action the Executive takes reveals the decision making power of the State. Any cursory examination of the exercise of executive power, especially since the Thatcher regime of 1979, will reveal the at times solid gains based on the assertions above, and at other times the slow erosion of socialist/social democratic institutions of the 1945 Atlee government.
The second, non-decision making power, sets the agenda, creates the Overton window, of acceptable discourse, and legitimises or delegitimises certain issues in public discourse. A contemporary example would be restricting aviation, or car use, to meet carbon emission targets as examples of illegitimate issues for discussion. Being able to set the agenda is the second dimension of having power. Greta Thunberg is again arguably an example of agenda-setting, although we must acknowledge that her success rests on the huge body of work undertaken by millions of social actors over past decades for which her school strike was the catalyst for further public awareness. The degree to which her agenda affects right-wing decision making is yet to be seen. If the Australian Prime Minister’s reactions to the bush fires is a pointer, we have a way to go.
These two faces allow us to think about current and potential issues, on current conflicts and those conducted covertly.
The third face of power, ideological, is that which allows the powerful to influence our thoughts even to the extent that it can make us think and act against our own objective interests. Current political discourse focuses on the subjective expression of interests and elevates that into a mandate, ‘will of the people’, as expressed in voting. ‘Get Brexit Done’ is arguably a paradigm case of subjective interests totally obscuring what might be objective interests. The latter hardly emerged as clear and for whom, in the three years of ‘debate’ since the 2016 referendum result. ‘Austerity’ was another successful ideological tool used as a cover for a set of right-wing policies in the 2010 election.
- How do individuals or groups actually exercise these 3 forms of power?
- What institutional arrangements and social relations allows this power forms to operate?
Just one part of the answer is to examine ideas put forward that cover and protect vested interests.
Anyone with an alternative vision of social relationships or how an economy should be structured has to face this wall of ideology which has very wealthy and powerful backers. If the game is one of winning elections, then, as Tony Blair realised, you have to wear these ideological robes to cover your alternative programme but beware, you will be found out. If you are honest about your alternatives, the full weight of the ideological propaganda machine will be rallied against you. For example, see the vitriol poured upon Greta Thunberg’s head by middle-aged right-wing commentators. This is the dilemma facing the next leader of the Labour party if that person wants to win an election. In this task, it is the role of ‘organic intellectuals’ (Gramsci) and liberal educators (Wright Mills) to engage in a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (Freire) in order to build a new historic bloc.
Don’t hold your breath.
However, the inner contradictions of capitalism and the coming climate catastrophe might get there first.