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It's not just the Tories who are in deep water. Economic slump and political crisis are afflicting every capitalist government today. Yet, in the absence of a political alternative, the crisis at the top doesn't necessarily benefit those at the bottom.

Frank Richards puts the new developments in the context of the 'Midnight in the Century' analysis which has been developed in Living Marxism, and points to the need for a new politics of opposition

The contours of post-Cold War politics

During the past three years Living Marxism has elaborated a clearly focused analysis of the present political situation. Through a series of articles written around the theme of 'Midnight in the Century' (see in particular Living Marxism, December 1990 and April 1991), we have pointed to the end of an era and the beginning of a new political cycle.

The central argument of the Midnight in the Century thesis is that the patterns of politics which have been evident since the Second World War can no longer operate in the old way. Instead, the end of the Cold War has consolidated the trends towards a reorganisation of relations between the rulers and the ruled in Western society.

The downside of the new political cycle is that the balance of forces has shifted very much in favour of the ruling class. This is why the Midnight in the Century thesis has emphasised that ours is an era of reaction, an essentially dark hour for those who support human liberation. It is a period in which the old labour movements have collapsed, but have not yet been replaced by other dynamic forces.

As a result of these developments, ordinary people have been left without effective organisations or a political voice of their own. At least temporarily, the working class has been unable to play a progressive role by fighting to change society. 'This has had a major impact on the intellectual mood in this period. It helps to explain why so few people seem conscious of the possibility and importance of fundamental change, and why we are living with a general mood of conservatism and a fear of experimentation.

Many radical critics have attacked the Midnight in the Century analysis as defeatist or excessively pessimistic. In particular there has been strong resistance to Living Marxism's argument that the old labour movement lacks the capacity to regenerate itself.

When this magazine has argued that there can be no 'upturn' in trade union militancy along the old lines, it has been accused of somehow writing off the class struggle and of declaring that the working class is dead.

In fact, far from being pessimistic, the analysis of Midnight in the Century has pointed a positive way forward for those seeking to challenge the status quo. It offers an explanation of why contemporary politics are so stagnant, and identifies the instability of existing political arrangements. In short, it exposes the underlying weakness of the ruling class. In the trauma accompanying the birth of a new political cycle nobody escapes unscathed. To be sure, the main victims of the new period have been the old labour movements. But since the institutions of the political elite are no less out of date, they are equally irrelevant to the new era. They too have to face the harsh reality of a political crisis.

Who benefits?

Recent events in Britain, America and elsewhere in the West allow us to develop the analysis further. There is now considerable evidence that it is the turn of ruling class institutions-their political parties, their parliaments, their governments-to go through the experience of disintegration. Their institutions are no more immune than the labour movement to the corrosive effects of the collapse of the old order. The consequences of the decay in conventional mainstream politics is an issue to which we will return in the months ahead.

The big question for now is, who will benefit from the disarray of establishment politics? After all, in the absence of credible alternatives, the crisis at the top of society does not necessarily work to the advantage of those at the bottom.

These days the term 'political malaise' has become something of a platitude. Western society feels ill at ease with all of its politicians, its institutions, its governmental policies and its social values. This feeling is neither clearly focused nor defined. Indeed one of the chief characteristics of our time is the absence of any strongly held views or of organised political passions.

It is evident that there are no crusades or big ideas today. Politicians would rather say nothing than risk offending anybody. It seems that in the present situation ideas do not so much mobilise as divide. George Bush lost the American presidential election partly because, during a weak moment, he allowed his right-wing colleagues to go too far with the 'cultural war' rhetoric. The targeting of liberals, and of permissiveness, as a menace to American civilisation had the effect of weakening rather than strengthening the Republican electoral base.

Since principles have become a rare commodity, ideas can come and go in quick succession. Not so long ago a European vision was supposed to be the Big Idea. Today, Europe does not seem so attractive. The shift in attitudes towards the Maastricht treaty illustrates the general instability.

These days it is often argued that the politics of extremism are gaining ground. No doubt terrible things are happening throughout the world. Conflict and strife are a menace in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. However, it should be clear that the strongest political idea is that of apathy.

Apathy rules

Despite appearances, even nationalism is not a particularly dynamic political movement today. The violent scramble for resources among local elites in, say, Croatia and Serbia should not be confused with popular nationalist fervour. So too with racism. Discrimination against immigrants and refugees is now a central plank of government policy everywhere. Yet racism as a political movement is not gaining ground. The recent decline of the French Front National, the most successful of the current crop of racist movements, indicates that there is nothing inexorable about the rise of the European far right.

In the absence of political debate on issues of principle, most problems remain unclarified. It is not clear which response is left-wing and which is right. Events can no longer be interpreted through the old vocabulary of politics.

For example, in the summer the French lorry drivers' strike was supported by people from the far right to the far left. What did this action represent? What concerns led millions of people in France to identify with a lorry drivers' protest against a system of motoring penalty points?

The same questions can be posed about the popular reaction against the Tory government's announcement that it was closing 1 coal mines. Why did everyone oppose these closures? Why did Tory backbenchers take a lead in forcing the government to alter its plans? And what possessed thousands of middle class people in places like Cheltenham to march against the pit closure programme?

In both cases people have seized upon a convenient issue as a way of expressing other concerns for which they have no ready outlet. Today most people's hopes and fears exist in isolation from any political programme. Since they do not believe in any particular solution to their problems, their concerns attach themselves to whatever issue happens to be going. In this way, what is really a politics without shape can acquire a temporary form through supporting a variety of handy causes.

Flavour of the month

The absence of strongly held views is paralleled by the sudden shift and fluctuation in the fortunes of politicians and parties. The rollercoaster electoral campaign of Ross Perot is paradigmatic. It seems that as soon as parties such as the European Green parties or the Scottish Nationalists become the flavour of the month, they become marginalised.

The difficulties facing the ruling parties across Europe and in the USA indicate a general pattern. The old parties seem incapable of responding to the new demands of the times. This problem is well illustrated by their repeated failure to come up with any policies that can even unite their own base of support, never mind draw others in behind them.

The splits and divisions which today afflict governing parties everywhere are symptoms of their internal weakness rather than of a dynamic political struggle. The debates themselves usually contain little substance. The fact that these intra-party rows are often conducted in furious fashion does not mean that they represent clashes of deeply held principle on vital issues. The fury is simply evidence of the absence of any accepted rules for the conduct of political debate in today's changed circumstances.

Take the row over the Maastricht treaty within the Tory Party. This has a minute past midnight little to do with different attitudes towards Europe. It is a free-for-all made possible by the fact that the old forms of intra-party conduct cannot be enforced if the rules of politics are no longer clear. The failure to maintain party discipline is a Europe-wide phenomenon, as rows break out in public all over the place. This is the clearest evidence marking the end of the party politics of the post-1945 period.

The weakening and incoherence of the old parties means that the conflict between them no longer monopolises mainstream politics. In many instances individuals or coalitions of individuals have emerged as the key players, in separation from their parties. Today, conflicts which are not about distinctive ideologies are often not about parties either.

The party is over

Bill Clinton has succeeded without a coherent Democratic Party machine. And in the various debates over Europe, politicians of different parties have banded together against colleagues from their own organisations. The campaign around the French referendum on Maastricht united politicians from different parties, not around any specific organisation, but around the alternatives of saying Yes or No.

Within Britain, major political debate has for some time been confined to the various controversies within the Conservative Party. The other parliamentary parties have become increasingly marginal to most of the key developments. The irrelevance of Labour was dramatically emphasised during the dispute over pit closures, when opposition to the government's plans was monopolised by a group of Conservative MPs and newspapers. The telling blows against the government came not from John Smith or Paddy Ashdown, but from Bill Cash, Elizabeth Peacock and Marcus Fox. The old tradition of party political conflict has given way to a far narrower process of argument among Tory individuals.

Who would have predicted that normally invisible Tory backbenchers would rebel and try to hold the government to account? Without the discipline of traditional party politics, individual behaviour becomes more erratic and unpredictable. There are no fixed standpoints, nor any stable party alliances. The old rules no longer apply.

A number of interconnected crises account for the current incoherent state of capitalist politics. The most profound problem facing the system is the economic crisis. One reason why there is no real debate, or any projection of contending political alternatives, is the complete absence of any plausible ideas about how to tackle the economic slump. In fact nobody wants to discuss the economy. This is far more than a failure of imagination on the part of Norman Lamont. It is testimony to the strength of the depression .

Playing safe

The absence of any serious political ideas, or any policies with mass appeal, is due to the refusal of the capitalist mind even to consider the serious implications of what is going on with the economy. It is safer to talk about Maastricht or just about anything else, so long as a critical examination of the stagnation of the capitalist system can be avoided. The economic crisis is in continual interaction with a political one. The crisis of politics is intimately linked to the inability to elaborate a policy or strategy for solving the depression. But the political crisis is also being shaped by the shift into a new cycle of politics. The political ideologies and parties of the post-1945 era cannot be adapted or reconverted for use in the contemporary age. These are essentially Cold War constructions. They have little capacity to relate to situations which are not polarised in the old way. The need for the construction of a new political system appears to be most clearly grasped by the German elite who, fearing a loss of their system's legitimacy, have launched a debate about the crisis of the 'political class' and the need for new arrangements.

The underlying political problems often reveal themselves at the level of party affairs. Party managers now have great difficulty in conducting the essentials of internal party life. This has been a source of many problems for John Major. The party political crisis is exacerbated by the difficulty that leaders have in recognising just how much the political environment has changed. Their attempt to carry on in the old way tends to bring to the surface the uncomfortable realisation that the old way has little relevance for today.

Despite all of the political confusion and governmental instability, the situation has not yet developed into a full blown life-or-death crisis for the ruling elites. This is all the more remarkable, given that all capitalist countries are confronted with some huge economic problems.

Opposition in limbo

The paradox is, however, that the current instability within the establishment coexists with the serious weakening of all opposition movements. There are no radical critics of capitalism exercising influence over significant sections of society. Even in the midst of slump, it is difficult to encounter any serious attempts to criticise the basic economics of capitalism.

The lack of any credible anti-capitalist ideas is the ideological reflection of the fact that no anti-capitalist movement exists. That is why there is no effective political opposition. And without political opposition, the existing tendency towards instability within the ruling elite will not be converted into a full-blown crisis of authority.

The coincidence of instability with an absence of alternatives, the observation that neither government nor opposition has any answers, can easily demoralise people. It will confuse even those who would like to see things change. However, regardless of first reactions, such confusion also creates a bigger demand for some answers.

Looking for answers

The fact that more people are demanding answers and explanations of our confusing times does not mean that they are ready to take serious action to change the situation. But it does suggest that there now exists at least a semi-conscious sentiment that some sort of new politics are needed. This represents an important step away from the more consolidated mood of reaction which prevailed in the immediate post-Cold War period.

Although the essentially conservative character of the period remains the same, people now want to understand this new world that confronts us all. How their questions are answered will determine how long the present inconclusive and unresolved political framework can operate.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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