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in which the old labour movements have collapsed, but have not yet been
replaced by other dynamic forces.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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 .
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
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