I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?
What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.
What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.
This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..
This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?
I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?
“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.
Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.
9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.