It’s been a week in which many people seemed to be intent on sabotaging their own best interests. Like US workers in 2004 voting for a president who would savage their health and welfare and give huge tax cuts to the super-rich, it seemed the masses either didn’t know what was good for them, or else were masochistically bent on their own self-destruction.
In 21st century Britain, at a time when austerity is the watchword, when the government is launching a programme of cuts, and money is hard to come by, a million people can, it seems, be persuaded that a clutch of inbred aristocrats are so ‘special’ that they will turn out in the rain to cheer them, and, presumably, the millions we spend each year to keep them in luxury. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, in the state of Wisconsin, where last year thousands of trade unionists launched mass protests against the removal of collective bargaining rights, Governor Scott Walker won the vote in a recall election that has given the green light for huge attacks on the US trade union movement.
Although the latter is clearly the more serious of the two events, I want to spend a minute on the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. These sort of events are always particularly irksome if you are a republican or anti-monarchist. The whole mass media goes into hyperbole mode, insisting that ‘the whole nation’ is as one in supporting, nay, adoring the monarch, leaving aside the fact that millions do not.
Even if we look at it in geographical terms, the ‘nation’ is far from being ‘one’. The BBC’s Scotland correspondent James Cook asked: ‘Is Scotland’s Jubilee Flagging?’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-18317092 concluding that large swathes of Scotland, ‘show no visible enthusiasm for the Windsors’.
Although this is a subjective observation, in West Wales too, driving through Llanelli and Swansea on Saturday, I saw very little of either civic or domestic bunting (the latter being a rough rule of thumb for public support). It is not just that the wider support for socialistic ideas down here tends towards the anti-monarchist, but Welsh nationalists, too, resent the fact that an English aristocrat calls himself ‘the Prince of Wales.’ Although this is not to say there is no support for the Queen down here (there clearly is) it is to say that there is less of it than in the English heartlands, and that what there is, is more nuanced, more questioning, much more conditional. The BBC tends to relate even the weather forecast primarily to the South East of England, and this demographic bias, as a matter of course, over-estimates the depth and breadth of popular support for the royal family. In fact the wall-to-wall 24-hour over-the-top BBC coverage was a turn-off to many, as we shall see.
Nonetheless, the adoration directed at the British royals is extraordinary. On one level those sane adults who indulge it must be aware it is based upon a delusional, irrational notion – namely, that one particular blood line of aristocrats is, by virtue of its DNA, special, even godlike. That an institution based upon such a preposterous idea should have survived into the 21st century is a testament to the power of PR, spin and marketing, but something more than that sustains it.
The royal family fulfils an important unifying function for the British establishment and ruling class. Otherwise it would have vanished long ago. Its message is that national identity is supremely important, that it unites us before a woman who is above class, above the dirty games of political parties and elections. In some obscure way she represents us, she symbolises our history. Untroubled by the ebb and flow of electoral politics, she is a constant, with whom we identify as mother of the nation.
And funnily enough, as politicians themselves sink in popular esteem, being now regarded as a species somewhat below the bedbug, so the Queen becomes more transcendent. As politics becomes ever more debased and corrupt, so she shines ever brighter above the sorry mess. Bread and circuses was the formula which kept the ancient Roman masses quiescent: enough food to keep people from rioting, and the distraction of spectacle. And in London in the 21st century we have processions and military aircraft and a barge made of gold. The royals fulfil a symbolic function, certainly, but that is not to say they have no power. The only thing lacking is bread for the people. But then as the food parcel returns the diversion of the extravaganza becomes even more important.
This is 21st century Britain, and symbols can cut both ways. Circuses are particularly welcome in hard times. But as the rich and the poor sectors of society polarise ever more violently, hard times have a funny way of finding their way into the spectacle, like grave worms bursting through a whited sepulchure. As the royals were warmly tucked up in bed after the Jubilee celebrations, 30 ‘jobseekers’ – the patronising name of successive governments for unemployed people – and another 50, on apprentice wages, were dumped in the middle of London in the pouring rain to work as stewards for the Jubilee river pageant. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jun/04/jubilee-pageant-unemployed?intcmp=239 The appalling details of their employment by Close Protection UK, who told them to sleep under London Bridge, gave them no changing rooms, no access to toilets for 24 hours, and all for no pay, caused widespread revulsion. The government had to issue denials but the juxtaposition of hugely expensive royal celebrations alongside unemployed people on slave labour sickened many.
So, despite the best efforts of the BBC to present the Jubilee as a transcendent act of collective worship, the fly in the ointment’s scaly legs waved and distracted attention. Tom Watson – deputy chair of the Labour Party – felt emboldened enough to dismiss the celebrations as a ‘show of opulence by state elites’, eliciting an immediate shit storm from the Tory media. At the same time Ed Miliband decided now was the time to stake his claim for patriotism, averring , in a widely trailed speech, that politicians should ‘talk more about Englishness.’ Why they should he did not make clear. While it is understandable that the Scots and the Welsh should wish to stress their identity to stop their distinctive minority culture being swallowed up under an English dominated monoculture, it is less clear that the English need or want to do this.
The backlash even struck those breathless, shiny monarchy-lovers at the BBC. Their relentless coverage, together with the banal and platitudinous commentaries, was too much for some. There were 3000 complaints. The modern BBC audience obviously wants to be entertained, for god’s sake, and these days is not prepared to just watch a flotilla, even a royal flotilla, floating around for hours to a badly-prepared and inane voiceover.
However, at times when in other countries large gatherings of people on the streets are usually accompanied by tear gas and police batons, the fact is that in Britain large crowds turned out waving union flags for the Queen. In the Guardian Jonathan Haidt tried to explain a similar tendency, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jun/05/why-working-class-people-vote-conservative, claiming that the propensity of blue-collar voters to ally themselves with the political right, against their own material interests, is a global phenomenon . I thought of the recent vote in Wisconsin in favour of retaining Governor Walker, opening the door to a wave of attacks on US trade unions. In both these cases – the UK’s Jubilee and the recall vote in the US, large numbers of working-class people have been induced to identify with a person and a cause that not only does not advance their interests but may actually harm them.
There are obvious differences between the two cases, and the events are so heavily mediated that interpretation of either cannot be clear and simple. Reasons for voting in a particular way are usually complex, as are reasons for standing in the rain waving a little Union Jack. However, my main objection to Haidt’s explanation is that he sees the whole thing in terms of individual psychology, in this case to do with the fact that conservatives apparently have a ‘broader moral palate’ than leftists. Exactly what this insight means and how we use it are not made clear.
Actually, the notion of the working-class Tory would not have been surprising to Marx. Workers accepting, even voting for reactionary ideas is not some new phenomenon. Notions of alienation and false consciousness go back to Hegel . One of the basic propositions of Marxism is that it is not ideas that shape the state of society, but the state of society that shapes ideas. The generally-held notions in society reflect the way society is organised. For example, in feudal times the rigid division between lords and serfs was accepted as natural and inevitable, as ‘ordained by God.”’ Modern capitalist society is founded on the profit motive – so this is thought of as ‘natural.’ Such ideas do more than simply reflect society : they justify it and the current class divisions embedded in it. “The ruling ideas of any age,” as Marx said, “will be the ideas of the ruling class.”
Anybody looking at modern society will see the dynamic of this process. The ruling class controls the channels for the formation and dissemination of ideas, the education system and mass media: its ideas are dominant here. But this is more than a ‘conspiracy’ to ‘brainwash’ workers: capitalist ideas seem to make sense because they reflect the world as we experience it. Businesses are run for profit, society is divided up into classes: believing that these things are ‘natural’ and ‘true’ seems common sense. So there is nothing surprising about the working-class Tory. If capitalist ideology didn’t dominate workers’ thinking in this way capitalism couldn’t survive at all. It is by no means the case that if people are oppressed and exploited, they automatically develop socialist ideas. The spread of socialist ideas on a mass scale must have a material base.
In the same way as capitalist ideas dominate workers’ thinking because they reflect their daily experience, so the spread of socialist ideas will reflect changes in that daily experience. For example, the recent huge growth in support for the left wing Syriza coalition in Greece did not come about because they found new and better ways of propagandising their political ideas, or that they suddenly discovered the internet. It happened because the dramatic changes in Greek society meant that their ideas came to resonate with the lived experience of masses of people. Things that had previously sounded outlandish became instead ‘common sense’.
It is not intensity or depth of suffering that creates revolutionary and socialist ideas, but rather the experience of fighting against that suffering. It is when levels of struggle are high that workers are most likely to develop confidence in their ability to change society, and to see that alternatives to capitalism are possible. Capitalism, by its tendency to crisis, continuously precipitates periods of intense class conflict, so that workers are forced to fight. This is the sort of period we have entered now. Two years ago, commentators were remarking that the political left had ‘shot its bolt’: that at the time after the banking collapse, when socialist ideas should have grown rapidly, the bankers and the governments had won the argument. As usual, they thought that ideas were formed in the abstract, not in the actual process of conflict and resistance itself.
Ideas, whether of deference to royalty, or of collective contention through trade union action, can change quickly as conditions within society change. The Egyptian masses’ ideas about society and how it should be constituted changed rapidly as the huge crowds that assembled in Tahrir Square began to feel their power. In the Greek general strikes workers’ ability to run their own enterprises came forward as an alternative to what was on offer. In the UK the biggest strikes since 1926 have given workers a glimpse of how to resist the biggest attacks on their living standards for generations.
The revolts of millions worldwide against austerity have, after decades, put revolution back on the agenda. Revolution sees millions of people stand up for the first time and take control of their society. It is necessary, said Marx, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” It is through struggle that we change society but also come to change ourselves.