Perspectives on the UK General Election

by Elliot Murphy

As Kay Burley proudly announced at the beginning of the first televised debates, Britons today live in a country in which the general election starts not in a bustling town hall or a lively Parliament Square, but on Sky News. London is a place where 25 members of the Greater London Authority, along with the mayor, decide how a budget of £14.6 billion is spent. Britain was one of the most equal Western nations in 1979. Now, after three-and-a-half decades of Thatcherism and neo-Thatcherism, it is one of the most unequal.

Three recent publications – Russell Brand’s Revolution, Owen Jones’s The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate – offer a number of ways to challenge this status quo. For those of us who hope to reverse the tide of neoliberalism and austerity via the ballot box, it is worth considering what implications these books have for the upcoming general election.

Brand: Building autonomous spaces

David Foster Wallace’s last novel, The Pale King (2011), explores the theme of boredom in a society founded on subservience to concentrations of private power: ‘Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into the way they think – of profits and the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality’. Russell Brand’s Revolution discusses the consequences of this development and the private takeover of democratic structures, arguing that corporations should be reduced to occupying ‘a functional position in society.’ It is with this in mind that Brand endorses the goal of the ecological activist Helena Norberg-Hodge, to make corporations accountable to states and to revoke the charter of any firm with revenues larger than the smallest national GNP.

Brand has long been an admirer of Noam Chomsky and Adam Curtis, so it is not too surprising that he expresses sympathy for anarchism. He believes in constructing ‘self-governing, fully autonomous, ecologically responsible, egalitarian communities.’ Discussing Situationism, Brand astutely notes that ‘Dom Joly, Sacha Baron Cohen and Jackass in a way do stuff derived from this tradition because their crazy public antics make us question the nature of customary, consensual behaviour.’ It is notable, then, that most reviews of Brand’s book have entirely ignored his anarchism, focusing instead on the author’s celebrity encounters and style of dress.

Rather than orienting his complaints around existing viable alternatives (found in parties like Plaid Cymru, the Greens and certain elements of Labour), Brand’s book is filled with frustratingly vague statements like ‘systematic change on a global scale is what’s required’ and poses such questions as ‘Is there a me?’ It lacks what Brand’s excellent YouTube series The Trews utilises so well: facts.

There are also numerous contradictions and shortcomings. Brand hints that he’d like to ‘light up the Westminster sky’ with a gang from Toxteth and Belfast using Molotov cocktails, before praising Gandhi for his non-violence three pages later. Though briefly name-checking the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, Brand spends most of the anarchism chapter talking about West Ham FC, Batman and the TV soap opera Coronation Street.

Jones: Keeping faith in Labour

If Revolution is the appeal, then Owen Jones’s The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It is the proposed solution. Perhaps the most important issue addressed by Jones is the professionalisation of the position of MPs who, he says ‘have become corporate politicians.’ Indeed, our elected representatives are all too easily influenced by donors and foreign strategic interests, key members of the establishment.

Jones makes some very pertinent criticisms of international trade, the UK police force, tax laws and financial system. But when he includes, in his definition of ‘the establishment’, ‘media barons who set the terms of debate,’ he is noticeably selective in his targets. Jones writes that ‘the Establishment could hardly ask for a more effective lobbying operation than the British media.’ Yet his chapter ‘Mediaocracy’ completely ignores the Guardian, his trusty employer, focusing instead on attacking easier targets such as the Daily Star and the Daily Mail. There is no mention of the Guardian’s support for numerous aspects of the neoliberal project (not to mention an aggressive foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya), and its backing of New Labour. With the focus of attack being on wealthy individuals, firms and trusts (like the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian) conveniently escape attention. Jones is quick to condemn media barons like Rupert Murdoch for their reprehensible actions, but ignores the influence of corporate owners and advertisers – the latter exemplified most recently by the Daily Telegraph’s decision to temper its reports of the HSBC scandal for fear of losing advertising revenues.

In a similar vein, Jones’s conception of the establishment is conspicuously Tory-heavy, ignoring the strong corporate ties of both Ed Miliband’s Labour opposition and the Liberal Democrats. In addition, while Labour has exhibited extreme institutional hostility to the left, Jones insists on supporting Miliband to the hilt for his ‘passion and grit’. Jones’s soft left-Labourism pays lip service to anti-austerity sentiment, but the Labour Party for its part shows no signs of breaking with neoliberalism. The core philosophy of the Labour leadership is accommodation: not being wildly pro-austerity to the level of George Osborne, but sufficiently pro-austerity to placate the City. The only aspects of Labour which The Establishment seems to object to are Blairism and John Smith’s opposition in the early 1990s.

Jones concludes by invoking the ‘politics of hope’ before reproducing his favourite Tony Benn quote about the flame of anger at injustice. This is all very well, but this platitudinous rhetoric about hope is where Jones differs from other journalists like Naomi Klein – and other writers like Chomsky, Chris Hedges and George Orwell. We do not read these writers to be uplifted and feel optimistic about the state of the world, and yet they provide a much more comprehensive series of alternative visions for meaningful change. As Hedges has observed, ‘this kind of mania for hope is really a kind of sickness, because it prevents us from seeing how dire and catastrophic the situation is if we don't radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the ecosystem.’ Jones invokes hope yet delivers little, whereas Klein presents few reasons for optimism and, through doing so, forces anti-neoliberal economic and political alternatives onto the agenda.

Klein: Climate change as an anti-neoliberal tool

In Ambrose Bierce’s 1892 retelling of the classic German tale The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, the narrator explains his situation after openly sympathising with the daughter of the local hangman – both pariahs due to their connection to what many consider a sinful trade – due to her lack of choice in her fate: ‘Expressing these feelings to my companions, I found, to my sorrow, that they did not share them; on the contrary, I was called a fool who wished to overthrow the ancient and wholesome customs of the world.’ Similar criticisms are levelled today at those supporting the small number of left-of-centre parties (Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party, the Greens, TUSC) challenging certain key aspects of the Cameron-Clegg coalition.

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate acts as a rebuttal to these claims. It discusses with astonishing detail and unmatched stamina the challenges facing those concerned with rising sea levels and ecological disaster, claiming that the workings of neoliberal state-capitalism are the primary obstacle. She presents the catastrophic shortcomings of trying to solve the problem of climate chance by focusing on boutique consumerist, even solipsistic tactics:

‘Meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much “bad energy” and it will never work.’

In addition, a major problem with the idea of ‘self-sufficiency’ (personal greenhouses, etc.) – though well-meaning and undoubtedly part of the solution – is that it separates people from their communities; ecological and ethical responsibility is individualised, not shared. Consuming less is also far more important than consuming green, a point all too often ignored. Personal goals and aspirations, influenced by our neoliberal culture, can also get in the way of a greener future: a 1966 survey of US college freshmen found that 44% said making a lot of money was ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ to them; by 2013 that had risen to 82%.

As Klein notes, ‘shopping, living virtually, shopping some more’ are the activities that define our identities and communities, and which also contribute to climate change. Another dangerous tendency is one which preceded capitalism, often called ‘extractivism’, the Judeo-Christian idea that humans are given ‘dominion’ over the earth and therefore have the right to – and furthermore should – pillage its natural resources. Klein reveals how the most effective ways to combat these mentalities and ameliorate climate change are to reclaim our democratic processes from corporate pressure, block new ‘free trade’ deals, invest in public infrastructure like affordable transport and housing, introduce penalties for breaking green laws, nationalise energy and water, open our borders to migrants displaced by climate effects, and finally respect the ‘rights of nature’.

Election 2015

As it stands, the only party which even begins to approach these solutions is the Green Party. Across England and Wales the Greens are involved in grassroots environmental movements, as is the Scottish National Party. Globally, the number of green activist killings has increased by 20% in the past year. The importance of these organisations should not be underestimated. Many of these green movements constitute a form of what some political critics term ‘horizonalist’ organisation, meaning they are not managed in a top-down, hierarchical fashion.

John Rees has recently argued against these emerging forms of organisation, insisting that: ‘Neither are the various horizontalist rejections of electoral politics very attractive. To protest that we should ignore elections when millions of working people are engaging in a process that countless generations of their forebears fought to win the right to participate in has always looked like colossal  arrogance.’ Yet the Green Party manages to remain much more rooted to its popular base through constant support for local anti-austerity campaigns than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, engaging horizonalists in a way that doesn’t lead away from electoral engagement, but towards it.

In 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61% higher than in 1990, around the time that many of the major international treaties and guidelines concerning emissions were set. As Klein points out, this tells us right away that we plainly cannot rely on formal political organisations alone, and must begin to create and support other alternatives – the annual UN climate summit, for instance, ‘has started to seem less like a forum for serious negotiation than a very costly and high-carbon therapy session.’

We are currently headed for at least a 4°C world, leading to a global sea level rise of 1-2 metres by 2100, submerging island nations like the Maldives and devastating coastal regions of Brazil and the Netherlands while putting London, New York and Shanghai in grave danger. Discussing Big Green and organisations like the World Wildlife Fund (which is a strong supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement), Klein notes that ‘large parts of the climate movement wasted precious decades attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of deregulated capitalism.’ This is similarly true of certain elements of the Green Party, who have, for instance, countered Cameron’s claims about ‘responsible’ capitalism by promising to make capitalism work ‘for the good of the people.’

Nevertheless, by operating within accepted boundaries of debate and putting pragmatism before radicalism, the Greens represent a carefully designed but serious challenge to Westminster’s pro-austerity mantra, the Washington Consensus and the corporate mainstream media. The Greens are also the only major party concerned with drastically cutting emissions to the level required to prevent a 4-6°C world, proposing the expansion of low-carbon and the contraction of high-carbon sectors. What is needed is green cooperatives; green energy suppliers operating as capitalist firms, concerned primarily with profit, will not suffice. Low-carbon products need to become accessible and affordable, while the need for safe bicycle routes is becoming increasingly important in cities like London which dangerously intermingle car and bike lanes.

This doesn’t, of course, imply that a Green vote would necessarily be the right choice, especially in contested constituencies in which a Labour vote may help remove a Tory or Liberal seat. These are tactical decisions, not principled ones. Yet a strong Green presence, both during the election and after, can serve to pressurise whatever government is formed next month – forcing Labour, for instance, to stick to its more progressive policies. The ‘logic’ of austerity forces states away from low-carbon infrastructure investment, something an anti-austerity party like the Greens are well aware of. The minor challenge the Greens could pose to free market dogmas would also expose the numerous hypocrisies of current public spending priorities.

Support for the Greens, as well as for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, can offer (part of) an answer to the fractionation problems Labour faces, as Richard Seymour has explored in depth. There are undoubtedly some legitimate concerns about these parties’ shortcomings, but unlike the Greens and a large part of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, Labour is pro-austerity, pro-tuition fees, anti-immigration, anti-nationalisation and anti-renewables.

The success of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens is strong evidence that building left alternatives is much more effective when done outside of Labour, not within it. Jones and Brand may not see it, but as Klein convincingly argues, efforts to combat climate change may well be, simultaneously, the anti-austerity and anti-establishment driving force that British politics is in dire need of. The two things must surely go hand in hand. If not, then the resulting environmental cataclysm will drown out all the major ideological debates about people vs profit, independence vs unionism and socialism vs neoliberalism, and the only remaining social agenda will be survival.