Comment: Issue 62

In recent years we have seen the British State at work abroad and we think we are familiar with how it operates when it establishes itself in foreign lands (although few of us can really appreciate what the horror of this work looks like abroad).

But there is an emerging trend which shows us how the British State operates when it feels it is being challenged at home. It is chilling to see but in its overreaction we can find signs of hope – this is how our State behaves when it feels threatened. It hasn’t felt threatened from within for an awfully long time.

The groundwork for this was a Blair legacy – as we know, in his view anyone who had any doubts about rampant neoliberal policies not only had “no arguments” but where they had arguments they were simply “wrong” (his well-known verdict on the G8 protesters). For a decade up to this point Britain was largely in a morphine-like daze. The 1990s were years in which neoliberal capitalism created for itself a series of new ideologies which were designed to secure the victories it had won and to create a staging-post for the victories to come. Prime among those ideologies was that we were ‘all winners’; the borrow-and-spend years made people feel like they were active, in-control consumers when in fact they were trapping themselves. The housing-price-rise-con made people feel rich by doing nothing. The new opiates saturated popular culture – pub society (and the lifestyle marketing of alcohol and eating out), gambling (the National Lottery and the deregulation of betting), footballism (the reinvention of English football as an almost self-contained lifestyle option), the rise of the celebrity (gazing at the lives of ‘ordinary’ but ‘rich’ people). We were tricked into thinking that this was our golden age and we had nothing to worry about other than how to spend our money. None of this was measurably true and it was going to come apart. It started about 1992 with the end of one economic crisis and was fuelled by the start of the assent of never-ending house price rises. In the mid-1990s the domestic economy was doing fairly well (if you didn’t work in manufacturing or the part of the service sector typified by cleaners) and the reinvention of England began in earnest (it is hard now to remember that the St George Cross was not the football flag-of-choice of the English football fan and English league football was a distant fourth behind Italy, France and Germany). Then Blair arrived and this nascent feel-good effect was kicked into overdrive. We had Britpop and people were asking if London was the ‘most buzzing’ city outside the US (even our national fantasies were subjugated to America). We got Cool Britannia, licensing law reform, gambling deregulation, advertising deregulation and Mandleson and Blair’s emphatic love affair with the rich. This last percolated down rapidly – soon we all loved ‘the rich’ (but mainly the nouveau riche as typified by our entire national loss of taste) and wanted to be like them. There was the millennium and a million marketing ploys flourished. By the mid decade the reading choice of Britain was celebrity gossip magazines and our money was only to buy endless clothes, shoes, alcohol and other signs of ‘success’. We believed we were only one small step away from the ‘rich’, that they were like us really. By then we had almost made this ‘true’ with the arrival of the talent show and reality TV ‘stars’. Britain was not so much depoliticised as lobotomised.

But the Fifteen Years of Intoxication were starting to wear off by the middle of the decade. Some will point to the Millennium Dome fiasco as the moment we realised we might not be untouchable and that Hubris might be flowing through the heart of London. Others would point to the ‘tulip fever’ of the Dot Com Crash in which people invested billions in companies with no products or no profits simply as an act of faith. The Iraq War was another important moment – it was hard to feel good about our spend-spend-spend lives when such a blatant injustice was about to be perpetrated. The G8 and Make Poverty History put conscience back in our lives and the Decline and Fall of the Emperor Blair unpicked much of our self-certainty as a nation just as Leeds United’s bankruptcy started to question the impervious nature of the Premiership. The generation behind the winners in the house price game found themselves priced out of property and this hurt the nation’s self-image. And as the debt mounted, cracks in the spend-spend-spend years appeared.

But in the end this is not what woke us from our slumber. In fact, as unfashionable as it might be to say it, it was Marx Wot Did It. The simple prediction that in capitalism one class will use the means of production to enrich itself and subjugate the rest was proved to be an unavoidable truth once more. All that changed was it was the means of financial production which was the weapon used by the few against the many. The unavoidable dynamic of capitalism meant this was simply bound to happen. All of the fantasy economics and fantasy lifestyle marketing in the world don’t change the laws of gravity. It was always coming down. The question is, what is now left of the British citizenry?

In many regards the answer to this question is a positive one. There is real anger at the banks and at the rich and this is only just beginning. It is only now that the jobs are being lost, the prices in the shops are rocketing and wages are slipping further behind. Now is when the public seem to be starting to feel that it was not designer RayBans that were pulled over their eyes but the wool. Even two or three years ago it would be impossible to find Daily Mail readers ready to focus their ire on business leaders; now it is fairly normal. Barely a year ago a middle-class student would be infinitely more likely to be found shopping in Jack Willis than poking the wife of the Heir to the Throne with a stick. There isn’t a political party in the country capable of keeping pace with the public mood – they threw out Labour to be immediately disillusioned with Lib Dems and decidedly lukewarm on the Tories. No party is coming close to capturing the mood.

Barely a year ago a middle-class student would be infinitely more likely to be found shopping in Jack Willis than poking the wife of the Heir to the Throne with a stick.

And this is where we begin with this issue of Scottish Left Review, because perhaps for the first time in a decade it is not the citizens who have to answer the question of radicals ‘why aren’t you speaking out’ but the institutions expected to represent them. There are two well-discussed examples. It was not the NUS which brought fear to the heart of the political establishment but the spontaneous anger of young citizens acting collectively but alone. And it was not really the established NGOs which caused tremors in the Financial Times by putting tax-dodging front and centre in the public imagination but a somewhat disorganised bunch of individual citizens coming together as UK Uncut. Many are waiting for the union response, and not just to the attack on jobs and wages but to the big political questions. What no-one is really waiting for is a political lead from politicians.

This is what scares the British State. Blair left us a State ready to do virtually anything to combat what it saw as a threat and to justify it rigorously and self-righteously. But until now it was never ‘you’, it was ‘foreigners’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘anarchists’. The irony, of course, is that it was none of these groups who brought chaos to the heart of government but the aforementioned middle-class students. That’s what really scares the British State – uprising. Troublemakers will be dealt with sternly but what happens if the wider population shows any signs of unrest? The answer is that you step up what is now being called ‘political policing’. The repeated use of ‘kettling’ (a sort of extra-judicial detention) and the revelation of the routine use of undercover police officers straying beyond spying into agent provocateur territory is what the state does to its people when its people seem to be making their own minds up.

So this is where we begin this issue. There is anger and there is a desire for change. Right now individuals are acting outside the institutions and in many cases this is because the institutions have been co-opted by the State. The State does not like this; an NUS full of aspiring future mainstream politicians the State likes. Their own children shouting abuse at banks they do not. So, if we are to resist, what are the institutions going to do about it?