The Left Against the People?

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From the 1990s to the mid 2010s, the question of the people was not a central one in British politics. Low and declining voter turnout, party membership, and trade union membership (as traced by Peter Mair in his essential Ruling the Void (London: Verso, 2013)) in fact created a moral panic in the other direction. During this period of declining popular sovereignty, there was a moral panic about apathy – essentially the people were defined by their absence from political life.

The situation in late 2018 is very different. In the last two years, the people have re-entered British politics in an unexpected way. The vote to Leave the European Union ran counter to the advice and expectations of the political, journalistic, and academic elites. In the two years since the referendum result the ability of Leave voters to understand the complexities of the European Union, or of simple referendum voting, has been put under the microscope. The wisdom of plebiscitary politics has been repeatedly questioned, from a number of angles. But most of all, we have seen a constant pillorying of the cognitive capabilities of Leave voters. They are seen as unable to resist the draw of bigotry, or of a return to Empire, or of Russian social media bots. The contemporary moral panic, then, is not around the apathy of the people, it is around their ignorance.

The contemporary moral panic around the ignorance of the masses has a number of characteristic symptoms: the diagnosis of a post-truth or post-factual politics; a deep suspicion of social media that circulates information too quickly and with too little moderation; an instinctive siding with technocratic, institutional aspects of democracy against expressions of popular sovereignty; and, a desire to protect the people from politics (such as the supposed appeal of populism or fascism) as far as possible. The British Left, or at least the liberal Left, the Labour Party and Momentum, sadly seem to be evincing almost all of these symptoms. (The Full Brexit and a number of others stand as honourable exceptions, willing to defend Brexit on democratic grounds; see my piece on the EU as anti- and un- democratic here.) 

The Left’s acceptance of this essentially anti-mass view, if unchanged, will have disastrous political consequences. Most importantly, it cedes the ground for a democratic defence of Brexit to the Right and to people like Jacob Rees-Mogg. It would leave the Labour Party exposed on Brexit, unable to mediate between Leave voters on the one hand and Remain activists and Parliamentarians on the other. At the same time, the moral panic around the ignorance of the masses puts the ‘blame’ for rising populism at the door of the supposedly racist, xenophobic, and irrecoverably hateful British working class. This mistakes symptom for cause. The key factor driving the rise of populism across Western Europe is structural – it is the yawning gap between politics and the people across the continent that has allowed Right-wing populists to attract attention and support by (correctly) criticizing establishment politicians as out of touch. As Lee Jones puts it on the podcast #OCCUPYIRTHEORY, ‘populism is a symptom of the void’. Bridging that void, and so eliminating the space for Right-wing populism, with a demand for greater democracy should be a key priority for socialists.

It seems there is a parallel here with an earlier socialist attempt to rescue the people from what we might want to call the enormous condescension of the elites. Much of Raymond Williams’ work, along with that of Stuart Hall and E. P. Thompson, looked to trace the development of mass culture and politics in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, popular education, and universal suffrage. In his 1958 book Culture and Society Williams focuses on the development of mass culture and the arguments that surrounded its emergence. Among other things, Williams finds a deep fear on the part of cultural elites towards the newly literate and enfranchised working classes. A key construction in the critique of mass culture, in Williams’ account, are “the masses”, whose ignorance and lowered cultural tastes are said to be eroding the cherished standards of “high culture”. Williams memorably concludes: ‘There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.’ (Culture and Society, London: Chatto and Windus, 1958, p. 289.) In the final analysis, it is always the case that the masses are invoked from a conservative position to explain an undesirable change. As Williams aptly puts it: ‘Masses are other people.’ (p. 289.)

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The Left today could gain from seeing the contemporary moral panic around the ignorance of voters in the context of a longue durée class struggle over the ability of working class people to participate in the politics and culture of our society. A key part of Raymond Williams’ conception of socialism was a defence of the ordinariness of culture, seeing it as part of everyday life rather than a reified and privileged domain to which only the select have access. We need to carry something of this position over to contemporary politics. Socialism more generally must be a mass political movement, an attempt to defend and extend democracy into every sphere of life. Consequently, it is meaningless without a faith that we are able to use our collective intellectual (as well as technological and physical) power to make the world a fundamentally better place. This requires us to reject the conservative position that the people are too ignorant to be trusted.

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