Hegemony and co-operative strategy

 The economic consensus of the last forty years is coming into question. Supporters of an alternative economy over which people have control need a strategy to get it established. Here’s a broad approach, based on what worked for the neoliberal economists over the last half a century and the concepts developed by the theorists Laclau and Mouffe. 

Neoliberalism, with its emphasis on a small state and the extension of free market principles into all areas of life, is being brought into question like never before. The people who have been on the firing line of the reforms introduced by successive government are now raising objections in the few ways open to them – by voting for populist politicians and parties, like Trump and Le Pen, that supposedly promise the protection of the state. 

Many people – from Kim Phillips-Fein to George Monbiot – have noted that the success of neoliberalism in establishing itself so thoroughly stemmed in large part from neo-classical economics being developed as an intellectual model and an effective political device in a host of influential university departments and think tanks, meaning that it was easy for politicians like Thatcher and Reagan to pick up and implement the ideas. The thinking of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School was in this way transformed from a minority radical vision to a political and social consensus. 

It strikes me time and again that the co-operative sector, and more widely the idea of a commons-based or solidarity economy, is such a long, long away from here. Aside from occasional references by the likes of ResPublica or IPPR, and a few academics working in a few universities, there is a limited intellectual base behind the co-operative sector. Where there is research it is scattered and doesn’t form a body of evidence.

What the co-op sector needs to achieve is what the neo-liberal school managed: hegemony. This is an ambitious aim, and one that will take time, but it’s something we should be aiming for. 

One way to think about how to achieve this is with the political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who developed a set of ideas or terms to understand what a political strategy to achieve hegemony might look like in there book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. In light of recent events Mouffe has reiterated some of this in an article arguing for a left populism to counter the right wing populism gaining ground. There are three core elements. 

First of all we need to acknowledge that our aim is to some extent to achieve ‘hegemony’. This is term coined by Antonio Gramsci and developed by Laclau and Mouffe to refer to the way in which certain ideas and certain patterns of behaviour are conformed to and consented to, regardless of whether or not it is in the interest of those consenting to do so. It’s a form of power, but one that works precisely without coercive force or explicit domination. To put it in other words, it’s an ideology, a way of seeing the world, that people use. 

Second, they point out that there are ‘empty signifiers’ in our political discourse that need filling. What the neo-classical school of economists managed to achieve is hegemony around certain concepts and ideas that are core to modern societies but are contestable: individualism, government, democracy, freedom, equality, fairness, and so on. What this resulted in was a widespread agreement that people and businesses ought to be free get on with their lives left to their own devices, that government intervention hampered this, that fairness and equality were about having the opportunity to flourish, among other things. 

We need to attach a different meaning to these signifiers: that democracy is more than just a vote, but means having a say over the businesses that affect our lives, for example; that freedom to pursue our own ends in meaningless without equality that makes that possible; that fairness means that everyone is treated with dignity, not left to their own devices… The specifics we can decide; the general point is that we need a different meaning for empty signifiers. 

Third, a political strategy requires us to build a ‘chain of equivalences’. Neo-classical economists achieved hegemony not on their own but by forming alliances with a series of like-minded groups: traditional conservatives, libertarians, business bodies, politicians looking for a different message to resonate.  

It’s vital that we do the same. There are a host of groups and movements arguing for an economy and society in which people have voice and power, and in which there is greater equality of outcome and meaningful freedom. Tax justice campaigners, environmentalists, open source advocates, social enterprise proponents, many traditional political party members and of course co-ops. We need to build a coalition that recognises we are all arguing for a particular way of organising society. 

So, how do we do all this? What are the first steps? That is the hard question, but here are a few thoughts: 

  • Build our intellectual base. Let’s list out and bring together the range of academics working on heterodox economics and social policy that support a more co-operative society, identify key themes and begin to ensure we can present a systematic and evidenced case. 
  • Build our political base. Let’s identify where our current political support is and what the potential is for developing it. We should aim to put this vision of a different economy and society at the heart of a political vision, whether that’s among political parties or the host of thinktanks and policy wonks that inform so much of policy.
  • Build our coalition base. Let’s identify a possible coalition of supporters who we can ally with in order to develop a wider movement of people for a different kind of economy. We can’t be purist about this; we need to find a broad sweep of like-minded partners to campaign with.
  • Build our message. And let’s identify the kinds of messages that not only the political base but also the people more widely want to hear. Many of those people voting for Brexit and the like are the most disenfranchised by the neo-liberal, global economy, yet they are also the least likely to support the kind of economy we are advocating. We need to find the message that works for them. 

This is not the only thing we need to be doing. We need grassroots organising on the ground of the kind we’re seeing on things like co-ops for creative workers, community control of local assets and so on. But achieving this cultural hegemony is also crucial to being about change of a wider scale. It isn’t easy, it will take time, but we need to start acting on this now if we want to see a different kind of country. 

Global capital is producing it’s own grave-diggers

Karl Marx is at his most prophetic and poetic when writing about the big contradiction of capitalism:

What the bourgeoisie, therefore, produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers.

or

a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.

Marx was no doubt overly optimistic – and simplistic – in his thinking that capitalism, by creating an impoverished class of people, will lead to that group organising, rising up and overthrowing the system to create something new and better.

But if the last few years have shown anything (and I’m talking about Brexit and Trump, yes, but also the rise of European far right parties and religious extremism) it is that global capitalism has created anger and discontent that cannot easily be controlled.

 

What Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism says about discourse on immigration

Re-reading Derrida’s essay On Cosmopolitanism, which examines hospitality and the treatment of refugees, what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.
Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.
Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism. But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.

Is this the age of inequality?

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There has always been a gulf between the haves and have nots, yet rarely has it been such a political issue. What’s going on?

Take wealth inequality. Across great swathes of history, from medieval France to the mills of industrial Britain, the wealth and living conditions of the aristocracy and the religious and financial elite were incalculably better than that of the average worker.

Or take political inequality. Often tied to the above inequalities, it was accepted that some had the right to rule, while others could only serve. From the divine right of kings to the right of the propertied class to vote, the hierarchy in political power and voice was often unquestioned.

Or, even, take racism. In the US slavery was as common place as wealth inequality in Britain and until the mid-twentieth century inequalities based on race was not only publicly acceptable but state sanctioned.

Today, though, inequality has become the issue underpinning so much political debate, from the rise of anti-immigration parties to anti-police riots erupting in US cities to anti-business sentiment.

Inequality, inequality, inequality

Some of the most influential pieces of economics analysis of last decade, for example, have focused on inequality. Thomas Pickety’s Capital is symbolic of this, but the work of Stiglitz and Krugman also point to the rising inequality and the impact it has on society.

Following the financial crash there was widespread vilification of the bankers and politicians, whose actions precipitated the crash that resulted in public bailouts of private institutions, financial troubles for millions and long-term austerity programmes across the West.

Issues like tax avoidance, executive pay and trust in business has become the big issues with which the public is concerned, while activists occupied the streets and squares of our cities under the slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn may not be centre ground politics, but their rise at this particular time reflects a desire among many of the left to redress the balance in our economy and politics.

Across Europe we have seen the emergence of left wing movements (like Occupy and the Podemos) and the surge of right wing populists (such as UKIP, the front National and Donald Trump) whose slogans and, indeed, appeal are based on mobilising groups angry about inequality against those perceived as better off. Indeed, as research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation unearthed, many of those who voted for the UK to leave the EU have been ‘left behind’ and don’t have the skills or opportunities to make it. That’s why Theresa May, in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister, ran through all the inequalities she saw in society that needed to be addressed.

The debate over immigration across Europe is also about inequality. On the one hand are those arguing that those in developed economies compared to those from elsewhere have such advantages that we need to open our borders to immigrants. On the other are those arguing that people in Western countries are already struggling and immigrants are compounding this.

Bringing all this together – and in fact prompting this blog – is the headline of the right wing UK paper, the Daily Mail, today (22 Sept) saying ‘Spare us from these bleeding heart luvvies like the Clooneys who lecture us on migrants while jetting off from mansion to mansion.’

Why inequality now?

So why is inequality such an issue now, despite it being something we have lived with for centuries, often at more dramatic levels?

There are probably multiple reasons. One, and the simplest, is modern communication. Unlike any time previously, nearly everyone is faced with inequality every day. They see it on TV, in the paper, on social media, in the street. Few people can be unaware that there are vast differences in wealth, assets and power.

At the same time, as quality of life and education improve for the vast majority of people, so the ability and time to reflect on what is going around them increases. As such, people are able to look around and see that others are doing better for themselves. This discontent and jealousy is what Alan de Botton refers to as ‘status anxiety’ and Oliver James as ‘affluenza.’

Ironically, the psychology of capitalism, in which people become more aspirational as they become richer, has fuelled this. People want more and more, and as such they want more from life – better experiences, better stuff – and as they acquire it they quickly move on to wanting the next thing. In this sense capitalism itself creates both the inequalities and the discontent with those inequalities. Capitalism is its own ‘gravedigger’ as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto.

And arguably this is reinforced by the reality of the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity. We are told in different ways that we live in meritocratic societies in which people are on a level playing field and therefore create their own luck and life chances. This, in principle, ought to mean that people view any equalities as a fair outcome – those who have wealth, assets, a good life deserve it because they worked for it. In practice, though, cards are generally stacked in some people’s favours not others. By virtue of the luck of where you’re born, when and into which family, people’s life chances vary radically, even before you factor in natural ability and talent. The disconnect between the rhetoric of equality of opportunity that is so important for a liberal society and the grim truth of inequality makes the gulf between the have and have nots a glaring issue.

These are just hastily jotted down thoughts. I know there is evidence to back up some of this which I haven’t explored fully or cited, and I know there will be evidence to contradict it, and the next step might be to explore some of that.

The point is that, perhaps because status and merit are such strong motivations in our lives it is perhaps not surprising that inequality is becoming the issue that defines so many of the political debates today. In this sense, we seem to be living in an age of inequality.

 

Pressure cooker politics, Nietzsche and the EU referendum

The majority of the British people who voted in the referendum voted to leave the European Union. They voted to leave for many reasons – to quell immigration, to take back sovereignty, to go back to some golden age of British might, because the leave campaign was convincing, because the remain campaign was weak… and so many more reasons too no doubt.

What has become clear since the referendum, too, is that anti-immigration was in fact a very large part of the support for Brexit, as evidenced by the rise in hate crimes and casual racism, and recriminations against the leave campaign for the tenor of its messages in the wake of the result.

I’d be interested to hear what Chantal Mouffe has to say on this. Or, in fact, Nietzsche (if he hadn’t been dead for 100 or so years that is). Mouffe is a political theorist who for the last 15 years has been calling for a more ‘agonistic’ approach to politics, one in which different ideas are openly and passionately debated. She has referred to immigration on a number of occasions in this respect, arguing that in many liberal democracies it is made impossible to honestly discuss immigration because passions are deemed to run too high and a moralistic tone of the debate limits what can be said. The consequence of this is an implicit suppression of views, so that the concerns of many people are displaced and spill over into other areas. It creates a pressure cooker like society, where the heat rises and rises until it explodes in ways not connected or expected. Like the EU referendum.

Nietzsche praised the ancient Greeks for channeling the excessive desires of its people into ‘agonistic’ contests – often physical contests that ensured their passions and drives had an outlet, rather than overflowing and destabilising society.

What the EU referendum and the associated rise and rise of right wing, populist anti system and protest parties tells us is that the ‘agon’ – democratic channels through which people with opposing ideas can confront one another – is crucial if we want to avoid people’s concerns bubbling over and being displaced into increasingly antagonistic or even violent outbursts.