Our Hollowed Out Democracy

February 26, 2010 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

With the Tories recently announcing that they favour the establishment of workers’ co-operatives in the public sector, and Labour revealing that their electoral slogan will be ‘a future fair for all’, one can only marvel at the levels of deception and hypocrisy which are now the routine stuff of British party politics.

Even for left-wing observers who always suspected as much, it is striking just how little the Conservative Party has changed since Margaret Thatcher, and how quickly the economic crisis has brought out their true colours. No sooner had the banks been bailed out with masses of borrowed public money, then out went the centrist ‘new’ Tories, and in came the old Tory dogma with its lust for destroying the public sector, largely out of spite, and regardless of the social and economic cost. The ‘Red Tory’ endorsement of co-operatives is clearly nothing more than another ill-concealed attempt to introduce more privatisation by the back door. Like the sale of council housing, to do it by appealing to individual ambition could not be more characteristic of the repugnant logic of Tory politics, as a strategy of government by greed. One thing has changed though: they’ve learned the key lesson of the Blair years, which is that neo-liberal agendas are best served if governments say one thing whilst doing another.

As for Labour’s ‘future fair for all’, it is comical in its unintentional self-parody. The primary reason that we now face a generation of deep public sector cuts and disinvestment, alongside growing unemployment and personal debt, is because throughout the last twelve years Labour pursued the further deregulation of finance capital in the interests of placating a wealthy minority. The singular fervour with which it worshipped at the altar of the free market renders utterly insincere its attempts now to solicit the votes of its core supporters by claiming to be the party of fairness. New Labour was founded, politically, upon a Faustian pact with big capital, and socially, upon an amoral alliance of the aspirational middle-classes with the plutocracy. Nothing ‘fair for all’ could ever come out of that.

When Peter Mandelson said years ago that New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, he signalled a complete break with any last remnants of egalitarianism in Labour politics. No longer was it to be understood by Labour that great wealth is always accumulated at the expense of others, that wealth and poverty are two sides of the same coin. From then on official doctrine was to be the neo-liberal ideology that the wealthy few are the entrepreneurial powerhouses of economic growth which benefits everyone.

This is the ‘trickle down’ theory, which asserts that all political attempts to make society fairer and more equal by redistributing wealth are doomed to produce a stagnant economy and falling living standards, because they end up reducing the incentive for people to innovate, namely the possibility of getting filthy rich, which is apparently the impulse that drives all progress. Consequently the only way to raise living standards for the poorest is by removing all restrictions to further capital accumulation by the already wealthy, cutting taxes for the rich, turning a blind eye to corporate tax avoidance, privatising public assets and deregulating everything in sight. All of which will benefit the poor because some of the wealth generated will ‘trickle down’ to them.

In reality, under the sway of this doctrine the rich have continued to get richer whilst the poor have become relatively poorer at an accelerating rate. Meanwhile social mobility has actually decreased on Labour’s watch, and all but ground to a halt. The ‘class ceiling’ is no longer made of glass, but of reinforced concrete, as the professional middle classes entrench their position in the face of ‘qualification inflation’ by recruiting ever more narrowly from amongst themselves. Labour abandoned any last trace of socialism in order to be allowed to undertake some very mild social-democratic measures. This bargain did not pay off. It allowed the financial and housing markets to spin into a ten year speculative bubble ending in the recent crash, whilst manufacturing and industry were allowed to continue to decline in favour of an economic strategy based on financial speculation and inflated property prices. All this fictional wealth remained concentrated amongst an elite, whilst the living standards of those on low and ‘moderate’ incomes continued to sink.

For 30 years our society has been strip mined to line the pockets of the privileged. A few thousand people have indeed got filthy rich, and the upper fractions of the middle class have become more comfortable, but the rest of us have just been duped. None of the main parties offers a meaningful alternative to the continuation of this agenda. None of them has coherent solutions to the severe economic, social and environmental problems we face, and none of them represents the interests of the working class. Our ‘democracy’ now exists in name only, in reality it has been utterly hollowed out.

Richie Nimmo is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. His first book, ‘Milk, Modernity, and the Making of the Human’, was published by Routledge in February 2010.

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This post was written by Richie Nimmo

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