by Robin McAlpine
You probably think you know the implications of the General Election. I think I know the implications, or at least some of them. But I’m not sure. And therein lies the monumental success (and failure) of the 2010 General Election. It was the natural conclusion of a process of collapse of party politics in Britain and perhaps the death throes of the neo-liberal project. What comes next will not be an extension of what just happened, but that does not necessarily mean that because we dislike what just happened we will like what comes next. What I want to argue here is that we must learn what it was that just happened so we will be able to influence what comes next. And make no mistake; the “other side” has begun that process with great energy and vigour. There is a sense floating around the Left that time is on our side and that the mess the world is in will now lead inevitably to something better. This would be a fatal mistake.
Let me begin by sketching out my basic thesis on the neo-liberal project. The idea of “imagination” is commonly taken to be a personal and private thing, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, imagination is social in almost every sense; we do not imagine something which does not exist but rather reassemble what already exists in a different way guided by current beliefs (when the Victorians imagined travelling to the moon they did so in petticoats and hot air balloons – while before Copernicus people simply didn’t imagine going to the moon). Social imagination is an important motor of historical change because it is when a vision of something different (and better) than what exists today is shared by a sufficient number of people that momentum begins to make that “something different” possible. That is why the neo-liberal project has been so keen to keep our imaginations individual (and individualistic) with dreams of gadgets, holidays, home renovation, celebrity lifestyle and cosmetic surgery. We have no remaining vision of utopia in Western society, only a sort of omnitopia in which everyone wants everything and so everyone wants the same thing. Monolithic, ubiquitous, depersonalised. The shopping mall. The project wasn’t to defeat utopianism and the vision of a better world, but to defeat the belief that a better world was possible at all (or even desirable). Everything is as it is because this is how it is meant to be. Even state communism was less pervasive in its ideology – medieval theocracy is probably the most recent parallel.
The deregulation agenda was not really the heart of neo-liberalism because that would suggest that regulation is something which can be chosen. Really it was about abolishing the idea of the possibility of the regulation of capital altogether – you can’t buck the market.
So where does this leave us in the aftermath of the General Election? The first and most important thing we might do is to try to reattach words to meanings. We have just sat through an entire election in which none of the parties contending it seemed willing to use any words which might be accidentally attached to any identifiable idea or analysis. So let’s start with why that is. And so the first definition:
“Triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline.”
Most will be familiar with the political application of this concept as developed in the US by the Clinton campaign in the 1990s. If you wish to gather the most possible votes, simply identify a position to take based on a calculation of equidistance from possible baseline positions. In the British context “tough on crime” (for the Daily Mail), “tough on the causes of crime” (for the nuisances who actually bothered to join your political movement). There is of course a problematic conclusion from this which ought to have been obvious and that is that if this works, it works for everyone. Like a TV CIA agent tracking a mobile phone, just keep recalibrating your position according to given reference points and eventually you will find the “source point”.
Initially this was about economics – it has been almost 20 years since there was any real economic policy position difference between the main political parties. In Britain there has never really been any divergence in position on foreign affairs (no government has really made a significant change in British foreign policy). Which is to say that quite quickly after the loss to Blair the Tories started triangulating for themselves and by the 2005 election it was hard to see any difference between Blair and Michael Howard on anything in economic, foreign or defence policy. The “differentiator” was social policy where Howard thought knee-jerk populism could edge it. But that didn’t work and so they got rid of him and replaced him with someone who could finally triangulate the Tories into a winning position by seeking to take the remaining differentiator and triangulate it out of existence – hence hugging hoodies and cycling to work to save the environment.
EVERYTHING FELL APART
But just as this was happening (as happen it inevitably would given the inescapable logic of triangulated politics) something else happened. Just at this moment the sky fell in. The point upon which everyone had been expected to congregate turned out not to be sufficiently stable to take the weight. Of anyone. Just at the moment when we were to have believed in the End of History, the final victory over all concepts of social control of markets, the markets did what uncontrolled markets always do eventually and they fell apart. It was as if everyone had decided to moor their boats at exactly the same spot in the ocean only to find that it was a whirlpool. Everything fell apart in the most spectacular of manners but no-one could do anything about it because they were very firmly pitched inside the vortex and could find no way out. And so it was that we got an election where everyone had the same script, everyone knew that they all had the same script, everyone knew that everyone else’s script was absolutely riddled with holes, but no-one could point out the glaring holes in anyone else’s script because it would instantly highlight the same holes in their own. And so we watched comatosed while everyone said nothing.
There should have been no surprise – this was all the utterly predictable effect of the myth of triangulation. There simply isn’t a spot which is equally unobjectionable to everyone because of two major problems. The first is simply that it’s a stupid idea because people have different views. The second is simply that not everyone has quite the same force of objection. Triangulation was really between two points, not three. It was a point as close as possible to the massive political clout of Big Money while being just within the boundaries of not too far away from what real people can be made to swallow. And naturally that meant more-or-less where Big Money wanted it (thought slightly short of not actually using the poor and “unproductive” as a source of fuel). But since Big Money is demonstrably nuts (in fact, psychotic in its narrow-sighted, narcissistic, sociopathic disregard for everything else) it was always a dangerous point to choose.
And so for another definition to try to find words which properly reflect what is happening:
“An event horizon is a boundary in spacetime, most often an area surrounding a black hole, beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer.”
For those not familiar with astrophysics, it goes like this. When a star starts to burn up too much of the fuel which keeps it going its weight and therefore gravity reduces and it starts to expand (it is made of gas and is held together by its own gravity). As it expands it sucks up planets and other debris until it starts to get so heavy again that its gravity grows and grows, gradually sucking in more and more matter in a chain reaction until its gravity is so great that it starts sucking all its own weight into itself. What is happening is that more and more matter is trying to take up less and less space. If you want, the star is trying to triangulate itself. Except that in the physical universe (unlike the political universe) it simply isn’t possible to pack an infinite amount of material into an ever-smaller space. When it finally collapses it becomes so incredibly dense that it rips a hole through space and time and creates a black hole. Around a black hole is a fringe, the last place from which the outside world can sense anything at all – light, heat, matter. After that is event horizon, the point where everything disappears from our ability to see it.
HOLE THROUGH REALITY
It wasn’t an election, it was an event horizon. Such a giant volume of shit tried to squeeze itself into such a tiny space that it ripped a hole straight through reality and those of us not sucked in were unable to see any light, hear any noise or feel anything solid.
The start of this article referred to the election as a “monumental success”. And so it was. The neo-liberal mess was so big and the implications so enormous that its only hope was to disappear, to distort reality to such an extent that people could no longer see or hear anything. Instead, a vacuum exists in which ridiculous tales about “gold plated pensions” for nurses and “bloated government” (bloated mainly by the actions of Big Money) are now passing for “information” for those of us outside the event horizon.
The other suggestion at the start of this article is that we have to realise what has just happened if we are going to respond properly. The event horizon metaphor was not chosen at random. One of the lessons for astrophysics is that once you reach the point of event horizon then you give up. Event horizon is the point beyond which rescue is impossible, “beyond which events cannot affect an outside observer”. However, the event horizon is a halo around a tiny point. The vast majority of the universe is outside the event horizon. The trick is to work out what can be saved and what we must accept is consigned to eternal darkness beyond reality as we know it.
It is probably too early to be writing a manifesto, but we need to be quite clear-eyed about the difference between the salvable and the damned, that which still exists in reality and that which does not. Firstly, markets remain institutions which exist in the real world and they are very capable of affecting an outside observer – and equally capable of being reformed and tamed. So too the media and the global institutions of neo-liberal capitalism. It may suit them that politics has slipped beyond an event horizon for now, but that may just mean that they’ve been left out here along with the rest of us. Because we are all definitely left out here in reality, along with all the civic institutions and organisations which constitute the real fabric of society.
NO HOPE FOR SALVATION
What has slipped beyond our reach is the political party system. For now, at least, there is no realistic hope of salvation for or from the political parties. All of them in their different ways have been sucked too far into the vortex to escape easily. The Labour Party would need to admit that its 12 years in power were a disaster. The SNP would need to reinvent the best part of a decade of pro-market rhetoric as something completely different. The Tories and Lib Dems are currently enjoying life in the vortex. The small parties have given up their gravity, their ability to drag matter in their direction. The socialists simply exploded but without the majesty (or impact) of even a mini-nova. The Scottish Greens have played their own game of triangulation out in some obscure field where they seem to have formed a small but orderly circle and await someone else to notice just how inoffensive they can be when they try. And Westminster itself is well beyond the event horizon; it is the black hole. There is more hope of gravity reversing itself than there is of Westminster reforming itself – those glued to the Guardian for days after the election hoping for a “progressive consensus” to emerge which would reform the British State once and for all were like some sort of cult allowing itself to be pulled right into the heart of the black hole in the belief that something better might exist on the other side. It doesn’t. For as long into the future as it is possible to see, Westminster is the exact point at which all events which might affect the observer end.
This is not a reason for despair but for great hope – if we wake up to the reality. The people who voted in the election did something very interesting – they scattered their vote. If ever there ought to have been a moment when there was a shift in the gravity of politics it was now. After 12 years of Labour misrule and Murdoch propaganda the neo-liberal project should have seen Cameron anointed untouchable as the man who will finish the job. It didn’t happen, and that for one simple reason: while there may be a wide range of views and feelings on many issues, we’re all to the left of the vortex on economic issues. None of us – barely a person – thinks that nurses should pay for bankers’ mistakes. There is an event horizon, but it is miles off to our right and all the space between here and there is left. It is just not possible to reclaim that space on the basis of the political parties we have.
This is the source of hope. We have to create a new source of gravity in this cosmos, one which will drag the matter of reality back towards real people and where they want it to be. This article does not seek to prescribe a new gravity, but rather to make a plea for a new search. I will offer three simple examples of what it might mean at first and then hope that this will be where left debate and discussion takes place. We could simply escape the event horizon by breaking up the British
State for good – Scotland need no more revolve around the decayed, imploded mess which is Westminster/Whitehall/The City of London. We could drag the parties back to a productive position by force – through fear of losing control of the population on the model of Greece. Or we could create new centres of gravity by organising outside the party system, much as we did in the 1980s and 1990s to create the momentum for Scottish devolution. Personally, I believe we will require all three, because without them we can’t get into a position to really create change – reforming the markets, the media, the institutions of society and injecting real representative and participative democracy into the economy.
And so one last definition, or rather an etymology:
“Aftermath: derived from obsolete agricultural terminology meaning a second mowing; the grass which grows after the first crop of hay in the same season.”
There must be a more fundamental process of cutting away the overgrown mess created by the political systems in Britain, Europe and beyond. Only then can we talk meaningfully of an aftermath.
Robin McAlpine is editor of Scottish Left Review.