Around 37% of voters on 7 May 2015 voted for a Conservative MP, giving the party a majority to form government. The election was, characteristically, defined by an aggressive and well-organised campaign across the national newspapers and broadcasters that effectively produced opinions of economic recovery and SNP menace in the people’s minds. FPTP effectively produced the characteristic result: key marginals and negative voting deciding the outcome (a common position would be “I choose Tory over Labour-SNP, even though I prefer Lib Dem”). The Commons now has some more Conservatives and few Lib Dems; meanwhile the unelected House of Lords and the unelected head of state carry on unperturbed.
Hand-wringing about a rightward shift in public opinion isn’t entirely justified. True, if we incorporate the 12.6% vote for UKIP, which resulted in one MP, and add this to the Conservative vote, then we could, arguably, claim that almost half of voters expressed a right-wing choice. And true, BSA surveys have traced a growing hostility to unregulated immigration, and a growing lack of sympathy to benefits claimants. But as my interviews last summer for Searching for Albion indicated, behind this common opinion are anxieties and struggles about low pay, unaffordable housing and a depressed lack of future. An effective deception-operation has migrants and claimants given as cause, but again I couldn’t say a majority of people I’ve met have taken on all the rhetoric. Questioning the narrative’s inconsistencies soon unravels it (how many migrants/claimants do you know? What proof have you they do this? Maybe instead it’s the case that… Etc.) The power of this operation is regularly indicated in surveys that trace a vast gulf between public polled opinions of various scandal-stories, e.g. number of immigrants, number of Muslims, and their actuality.
Believing that the entire public has taken on Tory myths about a collective negative solidarity over the deficit also seems unwarranted. The collapse of the Labour and Lib Dem vote (to be measured, in fairness, only in Scotland and English suburban/small town marginals) could itself be explained as expressive of a hatred of politicians, and the entrenched opinion that they are not credible, will lie if necessary, and have no relevant life experience. Memories of the Expenses scandal are sharp, and stories of mass surveillance, covered-up child abuse by politicians and newspaper hacking have coagulated into a glug of cynicism and distrust about ‘the Establishment’. Curiously the Lib Dems have been worst hit by this backlash in attempting to present themselves as something alternative. It was always likely that Miliband’s party would’ve collapsed in similar fashion over five years due to its commitment to austerity. But the narrative of Miliband’s rapid demise will probably be rewritten: too socialist, not aspirational enough. But he came across as robotic and fake (“as they all do”), and had no obvious policies. His inability to justify the previous Labour regime’s work in propping up the banking system also didn’t help. But the SNP and UKIP have absorbed the socialism that Miliband could’ve successfully advocated, drawing on trade union and left wing grassroots movements, instead of the bowdlerized hardworking families Blairite schtick.
Spinoza asked ‘why do people fight for their servitude as if for their salvation’? Five years of this government may well result in England and Wales leaving the EU, the loss of the protections of the Human Rights Act rendering employment in the UK an even more precarious experience, the collapse and privatisation of the NHS, the disappearance of social housing, the normalisation of suicides and deaths related to benefits sanctions and poverty, and the mass immiseration of the working class as in-work benefits are cut too. The City of London as a booming tax haven, the future a mess of debt repayments. It’s going to be awful. But it is not popular. So why do people fight for their servitude? Spinoza’s answer was that they do not. Populations are ‘enlisted’, as Frederic Lordon has recently phrased it, into servicing and experiencing the desires of their masters as their own (strong economy, tough on law and order, striking through red tape, punishing scroungers…).
We can read Spinoza, rightly, as a revolutionary. But his point is to understand how this kind of enlistment takes place. Always suspicious of free will, recognising that the ‘self’ was an internalised cultural by-product, Spinoza tells us that ideas and activities are produced by political institutions, languages, histories and customs, and emotional narratives we tell about ourselves. A total change has to capture these institutions, cultures and narratives by producing a unified public movement of its own. A counter-public with the aim of becoming the public. Because power is immanent in Spinoza’s system, models of total revolution or unleashing inner potential won’t help. Discoursing online or in the street, joining an already-arranged march, or voting for an independent left-wing party are good, but not enough. What’s required is this production of real counter-institutions. To aim for success without breaking current frames of reference and creating new ones is impossible. Entryism is an illusion with no proven long-term efficacy; it surprises me that it still remains voguish, though perhaps this reflects the ambitions of various activists thriving in the London media bubble. Producing counter-institutions rather than those with popular disenfranchisement built into them. Inevitably, what’s needed is the ground and virtual ability to counter the state’s violence and media fear operations with a counter-violence and counter-fear. The problem of violence, direct and indirect, faces the oppressed in this country every day, and protesters on occasion. To not have a position on it is to reinforce the status quo. And, above all, it belongs to the young, most disenfranchised of all by FPTP, whose minds are still open and willing to become a new public, one focused on the common good now and of the future.
Spinoza’s interventions into politics in his own life were always too theoretical, often occurring too late, and dangerously jeopardising his own safety. It is unlikely that the English Left will manage to change its ‘fortunes’ by 2020 (again, Spinoza instructs that fortune itself is a form of servitude to events we either refuse or are unable to understand). I’ve no illusions that this inarticulate note will be read by future historians. It felt like a good title. Those that do will already think like me. The same result will be repeated, because it always will, because such opinions and votes are socially produced. But it is not impossible. All things are as difficult as they are rare. The mobilisation of social democracy in Scotland indicates, even in the short-term, an inoffensive, winnable strategy. But facing the Scots after their probable independence in 5-10 years, and the dispersed English Left at the moment now, is what next?