The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
As the Bard of Essex Ian Dury so cogently put it “There ain’t arf been some clever bastards”. Antonio Gramsci was undoubtedly one of the cleverest of those bastards, particularly as evidenced by his concept of hegemony, the ‘manufacture of consent’ that maintains the dominance of ruling class ideas and values in bourgeois society.
Gramsci saw that the capitalist state was made up of two interlinking elements, ‘political society’ – Lenin’s ‘special bodies of armed men’ – and ‘civil society’, which rules through popular acceptance of ruling class ideology. His concept of civil society was very different to the narrow view common today, which defines it as the ‘third sector’ of charities, voluntary organisations and NGOs. Gramsci’s civil society is the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gain concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs are shaped and bourgeois ‘hegemony’ reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to create and maintain legitimacy.
But nothing is fixed, everything is in a constant state of flux, even though we may not be aware of it in the moment. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci pointed out that the leverage that institutions like political parties exert can only be maintained when and where there is some relationship between what they are saying and doing and the lived experience of their traditional supporters – stretched too far and that relationship will eventually break. In as neat a description of ‘Pasokification’ as one could wish for, he wrote:
At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression.
That is clearly what has happened in Greece, Spain and Scotland. And it is, perhaps, just, starting to happen in England and Wales too. But while cracks in hegemony may have begun to open, its crisis is not consistent across civil society nor consistent within all social groups. For example, Labour’s election defeat was not only the result of its annihilation by a party to its left in Scotland, but the erosion of its vote in many depressed northern working class areas was due to both the (deserved) disengagement by older working class voters and to some degree their drift towards UKIP.
At the same time though, the more or less spontaneous manifestations of popular rejection of the Tories’ austerity agenda, largely but not entirely on the part of young members of the precariat, demonstrated by the Green Party’s surge in membership from fourteen to sixty seven thousand before the election and now quite spectacularly in the emergence of a widespread grassroots campaign for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, represents the most important crack in the ruling class’s ideological hegemony for a generation or more.
Earthquakes, while sudden, do not just happen spontaneously without cause. Continental drift causes the tectonic plates that makes up the crust of our planet to shift, split apart and slowly collide. The sudden cataclysmic rupturing of the St Andreas Fault, which will rip California apart, could happen tomorrow or in ten thousand years, but it will be as the result of a process that has been underway for millenia.
Political earthquakes are the product of long maturing crises too. The SNP earthquake is the product of years of Labour’s slow internal decay, caused by its arrogant sense of entitlement to its seemingly impregnable Scottish heartlands, grinding against the growth of popular alienation from Westminster rule since the disastrous imposition of the Poll Tax, and the steady growth of the SNP in the vacuum Labour created in its steady move to the right.
Since 2010 the most significant feature of real opposition to the Tory austerity policies, the most reactionary and vindictive for a century, has been, by and large, its absence. Labour had abandoned even the most timid Keynesianism and found itself increasingly, if rhetorically regretfully, complicit in the attacks on the the poor and the disabled (even though it had opened the door for some of them when in office). The trade union bureaucracy, unwilling to break with the Labour leadership clique, has largely responded to the Tories’ attacks with angry press statements and the organisation of a few token demonstrations. But the entire neoliberal project that has dominated the economic agenda since the early 1980s has, since 2008, faced an ongoing chronic crisis which has emerged and re-emerged in different ways and different places.
Of course, capital is generally able to find a way out of crisis – even as profound as the interlocking complex of crises it now faces – if it is given the freedom of movement to do so. Thus the Tories, emboldened by the apparent lack of opposition to its economically illiterate 2010 austerity programme (and in particular by Labour’s effective capitulation) are preparing to launch a savage attack on the welfare state and the trade unions that will sweep away most of the gains of a century of reformism. But economic crises also produce a response among those who are faced to pay the price for their resolution, albeit delayed. When crises come, they develop in new and unexpected ways as their contradictions are condensed and dispersed, rupturing in surprising ways.
While a crisis doesn’t automatically produce a widespread or radical (or progressive) change in consciousness, it does change the terrain of struggle. A period like now, when, in comparison to ‘normal times’ a long underlying crisis emerges, provides an opening for socialists to explain our ideas to a more receptive audience, but we can’t assume radical changes of consciousness will spontaneously emerge – certainly not in the same way at the same time among all oppressed groups. Rather, socialists need to be actively involved in struggle – organising and open to the possibilities of this particular conjuncture. As Gramsci put it:
A crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them. These incessant and persistent efforts … form the terrain of the “conjunctural” and it is upon this terrain that the forces of opposition organise.
Or more poetically “Crisis thus appears as the moment of rupture at which theory can be transformed into a strategic art”
However, in taking advantage of the possibilities opened up by the crisis we need to be aware that the window of opportunity can both open and shut very rapidly and without apparent warning. As the French socialist Daniel Bensaid said, in “strategy, time is the exact opposite of a uniform, homogeneous and empty dimension. It is made of clashes, sudden changes and moments to be seized.”
But in order to seize the time one needs a party, or at least a popular movement, or at least a critical mass of some thousands of activists who can provide the energy, physical resources and imagination needed to mobilise that movement and build (or rebuild) that party. So what grouping on the left could provide such a critical mass? The Green Party could do it but won’t. Left Unity would do it but can’t (certainly not on its own). The various comic opera bolshevik sects don’t even want to. But perhaps – just perhaps – the inchoate movement coalescing around Jeremy Corbyn might. While the Jeremy for Labour campaign might not be a Podemos, and certainly not a Syriza, its remarkable success in mobilising significant numbers of current and former Labour members or supporters, independent socialists and most crucially, battalions of young people, may well be a case of third time lucky after the dead end of the ‘Green Surge’ and the sadly drifting Left Unity project.
While Corbyn’s campaign has built up an astonishing and exciting head of popular steam it would be foolish (and tempting fate) to predict his victory at this stage. As I write there is a month of campaigning to go, the hysterical red baiting and muck raking of an almost universally hostile mass media continues unabated and there are signs that Andy Burnham is sidling up to nick a few of Jeremy’s clothes. However, the significance of his campaign for socialists can hardly be overstated.
As all devoted Pot Black viewers will know, when playing snooker there often comes a point where all the easy reds have been potted and all that remain are in a tight group, none of which will pot. In order to make any further progress, one then has to pot a colour and in doing so cannon into the group of reds to disturb them. There is no way of predicting where any of the reds will then go, but it is a chance that has to be taken. If Jeremy wins (or, indeed, if he very narrowly loses) we cannot predict with any certainty what will happen next. But what we can say with certainty is that his victory would be a game changer for the left, with the potential to be the most critical step towards the birth (or rebirth) of a mass pluralist party of the socialist/feminist/green left in our lifetime.