Britain under Johnson

Updated: Feb 12

Simon Hannah offers an overview of the political situation in the world and in Britain, and suggests priorities for socialists in the period ahead.

11 February 2020.


The world situation

1. Internationally the dominant features are the decline of US hegemony, a rise of rival powers, and a process of de-globalisation which sees a rise in nationalist, nativist, and authoritarian movements.

2. De-globalisation is primarily a political phenomenon, where nationalist-populist – often violent – movements emerge and take power, promising to end mass migration, restore national sovereignty, and tear apart the liberal consensus which they associate with globalisation. In its place they reassert the right-wing vision of the nativist worker who is primarily driven by racism and petty nationalism. In practice, however, these governments do not challenge neoliberalism, because a return to national autarky and isolation is not in the interests of the capitalist class. Instead, they cover up for their impotence with increasingly bellicose militarism and racism.

3. The US can no longer exercise hegemony over the world order. Since the invasion of Iraq, its power on the international stage has waned. It can no longer impose its preferred solution in conflict hot-spots, and at international summits it is regularly frustrated by China and other growing imperial powers.

4. Globalisation (the ‘free flow of trade, capital, people, technology, and ideas across borders’ as an international strengthening of capitalism) hit the buffers when the Doha Trade Round ended in no agreement and then the financial crisis exposed the dangers of the domination of the global economy by financial capital. The G7 became the G8 and then the G28 as mid-sized economies demanded a seat at the table, making decision-making at the highest levels almost impossible.

5. Since 2010, a period of de-globalisation has opened up, marked by uncertainty on the global markets, a reduction in capital export, and an increase in non-tariff barriers. However, the primary feature of de-globalisation is a political one – a drive by politicians and populist movements to reassert national sovereignty. Hence Trump and Brexit.

6. Already we have seen a potential war between the US and Iran. Whilst all-out war is unlikely, continued sabre-rattling is inevitable and proxy wars will continue in the Middle East.

7. Climate will continue to be a major issue. The turning-point limit for run-away climate change and a 2°C increase in average global temperature is generally considered to be 450ppm, and last year saw a record high of 414, up from 411 the year before. Australia is on fire – 10 million hectares, which is almost the size of England, has burned down, and they reckon around a billion animals have died in the conflagration. The utter inability of even a major capitalist state to protect itself from devastating environmental impact is starkly revealed.

The nature of Johnson’s regime

1. In that context, Johnson’s government will likely not focus on neoliberalism and austerity. This is not to say they will not feature at all, but the priority for one wing of the political class will be on – as they see it – rebuilding Britainas a (nominally) independent nation. They also have to coalesce the new voting coalition which delivered the 2019 majority, which will mean investment outside London. Privatisation will likely not be a focus (what is there left to privatise?), but instead boosting the national economy through limited state-led investment.

2. The fact that governments like those of Trump and Johnson – though clearly defenders of capitalism as a system – can act against the interests of their own capitalist class demonstrates the relative autonomy of the political sphere at certain times of crisis.

3. We can expect a Johnson government to be increasingly authoritarian and demagogic in its populist appeals to its reactionary mass base. Putinesque strategies of purposefully confused and mixed messages will be deployed. There is already a Trump-style attack on journalism and the press, and there will be an increase in dark-arts style undermining of political opponents. The attacks on the most vulnerable will increase, as the Tories will assume these people have no voice or tribunes to defend them. Already refugee children and the traveller community have been targeted.

4. A key battleground will be the ‘culture wars’. Johnson wants his Brexit to be red-white-and-blue, and many of his voters will see it the same way. We can expect a continuation of the anti-immigrant backlash and anti-foreigner rhetoric (‘the Germans telling us what to do’).

5. The current ideological drive is to establish a widely held view that the working class is white, male, socially conservative, and economically protectionist. This view of the working class is shared by the Alt-Right, Steve Bannon, Trump, Tommy Robinson, Boris Johnson, and some people within the labour movement. Of course, it is true that there are some sections of workers who are, people who conflate their class interests with ‘the national interest’, believing that life will improve once Britain is ‘independent’ of the EU. This is a dangerous myth peddled by people with dangerous agendas.

6. The Far Right, who are propagating this one-sided view of the working class, hope to divide working people, weaken the labour movement, and marginalise BAME, younger, and city-dwelling workers (who are predominantly Remain). As such, those wings of the Labour Party that want to double down on the working class as white, socially conservative, and economically protectionist are – inadvertently – providing succour and ammunition for the Far Right.

7. The alliance between Johnson’s regime and Hungary is of particular note. The Hungarian ambassador was involved in talks with Johnson before the election, leading to Jacob Rees-Mogg making a speech in Parliament denouncing George Soros, a particular bête noire of the Hungarian anti-Semitic regime. In a speech after the New Year, Tim Montgomerie, an ex-social justice adviser (?!) at Downing Street, praised Viktor Orban in particular for ‘thinking about the limits of liberalism’.

Contours of struggle

1. What arguments arise from this? Absolute intransigence from the Left on internationalism and anti-racism is one. No support for ‘national solutions’ to capitalism. The working class has no country. Those sections of the working class that are socially conservative and economically protectionist need to be challenged, and positive movements of resistance built that sideline such arguments. In a fight against the bosses, workers of different ethnicities and backgrounds can be united. However, without a struggle people will easily fall prey to demagogy and horrifyingly regressive views.

2. We need to look to those sections of the working class that want to mobilise and fight. A Deliveroo driver from Spain who is in a syndicalist union and willing to take strike action for better pay or for a proper contract is worth a hundred keyboard warriors who spend their time hating on the EU on Twitter. Likewise, one BAME public-sector worker in a trade union is worth far more to the movement than ten supposed socialists calling for more border controls because ‘immigrants drive down wages’.

3. Within the labour movement, a fight against the move to the right is crucial, and against any moves towards ‘progressive patriotism’. We have to be clear: you are either for your class or ‘your nation’ – you cannot be both.

4. Against the authoritarians and creeping fascists, socialists must defend ‘the limits of liberalism’ when it comes to democratic and social rights. But we must also raise a deeper anti-capitalist argument: that liberalism cannot resolve any of the social and economic contradictions in our society. Liberals promise a world of equality whilst endorsing capitalism, a system build on inequality and injustice.

5. The growth of populist right-wing nationalist movements is a grave threat to the future of our planet. If a global recession kicks in or Brexit tanks the economy, people will look for scapegoats. The EU will be blamed (‘they didn’t give us a free trade deal!’), immigrants will be blamed, the Left will be blamed. Bold and confident arguments that target the Tories, capitalism, and imperialism as the source of these problems will be essential.

6. On climate change, we need to support movements of active resistance and battle within the workers movement to take it seriously. There is simply not enough being done by unions on this question; indeed, they are often hopelessly parochial and limited, prioritising jobs over the climate when there is a clear and present argument for jobs as well as environmental protection.

7. The Labour Party will continue to be a site of struggle, so engaging in it will be necessary for some of us. But the lesson of the last five years is that an exclusive focus on parliamentary politics severely damages the socialist Left by weakening its networks of mobilisation and political engagement more widely. Clearly, standing in elections against Labour (even under Keir Starmer!) will be a waste of time – which is one reason socialists have to continue to focus on what is happening inside the Labour Party – but extra-parliamentary campaigns will be increasingly important. An organisation that can do both is needed. Amid the political confusion arising from the disintegration of Corbynism, clear, principled, socialist arguments are more urgent than ever, and a renewed critique of ‘electoralism’ and ‘parliamentarianism’.

Simon Hannah is a Labour and trade union activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left.

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