The petition on hanging shows how the right’s willingness to fail allows it to succeed
I read with some delight that the petition lodged by scurrilous hate-monger Paul Staines to have a debate in Parliament to ‘bring back hanging’ is set to be struck off. That’s obviously good news. Even in the blood-thirsty USA the death penalty is becoming less popular by the year. You may remember that this petition received a huge burst of media attention when first launched. We were told that this would be the first motion to be debated under the new petition process. Indeed it may lead to a change in the law. Instead it hasn’t just failed. It’s ended up getting just over a quarter of the signatures needed for debate.
In fact, several other petitions have been much more successful. These have included those on serious issues like the release of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster and for compulsory financial education in schools. While our first reaction will be to celebrate the sobriety of the British people, we should examine why it is that the socially conservative right got so much attention for this. It also tells us something about the way in which the right is successful.
A while ago there was a ‘status update’ doing the rounds about how trade unions had brought us the weekend, the 40 hour working week, dramatically safer workplaces and annual holidays. It’s true, and it’s a reason to support collective action. But it also tells us that it’s been so long since we achieved those things that people need to be reminded.
Instead, it’s the right that have delivered a series of massive gains for the rich over the past 40 years. They’ve destroyed the economy through casino banking and pinned the blame on public services, driven investment out of public services and into luxury goods, slashed marginal taxes and created a boom in the number of billionaires.
By contrast we have been busy defending the gains made by the labour movement up to the 1970s. These are gains important, the fight has often been valiant, and we have sometimes succeeded. But we need to be more positive. We need to define a vision that is equal to that of our forebears. For those who worked for 12 or more hours a day, the 8 hour day must have seemed unrealistic. How much more impossible must an extra day a week off have seemed?
The right are committed to campaigning for a society in which people are killed by the state, the rich prosper at the expense of the poor and bankers who destroy lives and the economy should be rewarded with seven or eight figure bonuses. They may not win every battle, but they’re doing a fantastic job of winning the war. And it’s their very willingness to go into battle and lose that makes them so much more successful. We need to match that willingness. We need to fight unwinnable fights in order to win a war on everyone but the very richest.
While Paul Staines is off-message with his culture war approach, it moves debate towards the right. The plan may be to hammer the poor, then come back on issues like reproductive rights, LGBTIQ liberation, race equality and other areas where the right has lost over the past half-century, as has happened in the US. But Staines is helping to pull the debate towards the right, and is helping the right to win on the rest of its platform.
Today’s campaigns are for a living wage for the worst paid workers, to get the very richest to pay the tax that they owe and for a stay of privatisation of government services. These are good things to campaign for, but they’re all essentially defensive campaigns. And that’s what makes them so different from the campaigns of the early and mid twentieth century.
Until the 1970s radicals pushed for change, and mostly they won. They delivered the weekend, the 40 hour working week and so much more. The right defended the privilege of capital and mostly they lost. But over the past forty years those roles have almost totally reversed. It is the right that pushes for change and radicals that defend the status quo.
The one thing we should learn is that it is those with the positive vision, the programme that win. If you don’t run they can’t chase you. We need to stop running.
Excellent. Jamie Peck calls this fail-forward neoliberalism: propose something so ideologically extreme (privatise oxygen! provide every pupil in the universe with a calender of Michael Gove in a different inspiring action-pose each month of the year!) that it seems ludicrous, but in the very act of suggesting such a policy you move the political terrain far further and faster than if you suggested something more sane. (I suspect he left his Gramsci down the back of the sofa when he wrote that bit… where’s your copy?). But surely there are major differences between today and the pre-1980s. It isn’t just that the media is dominated by own-brand zombies, but the deadening degree to which oppostional positions seem circumscribed within the logic of neo-liberalism. Thinking itself has been colonised. Does the left needs a better vision-product-thing to sell? Do we pit the forceful articulation of impossible demands (Judith Butler troping at Wall Street) against the shrill rantings of Staines et al in the market place of policy ideas? Instead, maybe, we don’t need to stop running: maybe we need to learn how to become slime and produce new kinds of ooze?
It is. But the problem is that the media has created and reinforced the case for cuts, privatisation and tax cuts for the rich. This has a huge impact on our lives.
Just look at how difficult it is to make the case for action on climate change (something the media have trolled) while cuts are seen as an inevitability.
Could it be because much of the media which gave it that attention is a self-congratulatory circle-jerk of fatuous right-wing blowhards, and that Paul Staines is one of the worst of them, whilst the remainder of the media which doesn’t fit that description is nevertheless driven to report on these antics simply because it’s in all the other papers? Is “the media” is in fact a gigantic echo-chamber for a tiny minority of people with far more in common with each other than the rest of the country? Or am I just being overly cynical?