If you listen to centre-left commentators such as Martin Kettle in the Guardian or Sunny Hundal on Liberal Conspiracy and elsewhere, you’d be forgiven for thinking that although the Tories are wrong to insist that there is no alternative (TINA, as it gets called) to their top-speed state-shrinking, there is no other alternative (TINOA) to their third-way, centrist hope for reform. The Left cannot seriously hope for revolution of any kind. We must start from where we are, work with the parliamentary process, softly-softly.
What should be admitted at the outset is that people who describe themselves or their political views as ‘centre left’ actually mean that they are centrist, which is to say Thatcherite neoliberal, but guilty about it. Of course the last Labour government was infinitely preferable to the present Tory-led one, and if they’d continued in office their cuts programme would have been less severe than we’re seeing now, and more sensitive to the poorest in society. But they would still have cut, and their cuts would still have been a disaster for the poor, because Labour — and this is equally true under Blair or Brown or one or other of the Milibands — is committed at the higher levels of party power to the neoliberal economic model of Thatcherism. It may aim to soften it, but they do not aim to eradicate it, to imagine a radically different economic possibility — an alternative, that is, to capitalism.
There are structural problems in late capitalism which mean that tweaks are useless except as a balm to conscience (imagine senior Labourites weeping into their muesli somewhere about their inability to be able to do more than they’ve managed to do, as they sit in their nice Zone 1 Georgian properties, and you won’t be far off the mark). But any suggestion that the entire structure needs to be attacked at its largely unappreciated foundations rather than at the level of its obvious and widely reported obscene surface is of course dismissed as fantasy, Stalinism, stupidity, the folly of youth, or whatever.
This is precisely why comedians like David Mitchell, consistently the most intelligent commentator in the Observer, are the most typical voices of ideology critique these days. They are permitted, as were jesters in medieval courts, to make the most pointed criticisms of the status quo without doing the slightest bit of damage to those in power. ‘Ha ha, David, that’s a good one. You make a very excellent point about [as he does in this week’s Observer column] our asinine ideological demonization of bureaucracy. It really is quite comical. But to be serious for a moment, we do have to do something about all these bureaucrats who get in the way of capital going about its peaceful, beneficent, and just process.’
It’s that ‘to be serious for a moment’ that lies behind the phenomenon of what Žižek calls ideological laughter. Criticism is tolerated precisely because it is encoded as a deliberate attempt to be funny (by arguing for something that nobody would want if they were being serious), the folly of youth (those students are very het up, but then they haven’t lived in the real world yet, and once they become proper adults they’ll learn that the best way to direct their anger is towards reform of the system, not its destruction), or just plain lunatic (anyone who reads Marx must approve of the gulag, terrifying repression of the masses, etc., and their views can be dismissed as being extremist).
Centre-left writers play exactly the same game, here, as those in power. When they say that the Left is being too shrill, and that it’ll never be elected unless it can appeal to the broad mass of the population, they’re making a sequence of claims so absurd that when laid out in sequence it’s unfathomable that anyone pays them any attention at all.
1. The best model for society is one based on leftist principles of reliable and humane provision of healthcare, education, and welfare, fair pay and conditions at work, liberal social polices, and so on.
2. In our parliamentary democracy we need a strong party, like Labour, to bring this sort of programme into effect.
3. The only way to get such a party into power is to espouse popular positions.
4. Leftist positions are extreme and unrealistic. There’s a financial crisis on, you know!
5. We have to regain the centre ground to be elected.
6. We’ll win power on a programme of doing exactly what the Tories would do, except less quickly, and with a few genuinely progressive policies thrown in here and there but with no radical change to the system. Capital is the only game in town.
If the centre left followed the Tory example they would stand for election on a watered-down policy agenda (remember Cameron promising to protect the NHS) but then become radical once in power. It’s a sign of the greater moral uprightness of Labour that, although it definitely went against its own promises (by introducing university tuition fees, for example) it did proportionately less of it than the Tories. But that’s scant praise. (How wonderful a world it would be if Labour were elected on a moderate programme and then immediately abolished all forms of inheritance or something.)
But in reality the centre left has a certain attraction because it points to something the population can see quite clearly. Quite aside from their vile policies, the Tories are actually, on the whole, vile people. There is something profoundly disgusting about the evident pleasure they take in torturing the poor and weak while shoring up their own economic power. The centre-left proposal is therefore straightforward: TINOA. ‘Of course reality dictates that we merely tweak a bit around the edges. We still have to gouge your eyes out, but we’ll pat you tenderly on the head while we do it, muttering “this is hurting me much more than it’s hurting you” as we choke back the tears. And you can be absolutely certain that our failure to do more for you will haunt us to our grave. But we’ll have tried, bless us, so we’ll go to heaven.’
So the choice the centre left offers is: would you prefer to be tortured by nasty bastard Tories or by well-meaning, less privileged, more normal and humane Labourites? Is this really the best choice we have? Is the problem really just the kind of person who enacts the policies that support capitalism, or is it capitalism itself? Until the centre left stops trying to portray the Left (not the lunatic left, note, nor the childish left, nor the unrealistic left: just the Left) as Stalinist, childish, delusional, and the rest, and the terms of political debate broaden to encompass alternatives to capitalism rather than just alternatives to the odious human beings in the Tory party, the best we can expect is Thatcherism with Ed Miliband’s face, a dagger to the heart accompanied by a kiss on the forehead.