From Consensus to Utopia
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This one looks at how after the collapse of a political consensus loses its sway, Nowhere looms large. August 30 2019.
From 2008 to Brexit, Tina has gone the way of Butskellism
While the United Kingdom tumbles into political turmoil like Alice down the rabbit hole, there’s been a not-so recognised casualty of the chaos that’s serially erupted since the crash of 2008 up to (and certainly beyond) our current constitutional crisis. Boris Johnson’s far right government wishes to subvert the already inadequate limits placed on the British executive, trashing flimsy precedent and archaic ritual. With the right now taking such actions, this moment can be seen as the merciful end of Tina’s long-ailing, increasingly obscured death. From a symbol of a political hegemony that stretched from the dawn of Thatcherism until the late noughties, her rather belaboured and sad end deserves more comment than it has generally received.
There is no alternative was Thatcher’s trite slogan, rendered Tina by satirists. It represented the Conservative Party’s then response to the collapse of postwar Keynesianism, what was dubbed Butskellism—that is, the consensus of the Tory’s Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell, the joining together of their respective, not-so-distinct commitments to social democracy and one-nation conservativism. But Tina cannot be limited to this unravelling of one period of British capital and its supplanting with another; as a piece of rhetoric, of theatre; Tina more profoundly represented the reactionary’s triumphant rebuke to all utopian imagination.
Tina does not only advocate one specific political course, but denies the viability of any other. The counterfactual, hopeful belief that is the cornerstone of Thomas More’s great work Utopia, along with the future thinking of the left, the monstrous paradise of the fascists, indeed all notions of another world being possible at all, is at once foreclosed. In this sense, Thatcherism qua Tina only really succeeded with the rise of Tony Blair, with a neoliberal consensus embraced by both main parties. Conor Burns, a Conservative MP, certainly suggests that Thatcher herself held to such a retrospective evaluation of her victory:
Late in 2002 Lady Thatcher came to Hampshire to speak at a dinner for me. Taking her round at the reception one of the guests asked her what was her greatest achievement. She replied, ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’.
But what about now? Thatcherism was a form of class war, but it was also a response to the demonstrable contradictions of the postwar arrangement, the benefits of which (new public services, revived industry, consumerist luxury) was dependent on a period of high profitability that came after (and could only have come after) the enormous destruction of capital in the Second World War. As profitability inevitably declined, according to Karl Marx predictions in the third volume of Capital, the only alternative to attacking labour and extracting more profits through greater exploitation was the downfall of capitalism itself. Keynesianism and the temporary and uneasy domestic truce it facilitated between exploited and exploiter was finished. And from the point of view of the political elite, beholden to the class interests of capital, saving capitalism was (and is) the same as saving the world.
However, there are limits to raising profits through exploitation alone. Some of these limits are material and absolute, and to overcome them requires either the end of capitalism or another—possibly species ending, certainly cataclysmic—destruction of capital. We aren’t there yet—either globally or in the UK—but we have, maybe, reached the limits of the Thatcherite (or Neoliberal) solution to our ongoing crisis. As a consequence of that limit, we are seeing the rise of three, broad umbrella groupings—and the one thing they all share is utopianism, in that they collectively dance on Tina’s grave.
These three groups begin with the social democrats: the Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyns, Jean-Luc Mélenchons, et al. They often hold together broader alliances of the left that include old and new revolutionary sects, even some anarchists, and a huge number of recently politicised, young activists. [As of the time of re-editing this post, Sep 2020, it is clear that this approach has failed, and that the left must be more ambitious than merely parliamentary paths to socialism allow.] The second group are the titular of the book Creeping Fascism by Neil Faulkner, Samir Dathi, Phil Hearse and Seema Syeda. They are the extreme social conservatives, right-wing libertarians-cum-techno-fascists, alt-right, alt-lite, alt-centrist eccentrics and the various demagogues (Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Victor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro) who benefit from the prominence of political lunacy. In the present British context, this is the Boris Johnson-Domonic Cummings faction.
Despite competition from the right, the third grouping is still the weirdest. They are the FBPE (Follow Back Pro Europe) twitter liberals, the die-hard Clintonites, the oddball Blairites, the moderate Tories[, the Joe Biden-ites]. They are necromancers, hoping to resurrect Tina from the grave, to drag her out of the earth and pretend that her living corpse is as healthy as her old 90s former self. What is curious about them is that, although they long for a time when utopianism was unimaginable, when their rule was unquestioned, in their very belief that they can return to a period when the now failing political consensus worked, they are truly utopian. Certainly as utopian as anyone else. They believe wholeheartedly in a better world—better for them at least—and it is one that is different to our current situation. Despite this capacity for the quixotic, they fair far better than the left.
The social democrats, creeping fascists and necromantic liberals are all nostalgists, although the social democrats and liberals are at least nostalgic for periods that actually existed (for Butskellism and Tina respectively), while the creeping fascists (as is the wont of the far right) are nostalgists for a fantastical, white-washed past that never was. All three groups are also facing the same impasse, the slow collapse of profitability that was, if at all, only slightly slowed by Reagan and Thatcher’s brutal attack on workers. This economic calamity now presages one of the greatest crises humanity has faced, especially when coupled with climate change. And it is this impasse, universally sensed if not fully acknowledged or understood, that makes the strange resurrection magics of the necromancers so improbable even compared to rival utopianisms.
What is certain is that we live in an age of utopia in Britain—and elsewhere too. No clear way forward, everything contested, but the old order surely banished for good. That is not to say that we have reached the desired nowhere of our dreams, or even that any of the particular, proffered nowheres are ultimately reachable, but that opposing alternatives are everywhere in evidence, from the costume drama of Jacob Rees-Mogg to the post-capitalist visions of Paul Mason.
As Boris Johnson prorogues parliament in an effort to either force through a bad Brexit deal or take Britain to the disaster of a no-deal, as an awkward alliance of necromancers and social democrats forms to oppose him, we can see more clearly this new ideological, utopian war. The Sunny Uplands of patriotic, empire days fantasy contends with the desperate needs of the working class for a renewal of the pact between the state and its citizens, currently championed most clearly by Corbyn. Meanwhile, those who have done okay from the status quo, but feel very threatened, demand the impossible fulfilment of Francis Fukuyama’s prophecy of an eternal 90s, a forever youthful Tina, a nowhere in stasis, an always-nowhen.
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