Believe it or not, there was a time when working people actually directly participated in the political process, believing that as members of the class of producers they could manage the affairs of state and eventually take control of the businesses they worked for; that was what socialism in the 19th century was all about. The entirety of Marx’s writings was essentially concerned with the way industrial capitalism had created the pre-conditions for this takeover, an analysis which included the nature of the increasing socialisation of production and distribution made possible by the factory system which in turn had led to the formation of trade unions and political parties of the producers that would represent and fight for their interests.
Workers’ ‘takeover’ of the machinery of the state was seen as a stepping-stone to a self-governing society of the producers or socialism. It was also recognised that during the transitional process between capitalism and socialism was the vital importance of education as a life-long pursuit; how else would people have the necessary understanding to manage a complex, technical society? Mass education, introduced in the late 19th century was, in theory anyway; the means whereby working people would gain the skills and understanding needed for their eventual takeover of the means of production.
However, state-mandated ‘education’ had a far more limited objective namely equipping working people with the minimum skills necessary to run the machines and processes of industrial capitalism. Education beyond this minimal objective was not only considered unnecessary but dangerous.
The issue of how this revolution would come about has occupied the left ever since: would it be through revolution, armed or otherwise, or through the ballot box, or perhaps some combination of the two?
The role of education in this process was recognised by my parents’ generation. My father, who left school at 14 or 15 years old, was entirely self-taught and typical of working class intellectuals of his time. The bookshelves of our apartment attested to the breadth and depth of my parents’ interests. Knowledge was seen as a liberating process and most importantly, they were acquiring knowledge that had previously been reserved for the upper and educated middle classes, the erstwhile managers of capitalism.
Marx believed that attaining socialism was only possible in the most developed of societies, in Europe, specifically Germany, where the socialisation of production was the most developed and the consciousness as well as the organisation of the producers the most advanced. But the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 entirely transformed the debate, Russia after all was to all intents and purposes an underdeveloped society composed mostly of peasants barely out of a feudal existence, not the most fertile of situations for the creation of a society run by educated workers. The debate has raged ever since and in spite of the number of countries which have tried to build socialist economies, virtually all of which have been under-developed, it would appear at this juncture, we are further away from achieving that 19th century socialist vision.
This is no mere academic debate; indeed it can be argued that the survival of our species hinges on resolving the issue once and for all.
But the years rolled by and increasingly the employees of the state or politicians as they are commonly called, have been transformed into a self-perpetuating caste who rule us more like some kind of priesthood than facilitators of an inclusive, participatory process. It’s a far cry from those visionaries of the 19th century who saw themselves as the inevitable inheritors of the wealth they had created.
Instead of increasing participation in the actual management of society—which is the real meaning of democracy, not the ‘vote’ per se—we find that in creating this managerial elite, people are as alienated from society’s functioning as they were before they obtained the vote, an ironic twist don’t you think?
In part this development explains why the ruling political class expend so much energy on trying to find ways of ‘involving’ the electorate, phoney though they all are, for they have realised that the fiction of democracy, through the vote, is not sufficient to maintain the legitimacy and importantly, belief in the ‘system’.
But regardless, with a professional caste of political managers making all the decisions, divorced from the real needs and concerns of the citizen, increasingly, the capitalist order is in crisis. And in fact it can be argued that the ruling political class have actually made the rod with which to beat themselves by ‘professionalising’ the political process.
They now face an impossible task, literally one of trying to square the circle for how can public involvement occur when all avenues of real participation have been removed? As limited as membership of a political party was (or membership through affiliation via a trade union), at least it afforded people some kind of a voice. The Labour Party’s membership for example, has halved in the last five years, it is no longer a ‘mass’ political organisation with representation at the grassroots level.
Membership of political parties of all kinds has plummeted, especially since Nu Labour took power as has membership of trade unions, made all the worse because the single biggest employer is now the state itself and even more gigantic if one takes into consideration the public service jobs that have been ‘outsourced’ or privatised.
Those on the ‘left’ of the Labour Party still believe that they can somehow recapture the political process but without genuine grassroots involvement at branch level, in the constituencies for example, such a wish is a fantasy, the mechanisms no longer exist. Worse still, those on the left of the Labour Party still operate under the delusion that they can somehow turn back the clock to those ‘halcyon’ days.
The ‘left’s’ response to this situation is lamentable, firstly because it has not even recognised that it has taken place and secondly because it has failed to recognise the limitations of traditional political parties of the left, all of which have been outgrowths or products of working class organisations, principally the trade unions which were in any case mainly involved with economic issues, wages and working conditions etc.
For the great majority of working people, economic issues are no longer the central subject, Marx’s classic definition of alienation now occupies the centre stage and once more highlights the crucial role played by education, or rather the lack of it for there is an even more insidious process at work here namely the creation of two quite distinct groups within the class of producers, the so-called ‘chavs’  and the ‘chatterering classes’ , the product of two entirely different kinds of education and socio-economic backgrounds (itself not a new phenomenon but now expressed in a new way and reinforced by the creation of the professional political class described above).
Both groups are most easily recognised through the way the mass media addresses them, especially the print media with the ‘red-tops’ or tabloids targeting the ‘chavs’ (or at least that segment of the producing class from which they hail) and the ‘quality’ newspapers, the ‘chatterers’.
These two groups are the visible expression of the fundamental transformation in the way capitalism maintains control that has taken place over the past 2-3 decades, largely through the expansion of the ‘education’ system to include those who have not inherited their ‘place’ in the ruling elite as used to be the case.
The rest meanwhile, are catered to through rank consumerism and an appeal to the lowest common denominators that consists of appeals to patriotism, xenophobia and hysterical ‘news’ headlines about crime, ‘anti-social behaviour’, immigration, paedophilia or whatever other catchphrase is currently considered ‘newsworthy’.
‘Entertainment’ for the ‘chavs’ largely consists of the creation of worlds of fantasy and escape from the daily reality of lives that aside from consuming are totally divorced from any real involvement or control over the events that affect them. And sensing the seductive nature of the ‘celebrity’ culture, the state has been quick to step in and exploit these longings, thus we see Blair and his henchmen hobnobbing with these ‘stars’ in highly publicised media events whether it’s to ‘help starving Africans’ or whatever.
The objective is clear; by participating in these ‘celebrity’ events the ruling political elite hope to establish a rapport with the ‘masses’.
What this process reveals is a vast political ‘vacuum’ between the rulers and the ruled with millions of people bereft of any kind of political representation whatsoever, a vacuum that has been (conveniently) filled by the corporate and state-run media in an unholy alliance with the ruling political class who through judicious reports (and ‘leaks’) effectively inform the mass media what to focus on.
We need only look at the hysterical coverage of the abduction of the young girl in Portugal to get some insight into how the process works, as terrible as it is for the family of the young girl, its treatment by the mass media has effectively blanketed out any other news coverage. And indeed, ‘news’ can viewed as a succession of these kinds of events, events that obviously tug at the heartstrings of people, after all, it is a terrible event but more terrible than the daily war crimes being committed against Iraqi, Afghan and Palestinian children?
The “kidnapping” (BBC TV news, 12/5/07 or “abduction”, BBC Radio 4, 15/5/07 and occasionally morphed into “capture”) of the three US occupation soldiers by ‘al-Qu’eda’ in the ‘Triangle of Death’ is another example of the dual standard employed. The kidnapping and hostage-taking by the occupation forces of literally thousands of Iraqis never gets a mention compared to the kind of saturation coverage afforded to ‘our boys’.
Thus events are neatly parcelled out in convenient gobbets to be digested fast food-style by a public starved not only of facts but also of any kind of input into government policies.
The ‘chattering classes’ meanwhile not only produce the heavily sanitised versions of reality for external consumption but also ‘talk to each other’ via their media mouthpieces revealing the existence of two parallel realities both of which address the same issues but in entirely different ways.
I think it’s important to recognise that those who rule this country have been doing it for close on five hundred years in a virtually unbroken chain of command, with the experiences passed on from one ruling elite to the next. The nurseries for this ruling elite are schools, universities, the armed forces, the legal system, clubs (probably the most important component) and the latest nest, the media and especially the BBC that was quick to recognise the power of New Media to manipulate reality.
They are without a doubt one of the cleverest, the most devious and above all, self-assured of ruling elites. The experience gained through the changing epochs, from their beginnings as merchants and bankers grown fat off the slave trade, through to today shows in their adaptability and their ability to predict events. Until now.
I venture to say that starting with the onset of the Thatcher years (and being continued to its unknown conclusion under Nu Labour), this ruling elite has been fractured by the arrival of Blair’s army of geeks, media nerds, hangers-on, carpet baggers, swindlers, thieves, liars and just plain empty-headed posers. It is after all, this posse which has single-handedly dismantled the carefully constructed ‘consensus’ that kept the rulers and the ruled firmly in their allotted place.
By destroying the illusion of a democracy that is-allegedly anyway, a thousand years old-the Blair regime has created a crisis within the ruling elite. Unable to absorb the changes being thrust upon it by the Blair posse, the established elite is under-going a crisis of confidence in its political masters.
The most obvious example has been in its inability to effectively utilise computer technology within the public service sector. The traditional relationship between the managers and its technicians has been broken with the arrival of Blair’s hordes in the form of a bunch of jumped-up IT companies, not a single one of which has proved to be adequate to the task, or as Blairspeak would have it, ‘fit for purpose’.
This may sound trivial, but one the British state’s crowning successes has been its ability to maintain the smooth functioning of the state through thick and thin. But I fear that it’s tightly controlled civil service bureaucracy, a well-oiled machine built over the centuries, has met its match in Blair’s locusts, who have been let lose to strip the public purse at will without delivering a single thing of any lasting use or value, nor have they been able to get any of this ‘new-fangled, electronic bureaucracy’ to actually work as intended. But then what does the Blair government know about how bureaucracies actually work, or care for that matter? Not a damn thing except what the IT bloodsuckers tell it.
The importance of the above-mentioned failures to the creation of Blair’s corporate, security state should be obvious. Without any democratic checks and balances and lack of public oversight, the state still needs to function effectively, its civil service must still run the state machine.
Blair’s PC putsch has come unstuck; the emperor really has no clothes. Instead he has created a winter of discontent both within and without and it won’t go away with the crowning of Brown as his successor.
By effectively disenfranchising the public and then deceiving them with a bunch of empty and extremely costly parlour tricks and sleights-of-hand, supposedly as a replacement for what they have lost-principally their liberty if they but knew it-the Blair Project is faced with a real dilemma. Without a general consensus to buoy it along its merry way to who knows where, no doubt those who formulate policy hope that the dour Brown will give them some breathing space within which to figure out what to do next, principally win the next election.
As long as ‘business as usual’ can be maintained, the ruling political elite care only for preserving their own personal power, wealth and influence, we can expect little from our ‘elected’ representatives no matter what they call themselves. By removing the last vestiges of even a sham democratic participation, we have now what can best be described as a form of gangster capitalism, feeding off the public purse courtesy of the privatisation of the public domain.
In a very real sense, the symbol of the state in the form of the Parliament, has not only lost all legitimacy, sitting in splendid isolation in its Victorian Gothic pile, which just like the government, masquerades as something it’s not, it has also relinquished whatever power it had over the functioning of the state to Blair’s vampires who are in reality ‘asset-stripping’ public resources under the guise of ‘efficiency’ and ‘reorganisation’.
Sooner or later people are going to wise up to what ‘Blatcherism’ has done, the question is, will we have a voice and the means to turn the tide?
1. For more on the term see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chav. Although originally used to identify young, working class kids obsessed with ‘bling’ or fashion, I have taken some liberty with the term to describe the ‘lowest’ product of our two-tier education system, those who either through lack of financial resources or background have not been to or are very unlikely to attend university and are thus denied the dubious benefits that accrue from obtaining a ‘higher education’. Demonised and exploited by a cruel mass media, criminalised by the Blair state, they stand in stark contrast to the ‘chatterers’.
2. Wikipedia defines in part, the chattering classes as follows: “The chattering classes is a term often used in the media and by political commentators to refer to a politically active, socially concerned and highly educated elite section of the middle class, especially those with political, media, and academic connections.”
Both are at the opposite ends of Blair’s ‘Nu Britain’. In between stand the rest of us, also voiceless just like the ‘chavs’.