If the world’s super-rich were to hold a conference, their anthem might well be Pink Floyd’s Money, track 1, side 2 of their Dark Side of the Moon album. The beneficiaries of globalisation and the internet might hear talks on tax avoidance from offshore bankers, attend seminars on ways to influence national governments, participate in brainstorming sessions on misinformation and control of mainstream media and, finally, give a standing ovation to a speech on ‘Beyond Liberal Democracy and the Nation State’.
The air would be dense with the whiff of power, not aglow with idealism; the undercurrents would be those of pragmatism, not the ephemeral drift of cant. There would almost certainly be a toast to Brexit as a major victory for neoliberalism.
Back when Dark Side of the Moon was released, between the countercultural protests of 1968 and the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, it was possible to believe in a continuous thread of progress: from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment to universal suffrage, government by democratic consent, steadily improving living standards and increased life expectancy – at least in the West.
War fatigue after 1945 had led to economic surplus being devoted more to the common good than to armaments, while the Marshall Plan helped avoid the error of punitive reparations imposed on Germany following World War One (WW1). This allowed Western Europe to rebuild its way to prosperity and, in politics, gave us the ‘post-war consensus’ and taxation models supporting a strong social fabric and a safety net of welfare. Slowly, steadily, progress was being made in civil rights for women, gays and ethnic minority groups, towards fairer, more humane and egalitarian societies.
This progress grew from much earlier seeds, sown by John Locke, the French Enlightenment philosophers and Thomas Paine; they were watered in by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, before flowering as the US Constitution (1787), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), and the US Bill of Rights (1791). These delicate plants were nurtured by, among many others, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham before the traumas of two world wars brought about a 20th century growth spurt in the shape of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). Now all this progress, and indeed the entire liberal democratic tradition, faces an existential challenge from the far right.
Ironically, one significant thinker whose ideas have been embraced by the European right is Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party, who was imprisoned by Mussolini. His notion of ‘cultural hegemony’ describes how the ruling class maintains control by wielding soft power since, clearly, rule by naked force does not win elections in a democracy. The methodology is hardly new; the Roman emperor Constantine astutely captured the ideology of the disruptive Christians and made it an instrument of state.
The novelty has been for the political right to harness what had been a left-wing game plan for a counterculture and take the prevailing ‘hegemony’ to mean the liberal-democratic consensus and its demands for social justice, disparagingly lumped together as ‘wokeism’. If the youthful rebellion of 1968 was the post-war baby boom proclaiming their countercultural cry for fairness, perhaps the current upswell of reactionary voices is the same generation, if not the same people, expressing the antithesis of ‘love and peace’. It is as if this ageing bulge of humanity, having exhaled in relief after WWII, is now sharply drawing in breath ready for fight or flight.
Following the defeat of fascist Germany and Italy in 1945, right-wing groups, without substantial funding, remained on the margins. The National Front in Great Britain, for example, garnered a maximum of 0.06 per cent of the vote in 1979, fielding 303 candidates and losing all their deposits. Things began to change markedly in the new century, however, after Vladimir Putin began to espouse nationalist ideology to counter liberal, pro-democracy movements within Russia. He has been influenced in particular by the fascist philosopher Alexandr Dugin.
The Kremlin established covert relationships with ultra-nationalist groups, encouraging them to terrorise Putin’s opponents and funding them to compile reports on liberal activists. And, just as the USSR had funded international communism for many years, so now Putin’s chastised, resentful Russia began to cultivate nationalist ‘Friends of Russia’ groups and individuals across Europe. These included prominent figures like Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, and France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, who received large loans from Russian banks. If only we could see a full list of UK beneficiaries!
Whereas nationalism can serve to focus power in an undemocratic individual state, it subverts and weakens the unifying rule of government in the trans-national EU, conveniently bolstering Kremlin strategy at home and abroad.
Bizarrely, Russian interests have coincided with those of multinational corporations and the hyper-rich in the West. Powerful companies, which can be forced into line by a strong union of 27 countries, for example on tax avoidance or on environmental pollution, can bully and bribe individual nations prised from the union.
Furthermore, governments that pursue policies favouring the rich at the expense of the poor and to the detriment of the social fabric, are likely to lose their democratic mandate – unless they quieten dissenting voices and amplify clickbait populism. They achieve this by controlling mainstream media and by populating social media with bots. The aim is to promote and extend the traditional conservative ‘divide and rule’ strategy, to distract from the multiple harms caused by neoliberal austerity; Brexit was the perfect vehicle for long-lasting, deep division. Putin has been only too happy to ask his oligarchs to assist with such division, in the UK and across Europe, via the Friends of Russia groups.
Back in 1999, two years after Dominic Cummings returned from his three-year sojourn in Russia, he became campaign manager at Business for Sterling, a Eurosceptic group which, in 2003, morphed into New Frontiers Foundation, a free-market, libertarian think tank. The Foundation called for the abolition of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, saying: “There are three structural things that the right needs to happen in terms of communications:
- the undermining of the BBC’s credibility;
- the creation of a Fox News equivalent, talk radio shows, bloggers, etc, to shift the centre of gravity;
- the end of the ban on TV political advertising.”
The Foundation closed in 2005, but its objectives have been pursued religiously since then, in line with the Gramscian aim of achieving cultural hegemony.
The key manoeuvre for right-wing members of the establishment is to disguise their status as a prosperous elite, find topics on which they can ally themselves with the lower social groups, then point an accusing finger at an intellectual elite whose humanitarian compassion can be derided as soft, or ‘woke’. They divide voters along lines drawn by attitudes to race, immigration, sexuality, imperial history, welfare benefits – anything except socio-economic group or economic interest. Make the tabloid reader believe he or she is joining with Etonians in a display of social Darwinist virility, when in fact they’re offering themselves up as powerless prey.
This narrative is readily taken up by the daily newspapers and their online manifestations, owned as they are by non-domiciled tax exiles who share their interest in veering the conversation well away from class or economic divisions, and even further away from any analysis of the disastrous effects of the disingenuous Conservative austerity. The crowning irony is that the lynchpin of values shared by rich and poor is patriotism, when the net result of this collusion is the impoverishment of civic life, a weakened economy and a diminished international voice. The Kremlin must be overjoyed at the success of this arm of its strategy.
The next stage of the UK’s disintegration has already begun with the creation of freeports, removing the role of central government and granting corporations a free hand. Given that the Labour Party must seek its funding from a finite number of wealth sources, it seems unlikely that the overall direction of travel will change substantively after the next general election.
The only hope for the restoration of sanity, a rapprochement with the EU and an increase in taxation to fund civic reinstatement, is if cultural hegemony is wrested from the grip of the uber-rich.
The volume control of the prosperous minority singing ‘keep your hands off my stack’ needs to be turned down, a process which should begin by setting up a new, independent regulatory body, with teeth, to replace both Ofcom and IPSOS. Then, it should ban non-dom ownership of national newspapers, political appointees to the BBC and party political broadcasts disguised as journalism (for example, on certain television ‘news’ channels). It’s not a question of restoring to the public domain a progressive version of the truth on equal terms with the preferred version of the minority, but of faithfully representing the interests of the vast majority, and thereby of the country as a whole. ‘Beyond neoliberal division’ might be the rallying cry at our countervailing conference; centrist consensus should be the goal.