What has happened to Britain's ruling class?

Sep 25, 2018

I gave a highly condensed version of this talk to tonight's The World Transformed panel, with Dawn Foster, Maya Goodfellow, Adam Ramsay, and Ellie Mae O'Hagan.

According to certain politicians, what has happened to the ruling class is something called ‘fake news’, ‘trolling’, ‘online echo chambers’ which have birthed a new ‘populism’. 'Look at the Corbynite hard left,' they say, 'a formerly marginal bunch now empowered by Twitter to ruin our lives.'

This is a strangely paranoid discourse. It’s true that the centre has often found its nemesis in candidates, of the right and left, who succeeded in using online networks to outflank the traditional dominance of the centre in the print and broadcast media. But the ruling class, by definition, is the class that rules. And it is the richest ruling class in history, with the most complex and subtle instruments of domination. It has had more opportunity than any other group of people on the planet, ever, to shape politics, culture, and society. Could they really be upended by online mobs so easily?

I’m going to argue that what’s really at stake in these specific arguments is the viability of an emerging technopolitical regime, which they haven’t yet fully got to grips with. Please note that phrase, 'technopolitical regime', which is very fancy, and which I made up myself. Inform Twitter. 'Technopolitical regime'.

In the background to this is a crisis in an older regime, an older way of practicing hegemony. The ruling class never rule by themselves; they never do anything by themselves. They are too divided to have a single interest. They require networks of institutions, think-tanks, lobbies, banks, media outlets and political parties to develop class-wide perspectives and strategies, and win public support. This is hegemonic in the sense that it seeks to build broad, cross-class consent for a social mission, a project for development, which in the last analysis is shaped by and for ruling class interests. It seeks to persuade people intellectually and morally, as well as chastising and disciplining them.

For the last four decades, these institutions have mostly been guided by neoliberalism, a perpetual modernisation project aimed at reforming society and politics according to the law of competition and risk. They see this as the cutting edge of innovation. The question is, why didn’t the crisis of 2007 change everything? Capitalism has been through four major systemic crises since it stabilised as a world system in the mid-nineteenth century: 1873, 1929, 1973, and 2007. Each one resulted in a major socio-political earthquake resulting in a new regulatory framework for capitalism. 2007 is the big exception. Neoliberalism persists.

So what is it? Neoliberalism isn’t about ‘free markets’. That’s the populist soft sell, which claims that everyone is just a self-maximiser, out for maximum utility — whatever the fuck that is — yearning to be freed from moralist hypocrisies like ‘public service’. That was the classically liberal creed; just let everyone be as selfish as they really are, and it will all work out! What St Augustine called ‘cruel optimism’. But what posed as description was prescription. The mandarin sell, for policymakers, was different. People were too fucking stupid and socialistic to be self-maximisers. (I paraphrase). The power of the state and law had to be used to make them behave as such. 

The issue was never the volume of regulations or spending, but their character. Financialisation, intrinsic to the neoliberal model, necessitated an explosion of regulations. The point was to reform economic and government activity so that everything operated like a market, construed as a kind of Darwinian mechanism for selecting efficiency through competition. That could mean things like Compulsory Competitive Tendering, internal markets, spending caps, workfare, the short-lived nudge unit etc. 

It also entailed a counterrevolution against democracy. Hayek famously wanted all real decisions to be taken by an upper chamber, elected once every fifteen years composed of an older electorate who each voted only once in their lifetime. Essentially a jumped up civil service. Which is exactly what the EU Commission is, absent even these symbolic elections. But in most states, it was sufficient to redistribute state power to unelected bodies, quangos, or centralise more of it in the executive, or outsource it to SERCO or similar bodies.

This diagrams a mode of power. One which transferred class power to corporations, linked to a new set of hegemonic practices governing people as ‘entrepreneurs’. For a while, combined with dynamite growth in south-east Asia, a boom in speculative capital, a series of Wall Street bubbles, the concomitant reduction in bargaining power and sharp decrease in share of incomes going to labour, increased profitability and thus investment.. 

But most people didn’t become neoliberal ideologues. Bits of the new dispensation were popularised and sedimented into more traditional ideologies — social democracy, socialism, authoritarian conservatism, classical liberalism, etc. There has never been a pure capitalist discourse. Ruling class parties had to operate on those traditional beliefs too, though they had trouble substantiating those commitments. Anyway, they were seen, especially on the social-liberal end of neoliberalism, as residual, being gradually supplanted by the new competitive individualism. That wasn’t entirely wrong; it just wasn’t the whole story.

So, the crisis of 2007 showed that an economy based on debt and speculation is not sustainable. The existing social dysfunctions, exclusions, and precarities were now suddenly not peripheral but told a deep truth about the wider economy. Why didn’t capitalism adjust? Why didn’t ruling class parties, with their immense resources, orchestrate a major strategic review and transformation? Was it because of the weakness of the extant Left? Was it because the unions were in no position to obstruct them in protecting the old order? Was it because they felt under little pressure, politically, to disturb the existing arrangement of power centred on finance-capital, and its demands for austerity? All of these answers, in part. But there’s something else.

This is where we come back to the problem of fake news, trolls, online echo chambers and so on. For the last two decades, we’ve seen the ascendance of a new technopolitical regime of unprecedented swiftness and scale of elaboration. Each new threshold, hypertext, web 2.0, web 3.0, platforms, smartphones, has been irreversibly crossed in record time. Now, the infrastructures of the internet, technological innovation, labour supply systems, international property rights mechanisms, trade agreements, and access to materials like coltan, are all orchestrated by traditional state elites. Often very violently. The utopia of the internet was always that it was unhitched from such crude material constraints. This was MCI’s advertising in 1997: no race, no gender, no ageing on the internet. The unconscious substructure is, of course, racial capitalism, state violence and patriarchal, Napoleonic empires run by eccentric white men in California. 

But these technologies are designed to fit existing social and cultural ideas. They represent themselves as a sort of magical solution to social problems, but their magical effect depends on the way they lubricate way-finding within an existing neoliberal framework. Whatever the problem, there’s an app for that, one weird trick to solve the erectile dysfunctions of neoliberalism. 

Where communities break down, the network substitutes. Where news is no longer trustworthy, citizen journalism can bring the news to you direct and unfilte`red (that’s pure ideology). Where politicians are no longer trustworthy, online communities can hold them to account (that, too, is ideology; the platforms facilitate online punishment beatings of individuals who breach mores). If you’re depressed, you can get cognitive behavioural therapy through an app on your phone. If you’re poor or underemployed, you can bid for jobs on taskrabbit, or use your car to make money through Uber or spend a few hours working for Deliveroo. If you’ve got a room you’re not using, post it on airbnb. If you think you’re not valued enough in your life, you can bid for a share in an increasingly diffuse online celebrity (again, pure ideology — celebrities are notoriously miserable). In other words, it administers users on the basis of the radical extension of market relations, and commodification. 

This is not a hegemonic practice. It doesn’t seek to persuade anyone of the virtues of markets and neoliberal behaviour. It simply builds it into your practical experience. It's the persuasion of reality-shaping: what I might call a sub-hegemonic practice, since it works on the infrastructures rather than through the ideological and political superstructures. This is what neoliberal administrations have been doing for the last few decades, but far less efficiently. Tech treats us as behaviourist experimental subjects, to be hooked and then manipulated in real time for the advertisers. Now they’re under pressure by politicians to use this power for social good, which is terrifying. And in the new smart cities such as the one Google is building in Toronto they will try just that. But it’s neatly congruent with the post-democratic, beyond-hegemonic practice of neoliberal capitalism. It is the ideal model of what Gilles Deleuze called the ‘control society’. No one tells you what to do, what to believe in, what’s right or wrong: on the new technologies, whether it’s gaming or platforms, you are just given a series of stimuli, a set of options within an acceptable bandwidth, and get on with it. 

Not that this technology doesn’t augment older forms of power: NATO, during its bombing campaign in Libya, was able to crowdsource information on bombing targets via Twitter. Meanwhile, the platforms are almost ideal as mechanisms of surveillance, punishment and reward linked to norm conformity. But what I’m saying here is that traditional political domination has been organised hegemonically, through the organisation of meaning, through the mass media and the culture industry, and of course through parliamentary democratic apparatuses, party competition and so on. Those dimensions haven’t simply faded away, but the tendency, from behavioural economics to the platforms, has been to gradually move away from the underlying presuppositions of hegemony, viz. that people are moral and political agents with some form of democratic will that has to be engaged. Instead now we have the rhetoric of choice and decision from people who really don't believe it can be meaningful.

That premise, that citizens have moral and political agency worth engaging with, has been eroded in both theory and practice by the old governing centre. And that creates these weird political outbursts, this inability to adjust, this unwillingness to recognise the possibility of serious political opposition without pathologising it. No doubt the ruling class, short of a serious challenge to their power, will adapt, develop at least a short-term fix for their production crisis. No doubt their political representatives and organic intellectuals will work out the right calibration of hegemonic and sub-hegemonic practices. No doubt they will hang on for another few decades while the earth burns. But it hasn't done so yet. And the ruling class is still in a bit of disarray, with no long-range creative solutions to its problems. The 2017 election was evidence of that. There is an opening for us.

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