The Conservative Party has launched a campaign which seeks to distinguish between hard-working families and scroungers, through a poster depicting an unshaven person lounging on a sofa in contrast to a modest 2.4 children family who emphasise the virtues of diligent work. It is all of a piece with George Osborne’s rhetoric about those who have their curtains closed during the day. It’s not a new tactic – it harks back to 2010 election posters – but its timing is perhaps significant, representing a time when Government has taken a quite deliberate decision that the incomes on those on benefits will fall faster than those who do not. It is also surely significant that it marks the arrival of Lynton Crosby into national Tory politics – this kind of rhetoric is mainstream on the Australian right.
It is of course a wholly false dichotomy. In the real world of evidence and truth it is obvious that the majority of those receiving benefits are in work, but are not paid a living wage. And there are no jobs – even for those who are capable of work. Coalition rhetoric about generations of worklessness has been shown to be utterly without foundation.
But it provides a narrative – one that is embraced by the media and politicians of all parties. There is powerful ideology at work here.
To my mind, it evokes powerfully the writing of Vaclav Havel, describing the politics of late communism. Havel writes about how in the crisis of late communism, the authorities used ideology as a way of distorting the populace’s connection with reality – as a form of psychological and political manipulation. In his essay The Power of the Powerless he refers to ideology as “a bridge of lies”:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.
The lies here are about power, who wields it and for whose benefit – for example the rhetoric of how wealth derives from hard work rather than privilege, good fortune and accident of birth (the imperative, as Ivan Illich put it, of rationalising the head start as achievment); and the illusion of democratic power in a political system in which the mainstream parties share the same underlying economic assumptions; or when powerful and entitled groups like established churches and the alumni of private schools adopt the language of victimhood. And above all, neoliberalism needs to maintain that illusion that wealth and power are functions of work and effort – to disguise the extent to which most work is alienated, and wholly irrelevant to a culture of declining living standards for the majority. Reading Havel in an age of neoliberal hegemony is to understand the irony of the great and the good of that hegemony turning out in force at Havel’s funeral.
Above all, we now live in the age of the ideological dog-whistle – something that powerfully demonstrates the common neoliberal assumptions at work across all parties. The Tories’ latest campaign differs from Labour’s language of “hard-working families” in degree only, not substance; and I’d guess the Tories know that very well and are playing to that. It’s interesting that in responding to the campaign, Labour Deputy Chairman uses exactly the same language as the Tories: he talks of “taxes on strivers” in the Budget. The same words, the same assumptions, the same dichotomy: Labour choosing – consciously or not – to adopt the language and assumptions of power rather than speaking truth to it, and doing the Tories’ work for them. I have no doubt that Mr Dugher – like so many decent people in the Labour Party – is appalled and disgusted by what the Coalition is doing to the most vulnerable in our society. But, whether wittingly or not, his language suggests an inability to step outside the neoliberal bubble and connect with the realities.
To kick over an idol, you must first get up off your knees. Tawney’s 80-year-old message to Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Party has never been more resonant; if we believe that neoliberalism is a dangerous, destructive and deluded ideology we have to stop using its language, and instead find a resonant narrative rooted in truth and experience, one that talks about the realities that mainstream Westminster politics consciously avoids. The crisis of British democracy is exemplified by the fact that there is nobody in the mainstream willing to do that.
Vaclav Havel’s position is ultimately optimistic – ideology as a bridge of lies is inherently unstable, and only lasts for as long as people are willing to live within the lie:
Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence. Living the truth is thus woven directly into the texture of living a lie. It is the repressed alternative, the authentic aim to which living a lie is an inauthentic response. Only against this background does living a lie make any sense: it exists because of that background. In its excusatory, chimerical rootedness in the human order, it is a response to nothing other than the human predisposition to truth. Under the orderly surface of the life of lies, therefore, there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth.
The key, then, is for people who are not prepared to accept neoliberalism to challenge the language, to abandon it, and to learn to speak truth to power. And it’s only when the politicians who are supposed to speak for the vulnerable and dispossessed learn to abandon neoliberal narratives that they will be able to do their job within the system.