Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Fri, 21 Feb 2020, 2:07 PM


On Tory paradoxes

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There are two great paradoxes about the Tory party.

Paradox one is that whilst neoliberalism has triumphed, the Tories have lost their intellectual hegemony. Matthew Parris says Johnson is a symptom not a cause of the Tory meltdown. That echoes James Butler's claim that "the Conservative Party is in a process of ideological decline" and Stian Westlake's that the Tories "have stopped talking and thinking about economics." This week, 82 academics wrote to the FT defending Labour's economic policies. It is difficult to imagine a similarly large and eminent group defending Tory policies. The Tories' picturing of Corbyn as a chicken is a great illustration - not of Corbyn but of their own lack of seriousness.

Paradox two is that this lack of intellectual vitality hasn't much reduced Tory popularity: they still have a lead over Labour in most opinion polls. Jfc

To understand these paradoxes, let's start by realizing that the dominance of neoliberalism poses a problem for the Tories. Whilst it has served the 1% very well, it has alienated many who might otherwise support the Tories. The financialization of the housing market has made property unaffordable for millions of young people, and managerialism has degraded the work of many professionals. Parts of the "middle class" have become proletarianized. And they vote accordingly.

Also, neoliberalism has caused productivity growth to stagnate. As Richard Seymour says, this has turned smaller capitalists from ardent Thatcherites into Poujadiste Ukippers. As Ben Friedman showed, stagnation leads to reaction and intolerance.

Osbornomics exacerbated these problems. In saddling graduates with huge debts, it merely proletarianized them further. And in depressing demand, austerlty exacerbated the squeeze on productivity and incomes; low interest rates have clobbered older people's savings.

Faced with these trends, the Tories have only two responses. One is what Stian calls "home office economics" - the mindless authoritarianism of May. The other is that of the Britannia Unchained crew of Raab, Patel and Kwarteng - a doubling down on calls for deregulation. Neither is a viable strategy.

This leaves the Tories with a problem. If wealth and power are concentrated, how can you create widespread support for the party that defends the existing economic order?

The answer is to change the subject.

If the Tories talk about economics, it'll remind people that their rents are astronomical, that they can't afford a house, that they haven't had a decent pay rise for years, that their business is struggling and that their savings income has shrunk to nothing. The solution, then, is not to talk about economics. As Philips Stephens says, Johnson wants to frame the election in terms of nationalism, xenophobia and "people vs parliament." This is why Fiona Bruce was so quick to silence Emily Thornberry when she started to mention food banks; the Tories don't want to talk about the economy. Their best hope is to shift the debate onto cultural and identity politics.

From this perspective, my second paradox isn't a puzzle. The Tories are popular not despite their lack of economic ideas, but because of it. This intellectual vacuum is being filled by things that play to their strengths - populist demagoguery. The people have had enough of experts.

In this sense, the Tories need economic stagnation as it keeps alive atavistic nativist impulses. In France Poujadism melted like snow on a spring day as the French economy boomed in the late 50s and 60s. The Tories don't want their brand of Poujadism to go the same way. Stagnation suits them.

This highlights another paradox about politics - that sometimes, failure succeeds. For example, anti-immigration politicians need to keep migration in the public eye, which means failing to control it. Politicians who use crime and terrorism to justify curbing freedom need to keep alive the threat of terrorism. Parties who draw their support from the poor need to maintain poverty. And so on.

The Tories, then, are beneficiaries of their own failure.

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