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Into the Waste Land
We are a strange moment in western political history. For the first time, we can see clearly that an old system is dying, but we cannot see how, or even if, a new one will be born; nor indeed what it would look like, even assuming it came. Something seems to have gone wrong with the mechanics of history and politics.
When Gramsci produced his famous quote that I’ve just glanced at, he was writing at a time when discontinuous political change was quite common. Monarchies were replaced by republics, Empires had fallen apart, nationalists had succeeded in carving out new countries or dividing old ones, and extremist political forces had seized control of countries, including his own Italy. But not only were there political forces behind these changes, there were also ideologies. Marxists looked forward to revolution, nationalists to ethnic risings, expulsions and control of territory, conservatives to movements of renewal to undo what they saw as decades of decadence. There was no lack of structuring political theories to draw upon: indeed, there was an overabundance, and everybody seemed to have their own theory about how the world could be remade.
We are long past that situation now. The vice-like grip of what Mark Fisher famously called “Capitalist Realism” on the thoughts and beliefs of power-wielders and opinion formers of all types, is such for that all practical purposes, there might as well be No Alternative. And as I will suggest, even if the will to bring about change could be found, other mechanisms employed in history are now no longer available to bring it about. I don’t know whether the quip—attributed to various people—that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism is really true, but in any event, even if something beyond capitalism can be imagined, it’s one thing to imagine it, and another to actually get there.
If we look at history—and we will in a second—we see that bringing about fundamental, discontinuous political change requires three things. One is a group of individuals with a common (though not necessarily identical) purpose. The second is a clear vision of what is wanted, either in terms of ideology or at least of defined political objectives. And the third is the resources and organisation capable of bringing it about. Having only two of these is not enough. This may seem mundane, but then quite a lot of the nuts and bolts of history are. And it reminds us that history is not, in fact, entirely the product of blind forces, but rather of a complex interaction between individuals, groups and society.
This tends to be disguised by the bloodless way in which political scientists and historians discuss discontinuous change. Governments “lose power” are “undermined” and “driven from power” or “overthrown.” Oppositions are “swept into power.“But in general, politics does not function in the passive voice. As I’ve pointed out in a different context, political decisions are taken and carried out by named individuals, generally working together. Intelligent politicians know how to surf on the tides of history, perhaps, but concepts like “politics” (or even “history”) have no independent agency in these cases. So the questions asked by historians should always be practical ones: for example, asked Machiavelli, in The Prince, Why did the kingdom of Darius, conquered by Alexander, not rebel against the successors of Alexander at his death? And he provides a practical answer, based on an understanding of comparative structures of power.
All successful discontinuous political change (so excluding a simple coup d’état or forced resignation) is premised upon successful operation of the three factors given above. Some examples are well-known. The Bolsheviks were not the obvious party to emerge victorious from the shambles that followed the fall of the Tsar in 1917. If power was indeed “lying in the street” as Lenin apparently said, then there were other, larger groups that might have picked it up. But the Bolsheviks had a leadership of professional conspirators and revolutionaries, a clear doctrine for taking and holding power, as well as a good idea of what to do with it, and the forces they needed to take and hold the most important targets in a modern society. Importantly, they had had a disciplined organisation, structured to give and carry out orders, for twenty years, after the split with the Mensheviks. The same process could also work in reverse. For example, the so-called Kapp putsch of 1920, (named after one of its leaders) intended to overthrow the new democratic political system in Germany failed, because massive numbers of Germans, organised by the Trades Unions, obeyed the Governments call for a general strike, and the coup collapsed.
Something analogous happened in France in 1944, as the allied forces were moving across the country. The US had intended to install a military government in France and run it themselves. Virtually all political forces in France and in exile were opposed to the idea, from the nationalists to the Communists. Critically, though, de Gaulle had been able to unify the various Resistance movements under the tutelage of the great Resistance martyr Jean Moulin, and an entire shadow government was already prepared in the country for activation when the invasion came. So when the American forces arrived they found that towns had already been taken over, collaborators were in jail or dead, and the Resistance controlled the terrain while waiting for French troops to arrive. So once again, a united leadership, a clear objective and the necessary tools had triumphed. This is why revolutionary forces typically had a military and a political wing, the latter not only to provide political direction, but to prepare for governing. In certain cases like the ANC in 1994, this worked well, in others, like the Taliban in 2021, much less so.
We can perhaps begin to see a pattern emerging here. Popular enthusiasm or discontent do not being about change by themselves: they have to be channeled in some way. Ideas are of no value unless they are taken up by someone with power. And much of this is about relative, rather than absolute, power: you simply need to have the biggest stick, not necessarily an objectively huge one. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how this works in practice, and in so doing, to cast a chilly eye on the inability of most of those who write about political change today to understand how it comes about.
Few episodes in history have had greater and more disastrous consequences than the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. (Note the word “seizure“ and the agency involved.) When I was young, books on the era were either memoirs (which concentrated on the war years themselves, for obvious reasons) or journalistic histories by writers like William Shirer, who had observed events in Germany at first hand. There was not a great deal of interest in the period between 1933 and 1939, except as a moral tale of weakness, inaction and disaster, or as an incomprehensible story of political manoeuvring by people with strange names. For Marxists, Hitler was “put into power” (note the passive again) by the capitalists, or even “the power of capital.” The more mainstream explanation was that he had been “swept to victory” in elections, by a German population that had justly been punished thereafter by British and American bombing.
Yet even at the time, reading accounts of the period 1932-3 was confusing. After all, no more than a third of the electorate ever voted for the Nazis, and their support actually reduced between the two elections in 1932. And in the December 1932 election, support for the combined Socialist and Communist Parties actually exceeded support for the Nazis. All that, and the Nazis were only offered (and accepted) two seats in the Cabinet of the new government. So how exactly were the Nazis “swept into power”? It’s only recently, thanks to the syntheses of historians like Richard Evans, that things have become clearer. The fact is, that the Nazis were playing a different game from that of the German political establishment.
For Von Papen and Hindenburg, it must have seemed a clever wheeze. The Nazis were the largest party in the Reichstag, but could not form a government by themselves. Give them a few cabinet seats, it was thought, and they would bring their votes, a proper government could be formed at last, and normal political life in Germany could be resumed. The Nazis could not be a threat: they were amateurs in politics, and could easily be contained by the professional politicians. Even Hitler’s insistence on being Chancellor could be lived with: he would have no allies in the Cabinet apart from Goering, the Aviation Minister, but would have a hostile government machine to deal with. It’s true that Hitler rapidly consolidated his power and brought more Nazis into government, but that’s not the most important part of what happened.
Because the Nazis were not playing democratic politics: they might have had little experience of Cabinet government but they had a lot of experience of violence, and a paramilitary force of 400,000 men (the Sturmabteilung, popularly known as the “Brownshirts”) to administer it. It was the SA that brought Hitler to power, rather than just into government, by imposing the Nazi fiat across the country. Thus, the Nazis had not only a leadership with convergent ideas, and a (vague) political program, they had a conception of politics by brute force, and a large, national organisation capable of applying that force at a local level. The Army was too small to intervene, and anyway Hitler was the Chancellor. The police were largely impotent, especially after Goering’s appointment as Minister-President of Prussia.
None of these components would have been enough on its own. Hitler was a shrewd political tactician, but there plenty of equally shrewd tacticians around. The Nazi programme was not particularly different from that of many other parties at the time: repudiate Versailles, rebuild the country, fight the Communist menace etc. And there were other paramilitary forces, notably linked to the German Communist Party, but these were much smaller and did not have the same national coverage as the SA. As often in politics, there was a hole to be filled, and the Nazis spotted it and rushed in. One of the advantages of a mechanistic approach to understanding the Nazi seizure of power, incidentally, is to put in its place all the hyperventilation, then and since, about a nation “going mad” and “throwing themselves into the hands” of a delusional lunatic. In fact, the German people didn’t throw themselves anywhere.
I’ll briefly say a word now about another extremely unexpected turn of events after a political earthquake : what happened in Iran in 1978 and 1979. Not only is this episode poorly understood in the West, bu that misunderstanding has contributed to a wider misunderstanding about the nature of discontinuous political transitions themselves. It’s common to say (and I’ve heard this from international relations students) that the Shah’s government “fell”, or was “overthrown” by Islamists led by Khomeini. The truth is a lot more complex that that (for example Khomeini was not even in the country when the Shah left) , but for our purposes, it is enough to note that the opposition to the Shah was widespread, ranging from Islamist to extreme left-wing, but that the Islamists emerged out of the 1978-82 confusion and chaos in control because they had a united leadership (under the much-revered Khomeini), a clear doctrine (Khomeni’s doctrine of Islamic government, “neither East nor West,”) and massive forces at their disposal organised by the religious hierarchy. The West was completely stunned at the outcome, since neither of its assumed scenarios occurred. The modern “pro-western” forces were too small and overly concentrated in the big cities, and the Army was confused, discouraged and reluctant to act.
Yet there was a lot of contingency here as well. It’s true that millions of people took part in anti-Shah demonstrations in 1978, by some measures the largest demonstrations in the history of the world. Nonetheless, there was little unity of belief among them, and little idea about what would follow the Shah’s regime. Mass demonstrations do not, of themselves, cause revolutions, they simply create the possibility of them. Likewise, Khomeini was in exile in France at the time, and the reasons the French government had for sending him back with such publicity remain obscure and controversial even today. It is most likely that the French (and the US) saw him as a calming figure, a moderate churchman who would restrain the excesses of the Revolution and help to counterbalance a dangerously Leftist trend among its supporters. Some proponents of returning him to Iran seemed to see him as the equivalent of Bishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, or even Ghandi. Well, we can all make mistakes: in fact, Khomeini was a skilled politician who was entirely comfortable with the idea of the use of violence against opponents of Islam (thus heretics and apostates) and who expressed an ideology which appealed to the general anti-western feeling in the country. If Khomeini had remained in France, the recent history of the region would have been quite different.
From all of this, I think, one point emerges above all others, and it is the importance of what the French call Corps intermédiaires, best translated as “intermediate structures.” You can have the most brilliant strategic minds, and you can have the most wonderful ideas, but you still need a transmission mechanism for bringing those ideas into practice. In the case of the attempted Kapp pitch, mentioned earlier, there was a large and powerful trades union movement, linked to the Socialist Party—probably the largest and most effective political party ever seen in a western democracy. It had an impressive organisational capability, lots of paid officials, and even its own newspaper. So when it said Strike, people struck, and the putsch was defeated. On 1 May this year, forces opposed to the changes in pensions arrangements in France swelled the normal May Day processions: around a million people were in the streets all over France. The government took no notice at all.
The difference is not just in size and scale. Had a few hundred thousand workers in essential services joined the strike, the country could have been brought to a halt. But this did not happen, partly because the intermediate structures are not as powerful and well-supported as in the past (only about 5% of French workers are union members) but also because the structure of the workforce has changed. The postal service, for example, which could have an effect through industrial action, is now largely casualised, and unorganised minimum-wage workers do a lot of the work. Workers no longer live in communities, and scarcely have time to get to know their colleagues in a constantly changing workforce that never develops solidarity. In such circumstances, effective organisation is impossible, even if there were a strong leadership (which is often lacking) or a clear set of objectives (which is often lacking as well.)
As indicated, trades unions were very often linked to political parties, and in many countries these parties themselves were structuring influences upon society. In France and Italy, for example, the Communist Party was a kind of parallel government (and an actual government in some towns and cities) often providing services for the poor that they state could not or would not provide. Mass political parties provided an entire set of mechanisms for getting things done outside the power of the state, and, if necessary, in opposition to it. But the age of mass political parties, and even the interest in having them, have long since gone.
In Britain the Miners’ Strike of 1984 lasted as long as it did because mining was the whole life of various communities, and entire families were involved in all aspects of the work and its culture. While the men manned the picket lines the women organised the social survival of the community—something unthinkable today. Such communities no longer exist, around an Amazon centre or a theme park. Communities used to exist in city centres and in poorer working-class areas. That’s no longer true: all over the world as elderly residents die their apartments and houses are bought up by speculators and millionaires. The centre of most western cities is a desert at night.
As well as trades unions, political parties and work-related communities, the other type of intermediate structure was the Church. Churches have played so many different roles in political change that it is impossible to generalise, but at a minimum they have operated as community centres, grouping people together socially and giving them a capability for action, even if they disagree about some things. (Similarly, the nationwide network of mosques in Iran played a key role in the development of the structures that brought Khomeini to power.) The Christian Church has been a force both for reaction and for progress at the same time (in Latin America for example) and was a centre of resistance both against a Communist government in Poland and against the apartheid regime in South Africa, in the 1980s. Irrespective of ideological issues, though, churches and religious institutions have often acted as mechanisms for coordination in the struggle for or against political change. In France in the nineteenth century, for example, the Right organised itself around the Church hierarchy, just as the Left used the national Masonic network.
It’s a truism to say that in general such networks no longer exist, or, where they do, they serve little practical purpose. For example, no movement in the average western country that depended on the trades unions for its support could hope to emerge triumphant from a contest with government, and it is increasingly clear that virtual internet communities are just that: virtual, not real. The excitement over the use of social media in the Arab Spring has now subsided, as it has become clear that the ability to organise demonstrations is not the same thing as the ability to take and hold power. The beneficiaries of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and then in Egypt were not middle-class western oriented politicians, but Political Islamist movements who were able to reap the benefits of decades of preparation and organisation.
This should not have come as a surprise: politics does not tolerate a vacuum, and the best-organised (or least disorganised) group will tend to prevail. These groups do not have to be explicitly political: at one extreme, organised crime can often provide a number of surrogate state functions, precisely because it is organised. Organised crime is remarkably intolerant of disorganised crime, which it tends to put down with methods that would not be politically acceptable in a democratic system. But the experience of many countries in crisis and conflict (Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia among a host of others) is that para-states tend to emerge, often ethnically based and combining the functions of racketeering and smuggling with a rough and ready law and order, as well as the provision of a degree of security.
It will be obvious that one criteria for exhausted or discredited political systems to be replaced or heavily modified is the existence of these intermediate institutions, which can provide the organisation and perhaps the personnel to bring about change. They do not have to be mass movements to be influential: the various political societies that flourished in pre-Revolutionary France are one example. But the problem in the West at the moment is that they hardly exist any more. Liberalism regards all such institutions as relics of the past, whose only effect is to obstruct the smooth functioning of the market. Which is fine as long as you have a market, and your wants and needs are limited to those that a market can, at least theoretically, provide.
The risk now is that the political systems of many western states will begin to fall apart, and that nothing will replace them: anarchy in the popular sense of the term. It’s easy enough to see how this could happen. Public interest and trust in existing political systems is reducing all over the western world. In many countries, scarcely half the population bothers to vote, even in national elections. Parties still have differences between them, but these are often relatively minor, and do not correspond to the differences of opinion and interest within societies themselves. Although substantive issues of Left and Right are actually as salient as they ever were, the more important operational distinction in how people feel is between the minority (10-20% depending on the country) that benefits from the current neoliberal dispensation, or hopes to one day, and the rest, who do not benefit or fear no longer doing so. There is no Excluded Party in any western country, although some parties, often labelled “extreme” of Left and Right do gather up protest votes. Moreover, in most political systems, the Excluded Party is split between several parties with superficially different orientations and objectives. So in France, much of the old Leftist vote has split in two ways: the middle-class has run off to the Greens, whilst the working class has gone to Le Pen’s National Assembly. Yet in practice, it would be possible to take the working-class and lower-middle class vote among scattered parties of the Left, and the working-class vote now lost to the Right, and make a winning coalition from them. The irony is that the Leaders of the Left cannot see this or, if they can, choose to do nothing because they find supporters of the Right common, uncouth and bigoted and have no wish to be associated with them.The further irony is that the views of the average RN voter and the views of the average Communist Party voter are actually not that far apart. It’s the leadership that is the problem.
So I have no idea where this is all going to and up. The problem is that if the political system is discredited—and this one surely is—then the usual progression of events, where another system naturally replaces it, seems to have been invalidated this time. Because the elitist, careerist neoliberal parties that dominate western politics are mostly in a very bad way, we assume that they will either have to reform (virtually impossible) or that they will disappear. And certainly it is true that they enjoy less and less popular support, and fewer and fewer people vote for them. Even in the US and the UK, people are becoming tired of pushme-pullyou politics where the government is simply drawn from the less discredited of two major parties at any given time. But supposing these parties disintegrate. Which parties will take over and how will they be structured and organised, and on what basis? And if the whole indirect Liberal democracy system falls apart, which forces are waiting in the wings to replace it, and how will they organise themselves? In parts of central and eastern Europe, we have seen ethnic and nationalist divisions acting as a basis for political parties and, unfortunately conflict. But in the post-ethnic, post-political world of Brussels, even that isn’t going to happen. I have an uncomfortable feeling that we are headed for a genuine form of anarchy: no rules, not OK. There is no precedent, so far as I’m aware, for a political system that falls with nothing to replace it, or at least nothing viable. Organised crime, anybody? Islamist militias?
We may now be entering a political Waste Land. “On Margate sands” wrote TS Eliot in a poem of that name “I can connect nothing with nothing.” Well, he was writing about one of his habitual nervous breakdowns, which he got over. But maybe now there really isn’t a cure for the breakdown of an entire system.