ISJ: Neil Davidson on the neoliberal era in Britain

Jonas Liston comments on Neil Davidson‘s ‘The neoliberal era in Britain’ and identifies the key aspects. 

Manchester anti-austerity protest in May (Photo: Ian Allinson)

Just finished reading Neil Davidson’s recent ISJ article on “The neoliberal era in Britain”. I thought it was an excellent analysis of the neoliberal period that poses some crucial questions as to how revolutionaries move forward today. Here’s what I thought were the most interesting aspects of the article:

1. If we don’t begin to identify neoliberalism as a fourth capitalist formation (like the postwar boom for example), we can fall into the trap of not analysing, in the most specific detail possible, the way in which the system has changed, adapted and evolved – or the response of revolutionaries to this.

2. Neil’s use of Gramsci is a helpful framework for understanding how vanguard sections of the British bourgeoisie have enforced neoliberal policy. He writes:

The transition from regime of reorientation to regime of consolidation involved a transition from what, in Gramsci’s terms, was a war of manoeuvre to a war of position: the first involved a frontal onslaught on the labour movement and the dismantling of formerly embedded social democratic institutions (“roll-back”); the second involved a more molecular process with the gradual commodification of huge new areas of social life and the creation of new institutions specifically constructed on neoliberal principles (“roll-out”).

In relation to the state of social democratic organisations, Neil says:

During the 1930s Gramsci distinguished between what he called “conjunctural” and “organic” phenomena. The former “do not have any very far-reaching historical significance; they give rise to political criticism of a minor, day to day character, which has as its subject top political leaders and personalities with direct governmental responsibilities”. The latter, on the other hand “give rise to socio-historical criticism, whose subject is wider social groupings—beyond the top figures and beyond top leaders”.

What has changed is that the conjunctural is no longer an aspect of politics; it has become its essence. Consequently, most discussion of politics—in the developed world at least—is devoted to expending more or less informed commentary and speculation on essentially meaningless exchanges within parliaments and other supposedly representative institutions.

3. Another important point in the article is how neoliberalism has centralised even more deeply the physical force of the state – but it has also imposed austerity through local administrations and structures. It works “as much by fragmentation as consolidation”.

Neil notes that revolutionary organisations need to adapt to these conditions: “General perspectives conceived at a national level—which are obviously still essential—must be creatively adapted and applied to specific situations which arise at the local level.”

I would go one further and argue that a national perspective requires those creative and innovative interventions in particular localities in order to formulate the fullest perspective possible and to learn lessons from the actual experience of the class, and from revolutionaries embedded within it.

4. Finally, this quote is crucial:

Unionisation has to be treated as an actual objective in which revolutionaries must be involved rather than merely complaining about the failure of trade union officialdom to do so. In other words… how can revolutionaries play a role comparable to the British and US Communist Parties in the 1930s in unionising aerospace and auto workers?

For without the entry of the currently unorganised private sector workers into the trade union movement any revival of struggle will be unnecessarily weakened and limited, and their recruitment will not happen automatically. In any case it is not by any means clear that generalised resistance will begin in workplaces, although to succeed it will have to spread there.

Read Neil Davidson’s “The neoliberal era in Britain” here.


Note: This piece was published before rs21 was established as an independent organisation in January 2014. rs21 was founded by a group of people who had been in the opposition within the SWP and who left in response to its persistent mishandling of rape and sexual harassment allegations against a leading member.


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