The big lie: Some thoughts on ideology and the Tory victory

Joe Sabatini on ideology, fetishism, and 5 more years of Cameron.

photo: Flickr/Nikita Gazarov
photo: Flickr/Nikita Gazarov

On Thursday 7 May, The English Tory Party won a shock victory that was utterly unpredicted and yet so predictable. Everything about the result feels like a consolidation of a power grab that took place in 2010, making 2015 the sequel.

With the corpse still bleeding, I feel unable to engage in a full post-mortem, but will attempt to offer some thoughts on how theories of ideology can contribute to an understanding of the Tory victory.

What is striking in this election is that people voted Tory without illusions in their social background or their record on cuts. The voters knew about the Bedroom Tax, they knew that they were being governed by millionaires in a time of austerity, and they knew that living standards had been squeezed. Yet they still voted Tory. How can this be?

The view from Frankfurt: The Big Lie

In Mein Kampf Hitler made the telling claim that the Jews and Communists had told a big lie by convincing the Germans that their generals were responsible for the national defeat in the First World War. During their rise to power die grosse Lüge, or the Big Lie, became the method that the Nazis used to reduce all of Germany’s economic and social problems to the Jews and the Left: that a national recovery will only happen through the Vernichtung, or extermination of these alien elements. On the surface this was absurd, yet millions participated in the movement that brought the Nazis to power. So what is the Big Lie and how does it work?

The Big Lie is an offensive strategic gambit used by a political force representing the ruling class in a crisis. By telling a lie that is so big and brazen, the aim is to wrongfoot the opposition and offer the masses a simple choice: ‘are you with us or against us?’

While the Nazis were using the Big Lie to devastating effect, an exiled group of theorists from the Frankfurt School for Social Research developed elements of the Marxist theory of ideology. Their aim was to understand how the Nazis could have appealed to large sections of the working class, despite the destruction of their parties and unions.

A key feature of their view was that workers have two roles in a capitalist society. On the one hand they sell their labour-power, and are exploited, but on the other they are consumers who buy commodities with their wages. This double relation, so the argument goes, leads to a split in consciousness, so that a worker can think one way in work, and another way at home when they are with their friends, family, or when operating as citizens – i.e. when they vote or fight wars. Critically this split enabled incompatible views of the same reality to take hold. So a worker who fights for higher wages can be convinced to fight for their country – as many millions did in the First World War. The same worker can be convinced to switch from allegiance to a left wing party to a fascist one, because the left wing party only took hold on their desire for better and more secure working conditions, while the fascist party appealed to their desires for nationhood, secure authority and full employment.

For the Frankfurt School this duality of consciousness works in favour of the ruling class, because it disables the masses from exercising critical thought, which relies on workers connecting up what they experience in work to their lives outside work and seeing them as a contradictory unity. It is because of this that the Big Lie can be so successful in a crisis situation.

So how has this worked today in Britain? It strikes me that the crash in 2008 was massive, and is going to shape the future of capitalism. For this reason the ruling class needed to use the Big Lie if it is to maintain its grip on British society.

During the 2010 election it was clear that Labour were on the ropes, and although the Tories failed to win an outright majority they had a strategic opening for an offensive gambit: all they needed was a pretext, and this came in the form of Liam Byrne’s note about the money running out. Like the Reichstag Fire in 1933, this gave the rulers what they needed, and suddenly the entire crisis was reduced to Labour’s overspending. When the Tories made this move they told the Big Lie, and followed up with the harshest austerity budget in 70 years.

The Tories manipulated a political crisis to make a Big Lie about the economic crisis that underlay it. Like true class enemies, the Tories knew that the economy is the main driving force of capitalism, while Labour – the party whose theory of the world is most removed from Marxism – failed to grasp the economic logic of what was going on. By flinching before the accusation that their overspending was the cause of the problem, the Labour Party turned an electoral scrape into an ideological and strategic rout.

Once the Tories got away with their Big Lie they could go on to make others, so that they could blame Labour’s legacy when the double dip recession occurred in 2012, and then could claim economic credibility when the economy returned to a semblance of growth.

So we can see how the Big Lie worked, and yet there is something strange about Big Lies. It is as if those who believe them do so in the same way that they might read a horoscope. When you ask someone who reads a horoscope if they really believe all those guff about the stars, they will shrug their shoulders or give back a slightly guilty look, as if to admit that they don’t really, but like going through with the gesture of acting as if they did. How does this play out with those workers who voted Tory?

The view from Slovenia: They know what they are doing but do it anyway

In Marx’s famous passage in Capital on commodity fetishism he wrote: ‘Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’, which is usually translated as ‘They do not know what they are doing, but do it anyway.’

The Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Žižek, has developed a whole theory of ideology based on the inversion of this statement into: ‘Sie wissen das, aber sie tun es’, or, ‘They know what they are doing but do it any way.’

Where the Frankfurt School focused on the fragmentation of consciousness, so that workers cannot understand what is happening, Žižek sees workers fully understanding what is happening and choosing to act as if they do not.

In one of his many public lectures he tells the audience of a friend whose wife had died and how he coped by repeatedly talking about her suffering while fondling her favourite pet hamster in his pocket. When the hamster died the man had a mental health crisis and became suicidal. The lesson was that the hamster was a fetish, and as long as it was alive he could stave off his crisis. Žižek then poses the question to his audience: ‘what is your hamster?’

To relate this back to the Big Lie, we can see that this functions as a collective fetish that enables the public to have something they can cling to that makes them feel they can cope.

In 2010 everyone but the super rich felt insecure. In 2015 they still do. So the fact that a banking crash caused by the super rich can be displaced onto a Labour government that overspent is the hamster in the Tory voters’ pockets.

The gap between the lie that people repeat and the truth they know was brought home to me by a simple experience on the day after the election. I overheard a conversation between two men in the changing room at my local gym. One asked how the other was, and he says he was tied because he stayed up to watch the election. The other admitted he did too, and then they started an awkward conversation about it. A. asked ‘Did you vote then?’, B. replied ‘Yes’. A. asked ‘Who did you vote for?’ B. looked ashamed and muttered ‘Conservative’, and then A. let out a sigh of relief and said ‘me too.’ They went on to say that the economy is not doing too bad, and you can’t trust anyone else with it, and UKIP are in the dark ages (they did say that at least!).

What this conversation between two Carlisle body builders showed was the extent to which people in once Labour heartlands (Carlisle had been Labour from the 1950s to 2010) had colluded in the lie, and that this collusion is their dirty secret. By participating in the lie they were allowing themselves a small slice of the power that the Tories have. In other words, by internalising the Lie as a Lie, they are not being deluded with false consciousness, but had taken a side in a division between those who promote the Lie and those who reject it. But why have those who rejected the Big Lie in England failed so miserably, while those in Scotland succeeded so spectacularly?

The View from Scotland: The Bigger the Lie the Harder It Can Fall

Everything I have written has been about England. The fact that Carlisle is only 8 miles from the border and increased its Tory majority only reinforces the gulf between the way in which the two nations have reacted to the same situation (I am tempted to describe it as an international reaction).

One of the most trenchant criticisms of the Frankfurt School was that they viewed the process of commodification as total – in Minima Moralia Adorno described it as the technical composition of Man. The essence of this argument is that the more workers become dependent on the commodities they consume, the less they are able to rely on independent sources of power – materially, culturally and ideologically – to form an alternative consciousness of their situation. The version of this in neoliberal times goes as follows: no one can form combative class consciousness if they have a massive mortgage, a family to feed, and are so pressed for time all their leisure activities come in highly packaged commodity forms – there simply is no space for independent thought.

The problem with this argument is that it cannot explain those cases where ruptures do take place – Greece and Scotland stand as present examples. Scotland is, I would like to suggest, a case where The Big Lie failed and failed on a spectacular scale.

Here I shall speculate and be happy to be corrected. My first speculation is that the Big Lie was already rejected in 2010 by the Scots in a way it was not by the English. Many English people rejected austerity, but the dominance of the Big Lie, its position as the ascendant explanation, and the one that people were knowingly choosing to side with was the feature of English politics.

I have nothing innovative to say about why the Scots rejected the Big Lie, except that structurally the worker’s movement was strong linked to the social and class make-up of Scotland. On a more empirical level I think that the process of devolution gave the Scottish electorate an opportunity to have the UK’s biggest functioning system of proportional representation, and to have greater autonomy on many aspects of social policy (especially around health, social care and education). This meant that devolution, supported by a limited shelter from the Barnett Formula, gave Scotland a greater space for developing along a separate political path than Northern England, where the underlying class structure and industrial mix is similar.

Labour’s problem, I would hazard, lay partially in the fact that they are the unionist party par excellence, and had no structural capacity to reinvent themselves as a British Federalist Social Democratic Party. I think this is because they are so weak in England. Any move to assist or embrace a federalisation of the UK would be subject to devastating attack, and they would have lost, particularly given that they had already conceded over The Big Lie.

The referendum campaign reinforced and accelerated this structural weakness. In hindsight the Labour Party could have adopted the line of the Scottish TUC and remain neutral over the referendum. This would have meant that the Tories would have had no choice but to lead the campaign for the No vote.

Had this happened there are two things that may have occurred. Firstly, Labour would have suffered a withering attack south of the border, and Ed Miliband would have plunged new depths of pathetic submission. Secondly, assuming that Labour stuck to their position, there may have been more Scottish people willing to stay with Labour. Some may even have chosen to vote No, as a way to help shore up Labour’s position and prevent their collapse south of the border.

All this is speculation as we know what happened. In reality the referendum was a crisis like that in the UK as a whole in 2010, and the Ruling Class were determined to keep Scotland in the UK. This meant that the Big Lie was wheeled out in the form of blaming the Scottish Nationalists for the problems in Scotland, and pinning on them an unpatriotic agenda. This was of course backed up with subsidiary lies, like the ones about the impact on the economy, currency, diplomacy and so on, of a Yes vote.

The difference between Scotland in 2014 and the UK in 2010 is that the Big Lie only half worked, in that a marginal majority of Scottish voters voted No. However the Ruling Class had failed to wrongfoot the opposition. The SNP did not flinch like Labour in 2010, but went on the attack with rhetoric about holding the Government’s feet to the fire on Devo Max.

What fed this confidence was the rooting of the Yes campaign in the social struggles that forced the SNP to tack left in order to survive (the referendum results were telling in that the traditional SNP heartlands voted No). But when Cameron got on TV at 7am the following day he told a Big Truth with his English Votes for English Voters speech.

I call this a Big Truth because he did the equivalent of stripping naked in public and revealing all. From that point the Scottish public themselves felt they were the targets of the Big Lie – suddenly they were all Jews and Communists to a man and a woman.

Here we understand something about how ideology can fail, and can produce the kind of rupture that the Frankfurt School cannot explain.

In order to perpetrate The Big Lie, the British Ruling Class had to have a target, politically this took the form of Labour, but socially it took the form of the Public Sector, recipients of out of work benefits and migrants. Each of these groups lacked the cohesion and strength to counter the lie forcefully. However when the entire Scottish nation became the object of the lie, they had the strength, the political forces and the institutional framework to fight hard.

In Žižekian terms the Scottish people were denied the fetish that could enable them to continue to participate in the lie. The English votes for English voters speech was a slap in the face of everyone who voted No. This is a kind of Poll Tax moment because it does not hit one political party or a group in society that can be segmented off for bad treatment, but rather attacks everyone at once.

So the question remains will the Tories be forced to attack sections of the English public that will not be so easily segmentable? My answer, tinged with hope, is that they will find it increasingly difficult to govern without doing so. The scale of the welfare cuts they have projected will hit groups who have bought into The Big Lie.

At this point the Žižekian question will return, and we will have to ask whether people knowing and taking part in the Big Lie will decide to reject their pact with the Tories. Will enough workers finally give up the charade? Will those body builders in Carlisle recognise the shame in their complicity as they find themselves hit by the loss of child benefits, or their children’s school failing?


  1. I think the post, “Labour begins its post-election “fight for Britain” – by defending austerity in Tower Hamlets”, spells out exactly why Labour lost, not just in Scotland but in the rest of the UK – by pandering to racism and Labour’s utter contempt for workers, traditional Labour voters have ditched them in droves. We don’t need a theory about a “Big Lie” when Labour’s betrayals have turned off their core vote – some of whom went to SNP and UKIP. Since 2010 there have been a number of key moments when Labour and the TU leadership could have offered a lead to the protests against austerity but they actively tried to suppress any fight back. It doesn’t take intellectuals like Zizek or Frankfurt School to figure out what effect this will have on the confidence of workers fighting back. Rather than workers swallowing a lie, support for austerity by Labour has marginalised their traditional support and actively undermined any anti-austerity campaign outside Scotland (where the SNP has campaigned against austerity.)

    Until the left realise that these betrayals, rather than Labour’s poor communication skills (as argued in another post on this forum) or workers buying into consumerism, are the cause of such a catastrophic collapse in Labours support then little will change.


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