What can make a difference in our discussions with wary voters who feel the weight of decades of betrayal are class arguments not only for redistribution but also for retribution.
Even as the polls narrow, the British ruling class and its representatives in the Tory party cannot help but reveal their disgust for us. They don’t care if we starve. When asked a question about people driven to foodbanks, Tory candidate for Broxtowe Darren Henry suggested they should take out a pay day loan. They think we’re stupid. Boris Johnson’s father Stanley told the BBC that to call his son Pinocchio after his innumerable lies would require ‘a degree of literacy which I think the great British public doesn’t necessarily have… They couldn’t spell Pinocchio if they tried.’ They think we’re worthless. Boris’s own chequered history of racist, homophobic and sexist language and behaviour is well known, as now are his opinions of working-class men as ‘likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless’, and single mothers as ‘uppity’ and ‘irresponsible’. While such snobbery and sneers indicate their contempt, their policies and actions have inflicted profound and lasting pain, and a sense of injustice runs deep in working-class communities.
The election on 12 December is a chance for our class to hit back at those who have felt themselves untouchable for a generation. The weight of the establishment is against us: from big business to the BBC, every sinew is being strained to paint the Labour manifesto as an impossible wish list, rather than a historically moderate redistribution of wealth from capital to labour, and Jeremy Corbyn as unfit to be Prime Minister. What can make a difference in the closing days of the campaign is for the message from the leadership and on the doorstep, to every working-class person who is sick to death of cuts, closures and the running down of our communities, is that there is an alternative: revenge.
In his twelfth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin describes Marx’s view of the working class as ‘the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.’ Benjamin decried social democracy for rather conceiving the class as ‘the redeemer of future generations’, for this cut ‘the sinews of its greatest strength… its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice… nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.’ As Michael Lowy suggests, this stress on defeated ancestors is ‘too unilateral, insofar as the struggles against oppression takes its inspiration equally from the victims of the past and from hopes of generations to come – and also, if not predominantly, from solidarity with present generations.’
However, Benjamin understood that the sacrifices made and the injustices suffered by generations of the oppressed and exploited, both distant and more recent, provide fuel for the struggles of the present. Indeed, the knowledge embodied in our class of the deprivations and defeats of the past animates our desire to prevent them from taking hold of our futures as well. To win the election on 12th December, the Labour Party and its army of canvassers and supporters needs to not only convince people that it is possible to improve their lives, but also to show that it can come about by avenging decades of neoliberalism, austerity and injustice.
A common theme that canvassers have reported from the doorsteps, especially from those of working-class voters in so called ‘left behind’ areas, is the conviction that nothing can change. There is an incredibly pervasive sense that politicians are all liars and that nothing they promise will ever come about. This is a powerful belief because it has such truth to it; Tory, Lib Dem, and New Labour politicians have been masters of dishonesty and dissembling. This causes disquiet: as one woman I spoke to while canvassing in Thurrock said, people are afraid that attempting to change things will mean them losing what they have, even if they’ve got next to nothing.
Many of these people are viscerally hostile to Jeremy Corbyn. Some people, including former Labour voters, raise typical right-wing objections and repeat media attack lines (turning the country into Venezuela, supporting the IRA). In part this is testimony to how successful a four-year press and establishment onslaught on Corbyn has been. But there is also a yearning for a ‘strong’ leader, and Corbyn lies outside the mould of ‘typical’ slick, polished leaders, or leaders who are imbued with overbearing ruling class confidence despite being absolutely gormless.
In addition to years of targeted attacks on Corbyn’s character and history, it’s hard to deny that months of Brexit manoeuvring in parliament has damaged Corbyn’s standing as an insurgent candidate. If Corbyn is seen as just another politician, and all politicians lie, then why not back Boris – he might be a liar, but he’ll at least get Brexit done – or just not vote? Labour’s position on Brexit can sometimes be hard to sell on the doorstep but it’s not impossible. Whether we voted to remain or to leave, we can be clear that that we all want Brexit dealt with, but we can’t leave it to the Tories to carry out while once again selling workers down the river. But that’s not enough if people can’t be convinced that Labour’s proposals are achievable.
What can make a difference in our discussions with these wary voters who feel the weight of decades of betrayal are class arguments not only for redistribution but also for retribution. Making it clear that whatever you think of Corbyn he has been someone who has fought on the side of the exploited and oppressed all his life. That we are deadly serious about turning the tide on those who have gotten rich off our backs since time immemorial. Nothing about making the wealthy pay their fair share; we will soak the rich and claw back what they’ve taken from us. Now that might be somewhat more extreme than Labour’s current manifesto costings, but everybody I have spoken to has shifted in those discussions. That’s not to say that everybody suddenly turned around and said they were backing Corbyn, but they felt that maybe, just maybe, there was a serious proposition. That the manifesto isn’t just a wish list but a set of demands.
Pointing out that Boris has proposed nothing in his manifesto because he just wants more of the same resonates. What must be overcome is, as the late Mark Fisher termed it, an overbearing ‘capitalist realism’: the feeling that not only can things not change but that such change in unimaginable to most people. This feeling has been driven home by governments of all stripes in recent generations with only limited and sporadic resistance from our side. This has left us in a situation where working class confidence and organisation is generally at a low level. But the experience of speaking to committed activists and seeing the large mass canvasses can have an impact. And, despite decades of capitalist advance and encroachment, a sense of collectivity perseveres, a tenacious sense of community that 40 years of neglect could not extinguish. Conversations are happening, as people I canvassed were keen to remind me, in community centres and school gates, pubs and bus stops.
Slavoj Zizek argued, contra the definition of politics as ‘the art of the possible’, that ‘authentic politics is, rather, the exact opposite, that is, the art of the impossible – it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation.’ Labour should be clear that this is precisely what they are about.
Corbyn can address all this head on. He can tell voters that he knows some people don’t like him, but this is a generational chance to change the course of society in Britain. That now is the time to believe that things can change, and we will squeeze the rich to make it happen. That Boris and the Tories embody every privilege and prejudice, and every deprivation delivered to our class for a generation. That nothing will change simply by voting in a ‘strong’ leader, whatever that might mean, but that we will be on the streets and communities, Labour members, trade unionists and activists, fighting to make it happen. Indeed, an argument for ongoing mobilisation and organisation, regardless of the result, also needs to be driven home to many Labour members who think that a victory in December will lead to manifesto policies being adopted without resistance, as though capital and the British state will wait until the next election before mounting its opposition.
A kinder, gentler politics can get us so far, but there are deep reserves of anger and bitterness in communities across the country and now is the time to draw on and direct them at those responsible for a decades-long onslaught on the working class. As the old saying goes, ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’, so what better than a winter election to freeze the Tories out of office.