‘Lack and longing’: an interview with Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever

Authors Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever answer rs21 members questions about race, nation, working class struggle and the breakdown of Britain’s democratic settlement.

Image is a close-up of a crowd holding a variety of union flags including PCS and RMT, with placards saying "Protect our right to strike" and "Defend the Right to Strike". The people in the shot apear diverse in age, gender and race. In the centre of the shot, a person in a yellow shirt with the word 'RESIST' on it raises their left fist.
TUC Right to Strike rally at Parliament Square, London 22nd May 2023. Photo credit: Steve Eason, Flickr.

In your new book Britain in Fragments (2023), you state that we are witnessing the ‘unravelling of the democratic settlement’. In brief, what do you mean by this?

The democratic settlement is the convoluted route through which Britain became a democracy. It consisted of three things: the extension of social welfare reforms, the gradual expansion of voting rights and the emergence of an electoral vehicle representing the working class. It was a settlement that took a century to construct and was forged between the ruling elites and the leadership of the domestic working class in Britain. Incremental reforms from the mid-19th century onwards brought an ever-larger number of workers into the political process. This course of democratisation served to contain an insurgent working class, bind it to the British nation and blunt its earlier revolutionary potential. The settlement reached its apotheosis with the post-war welfare state. But just as the finishing touches were being put in place, it began to wither on the vine amid a revolutionary wave of decolonisation in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean following the Second World War. As Britain lost its empire and with it, its key financial cornerstone, the economic basis of this democratic settlement began to erode.

A fundamental conundrum has stumped the British ruling elites ever since: how can Britain maintain its geopolitical reach and economic competitiveness in the aftermath of empire while continuing to deliver the economic and psychic security needed to guarantee domestic social order? Both Scottish independence and Brexit are the convoluted artefacts of the failure of the British ruling class to successfully find an answer to this question. 

In fact, as we show in this book, in their efforts to resolve the systemic crisis of British capitalism, successive Labour and Conservative administrations have further eroded the basis on which the democratic settlement has rested – from the neoliberal counteroffensive of Thatcherism in the 1980s which defeated the working class, to the acquiescence of New Labour in the 1990s and 2000s which erased class as a social force, and finally the bipartisan commitment to austerity in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crash.

These developments have produced a historic crisis of representation which has come to be filled by competing nationalist forces across Britain. In this context, the long-standing and hitherto durable institutional arrangements of the British state are being stretched to their limits.  

What is your opinion on the new wave of anti-protest and anti-strike legislation being brought in by Westminster? These seem to fit well with your theories about the erosion of the democratic settlement in Britain today.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill represents another mechanism to erode a key aspect of the democratic settlement, namely, a worker’s right to take industrial action to defend their terms and conditions of employment. It will allow Ministers to write regulations in any services within six sectors (health, education, fire and rescue, border force, nuclear decommissioning, and transport) which will effectively force workers to work during strike action. Workers could be sacked, and unions could face huge damages if they fail to comply. It is no coincidence that this Bill is targeting many of the groups who have been at the forefront of the most significant phase of industrial action since 1990. More than 450,000 working days were lost due to strike action in November 2022 alone. And on 1 February 2023, across all the major cities of Britain, more than 500,000 workers took to the streets to march in protest against the soaring cost of living. The current wave of strikes potentially represents a moment of awakening; the cobwebs are being removed and a new working class is being born. And the Conservative administration is instituting one of the harshest measures in its repertoire to legally crush this emergent challenge to its failing neoliberal order. 

Unions like Unison that have been at the forefront of the recent wave of industrial action have recognised the threat this bill poses to worker’s rights and are already organising campaigns against its implementation. The key lesson to be learnt from the successful reversal of the equally pernicious 1971 Industrial Relations Bill is that it requires co-operation and co-ordinated collective action across the labour movement to oppose such legislation successfully.  

You focus a lot on the antagonisms, contradictions and class struggle that shape history, rather than seeing history as something only being done ‘to’ us by a series of leaders and powers. Why is this an important way to understand the world?

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx reminds us that ‘people make their own history, but they do not make as they please….but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ In our analysis of the British social formation, we draw attention to the complex ways in which capitalism is entangled with imperialism, class, nationalism and racism. At the same time, we insist capitalism as a social system is subject to inherent crisis born of its internal contradictions and which can help unsettle the most seemingly durable set of arrangements. But structural crises in and of themselves are never enough to stimulate sustained cycles of protest. This is why we also draw attention to history from below to understand how the working class and its allies have moved into collective motion in fulfillment of its needs and desires. As long as there is a widespread variance between what Ernst Bloch calls ‘lack and longing’ – between a life that workers are allowed to lead under capitalism and the one that they would like to lead – the possibility of prising open a more emancipatory vision of society undergirded by the principle of justice for all is always available.

You argue for the working class to be ‘remade once again as a social force’ and point to strikes as a way of transforming social consciousness to bring people into solidarity with one another. What place do you give organising outside the workplace, such as in tenants unions, community groups and single-issue/sectional campaigning?

Struggles over the labour process remain central to any future resurrection of the working class as a social force. It has been the missing ingredient in the multifarious waves of social movement resistance we have seen from the Battle of Seattle to Occupy, from the European Social Forums to the anti-war movement. At the same time, it is not the only site of the class struggle. Movements against racism, sexism, transphobia and the degradation of the planet are equally central to the making of the working class as a social force. Under capitalism, the working class is always hierarchically ordered and materially enforced. As a result, resistance to such oppression doesn’t always express itself through forms of class identification but are often over-determined by racialised and gendered identifications. We need to bring the diversity of struggles that the working class are engaged in at any one time into conversation with that emergent wave of class struggles that has appeared recently. That way, we encourage a process of learning that will produce a mesh-like infrastructure of dissent that is required to effect a progressive transformation of society. 

Image shows the cover of the book Britain in Fragments, set against the backdrop of a union flag.
Britain in Fragments: Why Things Are Falling Apart, by Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever. Manchester University Press, 2023. Image by rs21.

In Britain in Fragments, you talk about the post-war settlement as being contingent on the maintenance of empire and then exploitation of labour from formerly colonised nations. You discuss the 20th Century Labour Party’s complicity in colonial narratives and defence of the empire. How much do you think these narratives still influence the Labour Party’s positions today, and how do we resist that?

Racism and empire were pivotal to the making of the democratic settlement. As we argue in the book, the institutions set up to advance the cause of social justice all too often offered visions of freedom that were blunted by the stultifying force of racism. This served to bifurcate the working class and consolidate a series of hierarchies along the lines of race and nation. The Labour Party exemplifies this. When it emerged in the early part of the twentieth century it was undoubtedly a vehicle for working-class upliftment. At the same time, however, the Labour Party also provided its own form of British imperial statecraft, thereby situating its demands for working-class inclusion on the same ideological terrain of empire and nationalism. Labour’s attachment to imperialism did not fall away with the end of empire in the second half of the twentieth century, as the 2003 invasion war in Iraq showed. Labour, like Britain itself, has not yet had a full and proper reckoning with its own complicity in empire.

While it has always been an imperialist party, Labour’s relationship to imperialism has undergone some shifts. In the early-to-mid-twentieth century, party leaders justified empire not only on the grounds of the national interest, but also its economic returns for the domestic working class. However, with the erasure of class under Blair and New Labour, foreign interventions have been made in the ‘national interest’ only, confirming New Labour’s disengagement from working class politics. So, while class has gone from Labour’s repertoire, imperialism has not. 

Britain now has many of the major offices of state occupied by people of colour on the political right, and now the SNP’s first Muslim leader. How do we understand this development at a time when hostility towards migrants is still at the heart of British, especially Tory, policy-making?

There is a common mis-conception on the Left that presumes black and brown Britons as well as migrants are uniquely disadvantaged and overwhelmingly located at the bottom of the British class structure. In fact, all these social groups display remarkably diverse class profiles. For example, there is today a significant component of the population of British Indian descent who occupy ruling class and middle-class positions. In part, this was one of the unintended outcomes of the anti-racist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which changed the political culture of British society. At the same time, while that militant anti-racism was repressed, culturally conservative and business-minded Black and brown Britons were given a greater voice in public life, including within the Conservative Party. Ironically, then, the neoliberalism that drew its initial inspiration from Enoch Powell was modified and refashioned by Thatcher and her successors to partially encompass black and brown Britons. As a result, British national belonging has to a degree been stretched to encompass those racialised minorities who were once excluded from it, and the Conservative Party has been part of this process. Indeed, without these long-term structural changes, it would be difficult to imagine the diversification of the Tory leadership in recent years. But this multicultural nationalism remains positively hostile to migrants, particularly working class migrants. This racist hostility is often expressed through the essentialisation of cultural difference. That is, discursive arguments are employed to legitimate anti-migrant policies that focus on the alleged cultural incompatibility of migrants from Africa, Asia and elsewhere with British culture and values. This is the way in which anti-migrant rhetoric escapes the accusation of racism in politics today. 

Marx has been accused of being economically deterministic and at best colourblind – at worst, orientalist and racist. How do you feel about these criticisms?

We believe the postcolonial and decolonial critique of Marx is one dimensional. There is also a global Marx to discover, particularly in his later writings. Here we find someone who was not only an eloquent and fierce critic of racism in Europe and beyond, but also colonialism, particularly the destructive power of Western capitalism in undermining the moral economy of pre-capitalist social relations. This Marx was also someone who demonstrated the constitutive role that colonialism played in the process of primitive accumulation and the resulting formation of the capitalist mode of production. It was precisely this recognition of the destructive capacities of capitalism, both through enclosure at home and colonialism abroad, that led him to understand capitalism as a catastrophe that ‘comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

How does chauvinism around race and nation act as a barrier to class unity and struggle in Britain today, and how can we build and maintain internationalism in our increasingly secessionist and protectionist political context in Britain?

Racism continues to scar every corner of the contemporary landscape in Britain. However, one of the defining legacies of the partial entanglement of the anti-racist and class-based social movements of the 1970s was the way they bifurcated the white British population, breaking a sizeable minority from the racist consensus that had hitherto held sway. This means that still-powerful racist impulses today now increasingly have to jostle for space with a multi-ethnic working-class cosmopolitanism.

While there is no political force currently willing to represent this multiethnic working class, there exists a social base for such a project. From the Occupy movement to the mobilisations against the Iraq War, and from protests against mounting austerity to the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements,  the demand for class, racial and sexual justice with an internationalist opposition to war has never gone away. The strike wave of 2023 shows that there is a new working class now in formation. While its struggles remain sectional and defensive, it has emerged as a resource of hope in what are otherwise bleak times. Can we close the variance between the increasing lack of material and psychic fulfilment to be found in contemporary society and the desire of ordinary people to live a contented life of happiness and completeness? That is the question before us.

You can read rs21’s review of Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever’s Britain in Fragments here, or buy a copy here.

1 COMMENT

  1. A provocative and stimulating interview. As I found in research for my ‘Alchemy and Imperial Delusions’ papers, the desire for the grandeur of imperial power seeped into even the most modernising of technological fantasies.

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