In The Conservative Counter-Revolution in Britain and America 1980-2020 I consider whether there is any overarching explanation for the main political, economic and social changes in the major Anglophone countries over the past forty years.
I argue that these Neoliberal policies can be seen as a conservative reaction to the New Deal and the Welfare State: a ‘conservative counter-revolution’. Both of these were attempts to undo the concentration of economic and political power that characterised both societies in the period up to and immediately after the First World War: the so called ‘gilded age’. The aim of the post-70s counter-revolution was to undo this redistribution process even at the cost of lower social equity and harmony and lower economic growth and stability. The beneficiaries have been the wealthy, big business, and the financial sector (Wall Street, the City) which together form an international capital elite.
Moreover, demagogues like Trump and Johnson have exploited the popular unhappiness with these policies and with associated developments like globalisation, skill-biased technological change and financialisation, as well as austerity. All of these were either caused or facilitated by Neoliberalism. These populists, ironically, come from elite backgrounds and once in power they reward their backers. Trump’s tax cuts overwhelmingly favoured corporations and the rich. Inequality of wealth continued to grow under Johnson whilst ‘levelling up’ has so far just been an empty slogan. This will remain so unless and until a future Government is prepared to reverse the policies that are largely responsible for such huge and indefensible differences between better and worse off groups and locations, and not only in the North or the Mid-West.
The question then is how, if these policies have been so damaging to both social cohesion and economic growth, have the conservatives got away with it, especially bearing in mind the fact that only rarely have they won the popular vote in either country? Here I found the work of Professor Corey Robin of particular value. Taking this work into account the answers are as follows.
‘Conservatives’ are not necessarily conservative, but will do whatever it takes to preserve what they see as a satisfactory balance of power. In particular, and even though they cultivate an image of law and order, they are perfectly prepared to break the rules of governance if necessary. The book contains numerous examples, most notably Trump’s continued attempts to undo the 2020 election result, and Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament in 2017. In both countries we have seen a willingness to adopt authoritarian approaches if necessary, and a distinct unwillingness to submit to conventional requirements of accountability. Conservative behaviour has also demonstrated ruthlessness and even a readiness to use violence, or at least to create an atmosphere in which violence is made more probable or acceptable (the January 6th attack on The Capitol, the Mail’s ‘enemies of the people’, the death of Jo Cox). The strong support for reaction of conservative media (Fox News, the Mail, the Sun) has been another important factor.
Other explanations include the deliberate weakening of alternative centres of power (in both countries, the trade unions, in Britain local government, the BBC); the destruction of the epistemic regime (‘alternative facts’, fake news, both linked to the reduction of alternative centres); and strong and convincing cultural appeals to working class voters in both countries, and to white racists in the US. This has been reinforced by the progressive parties’ embrace of Neoliberalism (Clinton’s Democrats, Blair’s New Labour), leading many working-class voters to feel that no one speaks for them or protects their interests. It is indeed very hard to see either Labour or the Democrats regaining power unless and until they can convince ordinary working people that they are their parties.
How should we respond to the conservatives? What would a progressive counter-counter-revolution look like? The book makes three sets of suggestions.
First, call out the conservatives, expose myths such as the Laffer Curve, ‘trickle down’ economics, etc. Show how many of our current problems are the direct or indirect consequence of these policies applied over many years e.g., funding of public services, deregulation of business, privatisation of government (tax cuts – on top of austerity – will make the NHS’s predicament even worse).
Second, the progressive parties should work together for the reform of the political system so that it takes better account of the full range of people and interests across our societies, and not just those with money and influence. This means ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote can actually do so; introducing some form of proportional representation to prevent large numbers of voters from being disenfranchised for being in the wrong place; placing strict limits on, and ensuring full transparency of, private funding of political parties and groups; and ensuring much closer scrutiny of the statements and claims made in political communications in any medium.
Third, embrace downward redistribution through the tax system (rather than the upward redistribution of the past 40 years), tackle tax evasion and ‘corporate welfare’, reform the labour market to secure a better balance between capital and labour and, above all, make reducing inequality the touchstone for all Government policies and actions.
Because of the way in which right of centre parties have captured and exploited our political systems, both Britain and America are now run by a minority of a minority in the interests, very largely, of a small set of wealthy people, sectors and organisations: an oligarchy although that term is rarely used. Unless and until that power imbalance is corrected, it is very hard to be optimistic about the future of either country. The choice is ours.
Roger Brown is a writer and can be contacted via his email email@example.com