If you haven’t read Jeremy Gilbert’s Common Ground (Pluto, 2014) yet, then you really should. The book is a vital contribution to the debate around neoliberalism – What is it? What has it done to us? How do we defeat it? Displaying both an impressive breadth of reading (Deleueze, Badiou, Laclau, Gramsci etc.) and striking erudition, Gilbert takes aim at the modern crisis of democracy which he roots in the neoliberal ideology of the individual and charts a way through it and out of it.
Unlike some contemporary social theorists who tackle the “big questions”, however, Gilbert also has a practical grasp on the political questions of the day, and nowhere is that more evident than in a long article he has written for Compass in which he introduces his book and explains its key political message, free from philosophical jargon:
Representative democracy has not really been effective in countries such as the UK since the 1970s, when the era of post-war ‘consensus’ gave way to one in which successive governments have implemented a neoliberal programme in the interests of a tiny elite, while rarely if ever enjoying a legitimate popular mandate for doing so. This is not to say that there was ever much of a democratic ‘golden age’, but governments from the 30s to the 70s more-or-less required popular support for the general direction of policy and for major undertakings such as foreign wars, and during this period – almost uniquely since the industrial revolution – the gap between rich and poor shrank significantly. However, this was a very different age from our own or from the ones which preceded it. It was the epoch of mass industry, mass culture, social conformism and centralised state power, the latter being manifested both in the extremes of Soviet and fascist totalitarianism and in the more benign bureaucratic paternalism of the welfare state. But the repressive dimensions of such authoritarianism were always likely to provoke resistance, and the 1960s revolt against discipline and homogeneity in the factory, the university, and the wider culture was one of the major reasons why that social system broke down.
In its place has arisen a culture which tolerates a very wide diversity of individual lifestyles, but which conversely makes it extremely difficult to achieve the types of collective feat which typified the mid-twentieth century, and which was the basis for achievements such as the National Health Service. In contemporary consumer society, everyone is free to do their own thing as long as they can pay for it and doesn’t get in anyone’s face; but what we can’t do is the kinds of things that require us to co-ordinate our desires and capabilities with those of others. The inherited systems of party democracy were designed for that old epoch. Mass political parties were appropriate political vehicles for people who experienced very similar lifestyles and life-courses and who consequently shared outlooks and opinions across a whole range of topics with millions of other people, doing similar jobs, living similar lives. They have become increasingly ineffective as people’s lifestyles have diversified and society has become more complex, leaving the political class increasingly cut off from any substantial constituency whose opinions and interests they could be expected to represent.
If that quote has peaked your interest then make sure to read the rest of the article, after which you
ought to may well feel compelled to pick up the book itself in which Jeremy goes into far great depth and provides far more comprehensive analyses and solutions.