The other day, I read a very interesting article by Owen Jones (of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class fame) in the Independent. In it, Jones claims the economic consensus that underpinned the Thatcherite, Tina (There Is No Alternative”) mantra of necessary cuts and capitalist triumphalism has finally been shattered. The “Age of Consensus” as he calls it – a time when men like Francis Fukuyama could proclaim the end of history, when Reds were dead, Labour politicians were blue and laissez-faire capitalism was the only show in town – has finally come to a well deserved end. In the UK, Public sector unions are preparing to strike in singular condemnation of an economic system that makes public sector cuts a necessary fallout from private sector mistakes. 51% of people agreed with the Occupy movement’s opposition to the placing of “profit before people”, in one poll taken last month. Pundits are talking about basic, bread-and-butter political economy again. Jones goes on to sound a note of caution; that this shattering of consensus is about to get ugly. Indeed, it does seem that we’ve turned back the clock somewhat, with familiar old political rivalries blossoming into prominence – the EDL’s recent threats and attacks on occupations and their hostility towards upcoming trade union protests seems to be rather reminiscent of old-fashioned fascist trot-bashing, and the response shown by American police towards U.S. occupations has all the uncompromising brutality of late-nineteenth century goon squads. Even beyond the scrapping that will undoubtedly take place at the grassroots, it remains to be seen how the major parties and state infrastructure moves to respond to the growing chorus demanding change.
But what I hope doesn’t get swept away in the onrushing tide of new thinking is the idea of consensus itself. Because really, if we’re honest, what we’ve had over the past couple of decades hasn’t been a “consensus” at all. It isn’t as if sometime in the 80s the people of the world sat down together and democratically hammered out a system that would cater to all our diverse needs and capacities. Rather, the clue behind the true nature of “the consensus” lies in its full name – “The Washington Consensus.” Rather than a consensus, what we have had is a swaggering, globally engaged dominant discourse; an ideology that was able to outlast the other great intellectual juggernauts of the industrial age, not through a groundswell of public support (as the noble term “consensus” would indicate), or because of its practical value (as Tina would have it) but through its patronage by the District of Columbia. The Neoliberal Ideology served to create a cosy relationship between the rich and powerful in the (traditionally separate) spheres of national politics and international business; whose legal and institutional procedures were enforced by pugilistic foreign and economic policies and justified by academic grandees funded by generous grants from the business community.
The Age of Consensus was governed by almost the polar opposite of a true consensus – a set of beliefs that were decided upon by one, small but powerful group of people, who then used their power to force everyone else to agree with them. The presence of Tina at the centre of their rhetoric makes this clear – saying that there is no alternative is a sure-fire sign of somebody who wants to shut down debate. True consensus is a gold standard for inclusive, everchanging democracy – attempting to create agreement, or at the very least mutual understanding, by the careful and honest sharing of diverse perspectives among equals. As Foucault observed, it is impossible to avoid playing games of power – some people are better at persuading than others – but at least you can make sure there is as little domination as possible. Everyone is included, and nobody is left behind. For me, this ideal still holds water – without it, we are doomed to recreating the fractious tribalism and eventual bloodshed to which past revolutions have fallen. Hope, for me, comes in the shape of things like OccupyLSX’s Bank of Ideas, where people are coming together to discuss a viable alternative to mainstream political economy. Hopefully, whatever alternative/s that space produces, it will be remembered that it is only establishing true consensus, rather than claiming it as a fait accompli, that would be truly revolutionary.