The myth of the political mistake
There have been a number of government policies enacted by this Conservative government which have served to illustrate the misunderstanding prevalent within the mainstream British discourse of how politics, and specifically power in politics, operates. Policies which aimed to solve a societal problem (housing shortages, unemployment, bureaucracy etc.), but proved ineffectual once their outcomes became measurable. The standard response within the British commentariat is to excoriate the government for their incompetence, and suggest alternative technocratic solutions which would better address the issues. As will be postulated here, this approach misses the point, and fails to explicate the process of government, its internal logic and how this is manifested in its policies.
This has become prescient recently with the continuation of Help to Buy. This policy was introduced in 2013 by George Osborne, and extended by Phillip Hammond in 2017. It subsidises first time buyers with a saving scheme backed by the government, to which they also contribute, so that prospective buyers can save for a deposit. We can examine how government is conceptualised by looking at the how this policy was received and analysed.
There is a narrative perpetuated by certain sections of the media which state that this is a bad policy, because it tackles the housing crisis inappropriately, and only succeeds in increasing the demand for housing, while doing nothing to increase supply — thereby driving up prices. It is said the Tories simply misunderstand the basic rules of economics, which leads to policies which actively contribute to the lack of affordable housing. It is framed as an error — they have not analysed the problem properly and have misattributed its causes to something else — and therefore they come up with an inadequate solution. They cannot see the wood through the trees; the cause of the housing ‘crisis’ is in fact lack of supply due to low housebuilding, and a lack of affordable housing. The Tories have again made the same mistake and continue a policy which will not solve the housing crisis, but make it worse1. This narrative is espoused by commentators from across the political spectrum — the stand first from this John Harris article typifies this narrative; “Too many of the new houses being built in Britain are unaffordable or badly constructed. But viable alternatives exist”2.
This misconceived narrative is caused in part by a focus on the rhetoric of politicians and how they appear — such as in speeches and press releases. This focus allows politicians to get away with their lies, as what they say is taken at face value and their claims, and most importantly, their implicit intentions are not scrutinised. When the putative aims of policies are not achieved this is an error in method rather than aims. This means that they are consistently given the benefit of the doubt.
The build-up to budgets demonstrates this tendency well. The discussion is conducted as if there is the possibility that the Tory government would announce a new, innovative policy which would directly address the causes of the housing ‘crisis’ — and their previous actions were simple misguided attempts, which they can rectify. They intensify Help to Buy, then they abolish stamp duty for first time buyers — their mistakes apparently know no end. This obscures the very nature of what the Tories aim to do in these scenarios– which is to keep the price of houses steadily rising, to act as a crutch to the economy and to channel wealth upwards. The ‘housing crisis’ can only be solved by a drop in house prices — which would be an unmitigated disaster for the UKs capital class, in who’s interest the Tories govern.
This erroneous framework is constructed due to a fundamental misconception of what politics is, and how the state functions. The state is seen as essentially a technocratic endeavour; it acts as a neutral arbiter presiding over capitalist markets and society, aiming to solve social and economic problems using its unique capacities and size to fix market failures by stepping in when the market cannot deliver maximum utility. The putative job of the state and the government in charge of it is to analyse the problems that society faces and find the best solutions for them. They conceptualise the state as a neutral overseer of society and the economy, which expresses benevolence towards all members of society and whose aim is the greater good; this is a dangerous, but prevalent misconception of the role of the state in modern society. The state has never been external to capitalist society; it is a fundamental part of how it functions. Rather than being a neutral overseer, the state is an arena for the reconciliation and enactment of class relations; the dominant class in society uses the state to entrench and perpetuate their hold on power, and they enact policies which are beneficial to their class. This false analysis is only possible when politics is rhetorically shorn of its conflict — the job of people in different political parties is to “co-operate”, rather than to use their political power to leverage change on behalf of the people who have voted for them. This “cooperation” narrative assists the dominant class in disguising their actions and appearing as if they are governing with everyone’s consent, for the benefit of all. When government policy is no longer viewed through this lens, the analysis of the aims and outcomes of the policy starts to look very different.
This discourse displays evidence of a fatal error by the professional commentariat, which fails to grasp and properly conceptualise the dominant ideology of the past 30 years, commonly referred to as neoliberalism, and the roles it allocates for the state and the market. They take a generally outdated view that positions the state and the market as agents on different sides of a power struggle; the market trying to liberalize and the state attempting to curb the excesses of the market for the benefit of societal cohesion. This may have once been marginally true in the context of the trente glorious — when the role of the state expanded and the welfare state reached its zenith; but this historic compromise between capital and labour was completely contingent and relied on outside factors to support it — the expansion of US hegemony, the Bretton Woods system, the cheap oil regime and technological innovations amongst other things.
Once this arrangement started to break down in the 70s and 80s, capital, and its owners needed to find new ways to stop the rate of profit from falling, and allow capital to be adequately valorized. One of the most important has been using the capacity of the state to extract value from its citizens outside of the production process. Private capital has taken over various functions of the state, many of which could be considered natural monopolies, and used them to generate profit. Housing is a perfect example of this, and fig 1 shows how the house building mix has changed over the past 30 years.
House building by sector / house prices 1946–2011
Since the market has assumed the state’s role in house building house prices have increased exponentially and so have the profits derived from housing — whether rent or through equity. The capital class has leveraged the state to become rentiers; squatting in what have historically been understood as state functions. However, while doing this they have managed to perpetuate the ideological dichotomy between the state and the market; that it is a zero sum game between them, rather than the symbiotic relationship that it really is. The public discourse has been unable to grasp this and therefore it has perpetuated this instrumental myth and rendered society incapable of seeing the wizard behind the curtain.
“But the government chooses to listen to the developers instead. Britain’s housing market is broken, and help to buy is just making it worse”3
This is a quote taken from an article on Help to Buy from the Guardian. This kind of language helps the house builders, and the capitalist class more generally as it help to reinforce the myth that the aim of markets is to deliver the best outcome for the most amount of people. This is one of the founding premises of classical liberalism and more recently of neoliberalism. By framing policies this way they are able to obscure the real motives behind their policies; the enforcement and continuation of class power. Implying that the “market is broken” implies that it has failed to achieve its intended outcome, and that a fully functioning housing market would achieve these aims. The entities which exercise power in the housing market have achieved their aims: to regulate the supply of housing to maintain a price level which is amenable to the valorization of capital. Providing an adequate supply of affordable housing for every member of society would not achieve this, and therefore it has no realistic chance of happening. As soon as housing supply is exclusively a function of private housebuilding there is only one goal; profit. But this can only be achieved when the state retreats, and creates a space for a state sanctioned private housebuilding monopoly.
This way of thinking about politics is prevalent across UK political discourse, especially within the mainstream press — in comment journalism, but also within reporting. The perpetuation of this particular narrative framework can be viewed in two ways; the media class is simply a blunt tool used by the ruling class to engrain their power by poisoning the public discourse. However, the more likely solution is that the media ecosystem is inseparable from the superstructure in which it resides and through various mechanisms of control and influence the sorts of people who rise to the top are those who view the world in a certain way, and are incapable of conceptualising government and society as fundamentally based on shifting power relations, but rather truly believe in the teleological, liberal ideas of constant progress, philosopher kings and democracy. It is not a conspiracy theory to believe that the media ecosystem actively perpetuates the dominance of a particular class, but the only logical outcome from the conditions in which it is formed.
These patterns of thinking are not however exclusive to the Conservative party — they form the building blocks of the ideological foundations of capitalism and liberal democracy, so it would be a mistake to believe that Labour or any other party would be any different if they were in power. The New Labour years are a testament to this — ‘Labour’ is merely a name, and throughout their history they have contrived to betray their nominal allegiances. See figs 2&3 for examples — this is from nominally ‘socialist’ MP and left wing commentator — it just shows how this ideology is hegemonic; they adopt the language of policy ‘failure’, as if the aim of outsourcing is efficient public services, rather than state sponsored rentier capitalism. The power within society and government has ensured that even those that putatively oppose them adopt their ways of thinking and speaking, which further entrenches their grip on the levers of power.
What has been examined here is the false dichotomy set up between the state and the market, and the false unity projected as an honourable, desirable trait for government. The state is an arena of class conflict in a capitalist society; however the winners of the power struggle have covered up their actions and frame themselves as the unifiers of a classless society. Without an analysis of this conflict, through the prism of class, the state is erroneously characterised as a force for good in a world dominated by rapacious capitalists smearing the good name of capitalism.
The mistake liberal commentators make is projecting their normative values of fairness, equality and opportunity onto the dominant class; the owners of capital. The only logic of capital is its own reproduction; it is erroneous to believe that it would let these ethical ideals disrupt this, and by constructing a mythos of a capitalism that could deliver fair outcomes for those not within the dominant class, these ideas help to entrench the current class configuration. When the government enacts policies which exacerbate inequality in society this is not a mistake, it is simply fulfilling its purpose within this current historical conjuncture; use the power of the state to extract surplus labour from the working class. The only way to begin to dismantle this is to recognise the ideology that hangs like a miasma over the public political discourse, and start to formulate and disseminate critical thinking outside of its framework — only once the situation can be talked about for what it really is can concrete action be taken to construct a fairer society.