From the left, the reaction to the Dominic Cummings story has been curious. Of course, there’s been anger. While not surprised, socialists (along with the general population) have expressed genuine outrage that the chief adviser to the Prime Minister could display such arrogance and disregard for public health. But mixed in with that, I sense that there is a real nervousness about letting Cummings become the story. I talked a little about that in a piece I wrote about Cummings’ politics last week. What many argue is that even this story, superficially damaging as it is for them, is a cover for the Tories to conceal far greater crimes.
We saw a similar nervousness throughout the Corbyn years: a sense that we must not allow these right-wing chess players, the likes of Steve Bannon, Lynton Crosby and now Dominic Cummings, to set the agenda and employ dead cat strategies to distract the public with stories that play to their agenda alone – so from the annual “Poppygate” to Cummings’ press conference last Monday, almost everything is seen through the prism of this game of mass distraction. I think an element of this is bound to be true, but we must be careful that by calling everything a dead cat, we don’t fall into the exact trap we’re trying to avoid.
Of course, people like Dominic Cummings employ game theory and such like. Throughout politics, there are people who work in the background, mapping out scenarios and attempting to pull the strings of the public. We’ve had our examples of people in our party whose job was to do the same, and some of that was very successful. Of course, it’s the opposite of movement building and is as old as history itself. Machiavelli wrote the book.
However, we have to be careful. We mustn’t get sucked into the idea that the likes of Cummings are omnipotent or be overtaken by conspiracy theories. These people aren’t all powerful, they are part of a struggle – and a political one at that. Their theory of the world: that human interaction is fundamentally governed by self-interest, is not uncontested terrain. Alternatives views are available. It is part of a battle for the future, which we are all agents.
A hugely important Italian Marxist theorist – Antonio Gramsci – had a different perspective, based on a different world view. He read Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ (a guide to courtiers in how to win power through manipulation and subterfuge in Renaissance Italy) and developed a new theory: that in modern society, it was the party (the collective, organised working class) that was the Modern Prince. In other words, in the struggle for power and leadership (what he called hegemony), there was power from the top (the old model), but always a countervailing power from the bottom up – and that’s where democratic, socialist politics has its source.
I think there is a real danger – especially in difficult times – that we accede too much power to those in formal positions of power and those who, like Cummings, seem to pull the strings of not just a hard-right government, but the right-wing press. In so doing, it often looks like the control over the people is total, that Cummings is directly pulling the strings of the general public. But it is more complicated than that – and there are always other forces bubbling up. There are always cracks, and it is our task, as socialists, to turn them into crevices.
Of course, the likes of Dominic Cummings, Lynton Crosby and Steve Bannon do have real power and alongside the right-wing press and social media channels that they have developed, are often successful at creating hegemony (or leadership) amongst the public and of the state. But there is a real issue with going fully down a conspiracy rabbit hole, because it is utterly debilitating for us, as people who want to change the world. Because ascribing to any person, or a group of people, all-encompassing power makes our organising largely pointless. It overwhelms and demoralises people – and demoralised people don’t tend to organise, they tend to wait for better days, hide – or worse, give up all together.
Let’s take an example: some people on the left are saying that the situation over Dominic Cummings is designed to cause such anger, that it leads people to civil disobedience, as a precursor to authoritarian or martial law. Where is this argument going? Is it designed to stop the authoritarianism, the anger, or people speaking out? It’s not clear – and that is the point. Over the last 40 years, the real enemy of socialism has been demoralisation and apathy. At the heart of that is a sense of powerlessness. When we inflate the power of the dark forces controlling our lives, without any light, without any sense of how we fight back, we help them.
I think the best way to see Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and the whole gamut of ascendant right-wing forces, is part of a political struggle. Their biggest battle and biggest challenge is to win hearts and minds, in order to gain consent for their admittedly authoritarian project. Our job is also to win hearts and minds, but our battle cannot be won from above, with the support of the media or the apparatus of the state. Ours must be won by organising amongst the people, opening up the space for a different vision of society, based on our collective power. But we must challenge their narratives, whatever games they are playing and whatever their strategies – because you don’t lead by hiding or hoping for better days.