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Theresa May Has Brought a Knife to a Gunfight

The British prime minister’s vow to “defeat socialism today” reveals a leadership laughably bereft of ideas.

Theresa May on February 19, 2018 in Derby, England. Christopher Furlong–WPA Pool / Getty Images

A year and a half into her beleaguered premiership, it is fittingly tone deaf for Theresa May to announce her party’s new mission as being “to fight and win the battle of ideas and to defeat socialism today as we have defeated it before.”

This sentence alone — let alone the rest of the speech — delivered as it was to an audience of billionaires at the Tory party’s £15,000 per-table Black and White Ball at the Natural History Museum, is an object lesson in “a lot going on there.”

It’s worth remembering that Theresa May, to an audience of Tory megadonors, many of whom have never worked, has declared war on the ideology and movement that made it illegal to employ children working at machines, that mandated basic safety protections, and through which were won basically everything about our society that doesn’t suck, from the National Health Service to the weekend.

We must remind the Tories that the society they tolerate and indeed valorize in fact contains many of the ossified gains, however eroded, of the organized labor movement.  Theresa May has, in effect, declared war on sleeping in on Saturday.

We know what May really means by “defeat socialism,” of course — she means maintaining capital’s grip on the state, through which it can continue to dominate and expand its power. She means underfunding public services, allowing them to fail, and then privatizing them off with a shrug — “It wasn’t working! Let the market fix it.” She means protecting a schema of distribution that privileges Richard Branson’s right to sue the NHS over its ability to provide adequate care. She means protecting a system where privileged access to the machinery of government is offered to the wealthy, who bid thousands and thousands of pounds for a “diverting evening with the Gove family,” where the talk may just turn to a “spirited debate” about policy.

It is unlikely May will secure popular support to continue with these policies. Corbyn, she frets, is “exploiting populist politics.” May’s own rhetoric, however, has shown her to be utterly bereft of new ideas. All she has to offer is grave warnings: “Massive renationalization. Capital flight. A run on the pound. That all leads to a bankrupt Britain.” May trots out these old canards as her shock troops in a supposed “battle of ideas.” But renationalization sounds great. Ghouls like Branson already live in tax havens.  And a run on the pound — it’s not as though a Tory government has caused anything like that in recent memory.

Ultimately, socialism is not so concerned with the battle of ideas, but of power and control over resources.  Contrast May’s speech at the Black and White Ball to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s speech at the Alternative Models of Ownership Conference, on bringing public services back under public control: “We will do this not only because it’s right, not only because it’s the most efficient way of running them, but also because the most important protection of our public services for the long term is for everyone to have and feel ownership of them.” Might that spook another billionaire or two into leaving? Sure. Why not.

Britain is beginning to realize that we do not need our billionaire class. It’s like living with a hungry wolf, and lamenting that he monopolizes all the food in your fridge. You can either accommodate the wolf, in hopes that he’ll eat less of your food, or you can decide that maybe the wolf can be fought; maybe pissing him off could be a worthwhile endeavor.

The failure to grasp the nature of this relationship is at the core of the emptiness of Theresa May’s faux-combative rhetoric: she is engaging with socialism as a kind of aesthetic preference among flouncy urban cultural elites (irony notwithstanding): just more campus politics.

In her thinking, the people are angry and this makes them susceptible to charlatans promising a better world. This fundamentally unsound way of looking at politics views it as a game played purely by elites, with the working classes by turns inflamed by ambitious socialists playing at their anger, and pacified by sensible One Nation Tories like Theresa May giving them bits and scraps of concessions to steal a march on the socialists.

But when the workers get a substantive say in the structure of society, we win victories against child labor, we carve out two days of the week for ourselves, and we ensure sickness ought not mean death or penury. So Theresa May promises to defeat socialism by offering the British public gestures of mollification. May thinks she’s declaring war on her fellow elites for control of the state; in reality she’s declaring war on its people.

“I am still on your side,” May said to such figures as Stanley Johnson and Georgia Toffolo. Fortunately, her speech has made it clear that in the “battle of ideas,” their side has brought a knife to a gunfight.