Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly once said: “never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal.” All too often we hear people justifying their activities on the basis that what they are doing is legal. People are not tax dodging, for example, but practising tax efficiency and in any case what they are doing is “legal”. When it came to the expenses scandal , the constant refrain on MPs lips was “it’s all within the rules”. This fetishization of the law and rules as some sort of justification for whatever one is doing ignores the fact that laws and rules do not arrive on planet Earth fully formed from the mind of God but are the product of specific power relationships within society. This was Martin Luther King’s meaning. Those in charge of society will always be able to make rules and laws which support them being in charge of society. They will do this on all sorts of spurious grounds, from the divine right of kings, through to natural justice, common sense, racial superiority and all manner of various justifications which amount to no more than saying ‘L’Etat, c‘est moi’. Democracy is supposed to be the exception to this rule, but actually it suffers from it just as much, even if it does so in a hidden way.
It has become a shibboleth term, one which cannot be challenged and in the same way that laws have become fetishized, so the rule of law carried out by the will of the people as represented through parliamentary elections become sacrosanct. The Daily Telegraph got into problems this week because of this fetishistic thinking and it ended up saying that Morsi had to stay in charge in Egypt precisely because he won an election. But the slogan on the streets of Cairo today is “the legitimacy of your ballot box / Is cancelled by our martyrs’ coffins” and, in slightly less lurid language, what this means is that the struggle for political control in any society is one which goes on either side of the elections. In fact the struggle either side of the elections is the most important part of the democratic process. Elections are merely very rough snapshots of an ongoing process and the fact that we fetishize these elections indicates only the extent to which we have become a largely depoliticized and de-ideologized society — and that is not a good thing.
In addition of course, elections are not simply decided by the people in some sort of ideal platonic form. Rupert Murdoch, despite not having a vote, has much more power than I do when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. His opposition to a particular political trajectory will mean that any party which wants to win governmental office will trim its sails to his wind. We see that quite clearly now with the Labour Party. It is not able to offer any alternative to government austerity not because austerity is logically the right thing to pursue, but because to stand against austerity is to take on the hegemonic view which has been cultivated that there is no alternative to austerity.
One of the most extraordinary and, indeed, impressive things that has emerged from The Great Recession (2007-2020) is the way in which an economic system entirely in thrall to privatisation and financialisation has managed to shift the blame for the ongoing collapse of the economy (if you think that is an exaggeration, then think about the 64% unemployment rate amongst young people in Greece and Spain, far worse than the 1930s even) away from the banks, sub-prime mortgage lenders, Lehman Bros and various other speculative actors and onto the state and its apparent largess in funding “skivers” rather than “strivers”. It has been a brilliant example of how to create a popular mood.
And this is the point. The popular mood is a creation, just as is the law, and the popular mood changes in a way which the ballot box and the law find difficult to deal with. Morsi is finding that now. His blatant gerrymandering, his non-fulfilment of various pledges and a creeping Islamicization of what was a largely secular uprising means that the support that he won at the ballot box is no longer valid. The popular mood has broken free of the normal hegemonic restraints of the ruling ideology. In many ways that is a definition of revolution and when you have 14 million people marching against you then it is time to take notice, take down your tents and move on.