In the fallout of the Tories’ general election victory, many commentators have declared that everyone is right wing now. It’s an argument that underlies the Labour Party leadership election campaign.
Labour figures are scrabbling to explain why the party failed to win the election.
Many have decided that their defeat stems from a failure to appeal to an “aspirational” Tory-voting working class.
Leadership candidate Liz Kendall even declared that Labour lost because it had “decided that the British public had shifted to the left because we wished it to be so”.
The implication is that the working class has accepted Tory lies that scapegoat migrants or people who claim benefits.
But is it true that we’re all right wing now? And if not, why do some workers accept reactionary ideas?
Socialists argue that the working class is the decisive force to transform society. It has the power to get rid of the bosses and win a society without oppression.
Yet while many workers are angry about Tory austerity, the majority accept that capitalism is a natural set up and is here to stay.
Some think that if only capitalism could be “made to work” then workers would get a fair wage and a decent home.
Others accept the Tory mantra that individuals can work their way up the ladder through hard graft.
They accept “common sense” arguments that Britain has to balance the books just like a household budget. Some workers also hold reactionary ideas such as racism, sexism and homophobia.
A minority of working class people has always voted Tory—and many of these are now turning to Ukip.
And just because someone supports the Labour Party, it doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes go along with the scapegoating of migrants and benefit claimants.
Yet this doesn’t mean that workers simply accept right wing ideas. Popular support for the welfare state remains high, for example, despite the fact it is constantly attacked.
But many of its supporters can go along with the idea that some unemployed people are “benefit scroungers”.
There have been magnificent struggles against racism that push back the bigots.
But Islamophobia and racism against migrant workers is on the rise. The majority of people agree that there should be some form of immigration controls and many argue that it’s necessary to “curb” immigration.
Reactionary ideas like these have real material roots in the capitalism system we live in.
The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that these ideas are the expression of the “dominant material relationships” between capitalist and workers.
Capitalism is built on a lie. Bosses exploit workers to make profits by refusing to pay workers the full value of their labour power. But this process is hidden. Work is portrayed instead as a “fair” exchange of labour for a wage.
Workers are forced to sell their ability to work in order to make a living.
This pits workers against one another in competition.
It can help reinforce reactionary ideas that hard work pays off or that poverty is an individual’s personal responsibility.
It can reinforce the capitalist ideology that argues we are all atomised individuals competing in the marketplace.
We are encouraged to see capitalism as a “natural” phenomenon that runs according to objective laws.
The underlying message is that we can’t change anything. And again, this is reinforced by material reality.
Workers are forced to work for someone else and don’t see the full rewards of what they’ve actually put in—much of that goes to the bosses.
The ruling class will use reactionary ideas such as racism and sexism to divide working class people.
These ruling ideas are accepted as common sense because they flow from the different institutions within capitalist society.
Writing in the early 1920s, the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci developed the idea of “hegemony” to explain why capitalist ideas maintained a hold on the working class.
For Gramsci there was a distinction between “political society” and “civil society”.
Political society is made up of the official political structures, while civil society includes institutions such as the family as well as political parties and trade unions.
These can act as a transmission belt for ruling class ideas and bind workers to ruling class ideology.
These institutions pump out ruling class ideas which fill our heads from an early age.
But reformist organisations such as the Labour Party or trade unions can also play a role in reinforcing and extending those reactionary ideas.
There has been a sustained assault on the idea of the welfare state from the Tories and the press.
From 1989 to 2014 the number that wanted more to be spent on welfare for the poor fell from 61 percent to 30 percent.
The biggest drop off in support was during the New Labour years.
When Labour stopped defending the unemployed from Tory attacks, it legitimised the idea those without a job were responsible for their plight.
The experience of trade unionism can also feed into the idea of relying on the officials and that only small improvements can be won.
Those beliefs can then become the accepted view, or what Gramsci called the “common sense” within society.
But workers’ ideas are not simply a reflection of the ideas put forward by the ruling class.
If that were the case then there would never be any struggle.
While capitalism makes us feel powerless, it also brings large numbers of workers together in the production process.
This everyday experience of working collectively under capitalism and coming to blows with the bosses contradicts ruling class ideology.
So workers have a “contradictory consciousness”, both accepting and going against right wing ideas. That’s why workers can fight, even if they don’t accept socialist ideas or believe that it’s is possible to challenge capitalism.
The experience of fighting back against the bosses is that small concessions can be won, while capitalism itself is here to stay.
Many workers can also accept outright ruling class ideas, such as racism, but can still end up fighting against the bosses.
When workers move into struggle the contradictions become more glaring.
For instance, if the police attack a picket line, it challenges the idea that the state is neutral.
If a judge gives someone who steals an ice cream during a riot a jail sentence, it raises questions about whose side the courts are on. This means that battles can be waged within the working class.
For instance, people who go along with scapegoating unemployed workers can also be opposed to the bedroom tax.
That’s because campaigners fought estate by estate, house by house to organise tenants against it.
This shows that where there is a struggle the reactionary ideas can be pushed back.
While Ukip has pulled the debate on immigration to the right, there is still resistance agaimst racism among many workers.
That’s partly because of the work of socialists in building the fightbacks against racism and also the experience of black and white workers fighting together.
Right wing ideas can be pushed back within the working class. It takes socialists to challenge them, but it’s through struggle that the mass of workers can begin to shed what Marx called the “muck of ages”.
When there is an upturn in workers’ struggle it can affect the whole mood within society.
Workers’ confidence in their ability to take on the bosses rises. And when one group of workers fights, others believe they can too.
Fighting back together also means workers are less likely to go along with racist scapegoating. But if the struggle doesn’t go forward, reactionary ideas can win out in the working class.
So it’s true that some workers can at times be pulled by some right wing arguments.
But the answer isn’t to pander to them. It’s to build a struggle that challenges the bosses’ system and the poisonous ideas that come with it.
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