She shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle (chapter 17)
I’ve not written on Corbynism for the first 100 days. I missed its early rise so spectacularly that I decided a period of silence, humility and reflection on why I had done so , and more importantly what Corbynism actually is, was warranted.
Here, 100 days on (and 101 days tomorrow) are my first reflections on what Corbynism isn’t, what it is – though Jeremy Corbyn may not well know it – and what promised land it may just offer British socialism.
Or not, depending on whether the British left decides that time has actually passed, or whether it should go in a big 40 year circle of diminishing returns.
What Corbyism isn’t
82 odd days into my 100 days of reflective solitude, and having started to come to some conclusions, I went to listen and perhaps engage with self-proclaimed intellectual activists at the heart of Corbynism.
The event, held at the woolly-left think tank premises of the New Economics Foundation was entitled Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it). It was just awful, both in its organisation and in its content. There was no visible chair to invite and moderate contributions, and the principle contributors simply rambled on about the failures of New Labour and how the rise of Corbyn was a great moment for the British left, on which it should now seize. Laclau & Mouffe were hardly referenced , and the contribution of the one speaker who did try to interpret Corbynism through a Gramscian lens was soon lost in the to and fro between others who had less focus on the subject supposedly at hand.
The way the seminar was conducted meant I couldn’t bear to stay for the last hour but, from what I saw, I got the impression that those with most intellectual clout in analysing the rise of Corbynism, and therefore in steering its course over the next few months, are doing so with the worn out tools of the 1970s and 1980s. They are also using the tools badly.
I’d describe the analysis at the meeting as ‘sub-Gramscian’, stripped off all the finesse that Perry Anderson & Tom Nairn and brought to it in the 1960s and 1970s , and now little more than a vague and in-vain aspiration to a ‘counter-hegemonic electoral coalition of the dispossessed and the partly-dispossessed. Gone, it seems, was any real appreciation that Gramsci was largely writing about the defeat of the left, and of the current hegemonic power over culture and ‘common sense’.
Indeed, such was the reductionism that, ironically, this aspiration to a new electoral coalition did not sound too far removed from the much-maligned Tony Blair’s recent defence of his own – in the electoral and social context of the late 1990s – rather successful coalition building:
Above all, in a society in which fewer and fewer people thought of themselves as traditional working class, we needed to build a new coalition between the aspirant up and coming and the poorest and most disadvantaged.
This was just one awful meeting, but the impression that this where ‘mainstream’ intellectual Corbynism is at the moment is confirmed by other reading .
Doreen Massey’s editorial for Soundings, for example, written shortly after Corbyn’s election as leader, sets out her hopes for what groupings might come together to create a new (counter)-hegemonic force via the enactment of Laclau and Mouffe’s “political tasks” (these being the development of “identifiable commonalities” and “chains of equivalence” such that a common enemy is identified. It’s worth quoting at some length:
There is no doubt that Corbyn’s support draws together many flows. It draws together young and old, long histories and new initiatives. It encompasses elements both of the labour movement and of new social movements. It is definitely not only ‘the young’, as it was initially, rather lazily, labelled. The presence of young people is marked, but so too is the presence of the over-60s (a potentially positive constellation that might help get us beyond the supposed battle between generations). It brings together Generation Rent – priced out of the housing market and let down by the Liberal Democrats over university tuition fees; disillusioned
Labour voters coming back to the fold after years in the Blairite wilderness; and people who marched against the war in Iraq only to feel that it had made no difference.
Then there are those in ‘the squeezed middle’ who see their standard of living dropping year on year whilst that of the wealthy mushrooms; the environmentalists who see the chance to move climate crisis higher up the actual political agenda; the ballooning precariat who are no longer buying the line that it’s their fault; people who see corporations not paying their tax, and the privileges of the 1% swelling, whilst everyone else pays through ‘austerity’. There is a politics here that speaks to people using food banks, pensioners whose pension is not enough to live on, and victims of social cleansing forced to move away from their homes. And there are more constituencies than this, many of them overlapping.
Among these new constituencies there are also connections with some of the most innovative moments in socialist democracy over the past fifty years: the anti-racism, feminism and peace movements from the 1960s onwards; that great experiment in popular democracy, the metropolitan counties of the urban left and the GLC (Greater London Council); and the contemporary wave of experimental activism, from alter-globalisation to Occupy.
That’s a long list. In fact, it’s just about everybody who’s not a capitalist exploiter. And it’s not just long. It’s a list deliberately set in the context of the attempts, a generation or two ago, to do exactly the same thing as is proposed now.
This catch-all aspiration to anti-Tory coalition begs a simple question. How on earth, if the counter-hegemonic project didn’t work back then (except in small New Urban Left pockets, for short periods), will such a counter-hegemonic project work this time around?
The answer is also simple. It won’t.
Pretending that the Corbyn leadership will magically create the kind of social and political solidarities amongst groups of citizens who currently feel not just that they have nothing in common but who now actively oppose the others’ interests – as a result of a hegemony of the right only reinforced by the financial crisis and now a security crisis – is simply wishful thinking.
We live in an age of – to use Anthony Giddens’ term – of deep ‘ontological security’, much deeper than that of 30 years ago. As I explored a little while ago, the question of what’s wrong with our politics can and perhaps should be recast as a (Rieffian) question about what is so wrong with all of us.
In such insecure times, Doreen’s vision of an end to the “retail politics” of New Labour and a switch to a “notion of campaigning to change what the electorate might want, to argue for values, and understandings of the world, that may not be popular now but are what the party (says it) stands for” (p.7), reflects a well-meant but hopelessly outdated concept of false consciousness amongst the masses, which can be overcome through a series of courageous political acts and educational endeavours.
This concept of false consciousness, and the consequent imperative of political education of the masses, may have had some validity before the onset of late ‘capitalist realism’, but from Adorno & Horkheimer onwards both socialists and conservative intellectuals have, and with varying degrees of cultural pessimism, come to the conclusion that realism is either inescapable, and humanly bearable only by an alienation from our true ourselves and submission to capitalism’s material and/or ‘moral’ authority, or escapable only via some form of postmodern ‘lucidity pact’ with the capitalist devil.
I will explore this failure of analysis by the sub-Gramscian Corbynistas more in future blogs (and the book-to-be), particularly on how any attempt to recreate the occasionally successful-in-the-short-term, but overall failed attempt of the 1980s counter-hegemonic strategy for a rainbow coalition of interest and identity groups is doomed to failure in a context, 30 years on, of massive ‘ontological security’ and atomization of the working class.
Suffice to say, for now, that those professing to analyses Corbynism through a Gramsican lens seem to me to be confirming what Gramsci himself had to say about why those on the left who seek to oppose the successful hegemonic strategies of the right by appropriating the right’s techniques, but without the material power to combat the ‘ideological apparatuses’ (to borrow a post-Gramsci term) ranged against them. The occasional unexpected victory (e.g. Corbyn’s leadership win), says Gramsci, has the counter-productive effect of making the left think it can win on the right’s terms:
[T]he social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes — when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality. But this same group has, for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination, adopted a conception which is not its own but is borrowed from another group; and it affirms this conception verbally and believes itself to be following it, because this is the conception which it follows in ‘normal times’ — that is when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate. Hence the reason why philosophy cannot be divorced from politics. And one can show furthermore that the choice and the criticism of a conception of the world is also a political matter (p.23)
In shorter terms: the right won. We lost. The right is much stronger politically and culturally than it was 30 years ago. Combatting it on its own hegemonic terrain will fail, and just make us weaker. The new sub-Gramsci intellectuals of Corbynism need to get real.
What Corbynism is, or at least can be
That’s Corbyn #100. Tomorrow, with Corbyn #101, I move on from the doom and gloom. I think Corbyn, and Corbynism, do constitute a great moment of opportunity for the left – just not the kind of opportunity either Corbyn or most of the Corbynista are currently aware of, mostly because they’ve not read enough books, like what I have. I think the opportunities are much greater than the Gramscians think, but it will take a wholesale revolution in British leftwing thinking (and consequent action) if we are to seize them.
 In my meagre defence, I missed the early rise of the Corbyn factor because I don’t live in an area which felt anything like Corbynmania, which was by and large restricted to London and other ‘metropolitan’ areas.
 My going to London in the first place was inspired by my twitter comrade @RF_McCarthy’s inspired suggestion of waiting to get to the point where someone crassly misinterpreted Chantal Mouffe’s work, then producing her from behind a wall in the manner of Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. I wrote to Chantal, but for some reason she ignored me.
 Another explicitly Gramscian expression of hope around early Corbynism come from Ken Spours, in his analysis of Osborne’s continuing hegemony
At this point Corbynism could be seen as constituting a ‘primitive political bloc’, designed to mobilise the Left, Greens and a new wave of young people to provide the Labour Party with a sense of vitality and moral and political purpose following a catastrophic defeat. Its primitivism lies in the combination of the enthusiasm and mobilisation for a clear anti-austerity position and the fact that its politics is not yet sufficient to build a comprehensive and effective progressive counter bloc. Moving beyond primitivism involves, among other things, recognising that bloc autonomy can only be momentary and that the real aim should not be independence and the comfort of political identity (although these may have a valid function in 2015), but the more difficult and longer-term exercise of hegemony in the conditions of the 21st century.
This morning when I woke up, I came across an article in the Liverpool Echo about the Kirkby rent strike. There’s a video on that page as well, which explains succinctly the attitude of the tenants, by Nick Broomfield. As an interesting historical aside, Roger Bannister tells me that the teacher telling all the children that the police are their friends is Reverend Ronald Johns, who was jailed in 2012 for sexual abuse. Don’t tell me the Establishment isn’t evil.
The Tory assault on public housing properly got under way with the Heath government. Rents began to go up and subsidies from rates were cut back. Labour councils broadly acquiesced to this, introducing a means test to protect the worst off – though that sentence shouldn’t leave you with the illusion that I think means tests are good things. They are a means to exclude the super-rich from any calculation. In the context of housing, slightly better off tenants were to be used to subsidize worse off tenants – instead of increased direct levies on the super-rich.
This was the point of the Housing Finance Act 1972, as well as increasing sales of council housing.
Let’s get back to the bit where Labour councils acquiesced. Labour councils followed their Tory counterparts in putting rent up. The Parliamentary Labour Party generally agreed with means testing. At the 1972 Labour Party conference, the leadership celebrated the length of time the HFA had been kept in committee. This was instead of giving support to a composite resolution that would instruct Labour councils not to implement the Act. And since there was a bloodbath of Tory councillors in 1972, that covered the vast majority of council housing.
Provisions in the Act to compel obedience were punitive – much in the manner that the District Auditor was to take over councils in the 1980s, if they refused to set a budget or set an illegal budget (and please note the distinction between these), a Housing Commissioner was supposed to do the same to Councils who refused to implement the HFA. One by one, the 42 Labour councils which initially set out their opposition to the Act complied – with the exception of Clay Cross, which was left on its own to fight the Tory government and lost.
The key moment in all this was at 1972 Labour Party conference. In preference to the composite motion I mentioned earlier, the leadership preferred a bland motion proposed by the AEUW to “support local campaigns of tenants, trades councils and Labour Parties to spearhead the campaign against the Act.” This is of interest even still today because the language is so similar to the banalities of the People’s Assembly and everything else that the leaders of the union movement propose to escape massive coordinated strike action to bring down the government.
Means testing divided council tenants against each other. Lack of clarity and central instruction as to how to resist (or rather, central pressure not to resist too much) allowed Labour councillors to default on their obligation to defend the working class. Despite this, opposition developed. Working class people simply weren’t content just to let the latest attack wash over them. They resisted. Rent strikes developed in Kirkby, Dudley, even in London, and elsewhere. In the end these were defeated – not least because of the ambivalent response of Labour.
What they show, however, is that the impulse to resist is not just resident in the few Militants or the members of the Socialist Party. It is inherent to the working class.
A clear strategy of resistance has two prongs today. Elected representatives must vote against ALL cuts, must propose needs-budgets and must organise the working class around these demands. And the union movement must prepare for massive strike action. Demurring from either of these puts people who talk great guns about fighting austerity objectively in the camp of the class enemy. And no amount of theoretical waffle will cover that up. These strategies are the only thing with the potential to swing the working class into action – and only the working class, not some small body of dedicated political activists, even at the top of the Labour Party, has the power to change things.
The alternative – 5 more years of People’s Assembly-style waffle – will see the Tories successfully pass and implement laws designed to shackle the unions, Baldwin style. Baldwin got away with it after the union leaders defeated their own General Strike in 1926. The defeat of 2011 was on a smaller scale, but it was equally self-inflicted and it was the turn-off on the road that led us to where we are now.
Battles are being fought all the time on a relatively small scale to avert that disaster. The fight for a left candidate (or at least an anti-Prentis candidate) in the Unison General Secretary election, to build on a decent left showing at the last NEC election. The fight for a socialist General Secretary of NIPSA. The massive show of support for Jeremy Corbyn is part of this – particularly from those layers who aren’t fossilised readers of Labour Briefing. The working class want to resist, are searching for channels to resist. Corbyn can’t provide that on his own; the entire edifice of the labour bureaucracy is ranged against him.
There’s McCluskey coming out against scrapping Trident, and hinting that a deal is possible on the anti-union laws.
There’s the Labour moderates securing their majority on the Constitutional Committee.
There’s every MP and their dog looking to get five minutes of fame disagreeing with the Corbynites.
There’s the press, not commentating on the news but acting as the prison wardens of the Establishment.
There’s the union leaders like “Sir” Paul Kenny talking down Corbyn publicly.
And there is the vast weight of bureaucratic indolence and indifference that will fail to hoover up the enthusiasm of these people who have newly entered the political arena, not as people who love the Labour Party but as people who want to, need to, absolutely must fight austerity – because it is killing them.
For that reason, we still need the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, to be prepared to stand against austerity, and to look to engage with the ranked mass of the working class. Through the collaboration of the union bureaucracy, and the failure of Corbyn either to see what’s necessary as regards a political strategy of resistance or, alternatively, failure to implement it through the Labour Party, the Tories might suppress dissent for a time. But it will come back with a vengeance. The working class has not been pacified. The forward march of labour has not been halted. And they will need to be armed with socialist ideas and methods of resistance.
In the spirit of Kirky, Clay Cross and the Liverpool 47.
No to all cuts.
For a General Strike against austerity.
John Gray enjoys an anti-Corbyn rant in the New Statesman this week. I particularly enjoyed the accusation that Corbyn is planning to murder millions of us so as to secure a better future:
[T]he view of politics he [Corbyn] professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings.
But it was this bit which really took my eye:
There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values (my emphasis).
This seems a little at odds with what Gray writes in Enlightenment’s Wake (1995), his critique of the attempt by ‘the Enlightenment project’ to impose a universal liberalism on the world:
That is to say that it [Gray’s ‘value pluralism project’ to counter ‘the Enlightenment project’ he so hates] affirms the ultimate validity of a diversity of polities, moralities, forms of government and economy and of fairly and social life – of a diversity of cultural forms, in short. And this is not the fathomlessly shallow cultural diversity that is invoked in the professionally deformed discourse of numberless academic seminars on race and gender, with its tacit agenda of global cultural homogenization on the US model; but rather the real diversity of historical practices, often agonistically constituted, of which subordination, exclusion and closure of options are – in liberal forms of life no less than in others – essential elements (p.126-7).
This seems to me a much stronger argument for the ‘suspension of moral judgment’. against the active promotion of “civilized values”, and in tacit favour of ‘subordinating’, ‘exclusionary’ regimes, than Jeremy Corbyn has put forward to date.
I don’t think much of Enlightenment’s Wake overall, not least because it actively refuses to engage with Habermas’ then ongoing efforts to construct a new basis for Enlightenment rationality and democratic polity by way of a universal pragmatics of communication* (though I do think he offers some useful insights along the way)
But I had assumed that Gray genuinely believed in his own intellectual trajectory, however flawed it might be by that lack of engagement with communicative theory. Perhaps not. Perhaps he really is the David Starkey of philosophy.
*I suppose it’s possible he simply never bothered to read the harder bits of Habermas, and relied on others’ simplistic summaries.
Philip Rieff is for days like today:
The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope – the therapeutics need no doctrines,only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies deconverted in all but name.
Philip Rieff (1966), The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p.16
One strange consequence of ‘the refugee crisis’  now in full flow in Europe has been the spotlight put on the nature of the Hungarian regime, and the views of Prime Minister Orban on what Europe’s about:
Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity…..Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?
The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.
2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.
3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.
The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.
4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.
5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
For myself, I cannot think of a more appropriate time for members of the European Parliament to stand up for the founding values of the Union, and seek to invoke the parliamentary and treaty procedures set down for just this kind of development. It’s what the parliament’s supposed to do.
It might therefore be something readers want to submit to their MEP for consideration, especially with a view to a resolution going first through the S&D grouping . I wouldn’t bother with the UKIP ones, mind.
 Not actually THE refugee crisis, but one of them. Rohingya refugess fleeing by boat from the pre-genocidal actions of the Burmese military regime also constitute a refugee crisis, as do the 660,000 Eritrean refugees who have fled over the border into Ethiopia (a small percentage of whom have sought to get to Europe via Sudan and Libya)
 That’s not to say the S&D don’t have issues to resolve in their own ranks. Try SMER in Slovakia.