TCF review of the 2015

December 31, 2015 1 comment

Worse than 2014.

Categories: General Politics

On Corbynism (part 2 of 3)

December 30, 2015 9 comments

habermas picIntroduction to part 2

In part 1, I set out how the British Left’s reliance on Gramsci as principle political inspiration for its 40-50 year long modus operandi is now outdated and even delusional.

Under the alienating condition of late capitalism, I suggested, the idea of successfully addressing ‘false consciousness’, through a process of political education and  efforts to gain political terrain by ‘shifting the narrative’, has become even more implausible than it ever was.  This is not just because power has become ever more concentrated in the wrong hands, but because in a very real sense people living in the conditions of late capitalism are just not the same: they are, in Giddens’ terminology, “ontologically insecure”, and as a result largely now lack a capacity to meet the demands which a Gramsci-inspired revolutionary project would make of them.

Where then, does that leave Corbynism?  My conclusion to part 1 was to the effect that, if the direction of the Corbyn leadership/project is set by the type of political activists that dominated the recent NEON seminar Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it), then the Labour left – and perhaps Labour itself – is doomed to social and electoral obscurity, in the way that so many gainsayers are now taking pleasure in predicting.

But I am not a Corbyn gainsayer.  I think Corbyn’s victory in the leadership battle in September was very good news indeed for Labour (and perhaps even the wider European left), as long as its potential can be harnessed through a process of intellectual reassessment and consequent practical orientation.

This harnessing is what part 2 and part 3 (to follow) are about.

Part 2, given the scale of ambition, is quite long (part 3 will be shorter).  So if you can’t be bothered to read all the way through, my main conclusion is that interpreting Corbynism through the work of  pre-war Italian communist is no longer valid (if it ever was); instead, we should interpret it through the work of Germany’s greatest post-war political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and though the development of German political culture in general.   Doing so, I contend, offers a real prospect of renewal for democratic socialism in Britain.

What Corbynism is: a proto-Habermasian project

The ‘usual Gramscian suspects’ have tried to squeeze early Corbynism into the only leftwing framework they understand; in time they may succeed, in a way which squeezes the life out of Corbynsim. But for the moment at least, Corbynism is not what they would have it.  We can see this from two brief examples.

First, there is the interview conducted with Corbyn by BBC political reporter Norman Smith, just a few days after Corbyn became leader.  Smith felt strongly enough about what he’d just gone through with Corbyn to write a follow-up piece about the change of style he had witnessed.   He described how refreshing it was to ask a politician questions to which the politician actually listened, and then replied; Corbyn, he recalled, even appeared to be considering a response to some questions as he spoke, as though he’d never thought about it before.  Smith concludes simply with “maybe he [Corbyn] is on to something” with this different style, suggesting that not just journalists, but the wider public might be receptive to it.

Secondly, and rather better known, is Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, at which Corbyn sought to set down a marker for his ‘new politics’ both by sourcing his questions directly from the public and by asking his questions as genuine questions, to which he expected an answer.  The most noticeable thing about this event is not Corbyn’s civil tone and ‘everday  language’ questioning, but the way in which Cameron felt obliged to respond in kind, in a quieter tone (continue to listen to the broadcast and he soon reverts to type on questions from other MPs).

On neither occasion – and there are many others with a similar feel for the Corbyn style – does Corbyn conduct himself in a way which fits the ‘war of position’ strategy of the Gramscian-influenced Labour left, or of the equally (though less explicitly) Gramscian-influenced Labour centre.

Indeed, for mainstream Labour ‘strategist’ Mark Ferguson, Corbyn makes a terrible mistake when he allows PMQs to “turn into free airtime for Cameron”; for Mark, losing the opportunity to get your voice heard, and allow an opponent to have their’s heard, is a cardinal political sin.

Mark’s criticism reflects other early calls for communications strategy as normal: from Owen Jones calling for a “media offensive with clear, sharp messages”, to Tom Clark calling for a spin doctor to sharpen those messages.

All of these critiques rather miss the point that the ‘freshness’ that gets to Norman Smith is precisely because Corbyn eschews the conventional game of having the answer ready before the question is put – a hitherto self-enforced paradox neatly summed up by intelligent political commentator Stefanie Lehmann:

Paradoxically, the leader must be both human and relatable, and mechanically effective by always having an answer ready

Corbyn has, however intuitively, realised that this paradox cannot be resolved, and has plumped for being “relatable” over being “mechanically effective” (in other words, ineffective in the real world).

Old-style, war-of-position politics, dominated on the British left (and the right, less knowingly) by Gramscian and sub-Gramscian thought cannot deal with this ‘new, kinder politics’, and of course Corbyn’s conduct is itself out of kilter with a vocal minority of so-called Corbynistas, for whom the same old gaining of internal terrain within the same old Labour party remains the same old ‘struggle’.

But there is a strong, coherent, and in some respects remarkably successful leftwing intellectual tradition which does explain not just the ‘kinder politics’ of Corbynism, but also explains why it proved so attractive to both new and old members of the Labour party that it brought Corbyn 60% of leadership votes, and why (perhaps more arguably) the polls about Corbyn’s early days are so conflicting.

This intellectual tradition, which for reasons I will explore in part 3, has not to date had any traction with the British left, is the Habermasian tradition – a tradition which has had a subtle but powerful influence on German political culture since at least the 1980s and is, I will contend in part 3, a significant factor not just in Germany’s economic success but also its social cohesion and openness (at least relative to the UK).

It is this tradition, at the expense of the worthy but now-outdated Gramscian tradition, to which I suggest in the remainder of this essay that the British left should now consciously turn for inspiration – not just in the short term as a way of understanding then bolstering Corbynism, but as a longer term route to the renewal of the British left.

This is, I recognize, an ambitious suggestion, and will no doubt receive its fair share of mockery from people within mainstream Labur, but I see no other form of leftwing thought that might prompt the left to move beyond the tired and certain failures of the current cycle of decline; to my mind, only Habermasian inspired democratic socialism grapples with the realities of the human condition under late capitalism (in a way which recalls but expands on Marx’s concept of alienation) and provides the grounding for a normative project of democratic renewal.

What’s the Habermasian tradition?

The Habermasian project for the ‘New Englightenment’, even if dated just from his ‘linguistic turn’ in the early 1980s, is a massive undertaking, challenging  in its complexity (and language) and startling in its overall coherence (although it remains incomplete and open to much valid criticism).

As such, it is difficult to know where to ‘cut into’ it, but perhaps in light of my critique in part 1 of the continuing and counterpoductive reliance of the Gramscian left on the need to resolve the ‘false consciousness of the masses’ (see, for example, Doreen Massey’s essay [pdf] on how Corbynism offers this prospect), the best place to start is with Habermas’ assessment of the position under capitalist modernity:

In the place of false consciousness there appears today fragmented consciousness, which hinders enlightenment about the mechanism of reification.  The conditions for a colonization of the lifeworld are thereby fulfilled; as soon as it is stripped of its ideological veil, the imperative of independent subsystems press in from the outside on the lifeworld and compel assimilation, like colonial masters in a tribal society (vol. 2, p.522 [pdf] italics in original).

This summarises Habermas’s exposition of how capitalist modernity ‘inflitrates’ our consciousness, in the way previously assessed by his Frankfurt School forbears Adorno & Horkheimer, as making resistance futile, at least from the point of view of ‘traditional’ leftwing politics (cf. also Mark Fisher).    It also points to Habermas’ conceptual distinction between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’, by which he means ‘normal’ societal relations [1], unhindered by the ‘colonization’ of capitalist financial control, media, administrative processes and, more broadly, consumerist cultures.

This analysis of the alienating properties of capitalist modernity [2] links to and is underpinned by the second major theme in Habermas’ work – the prospect of “communicative power” which is in turn underpinned by a complex grounding in formal pragmatics [pdf] (essentially how people communicate in ‘everyday language situations) and to the consequent development of a programme of universal ethics and ‘rules’ for legitimate argumentation.

Clearly, in a short essay I can’t hope to do any kind of justice to the complex, overarching strength of Habermas’ reasoning and backing empirical evidence (e.g. JL Austin on linguistic competencies and Lawrence Kohlberg on intrinsic ‘moral development’).    I will come back to these details in other writing.   For the present, the  important link to make with nascent Corbynism is Habermas’ contention that at the root of all human communication is an built-in mechanism for and motivation to mutual understanding, and that ‘strategic’ forms of communication, of the type extolled by the political commentariat and strategists referred to above, are ultimately distortions of that in-built human mechanism.

From here, as noted, Habermas creates an ‘ideal type’ of argumentation, free of the constraints we see in actual argument, where various forms of duress are brought to bear around membership and allowable content by those with power. [3].

Ultimately, Habermas points us towards forms of deliberative democracy and  ‘public sphere’ as not just normatively desirable, but also ethically and linguistically grounded, in a way which may help us to resist and turn back the colonising influences of capitalism and, through this process, rediscover our ‘automomy’ as humans relating to other humans (in other words, to address the  alienation described economally by Marx, sociologically by Giddens (“ontological insecurity”) and Ulrich Beck, and culturally by Rieff and Lasch).

To cut a very long story short, my contention is that Jeremy Corbyn – and some of the facets of his leadership campaign – offer us a glimpse of this ambitious Habermasian democratic project, and that now is the time to recognize that glimpse for what it is.

Moreover, my contention is that this Corbyn-led glimpse of a ‘new, kinder politics’ – in which the corruption of every language and deep distrust of the body politic go hand in hand skipping towards a dark future [4],  is supplanted by something approaching argumentation aimed at mutual understanding, and where the ‘validity claims’ Habermas demands of such argumentation could actually be redeemed [5] – is actually what has made the Corbyn project to date so attractive to people prepared to engage with it.

It is this glimpse of something new – largely unrelated to specific policy content from the Corbyn camp – which has excited a wide range of people, and which at the very least saw the people of Oldham West & Royton vote to give Corbynism a chance (I don’t underestimate the quality of the local candidate in the by-election, but I do think it had something to do with the size of the majority, given my own conversation with “apolitical” people about Corbyn’s ‘authenticity’).

It is this glimpse of the new which, I suspect, may also explain the seemingly odd opinion polling, in which Corbyn as “leader” or “possible PM” currently scores very badly – because people can’t yet make the conceptual leap to what a new style of leadership competence might look like, and adopt a safety first attitude [6] – but in which he scores much better than Cameron for being “in touch with British values”, for example.

So how might a Habermasian Corbynism fit? (towards part 3)

As noted, the call for the wholesale co-option of n intellectual tradition, aimed at a transformation of the British political culture, is an ambitious one, to say the least.

Even to get to first base – that of the idea being taken seriously –I will  need in part 3 of this essay  to pre-empt and respond to some of the more obvious objections and questions.

The two main questions I see are arising, and which I will see to answer in part 3, include:

  • Why, if the Habermasian project is so powerful and convincing, has it made virtually no headway in Britain in the last 30 years?
  • The Habermasian project is strong on democratic deliberation, but what’s so socialist about it?

This I will do before moving on to how in current institutional and practical terms a consciously Habermasian Corbynism might start to be brought to bear within the next year or so, and before the false, sub-Gramscian constructions of Corbynism, which foster internal battles for ground, squeeze the life out of the new opportunities that those same sub-Gramscians helped to create through their undoubted organisational energies [7].

Within this, the current ‘movements’ (as a catch-all term) with which I will seek to align a proposed new Habermasian influence will be:

1) The current Momentum strategy of the Corbyn leadership (though not necessarily Corbyn himself), which I will argue, in spite of the torrent of justified but exaggerated criticism of infiltration by the less-thinking hard left, is potentially an inspired route towards the kind of civil society/public  sphere democratic and associational democratic institutions of which Habermas approves, and which fits with both the work of Habermas activist/scholar Mark E Warren and the earlier, related thinking of the late Paul Hirst.  In this context, I will argue that Momentum has no place within the formal structures of the labour movement – an argument I will be taking forward through my own  formative Momentum branch.

2) The (remants of) Blue Labour and the much more extant Common Good Labour(ish), which contains/contained some impressive thinkers/activists like Jon Wilson.   I will argue that Habermasian Corbynism can come to the aid of some of Blue Labour thinking about community and family tradition as a bulwark against the impacts of capitalist modernism, but in a way which moves – via the Habermasian concept of constitutional patriotism – beyond the authoritarianism and even the reactionary impluses of the very worst bits of Blue Labour, which arise because there is an insufficiently rigorous grounding (cf. the authoritarian morality inherent to Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism).

3) The new Open Labour network, established with admirable organisation and energy by Labour members sick of the apparent slide towards civil war in Labour, and promoting a pluralism which is appealing, but again insufficiently grounded to make any real headway.

4) ‘Kendallite Labour’: as I’ve set out previously, there is much to commend in this sect’s vision for the dispersal of power, though that concept needs refining, and there will certainly be an intersect between Habermasian/Hirstian  thinking about how this can be put into practice through the development, within and beyond Momentum, of associational democractic organisations.

5) What I’ll call for now Painter Labour:  Anthony Painter is the only public intellectual I know of from the Labour centre who has sought to distance himself from those tired certainties, and is currently seeking to plough a different intellectual course, framing/basing his work on the radical ‘first principles’ tradition of Tom Paine, in a way which might assist Labour and the Left in coming to terms not just with current modernity, but with the huge technological, social and environmental change now upon us.  Again, I think there will be significant points of intersection between his thinking and whatever may come (I hope) of Habermasian Labour.

I’ll finish part 3 with an afterword about the relationship between Habermas, Germany’s greatest 20th century public intellectual, whose commitment to socialist ideals and to resisting moves towards a revisionist take on Nazism  has done so much to build the relatively tolerant and cohesive Germany we know  today, and the construction of which many British leftwingers would give their own right arm to have been part.

See you for part 3.



[1] Habermas’ concept of what constitutes the lifeworld is perhaps the most contentious part of his overall schema.  There are valid criticisms, especially from feminist academic  such as Nancy Fraser (pdf), that the conception is too static, and does not properly account for power imbalances within the ‘lifeworld’.  Any serious attempt to incorporate Habermasian thought into the British left way of doing things will of course need to take account of such critique.

[2]  I have, in the interest of relative brevity, sought to avoid quoting Habermas directly in this essay, though I will certainly need to do so in further writings.  However, I do think a direct quote is warranted to show how close Habermas’s anlausis of capitalist modernioty is, at points, to the work of third-way intellectual guru Anthony Giddens, and how therefore Habermas’ more complete schema should be taken seriously in a British context, including by those who supported the rise of New Labour (as I did) but who now need to move beyond it.

Culture and personality are attacked for the benefit pf a crisis-overcoming stabilisation of society…The results of this substitution [are that] in place of anomic occurrences(and in place of the….withdrawal of legitimation and motivation) phenomena of alienation and insecurity of collective identity arise (vol 1, p.566, quoted in Stephen K White excellent critique Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice & Modernity (p.121)).

[3] Habermas defines  the three formal conditions of the ideal speech situation as follows:

[1] Each subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourses.

[2] Each is allowed to call into question any proposal. Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the dis­course. Each is allowed to express his attitudes, wishes, and needs.

[3] No speaker ought to be hindered by compulsion— whether arising from inside the discourse or out­side of it—from making use of the rights se­cured under [1 and 2].

[4] There is not space here to delve into how Habermasian thought can elucidate the current problem of distrust of politics and politicians, and how this relates to a corruption of  language.  In further work on this, I will certainly make use of the insights of Mark E Warren, probably the leading Habermas-influenced associative democratic theorist, and especially his superb essay Deliberative Democracy and the Corruption of Speech [pdf]  in which he sets out the argument – highly relevant to emergent Corbynism, that effective democracy is not just about what is discussed, but about the relationships which are built via the process of discussion, and which serve to counter the processes of alienation and insecurity to which I have referred above.

[T]he first contemporary theorist of deliberative democracy – Habermas – built his theory out of a pragmatic philosophy of language (what he called “universal pragmatics”) that emphasized the social relationships that are established as a consequence of making claims, and upon which the cognitive content of claims depend for their capacities to coordinate among and between social actors…

So the work accomplished by deliberation is in part about what is deliberated: conflicts, claims, values, information, and matters of substance that is communicated through language. But it is in part about the relationships that are established as a consequence of speaking and listening – relationships that constitute speakers as agents who have the kind of solidity that others can trust p.14-15)

[5] These ‘validity claims’, which Habermas suggests operate subconsciously in everyday speech, and which must be ‘redeemable’ by a speaker if her/his speech is to be recognized as a valid part of consensus-oriented speech are:  truth, normative legitimacy and truthfulness/authenticity.  This conceptualization of what makes up everyday language is at the heart of Habermas’ linguistic theory and normative project, and I will come back to them (and how they might be practically taken on board) in future writing.

[6] It is course arguable that the best arena in which to set forth for the first time a ‘new politics’, which engages with questions on a ‘want to hear the actual answer’ basis, is not that of national security, whether the dangers to it are real or perceived, and this may account for some of the bad polling around the Syria war vote.  However, even here, polls swung toward the Corbyn position in the period before the vote, even while his ratings as an effective leader slipped.

[7]  I make this point, about how many of those I now criticize for their ‘sub-Gramscian’ thinking about Corbynism were actually responsible for him becoming leader in the first place, advisedly. I recognize that my criticisms in part 1 of the seminar I attended, and the more general  ‘false Corbynism’ it represented, may come across as too personal, which in would in turn be out of keeping with the ‘kinder politics’ Corbyn really does seek to engender (whether or not consciously).

In fact, I admire greatly what the early ‘Corbynistas’ achieved.  They spotted, while I didn’t. the real appetite for what Anthony Painter (above) now describes rather too dismissively as a longing for “something raw and emotive”, and which Jeremy’s character and public persona might deliver.  The fact that they now interpret what happened in a way which will damage Corbynism is a facet of the longterm ‘Grasmci-isation’ of the British left, to the exclusion of all other currents.   Those activists cannot be held responsible for the path-dependencies created in the 1960s (which I will examine more closely in part 3).

On Corbynism: (part 1 of 3)

December 21, 2015 2 comments

Gramsci100 days of solitude

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 [1], 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 [2], 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 [3].

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


Kirkby 43 years on – 14 months worth remembering

October 11, 2015 2 comments
Museum of Liverpool

Museum of Liverpool

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.

On John Gray’s anti-Corbyn rant

September 27, 2015 3 comments

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.


Rieff on Corbyn

September 12, 2015 1 comment

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

Hungary and article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty

September 4, 2015 2 comments

One strange consequence of ‘the refugee crisis’ [1] 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?

This, I suspect, isn’t a vision of Europe shared by many readers.   Nor is it one reflected at Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which Hungary was the first of the 27 states to ratify. Article 2 says:

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.
Nice rhetoric, but utterly unenforceable, it might be argued.  Except that this is what  Article 7 says about making sure states abide by the values of Article 2.
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 [2]. I wouldn’t bother with the UKIP ones, mind.


[1] 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)

[2] That’s not to say the S&D don’t have issues to resolve in their own ranks. Try SMER in Slovakia.


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