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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the British Left’s reliance on Gramsci as principle political inspiration for its 40-50 year long modus operandi is now outdated and even delusional.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the way through, my main conclusion is that interpreting Corbynism through the work of  pre-war Italian communist is no longer valid (if it ever was); instead, we should interpret it through the work of Germany’s greatest post-war political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and though the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.

 

Notes

[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.

 

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

How I’ll vote in the Labour leadership election

September 1, 2015 1 comment

Decision time for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership election is upon me.

This is my final choice, barring very unexpected events before I actually do the online business:

Leader

1st preference: Corbyn

2nd preference: Kendall

No other preferences

Deputy leader

1st preference: Creasy

2nd preference: Eagle

No other preferences

The reasoning for my preferences can be summed up thus.

1) I take issue with a number of his stated policy positions, especially the emergent so-called Corbynomics of ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, which I consider to be a sop to deficit fetishism.  He has also had pretty well nothing to say about empowerment of grassroots activists and local parties.  In isolation, the Corbyn offer is a disappointing one.

2) I am not, in my own mind therefore, a supporter of the candidate Jeremy Corbyn.

3) What I am a supporter of of the genuine grassroots movement which has made him a possible winner of the leadership contest.  I was wrong about Corbyn having no chance of winning, and that his candidacy was therefore a distraction from the real task in hand – the building of a grassroots movement.  As of now, the two have been combined – a grassroots movement has developed, and it looks like he will win because of that.  I have fears about what will happen to that movement now if the organisational building blocks are not put in place to sustain it (see below), but it would be illogical – and lacking due humility at my wrongness – to vote against the movement simply because it’s not been constructed the way I think it might have been.  Social movements are always and necessarily messy, and are undone as much by the needs of control freaks as they are by that messiness.

4) The organic development of a genuine leftwing movement, and my duty to support that in whatever way I can- currently outweighs my concern that, as and when elected, he will be surrounded by a self-regarding new Bennite elite which has little regard for the movement that got Corbyn to the leadership, and little understanding of how to empower local parties and the local labour movements, such that they are able and willing to push out beyond the narrow territory it now occupies, and develop a political space which extends beyond the current confines of state power.  If this concern of a takeover by a new elite is valid, it will fall to me and others to raise the alarm, and to combat it as best we can.

5)  I do not know if Jeremy Corbyn will be more unelectable in 2020 than the other candidates on offer.  Having failed to predict his current popularity amongst the Labour leadership elecorate, it would be foolish of my to predict whether he will be so bogged down by his ‘IRA-supporting’ (or whatever) past that he is unable to help get a leftwing voice heard at national level, or whether the dynamic of politics has changed so much that his perceived ‘authenticity’ will help him rise above all this.

6) I do not even know whether he will make it to 2020.  It may well be that a Corbyn PLP leadership is merely a stepping stone towards the leadership of a candidate for 2020 unsullied by any association with the worst aspect of Blairism.   There are several obvious candidates, come 2018-19, who might benefit from the work done under Corbyn to shift the Overton window to the left on what electability and credibility actually mean.

7) Nor, actually, do I care that much.  As of now, a Corbyn leadership stands as much chance as making countrywide electoral headway as the leadership of any of the current candidates; predictions to the contrary are largely made by people within Labour who failed, like me, to predict the current movement.   My vote is for the movement, not the person.

8) If Corbyn does not make it to 2020, it may be interesting to see if Liz Kendall can shake off her association with the elite Progress project, and return in 2018-19 -if Corbyn does not make it through – with some of her more interesting ideas fleshed out properly; currently she has failed to do so, and a promising middle section to the campaign has been outweighed massively by a disastrous start and and disappointing end.  I give her my second preference merely to signify that she did say one or two interesting things, which the other candidates did not.

9) My choice for deputy leader is easier.  Stella Creasy is the only candidate thinking creatively about how the labour movement can really engage with the new political dynamic in the country; while I disagree with her on crucial aspects of what power and empowerment actually mean over time (I do not think she grasps that the Iron Law of Oligarchy applies to social movements to), she is at least trying.  I do not think she will win this time – and I fear the kind of quasi-statecraft in which Tom Watson will engage – but then nor does she. This campaign is really about setting down markers for the next one.   Angela Eagle is my second preference, as she is a patently decent peacemaker within the party, though the deputy leadership will need more than that.

 

 

Towards associative democracy

August 25, 2015 3 comments

Abstract

Starting from a case study in public procurement devoid of any sense of reality, but full of the twisted logic of managerialism in times of austerity, I move onto an assessment of how such ridiculous development in public service (non)-delivery might act as a catalyst for a new surge of associative democracy institution building at a local level, which might then act as a bridgehead to wider autnomous re-professionalisation and trade union focus on service function, in the spirit of ‘English pluralist’ activists/writers like RH Tawney, JN Figgis and Paul Hirst, and in keeping with the insights of implementation theorist Michael Lipsky.  I also consider how such efforts might be supported by a social work profession in crisis and a Labour party in, erm, its own crisis.

(This is a consolidation with very minor changes of two previous posts, written some weeks apart.)

 

Part I

Here’s the Reverend Giles Fraser on how the police are now the social services of last resort:

The police have to sort stuff out that other people don’t know what to do with, or haven’t got the resources to deal with. Like vicars, they are often the last stop in a game of pass the parcel.

Ah, if only that were true.

This is an excerpt from a specification for a contract recently awarded by a local authority in the North of England:

External Family Support Service contract 

The Contractor [to a NW local authority] will provide intense targeted support at short notice to families with multiple and complex needs often in crisis situations where there is a significant risk of children being accommodated by the Local Authority.

The Contractor will be required to provide Family Support hours as and when requested by the Local Authority. Specifically the service will be required outside of normal office hours.

The Contractor will be expected to provide the above hours across seven days per week, including Bank Holidays.

Work includes:

Care for children / young people in their own home in situations where parents may be intoxicated or recovering from minor surgery etc. and unable to meet their children’s needs for a short period of time.

Conduct work with parents to raise their awareness of the impact and consequences of their chaotic lifestyle and behaviour on their children’s physical and emotional welfare.

Leaving aside the bizarre juxtaposition of intoxication and minor surgery as impediment to safe parenting (possibly a copy and paste error, possibly just ignorance), I think it might be agreed that this is quite a challenging contract: available at all hours, going into potentially volatile domestic circumstances, ensuring child safety and then – presumably when parents are sober enough to listen – putting them to rights on their responsibilities.

Yes – as I had to advise a group of senior social workers I showed this excerpt to at a conference – this is a real contract, really awarded by a real local authority, really recently.

How much, then, do you think the contract might be worth, expressed in £ per hour of provision?

When I asked the same group of social workers what a local authority might expect to pay for this work, taking into account of all the management, training and supervision requirements set out in the contract, and assuming that this would be a lone worker service (not, incidentally, something the police would envisage), the first estimate was £100 per hour of intervention.  That seemed reasonable, they said, given the complexity of the service.  After some ‘lower, lower’ exhortations, they settled on a measly £20 per hour.

This is what the contract specification actually says:

The maximum price permissible to fit within the Council’s affordability envelope is £16.00 per hour for the support and £8.00 per report.  This is due to the on-going budget pressures the local authority is currently experiencing.

When I told them the real price, the social workers thought I had made it all up.

But that’s not quite it.   The tender exercise also invites bidders to say by what percentage they will reduce their price if they want to get paid on time; this ‘early payment discount’ is an increasingly common feature if local authority contracts.

The upshot is that this local authority has outsourced vital emergency social services work to a provider who may be getting as little as £14 per hour for complex and potentially dangerous work on a 24/7, 365 days a year basis.

Let’s be frank.  The service set out in the specification simply cannot be delivered at that price.  It’s just impossible.  The provider will know that.  the local authority knows that (indeed the excerpt above more or less acknowledges it).  So what will actually happen is that the contract will be ‘delivered’ on paper, but not in the real world.

In one scenario, the provider staff member may turn up at a flat, they have been referred to by the social services Emergency Duty Team (EDT), who got a call from the police.  The provider staff member will call the police, on the basis that it’s too dangerous, and leave – having recorded an hour on her timesheet.  The police will call the EDT, just as they did an hour ago……   The vulnerable children may or may not be removed to a ‘place of safety’ under Sec 46 of the Children’s Act 1989.  In all likelihood, they won’t be, because within this ‘unreal’ contract there is provision for making the existing place safe.

In fact, in terms of Giles’ concept of “social service of last resort”, it’s no longer the police – it’s a service which doesn’t really exist.

This is just one contract.  I could point you to others quite like it.  I was told by one local authority commissioning officer dealing with contracts for the implementation of the expanded duties under the Care Act 2014 that there was “no room for quality in this one”: she just had to make sure the right target number of carer assessments etc. were ticked off.  When I wrote to another commissioner seeking a small expansion in contract value with a view to bringing real added value to it (this in family support), I got a copy-and-paste legalistc letter warning that we risked breach of contract if we did not comply with the terms.  No mention was made of what we were actually offering.

All over the country, providers are gaming contracts, cutting quality, cutting corners, because they have to.  Commissioners in their turn prefer not to know this is going on, because it’s easier that way, and service users won’t know any better.  This is a product not just of austerity, but also of a collapse of collective responsibility amongst public service professionals, who have been brow-beaten by their managers to the extent that reality is actually what your boss wants it to be, not what’s actually real.

But how do we try and make reality again? How do we turn back the tide of managerialism-of-the-unreal in a time of continued and even greater cuts?  Concrete labour movement and civil society organisation proposals come in part II.

Part II

In part I, looked at one particular example of how local authority outsourcing has come under such pressure – both financial and managerial – that contracts are now simply undeliverable; there has developed, I contended, a distance between what ‘exists’ in contractual form and what happens in real life.

The ‘unreal’ contracts of this type tend to concentrated on delivery of support services to the most disadvantaged.  The main reason for this is that those who receive (or don’t actually receive) these kind of services are less open to scrutiny and challenge than more universal services.  If a contract for bin collection is let and bins only get collected on paper, not from houses, there’s a pretty good chance that service users will make the local authority aware, and that subsequently performance will be questioned in overview & scrutiny by councillors.  If (to use another real world example) vulnerable carers of vulnerable people get a 3 minute phone assessment of their needs, thereby assumed to be insignificant (and cost-free), rather than the full in-person assessment they should have got and which should have resulted in a full support package, then it is unlikely that this will be picked up as part of a systematic but always inevitable non-delivery/gaming of the contract. The carers’ forum, established within the contract to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, is easy enough to skew, so that all that comes to it is a story of delivery success.

What, though, can be done about all this?  How can we put the reality back in outsourcing, given continued and ever increasing pressure on public expenditure? How, in particular, can we ensure that the most vulnerable service users are not exploited in this way?  This post seeks to explore some responses to this challenge, as well as seeking to locate these practical responses within a coherent framework for wider activism and empowerment.  As this is a Labour party supporting blog, it also sets out these ideas in the context of the Labour party and movement’s current process of ‘renewal’ (if its current internal debate can be termed such).

Here’s the kind of response I’d like to see.

I’d like to see groups of public service workers coming together, ideally though not necessarily (see below) using the existing institutional legitimacy of local Trades Councils, to develop and implement a programme of scrutiny of outsourcing arrangements, existing and proposed.   This Trades Council committee, strengthened but not dependent on service user input, should make it its principal job to assess the viability of contracts in terms of finances, likely quality of delivery and appropriateness of monitoring systems.

They should award themselves the authority – and that is the crucial concept to which I’ll return – to call before them commissioning managers, service directors/heads of department and where necessary Chief Executives to explain their decision making around how outsourcing contracts have been developed, and where necessary to justify their real world ‘deliverability’.  In the end, the committee should take a view on whether or not the contract as set out by local authorities (and over time the NHS, as ‘devo max’ starts to be implemented) is acceptable to the Trades Council.

Of course, the key questions now arise of  a) Why on earth local authority officers would subject themselves to such a process? b) Why would anyone in a position of local authority power take any notice of a decision by a Trades Council?

The short answer is that, initially at least, they may not. They may even laugh at the prospect.  I’ll come on to how this might be changed, but first I want to look in somewhat wider terms at what an attempt to set up this alternative decision-making process, under the aegis of the Trades Council infrastructure (where it still exists) is really all about.  Doing so – in the context of how power does and might work – may help in turn to determine what initial actions are appropriate in getting this kind of stuff off the ground.

We’re talking here about the establishment of a political institution which doesn’t have the sanction of the state and which, more importantly, contests the authority of the central state – via its sanctioned local decision-making process – to make decisions about how public money is best spent.   As such, we’re talking  about the kid of associative democracy championed by pre-warEnglish pluralist socialists GDH Cole and JN Figgis, and later championed, in the context of the authoritarian bent of the Thatcherite state, by Paul Hirst (pdf) before his untimely death.  In this vision of how society organises itself, the state has no a greater a priori legitimacy than any other form of social organisation, and by extension whenever the state seeks to impose itself as sole legitimate authority, it is open to valid challenge from any other grouping of people which chooses to assert its own legitimacy in deciding, say, how resources are allocated.  Such groupings might include the church (whose legitimacy as an association on a level footing with the state is at the heart of theologian JN Figgis’ work), but also those whose particular function and expertise brings them together as a group – namely the professions (in their widest sense) and the unions [1].

In practice such a political standpoint could translate, in the circumstances we’re dealing with, into the following kind of assertion: “we are a properly constituted body of public service professionals and we have as much if not greater right to oversee and scrutinise the local authority’s commissioning of services in this area, and it is our view that the service as currently commissioned cannot be delivered effectively/safely.”

From this starting point, establishing the right to be taken seriously by the local authority’s decision makers is a matter of establishing legitimacy with a range of ‘players’ [2], both within and beyond the local authority.  Clearly the use of the Trades Council institutional status may count for something, and it may be surprising what a forma letterhead and a ‘proper’ approach to the local authority can achieve, but there are a number of other ways, including through the Labour party structure (especially via councillors open to trade union persuasion [3]), through the voluntary, faith & community sector (VCFS) infrastructure and through local higher education links.  If that sounds improbable, then it might be worth reflecting on the effectiveness of the 1971 Scottish TUC inquiry into the Tory government’s attempts to annihilate shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde, the success of which was all built on establishing the external legitimacy of the inquiry.

The key thing to note about all these examples of how local workers and service users might establish associative legitimacy on a par with that of the (local) state is, of course, that they are just examples.  Every local area will have different circumstances, and different opportunities for building alliances focused on the establishment of ‘parallel legitimacy’.  While I favour the Trades Council as the existing organisational form which might take a lead on such ‘parallel’ institutional development, not least as engagement in this relatively narrow area of public procurement might act as a bridgehead to wider re-orientation of the trade union movement  [4], it may not be the most suitable one in many areas, especially those where Trades Councils simply no longer exist or where  they have been adjusted to other purposes over the years which just aren;t amenable to this new area of activity [5].

In terms of which professional groups might play a key part in this kind of calculated associative democracy initiative, where the focus is largely on defence of quality services for/with the most vulnerable, there is no better candidate than that of social work.  The social work profession is currently in a time of crisis [6], with its professional standards outsourced to a management consultancy firm, the College of Social Work (established in 2009 to develop professionalisation)forced to close in September, and a whole new training regime being swiftly imposed through theFrontline programme [6], with the intention that future social workers will wield a limited range of intervention tool to ‘sort out’ troubled families.  The old concepts of social justice, and the need to see struggling families in context, are being brushed away as an irrelevance to the immediacies of modern social work, and the proponents of those old concepts as academics interested only in preserving their comfortably ‘ivory towers’ existence

In the face of this onslaught, social justice-oriented social workers face a choice: fight a no doubt heroic but almost certainly losing battle on the current accreditation and training terrain, or beat a deliberate retreat and take up the campaign for social justice social work on different terrain.   The organic emergence of the Social Workers Assembly from the wreckage of the College of Social Work, with its intent to challenge the state’s intervention in their professional standards, could turn out to be a leading example, at national level, of the kind of parallel legitimacy organisation I advocate, but it is likely only to be able to do this by developing its legitimacy at local levels first; working with other parts of the labour movement, and with campaigning organisations like theFamily Rights Group [7] in areas where it holds expertise, and in a way which demonstrates that it is able to (re)-establish social work as a profession which, like medicine, can and should be both self-governing.

In the end, whatever groups of public service workers, trade unionists come together around te establishment iof a new decision-making institution of the type proposed, I think there should be two wider aspiration, beyond establishing initial legitimacy.

First, as noted, it should be seen as a bridgehead to greater union/professional engagement in service design, in a way which takes the labour movement beyond the current narrow focus on terms and conditions, and (back) towards the ideal of trade unions as safeguarders and promoters of quality service provision in its own right (and with an ever expanding conception of what a public service is).  I have written more about this here and here.  In ideological terms this might be described as unions taking a Tawney turn, in their active attempt to take from the forces of managerialism the right to direct resources towards the best possible social function.

Second, and closely related to this, should be a conscious attempt to help public servants re-orientate their own working lives, so that – in the terms Michael Lipsky used and which the PCS used to seek to practice – they become advocates for those service users, rather than more or less alienated from those their profession used to serve.

Of course, none of this insitutional legitimacy, and the acceptance of a trade council’s right to veto or adjust an outsourcing contract, creates more money for councils to do tender properly.  Tha’s the brutal reality of a Tory government. What it does do, though, is highlight the way in which many councils are having to/choosing to squeeze contracts focused on services to the most vulnerable, less than other areas of expenditure, precisely because the poor and vulnerable have had, to date, less capacity to resist (and because they vote less).   This in turn creates some space for trades councils etc to push local authorities towards more innovative social financing arrangements of the type advocated here, and in many other thinktank forums, but so far massively underdeveloped because of a political risk aversion to the kind of complexity that such ‘downstream savings’ require (see my post here for more on this).

Finally, where does the Labour party – in its current soul searching/holding out for a hero mode – fit with all this.  In terms of the leadership debate, Jeremy Corbyn has not yet engaged with this area at all – hence the lingering doubts about whether his is a solely state-oriented socialism.   If he does win, it is to be hoped that the process of re-orienting the Labour party’s resources towards the kind of community organisation advocated by Stella Creasy – though she too needs to reflects on the contradictions inherent to her (and Liz Kendall’s) view of power   – will be near the top of the to-do list.  In practical terms, this might mean enabling/encouraging CLPs to work with and resource emergent or re-emergent trade councils (remembering of course that trades councils cannot constitutionally affiliate to Labour), or with other institutional developments.  This kind of grassroots resourcing, funded through an extended NEC CLP Improvement Fund, should take precedence over the proposed Diversity Fund, which is a distraction from the real job in hand, and which simply fuels the Westminster-centricity of the party.

More likely, of course, is that whoever leads or deputy leads the party will prove to be a disappointment when it comes to internal party and movement development.  That goes with the territory.   In reality, local parties – along with any local bodies and people they can develop alliances with – are going to have to do it for themselves.

 

Notes

[1] The legalistic principles (Laski, esp. chapter 1), and the historical reality of state formation by violence (Tilly) that underpin the doctrine of associative democracy are my preferred underpinning to my proposals for the development of institutions with parallel legitimacy of the state, not least as they coalesce with a more explicitly Marxian analysis of the state as an agent of capital, and therefore one which needs to be undermined through these ‘parallel legitimacy’ means or more directly.

However, it is also worth pointing out – perhaps in the interests of strategic alliance buildingbetween the left and (more intelligent) Conservatism – that associative democracy is also consistent with the basic tenets of communitarianism, and even with the kind of reformed ‘Big Society’ programme now advocated by people like Danny Kruger.  From this perspective, it might be argued that the kind of parallel democratic structure advocated here acts as a corrective to the current ‘rights v responsibilities’ imbalance.  The old Big Society programme, now rubbished by the left and earlier advocates alike, can be seen as massively imbalanced towards the responsibilities side of the bargain, with local communities and organisations getting all the crap that goes with coping with the cuts, but none of the rights that could have gone with that.  (We”ll leave aside here that a key failure in both communitarian and Red Tory/Big Society thought is the essentialistassumption that positive communities are just ‘there’ – an assumption arugably even less validthan it was when it was first dreamed up, or emerged from faith-based discourses such as Catholic Social Teaching)

[2] See my earlier post on strategic action fields and the development of links to organisations with ‘mutually realisable interests.

[3] Trades Councils’ constitutions do not allow for official affiliation with the Labour party.

[4] I have written before about the wider potential for modernised and reinvigorated Trades Councils.

[5] In my own area, South West Lancashire Trades Council changed its remit over the years so that it runs to all intents and purposes like a small charity, focused on debt advice.  This is not a criticism of the people who have taken it in that direction in response to an identified and unmet need, and it is quite possible with appropriate support from the TUC that many could re-emerge with new purpose and energy.

[6]  For evidence of the hostility between the ‘new young Turks’ at Frontline and other social work educators, see its CEO’s “get out of the way” attack in Progress magazine, and the response.  The choice of Porgress magazine as a place for the initial attack is not a coincidence, since it was Progress, and in particular its head honcho Andrew Adonis, who were responsible for making Frontline happen, via a compliant IPPR (which hot-housed Frontline) and a Coalition government delighted at the managerial, anti social work ‘blob’ approach being promoted by Frontline.  The coup has been, to date, astonishingly effective.

[7] Declaration of interest: I sit on the advisory panel of the Family Rights Group’s Your Family, Your Voice project, which is seeking to drive its work to more local level, though it is early days.

 

Outsourcing reality (part II): the response

August 25, 2015 Leave a comment

In part I, looked at one particular example of how local authority outsourcing has come under such pressure – both financial and managerial – that contracts are now simply undeliverable; there has developed, I contended, a distance between what ‘exists’ in contractual form and what happens in real life.

The ‘unreal’ contracts of this type tend to concentrated on delivery of support services to the most disadvantaged.  The main reason for this is that those who receive (or don’t actually receive) these kind of services are less open to scrutiny and challenge than more universal services.  If a contract for bin collection is let and bins only get collected on paper, not from houses, there’s a pretty good chance that service users will make the local authority aware, and that subsequently performance will be questioned in overview & scrutiny by councillors.  If (to use another real world example) vulnerable carers of vulnerable people get a 3 minute phone assessment of their needs, thereby assumed to be insignificant (and cost-free), rather than the full in-person assessment they should have got and which should have resulted in a full support package, then it is unlikely that this will be picked up as part of a systematic but always inevitable non-delivery/gaming of the contract. The carers’ forum, established within the contract to make sure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen, is easy enough to skew, so that all that comes to it is a story of delivery success.

What, though, can be done about all this?  How can we put the reality back in outsourcing, given continued and ever increasing pressure on public expenditure? How, in particular, can we ensure that the most vulnerable service users are not exploited in this way?  This post seeks to explore some responses to this challenge, as well as seeking to locate these practical responses within a coherent framework for wider activism and empowerment.  As this is a Labour party supporting blog, it also sets out these ideas in the context of the Labour party and movement’s current process of ‘renewal’ (if its current internal debate can be termed such).

Here’s the kind of response I’d like to see.

I’d like to see groups of public service workers coming together, ideally though not necessarily (see below) using the existing institutional legitimacy of local Trades Councils, to develop and implement a programme of scrutiny of outsourcing arrangements, existing and proposed.   This Trades Council committee, strengthened but not dependent on service user input, should make it its principal job to assess the viability of contracts in terms of finances, likely quality of delivery and appropriateness of monitoring systems.

They should award themselves the authority – and that is the crucial concept to which I’ll return – to call before them commissioning managers, service directors/heads of department and where necessary Chief Executives to explain their decision making around how outsourcing contracts have been developed, and where necessary to justify their real world ‘deliverability’.  In the end, the committee should take a view on whether or not the contract as set out by local authorities (and over time the NHS, as ‘devo max’ starts to be implemented) is acceptable to the Trades Council.

Of course, the key questions now arise of  a) Why on earth local authority officers would subject themselves to such a process? b) Why would anyone in a position of local authority power take any notice of a decision by a Trades Council?

The short answer is that, initially at least, they may not. They may even laugh at the prospect.  I’ll come on to how this might be changed, but first I want to look in somewhat wider terms at what an attempt to set up this alternative decision-making process, under the aegis of the Trades Council infrastructure (where it still exists) is really all about.  Doing so – in the context of how power does and might work – may help in turn to determine what initial actions are appropriate in getting this kind of stuff off the ground.

We’re talking here about the establishment of a political institution which doesn’t have the sanction of the state and which, more importantly, contests the authority of the central state – via its sanctioned local decision-making process – to make decisions about how public money is best spent.   As such, we’re talking  about the kid of associative democracy championed by pre-war English pluralist socialists GDH Cole and JN Figgis, and later championed, in the context of the authoritarian bent of the Thatcherite state, by Paul Hirst (pdf) before his untimely death.  In this vision of how society organises itself, the state has no a greater a priori legitimacy than any other form of social organisation, and by extension whenever the state seeks to impose itself as sole legitimate authority, it is open to valid challenge from any other grouping of people which chooses to assert its own legitimacy in deciding, say, how resources are allocated.  Such groupings might include the church (whose legitimacy as an association on a level footing with the state is at the heart of theologian JN Figgis’ work), but also those whose particular function and expertise brings them together as a group – namely the professions (in their widest sense) and the unions [1].

In practice such a political standpoint could translate, in the circumstances we’re dealing with, into the following kind of assertion: “we are a properly constituted body of public service professionals and we have as much if not greater right to oversee and scrutinise the local authority’s commissioning of services in this area, and it is our view that the service as currently commissioned cannot be delivered effectively/safely.”

From this starting point, establishing the right to be taken seriously by the local authority’s decision makers is a matter of establishing legitimacy with a range of ‘players’ [2], both within and beyond the local authority.  Clearly the use of the Trades Council institutional status may count for something, and it may be surprising what a forma letterhead and a ‘proper’ approach to the local authority can achieve, but there are a number of other ways, including through the Labour party structure (especially via councillors open to trade union persuasion [3]), through the voluntary, faith & community sector (VCFS) infrastructure and through local higher education links.  If that sounds improbable, then it might be worth reflecting on the effectiveness of the 1971 Scottish TUC inquiry into the Tory government’s attempts to annihilate shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde, the success of which was all built on establishing the external legitimacy of the inquiry.

The key thing to note about all these examples of how local workers and service users might establish associative legitimacy on a par with that of the (local) state is, of course, that they are just examples.  Every local area will have different circumstances, and different opportunities for building alliances focused on the establishment of ‘parallel legitimacy’.  While I favour the Trades Council as the existing organisational form which might take a lead on such ‘parallel’ institutional development, not least as engagement in this relatively narrow area of public procurement might act as a bridgehead to wider re-orientation of the trade union movement  [4], it may not be the most suitable one in many areas, especially those where Trades Councils simply no longer exist or where  they have been adjusted to other purposes over the years which just aren;t amenable to this new area of activity [5].

In terms of which professional groups might play a key part in this kind of calculated associative democracy initiative, where the focus is largely on defence of quality services for/with the most vulnerable, there is no better candidate than that of social work.  The social work profession is currently in a time of crisis [6], with its professional standards outsourced to a management consultancy firm, the College of Social Work (established in 2009 to develop professionalisation) forced to close in September, and a whole new training regime being swiftly imposed through the Frontline programme [6], with the intention that future social workers will wield a limited range of intervention tool to ‘sort out’ troubled families.  The old concepts of social justice, and the need to see struggling families in context, are being brushed away as an irrelevance to the immediacies of modern social work, and the proponents of those old concepts as academics interested only in preserving their comfortably ‘ivory towers’ existence

In the face of this onslaught, social justice-oriented social workers face a choice: fight a no doubt heroic but almost certainly losing battle on the current accreditation and training terrain, or beat a deliberate retreat and take up the campaign for social justice social work on different terrain.   The organic emergence of the Social Workers Assembly from the wreckage of the College of Social Work, with its intent to challenge the state’s intervention in their professional standards, could turn out to be a leading example, at national level, of the kind of parallel legitimacy organisation I advocate, but it is likely only to be able to do this by developing its legitimacy at local levels first; working with other parts of the labour movement, and with campaigning organisations like the Family Rights Group [7] in areas where it holds expertise, and in a way which demonstrates that it is able to (re)-establish social work as a profession which, like medicine, can and should be both self-governing.

In the end, whatever groups of public service workers, trade unionists come together around te establishment iof a new decision-making institution of the type proposed, I think there should be two wider aspiration, beyond establishing initial legitimacy.

First, as noted, it should be seen as a bridgehead to greater union/professional engagement in service design, in a way which takes the labour movement beyond the current narrow focus on terms and conditions, and (back) towards the ideal of trade unions as safeguarders and promoters of quality service provision in its own right (and with an ever expanding conception of what a public service is).  I have written more about this here and here.  In ideological terms this might be described as unions taking a Tawney turn, in their active attempt to take from the forces of managerialism the right to direct resources towards the best possible social function.

Second, and closely related to this, should be a conscious attempt to help public servants re-orientate their own working lives, so that – in the terms Michael Lipsky used and which the PCS used to seek to practice – they become advocates for those service users, rather than more or less alienated from those their profession used to serve.

Of course, none of this insitutional legitimacy, and the acceptance of a trade council’s right to veto or adjust an outsourcing contract, creates more money for councils to do tender properly.  Tha’s the brutal reality of a Tory government. What it does do, though, is highlight the way in which many councils are having to/choosing to squeeze contracts focused on services to the most vulnerable, less than other areas of expenditure, precisely because the poor and vulnerable have had, to date, less capacity to resist (and because they vote less).   This in turn creates some space for trades councils etc to push local authorities towards more innovative social financing arrangements of the type advocated here, and in many other thinktank forums, but so far massively underdeveloped because of a political risk aversion to the kind of complexity that such ‘downstream savings’ require (see my post here for more on this).

Finally, where does the Labour party – in its current soul searching/holding out for a hero mode – fit with all this.  In terms of the leadership debate, Jeremy Corbyn has not yet engaged with this area at all – hence the lingering doubts about whether his is a solely state-oriented socialism.   If he does win, it is to be hoped that the process of re-orienting the Labour party’s resources towards the kind of community organisation advocated by Stella Creasy – though she too needs to reflects on the contradictions inherent to her (and Liz Kendall’s) view of power   – will be near the top of the to-do list.  In practical terms, this might mean enabling/encouraging CLPs to work with and resource emergent or re-emergent trade councils (remembering of course that trades councils cannot constitutionally affiliate to Labour), or with other institutional developments.  This kind of grassroots resourcing, funded through an extended NEC CLP Improvement Fund, should take precedence over the proposed Diversity Fund, which is a distraction from the real job in hand, and which simply fuels the Westminster-centricity of the party.

 

More likely, of course, is that whoever leads or deputy leads the party will prove to be a disappointment when it comes to internal party and movement development.  That goes with the territory.   In reality, local parties – along with any local bodies and people they can develop alliances with – are going to have to do it for themselves.

 

Notes

 

 

[1] The legalistic principles (Laski, esp. chapter 1), and the historical reality of state formation by violence (Tilly) that underpin the doctrine of associative democracy are my preferred underpinning to my proposals for the development of institutions with parallel legitimacy of the state, not least as they coalesce with a more explicitly Marxian analysis of the state as an agent of capital, and therefore one which needs to be undermined through these ‘parallel legitimacy’ means or more directly.

However, it is also worth pointing out – perhaps in the interests of strategic alliance building between the left and (more intelligent) Conservatism – that associative democracy is also consistent with the basic tenets of communitarianism, and even with the kind of reformed ‘Big Society’ programme now advocated by people like Danny Kruger.  From this perspective, it might be argued that the kind of parallel democratic structure advocated here acts as a corrective to the current ‘rights v responsibilities’ imbalance.  The old Big Society programme, now rubbished by the left and earlier advocates alike, can be seen as massively imbalanced towards the responsibilities side of the bargain, with local communities and organisations getting all the crap that goes with coping with the cuts, but none of the rights that could have gone with that.  (We”ll leave aside here that a key failure in both communitarian and Red Tory/Big Society thought is the essentialist assumption that positive communities are just ‘there’ – an assumption arugably even less valid than it was when it was first dreamed up, or emerged from faith-based discourses such as Catholic Social Teaching)

[2] See my earlier post on strategic action fields and the development of links to organisations with ‘mutually realisable interests.

[3] Trades Councils’ constitutions do not allow for official affiliation with the Labour party.

[4] I have written before about the wider potential for modernised and reinvigorated Trades Councils.

[5] In my own area, South West Lancashire Trades Council changed its remit over the years so that it runs to all intents and purposes like a small charity, focused on debt advice.  This is not a criticism of the people who have taken it in that direction in response to an identified and unmet need, and it is quite possible with appropriate support from the TUC that many could re-emerge with new purpose and energy.

[6]  For evidence of the hostility between the ‘new young Turks’ at Frontline and other social work educators, see its CEO’s “get out of the way” attack in Progress magazine, and the response.  The choice of Porgress magazine as a place for the initial attack is not a coincidence, since it was Progress, and in particular its head honcho Andrew Adonis, who were responsible for making Frontline happen, via a compliant IPPR (which hot-housed Frontline) and a Coalition government delighted at the managerial, anti social work ‘blob’ approach being promoted by Frontline.  The coup has been, to date, astonishingly effective.

[7] Declaration of interest: I sit on the advisory panel of the Family Rights Group’s Your Family, Your Voice project, which is seeking to drive its work to more local level, though it is early days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a priori

 

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