She shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle (chapter 17)
I’ve not written on Corbynism for the first 100 days. I missed its early rise so spectacularly that I decided a period of silence, humility and reflection on why I had done so , and more importantly what Corbynism actually is, was warranted.
Here, 100 days on (and 101 days tomorrow) are my first reflections on what Corbynism isn’t, what it is – though Jeremy Corbyn may not well know it – and what promised land it may just offer British socialism.
Or not, depending on whether the British left decides that time has actually passed, or whether it should go in a big 40 year circle of diminishing returns.
What Corbyism isn’t
82 odd days into my 100 days of reflective solitude, and having started to come to some conclusions, I went to listen and perhaps engage with self-proclaimed intellectual activists at the heart of Corbynism.
The event, held at the woolly-left think tank premises of the New Economics Foundation was entitled Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it). It was just awful, both in its organisation and in its content. There was no visible chair to invite and moderate contributions, and the principle contributors simply rambled on about the failures of New Labour and how the rise of Corbyn was a great moment for the British left, on which it should now seize. Laclau & Mouffe were hardly referenced , and the contribution of the one speaker who did try to interpret Corbynism through a Gramscian lens was soon lost in the to and fro between others who had less focus on the subject supposedly at hand.
The way the seminar was conducted meant I couldn’t bear to stay for the last hour but, from what I saw, I got the impression that those with most intellectual clout in analysing the rise of Corbynism, and therefore in steering its course over the next few months, are doing so with the worn out tools of the 1970s and 1980s. They are also using the tools badly.
I’d describe the analysis at the meeting as ‘sub-Gramscian’, stripped off all the finesse that Perry Anderson & Tom Nairn and brought to it in the 1960s and 1970s , and now little more than a vague and in-vain aspiration to a ‘counter-hegemonic electoral coalition of the dispossessed and the partly-dispossessed. Gone, it seems, was any real appreciation that Gramsci was largely writing about the defeat of the left, and of the current hegemonic power over culture and ‘common sense’.
Indeed, such was the reductionism that, ironically, this aspiration to a new electoral coalition did not sound too far removed from the much-maligned Tony Blair’s recent defence of his own – in the electoral and social context of the late 1990s – rather successful coalition building:
Above all, in a society in which fewer and fewer people thought of themselves as traditional working class, we needed to build a new coalition between the aspirant up and coming and the poorest and most disadvantaged.
This was just one awful meeting, but the impression that this where ‘mainstream’ intellectual Corbynism is at the moment is confirmed by other reading .
Doreen Massey’s editorial for Soundings, for example, written shortly after Corbyn’s election as leader, sets out her hopes for what groupings might come together to create a new (counter)-hegemonic force via the enactment of Laclau and Mouffe’s “political tasks” (these being the development of “identifiable commonalities” and “chains of equivalence” such that a common enemy is identified. It’s worth quoting at some length:
There is no doubt that Corbyn’s support draws together many flows. It draws together young and old, long histories and new initiatives. It encompasses elements both of the labour movement and of new social movements. It is definitely not only ‘the young’, as it was initially, rather lazily, labelled. The presence of young people is marked, but so too is the presence of the over-60s (a potentially positive constellation that might help get us beyond the supposed battle between generations). It brings together Generation Rent – priced out of the housing market and let down by the Liberal Democrats over university tuition fees; disillusioned
Labour voters coming back to the fold after years in the Blairite wilderness; and people who marched against the war in Iraq only to feel that it had made no difference.
Then there are those in ‘the squeezed middle’ who see their standard of living dropping year on year whilst that of the wealthy mushrooms; the environmentalists who see the chance to move climate crisis higher up the actual political agenda; the ballooning precariat who are no longer buying the line that it’s their fault; people who see corporations not paying their tax, and the privileges of the 1% swelling, whilst everyone else pays through ‘austerity’. There is a politics here that speaks to people using food banks, pensioners whose pension is not enough to live on, and victims of social cleansing forced to move away from their homes. And there are more constituencies than this, many of them overlapping.
Among these new constituencies there are also connections with some of the most innovative moments in socialist democracy over the past fifty years: the anti-racism, feminism and peace movements from the 1960s onwards; that great experiment in popular democracy, the metropolitan counties of the urban left and the GLC (Greater London Council); and the contemporary wave of experimental activism, from alter-globalisation to Occupy.
That’s a long list. In fact, it’s just about everybody who’s not a capitalist exploiter. And it’s not just long. It’s a list deliberately set in the context of the attempts, a generation or two ago, to do exactly the same thing as is proposed now.
This catch-all aspiration to anti-Tory coalition begs a simple question. How on earth, if the counter-hegemonic project didn’t work back then (except in small New Urban Left pockets, for short periods), will such a counter-hegemonic project work this time around?
The answer is also simple. It won’t.
Pretending that the Corbyn leadership will magically create the kind of social and political solidarities amongst groups of citizens who currently feel not just that they have nothing in common but who now actively oppose the others’ interests – as a result of a hegemony of the right only reinforced by the financial crisis and now a security crisis – is simply wishful thinking.
We live in an age of – to use Anthony Giddens’ term – of deep ‘ontological security’, much deeper than that of 30 years ago. As I explored a little while ago, the question of what’s wrong with our politics can and perhaps should be recast as a (Rieffian) question about what is so wrong with all of us.
In such insecure times, Doreen’s vision of an end to the “retail politics” of New Labour and a switch to a “notion of campaigning to change what the electorate might want, to argue for values, and understandings of the world, that may not be popular now but are what the party (says it) stands for” (p.7), reflects a well-meant but hopelessly outdated concept of false consciousness amongst the masses, which can be overcome through a series of courageous political acts and educational endeavours.
This concept of false consciousness, and the consequent imperative of political education of the masses, may have had some validity before the onset of late ‘capitalist realism’, but from Adorno & Horkheimer onwards both socialists and conservative intellectuals have, and with varying degrees of cultural pessimism, come to the conclusion that realism is either inescapable, and humanly bearable only by an alienation from our true ourselves and submission to capitalism’s material and/or ‘moral’ authority, or escapable only via some form of postmodern ‘lucidity pact’ with the capitalist devil.
I will explore this failure of analysis by the sub-Gramscian Corbynistas more in future blogs (and the book-to-be), particularly on how any attempt to recreate the occasionally successful-in-the-short-term, but overall failed attempt of the 1980s counter-hegemonic strategy for a rainbow coalition of interest and identity groups is doomed to failure in a context, 30 years on, of massive ‘ontological security’ and atomization of the working class.
Suffice to say, for now, that those professing to analyses Corbynism through a Gramsican lens seem to me to be confirming what Gramsci himself had to say about why those on the left who seek to oppose the successful hegemonic strategies of the right by appropriating the right’s techniques, but without the material power to combat the ‘ideological apparatuses’ (to borrow a post-Gramsci term) ranged against them. The occasional unexpected victory (e.g. Corbyn’s leadership win), says Gramsci, has the counter-productive effect of making the left think it can win on the right’s terms:
[T]he social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes — when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality. But this same group has, for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination, adopted a conception which is not its own but is borrowed from another group; and it affirms this conception verbally and believes itself to be following it, because this is the conception which it follows in ‘normal times’ — that is when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate. Hence the reason why philosophy cannot be divorced from politics. And one can show furthermore that the choice and the criticism of a conception of the world is also a political matter (p.23)
In shorter terms: the right won. We lost. The right is much stronger politically and culturally than it was 30 years ago. Combatting it on its own hegemonic terrain will fail, and just make us weaker. The new sub-Gramsci intellectuals of Corbynism need to get real.
What Corbynism is, or at least can be
That’s Corbyn #100. Tomorrow, with Corbyn #101, I move on from the doom and gloom. I think Corbyn, and Corbynism, do constitute a great moment of opportunity for the left – just not the kind of opportunity either Corbyn or most of the Corbynista are currently aware of, mostly because they’ve not read enough books, like what I have. I think the opportunities are much greater than the Gramscians think, but it will take a wholesale revolution in British leftwing thinking (and consequent action) if we are to seize them.
 In my meagre defence, I missed the early rise of the Corbyn factor because I don’t live in an area which felt anything like Corbynmania, which was by and large restricted to London and other ‘metropolitan’ areas.
 My going to London in the first place was inspired by my twitter comrade @RF_McCarthy’s inspired suggestion of waiting to get to the point where someone crassly misinterpreted Chantal Mouffe’s work, then producing her from behind a wall in the manner of Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. I wrote to Chantal, but for some reason she ignored me.
 Another explicitly Gramscian expression of hope around early Corbynism come from Ken Spours, in his analysis of Osborne’s continuing hegemony
At this point Corbynism could be seen as constituting a ‘primitive political bloc’, designed to mobilise the Left, Greens and a new wave of young people to provide the Labour Party with a sense of vitality and moral and political purpose following a catastrophic defeat. Its primitivism lies in the combination of the enthusiasm and mobilisation for a clear anti-austerity position and the fact that its politics is not yet sufficient to build a comprehensive and effective progressive counter bloc. Moving beyond primitivism involves, among other things, recognising that bloc autonomy can only be momentary and that the real aim should not be independence and the comfort of political identity (although these may have a valid function in 2015), but the more difficult and longer-term exercise of hegemony in the conditions of the 21st century.
This government must be broken in two by concerted, massive and uncompromising strike action. Anyone who says differently is a do-nothing, who wants to stand around bloviating instead of actually getting behind the one tactic which can stop the cuts. Even those people who are electoralists – i.e. Labour Party types – can’t argue with this. We’re not likely to see an election until 2015, according to Cameron and Clegg, so it’s up to the activists.
Even those who argue that we can’t oppose the cuts wholesale and can only separate out individual cuts can’t argue with the pension campaigns. The teachers and civil servants pension funds were both many millions in the black. The government decided to rob these funds, and to force teachers and other public servants to work longer, get less and pay more for what they got, when there was absolutely zero justification to do so, however the Tories spin it. More than that though, the working class doesn’t operate on legalistic principles – there’s no argument that since we’re striking about pensions, that’s all we care about. The battle lines are legion; the slicing up of the NHS, privatisation elsewhere, lowering taxes on the rich while screwing the poor, rising class sizes and falling child care facilities, not to mention massive unemployment spurred on by the Tory budgets.
Unions like Unite and Unison opted to stand aside from the dispute, after the N30 strikes, leaving PCS at the core of a group of unions the best activists of which not only want to organise their own unions but want to throw down the gauntlet to Len McCluskey, Dave Prentis, Brendan Barber and the other backsliders. Our activists and the activists in those unions which have not opted for more coordinated strikes will work together, under the banner of the National Shop Stewards Network, to force those unions to act in the interests of their members – which in the immediate dispute are not served by the Heads of Agreement to which Prentis and Barber and co wanted to sign up, and which in the medium term will never be served by a Tory government, whatever their window dressing.
That group of fighting unions just got bigger, with the National Union of Teachers and the NASUWT both voting for more concerted strikes. This will be a massive boost to the morale and resolve of the NSSN ahead of their national conference on 9th June. There will be deep debates as to how best to ensure first that we get good turnout on the days, and second that we park deep in the massive unions like Unite and Unison our iron determination to continue to fight, a determination we believe many of the members there either share already or would share if they had a trustworthy leadership and were presented with an alternative to simply accepting the cuts as fait accompli.
As a member of my PCS branch, I’ll be looking to get delegated to the NSSN conference and so should you. The more union branches represented there, the more thorough any discussion is likely to be. I’m also fighting to get cooperation from other unions in the place where I work, with joint meetings and real discussions about how best they can support us when we’re on strike and what they can expect from us in return, in their own disputes which management, which are many. I’ll be trumpeting the NUT and NASUWT vote to buoy up morale amongst PCS members.
As a member of the Socialist Party, I’ll be on the streets of Canterbury fighting to get the wider working class involved. I’ll be lobbying the Canterbury and Dover & Folkestone Trades Councils to organise joint public demonstrations and to build for them, rather than simply announcing the strikes and activities and expecting members to turn up as so many of the most bureaucratic union leaders do – a tactic which leaves the unions looking weak and which often confirms those union leaders’ own insecurities about what support they have behind them.
That is something that needs addressed on every level; email lists are far from enough engagement with members – and the reliance on those email lists or one-off face to face activities to instill in our colleagues and comrades the political education to match their instincts is simply not acceptable.
Thursday and Friday’s Days of Action in Canterbury and Gravesend, which Kent Socialist Party organised with Youth Fight for Jobs, suggested to me that though things looked a little wobbly just recently, fightback 2o12 is far from dispensed with, such are the levels of anger with this government. The NUT and NASUWT votes confirm it. All socialists must now play their role as leaders of their communities, of their workplaces and unions and of their class, and push for joint action, exerting maximum pressure to get our allies in Unison and Unite back into the fight. Hopefully the few comrades still in Labour know that and are ready for it.
I tend not to take much interest in paid lobbyists, regarding them as verminous scum. Still, when people I talk to on stalls mention something, I take an interest and it just so happened yesterday that one ex-Lib Dem (left because of leadership treason) brought up the subject of Lord Bell’s “attack” on lobbyists.
Apparently the ex-owner of Bell Pottinger made a speech the other day in which he admitted that they were “a lightning rod for mistrust”. It says something about the type of wet drips who join the Lib-Dems that this guy thought Lord Bell was making an attack on his own profession; far from it. He was in full throated defence.
“The fact remains that, taking on a client good or bad, it is our reputation at stake,” says Bell, and “everybody has the right to representation”. Defending Bell Pottinger’s PR work for the repressive dictatorship of Belarus, Bell says that “Good PR needs substance”, intimating that his firm only held up real good things that were happening there.
Let’s deconstruct this a bit. Not everybody has the right to representation; only those who can pay have the right to representation. Hence it’s the dictatorship of Belarus and not its starved, oppressed people who hired Bell Pottinger. Likewise, it’s capitalist firms and not their workers who hire PR firms, political “leaders” and not activists and so on.
The essence of paid political lobbying is the elevation of those who exist at points where money is concentrated – i.e. the already institutionally powerful and wealthy. So the whole edifice is biased from the beginning. More than that, whilst lobbyists don’t have to lie, the nature of their job is to distort the truth, holding up the good things and explaining away the bad things. Amusingly, Lord Bell actually gets indignant over Belarus, “No attempt was made to understand what we were doing”. Quite the opposite; surely the problem was that everyone knew precisely what Bell Pottinger were doing?
Asked why he thought he was being attacked, Lord Bell’s giant ego moved to obscure the sunlight;
I have absolutely no idea. I think I’m absolutely lovely. But some people don’t think I am, so they attack me. The answer is because I’m at the top of the tree. I say that immodestly, I’m somewhere near the top of the tree and I have been for some time. Tall poppy syndrome applies to our industry the same as everything else. What’s the point of attacking somebody nobody’s ever heard of? It’s much more fun to attack me, or the Saatchi brothers, or Matthew Freud, or Max Clifford. Attack somebody who’s visible.
Attacking somebody who’s visible…and supports murderous dictatorships, oppressive Thatcherite governments and the like, perhaps?
There’s a nugget in all of this which shows that paid lobbying is not to blame for the ills of our political system. There are parallels which exist between people like Lord Bell (i.e. smug rich arseholes) and, say, David Cameron. They occupy a similar ideological universe.
Bell seems to suggest a democracy of the marketplace with his “everyone has the right to representation” spiel. This is hardly different to the Tory equation of corporate donations to their party with union donations to the Labour Party.
Both stories are about attempts to buy power by interest groups. Both treat potential funders as individuals, the better to make all potential funders look like equals and obscure the very real differences in wealth, power and numbers.
The Bell/Cameron model favours small cliques who can more easily use wealth and power over mass organisations of millions (e.g. the people of Belarus or the 7 million workers in unions). Implying any equivalence is ridiculous. Numerous figures in the Labour heirarchy are no strangers to this model, nor are the Lib-Dems. And this is my point. It is natural for them to think this way, to favour the wealthy and still see some balance in their views.
It doesn’t require lobbying. It simply requires that we workers lie down and take it, over and over and over again.
I note with grim bemusement some of the opinions coming out of this blog in recent weeks as regards potential operations in Syria, and the rather shocking attitude of Carl to people he believes hold principles that forbid military intervention in another nation. A deeply disturbing thesis, he calls these principles. Well, I for one disagree. I’m against any attack on Syria by any government.
Western governments cannot be trusted with a gun in their hand, period. It has nothing to do with the possible creation of safe zones, the potential for the Syrian people to rise up if they get Western help or their fate if they don’t. If you put guns in the hands of a movement which is not led by the independent organisations of the working class then, as in Libya, you invite disaster.
This disaster comes in the re-emergence of whatever social roots the criminal dictatorship can rely on, and it comes in the rise of racial, ethnic and tribal tensions. Separatism, as might be emerging some Libyan regions (not forgetting that this country was created by the West), becomes the focus of politics, as it attempts to bury the class struggle that must be waged against the privatisation which Gaddafi had come around to, and which the TNC will support.
If you think this is all abstract Marxist theorising, rather than being based on real events, look at the demands emanating from the local elites in Benghazi regarding Libya’s oil. Look at the details Amnesty International have of the looting of Black Libyan areas by the rebels. And I need not even mention how ethnic, racial and religious tensions became real with a vengeance in Iraq.
When socialists reproach pro-interventionists for listening to propaganda regarding the brutality of Bashar al-Assad, they’re not challenging the veracity of the stories. They’re challenging Western media emphasis on them, and the selection of these particular evils out of a whole world full of torture, oppression and misrule. Pro-interventionists aren’t being sufficiently critical in their approach to such evils. And they plainly haven’t learned the lessons of Western intervention elsewhere.
That lesson is an abject one in total hypocrisy. Concern for the victims of Assad now becomes indifference towards the victims of the Western militaries (and their less politically correct allies) and outright enmity towards those of divergent political aims. To foist such “help” upon the brave civilians who are standing up to Assad is absolute lunacy.
In the end, intervention is not an abstract instrumental question, it is a political one. The reckoning between the people of Syria and the dictatorship will not remain within those narrow parameters because of this. Eleven months into the uprising, the rebels have not been subdued. In fact, if reports are to be believed, Assad is using foreign hired guns to do what he dare not ask the army rank and file to do. Meanwhile the rebels must bring the rest of Damascus over to them – the stirrings of revolution.
Western intervention would almost certainly halt that – and may even result in some accommodation with the regime, after the removal of Assad. How is that justice for the thousands who have died?
These rebellions across the Middle East are not accidental or spontaneous. Dictators who have paid for their rule with oil wealth and relatively good living conditions are being hit by the global economic crisis. People are coming out into the streets not just to demand political freedom but to demand more from regimes that one by one succumbed to the depredations of market capitalism. The other capitalist nations will be more than happy to grant the former if they can forestall demands regarding the latter.
The sort of people the foreign powers are willing to deploy, to shut up the Syrian populace and prevent any further spread of the Arab Spring, is deeply telling however. Up until just this month, head of the Arab League observer mission was Mustafa al-Dabi, the Sudanese military official in post in Darfur whilst the genocide was going on. When the Western nations intervene, or the Arab League intervenes, the purpose will not be to limit civilian deaths, it will be to achieve an outcome satisfactory to those governments.
Moreover, looking at the sort of people likely to attempt to take control of Syria. Another unelected unaccountable trigger-happy transitional authority will simply release the same pressures as it released in Libya – and will thereafter pursue the same policies as Assad, perhaps resulting in worse casualties should any region or ethnic group dare to assert its separatist demands. By the time that happens, we’ll be lucky if there’s a Western media presence never mind a military presence.
Unlike Egypt, but like Libya, the Syrian people have started this with a handicap. They don’t have independent organisations of the working class. But they must develop them. The most we can do is hope on their behalf, and pressure our own governments to both stay aloof and to oppose Arab League intervention. That is not as satisfying perhaps as demanding the immediate bombing of every Syrian military installation in range of the 5th fleet, but that demand is not a solution to the problem – it complicates it. Meanwhile trust the Syrians to feel their way towards the right path. Assad’s continuing trickle of concessions are the surest sign that they will get there.
Meanwhile I wonder if the anti-war movement should be gearing up to oppose military intervention in a conflict closer to home, as it were, as the tension ratchets up over the Falklands again. I’m sure we’ll be hearing all the pro-interventionist piffle about democracy and self-determination on behalf of the islanders, should Argentina invade. As with Belgium in World War I, it is so much hypocritical twaddle in the mouths of capitalist leaders.
Which neatly brings me back to the deeply disturbing thesis. The capitalist state cannot be trusted to wield the military. Capitalist leaders, in their comfortable London drawing rooms, cannot be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of business when there are no lives at stake – why should they be trusted to put the welfare of people in front of what they consider to be the national interest when there are? Hands off Iran, Hands off Syria, Hands off the Falklands and while you’re at it, Hands off the NHS.