A couple of moments ago, Wes Streeting, who is a Labour Councillor in Redbridge, said this in a tweet:
“Not sure it’s very ‘Tony’ but surely we should support Labour’s most electorally successful leader and PM having a statue?”
Statue aside (in his words, “am I bothered”) it is so easy for some people; we’ll support our tribe come what may, and that’s that (no doubt you’ve heard the argument before; we should support Blair/Mandelson as they bring in the votes, forgetting the price the party has had to pay for that experiment). Only for anyone in the Labour Party who really cares about it, and are politically committed to boot, this will not do. Surely a nodding dog who promised everything to everyone (like Barack Obama at the start of his term) would be more electorally successful, but the Labour Party is a political party, historically it has been a political machine and a socialist one as well. While it’s trying to please everyone it is pleasing nobody; Blair may have won his pathetic game against his contemporaries in the Commons, he may have smiled at the correct moments in a PR attempt to woo the heartstrings of the electorate, but he had no political fire in his belly to win the argument for socialism (in fact, by the end I’m sure he’d rather do anything else) and therefore we in the Labour Party should not “support” him. No way.
Yesterday I played a game that my Grandad received for Christmas. One of the questions raised – aimed at a certain generation – was: “should it be absolutely right for a person to fight for their country over anything else?” I was the elephant in the room, among mostly ex-service people (my parents and grandparents included) who said no – but I stand by my answer; today more than ever nation is a tribe that can serve only as sentimental value, ideas and convictions is a dish best served political, and in an age of postmodern disdain for ideas that can guide your uttermost convictions, it is the task of the left today to fight against that current – nationalism and tribalism were bad for politics in generations previous (obviously I justify British presence in WWII, but Churchill was an imperialist, it’s an old point, unpopular and often disavowed, but it’s true) and are bad today.
But who today are really to blame? Reading the above may lead you to think I’m not myself slightly tribal to a political party, but in many ways I am, but not in the sort of way damaging to my political convictions. My own brand of Labour Party tribalism means that I think TonyBlair was a monster – and it’s because I care about the party so much that I can say this. Those who send messages, such as the one above, are more damaging to the party than they realise.
Who I blame for the rightwards trajectory of the political party I am a member of is not necessarily those rightist figures themselves – it is young members of Trotskyite splinter parties like the Socialist Workers Party (born out of the IS, and founded as the SWP in 1977). In the days during the militancy period in the 80s, people were thrown out in a Kinnock, McCarthy-esque, early New Labour drive to rid the party of socialist ideas – history denialism. There were two elements to emerge; an element who embraced the sectarianism of the left who created the far left pressure groups we know awkwardly selling papers today, and then Grantite-entryists who as best as possible worked inside the Labour Party with the intention of bringing socialists together. Younger generations inside those parties don’t face the same problems; for them the Labour Party is sinking ship composed of capitalists and warmongers. However, these people have less fire in their bellies than the right wing of the Labour Party whose socialism has died with the size of their mortgages.
While sectarian factions choose not to touch the Labour Party with bargepoles, so the right of the party become vindicated in their place, and with the slow death of New Labour, and the sloppiness of Ed Miliband, now is the time to work inside and alongside the party, not against it. Owing to the constitution of the small far left parties, and their continual relevance among young socialists as opposed to working inside the longest existing, and historically the most idea rich socialist party in the UK – the Labour Party – they are by their very nature sectarian, and therefore it is justified to shut the door on their personal vindications to the Labour right wing, while offering a place to them if they wanted, and sharing ideas where possible (like the Labour Representative Committee do with smaller parties).
John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best – if at all – for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing – a work written partly in homage to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2008 Drawbridge Books published an essay of his called, simply, Meanwhile, which attempts to look at our historical age as we live it – an impossible task.
As Berger rightly noticed, descriptions of history need words, words need definitions, definitions need figurative images to serve as landmarks and without landmarks “there is the great human risk of turning in circles”. The landmark, as Berger notes, that he has found, to define our age, “is that of prison.”
The advent of the penitentiary, so Michel Foucault once noted, was linked to industrial production, “its factories and its utilitarian philosophy.” Time has not stood still. And neither has the world – which has come to be defined by capital relations. Thus, Berger notes in today’s era of globalisation, it is not industrial, but financial capital which has informed the logic of criminality and imprisonment. The utilitarianism of the pentientiary, of which Berger mediates, put specially selected individuals – criminals – under surveillance, while the dawn of new financial instruments and global logics of capital have emerged at the same time as surveying us all – hence prison being the landmark that defines our age. We are all imprisoned.
As Guy Debord, French Situationist writer, once noticed, via the Swiss urbanist and architect Le Corbusier, “commuting time … is a surplus labor which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time”. A mere modernist pseudo-problem in hindsight. In the dystopian, postmodernist, neo-liberal, late capitalist world imagined by Berger, the worker never enjoys free time, owing to finite free space – since all space is de-centralised financial capital, locked into a consumerist Arcadia. While “[s]peculative financial transactions add up, each day, to 1,300 billion dollars” as Berger points out, “[t]he prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb. What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”
Berger obviously foresees drab things for the immigrant worker. In an American context, he ponders upon the criminalisation of the Mexican worker, but of course it is not overseen the neoliberal agenda of the global oil industry – unable to be properly contained by any major government or power, and cynically, never being in that power’s interests. However, the faddish crux of neoliberalism has possibly made Berger cautious not to speak wildly on the green agenda. Marxist writers specifically in the wake (or shadow) of Frederic Jameson such as Terry Eagleton or Alex Callinicos have all picked up upon the ruinous corporate exploitation of natural resources, and indeed nature; but the more eagle eyed writer like John Gray – still steeped in enough cynicism – notices that out of the green agenda is a market as well as a set of life-saving moral predicates. On this very basis, it is not out of the reach of conglomerates to “green up” – faddishness, to say the least, is a necessary and almost obligatory component of late capitalism. The deal which capitalism, and its state sanctioned protectors, have been unable yet to settle is how to cope with human flight when vast areas of land, and indeed whole countries, start to become uninhabitable and undernourished owing to global warming. The oil business, it would seem, is designing its own type of worker, who Berger believes neoliberalism has rewritten as “hidden criminal” – that is a criminal as a consequence of natural catastrophe and illegal immigration.
The prison which Berger has designated as our current lot is actually free of indoctrination, but authorities will do their best to misinform. Being tuned in to new technologies, cyberspace is a means with which (mis)information is channelled in order that indoctrination is rendered quite pointless. But here, forgets Berger, is a space to subordinate that misinformation. While our only power online may be to apprehend information when its too late – consider for example the realisation, tonight in fact, that the US has the power to close down a global payment system, with disastrous effects – knowledge is power. Wikileaks, if it has achieved nothing else, has shown itself to be locked in a power struggle – this does not spell the dawn of a new hegemony, from the bottom up, but at least frames the struggle as equals at war, whereas before the powerless were expected to fend off the advances of the powerful. Wikileaks is a gamechanger; but what we now realise about the game, is that the powerless could gain power without actually subordinating the existing status quo – something hitherto overlooked, not understated.
Freedom and liberty however is separate from power entirely, and it seems as though Berger is far more willing to accept that in our prison we can be free. As he notes “[f]or prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement”. This can simply be read as a question of contrast; small changes mean more to the prisoner than massive changes do to he who is free. So given that the issue with our historic place, our prison, is the lack of free space, we must forge such a space free from the trappings of capitalism. The problem some will have with this is the same problem many have with Naomi Klein’s books – she seems to be happy and content with the communalist existence of space subordinate to capitalism, which already still renders capitalism existent. In fact within the faculties of late capitalism, or postmodernist capitalism, such communalism is actively encouraged, since subordination is commodifiable. It almost seems as if there is no hope. Berger’s essay concludes by saying: “[l]iberty is slowly being founded not outside but in the depths of the prison”. It sounds like the conclusion of so many disillusioned voices post-Cold War; it’s almost impossible not to feel its ferocity.
If, apropos Marx and Engels, the lowest common denominator of a State is a body of armed men, then full-fledged opposition to the State not only warrants violence, it requires it.
A truism this may be, though it seems to have escaped the voluminous ramblings of politicians and pundits after last week’s incident at Conservative Party HQ. Truisms cannot be the end of the story however.
This “body of armed men” do not simply represent naked force, they represent compulsion of all forms. If you disobey the law, the end result is forcible incarceration.
Resistance to this compulsion is a challenge to the legitimacy of the State. This is a violence equal and opposite to the compulsion of the State. Whether actual fisticuffs or property destruction takes place is frankly irrelevant.
To me this makes all the supportive noises around “civil disobedience” seem so disingenuous. If pursued to their logical conclusion, violence is inevitable; the ruling class will not relinquish power willingly. Human history threatens to bear me out on this point.
In critiquing the move towards violence, we must thus be more politically sophisticated than simply stating that violence is wrong, or recycling the truism that it is ‘counterproductive’, as though that answers anything. What the leaders of the NUS and other organisations usually mean by ‘counterproductive’ is that it upsets their pleasant media strategy, so they have to go on breakfast shows and apologise like naughty schoolchildren rather than pontificate.
This wouldn’t mean anything if the campaigns of ‘civil disobedience’ were concerted, sustained efforts dedicated to bringing about a democratic, accountable, mass movement that could override the authority of the State in the matter of education provision.
Attacking Conservative Party HQ was a tactical mistake, and a presumption by a minority of hotheads that they had the right to assume control of the whole march. It was anti-democratic, it served no purpose – but it was not wrong merely because it was violent.
Contra spokespersons for the Green Party (and inevitably the pro-capitalist parties), I believe that the announced plans of the Conservative/Lapdog coalition do justify violence. The question is what sort of violence. If they feel they can strip bare the lives of the least vocal, the least politic, the least able of this country, then they justify our pulling down the government and dancing in its ashes.
This is not a terroristic demand, nor does it take place separate from the political consciousness of the people of this country. It is a goal we realise through agitation along class lines; if workers are to be exploited by the cronies of those who run the State (cronies who at whiles populate the arms of the State), then workers have the right to resist.
As that resistance is a challenge to the legitimacy of government and State, it will ultimately be violent if we are to carry it through to its end – the reversal of these policies and the destruction of the class system which produced them.
Today’s continuing anti-fee protests and occupations might perhaps be a tentative first step along that road, beset as it will inevitably be by wrong turns, misjudgments and the fork-tongued.
Slavoj Zizek has this to say on the subject of a modern saturated form of left wing politics:
Lenin’s politics is the true counterpoint not only to the Third Way pragmatic opportunism, but also to the marginalist Leftist attitude of what Lacan called le narcissisme de la chose perdue. What a true Leninist and a political conservative have in common is the fact that they reject what one could call liberal Leftist “irresponsibility” (advocating grand projects of solidarity, freedom, etc., yet ducking out when one has to pay the price for it in the guise of concrete and often “cruel” political measures): like an authentic conservative, a true Leninist is now afraid to pass to the act, to assume all the consequences, unpleasant as they may be, of realizing his political project. Rudyard Kipling (whom Brecht admired) despised British liberals who advocated freedom and justice, while silently counting on the Conservatives to do the necessary dirty work for them; the same can be said for the liberal Leftist’s (or “democratic Socialist’s”) relationship towards Leninist Communists: liberal Leftists reject the Social Democratic “compromise,” they want a true revolution, yet they shirk the actual price to be paid for it and thus prefer to adopt the attitude of a Beautiful Soul and to keep their hands clean. In contrast to this false radical Leftist’s position (which wants true democracy for the people, but without the secret police to fight counterrevolution, without their academic privileges being threatened), a Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it.
This distinction between a true leftist and his liberal counterparts, and the parity between a leftist and his conservative brothers, is made all the more interesting when we consider Ed Burke’s reasoning for opposing the demands of enlightenment thinkers and French revolutionaries in particular.
Jeremy Stangroom had this to say on the politics of Burke:
Society is complex, and human nature unpredictable; therefore it is not prudent to mess around with political and social arrangements that have stood the test of time.
The common view of traditional conservatism from the point of view of the left is that it favoured a strong aristocracy or ruling class on the grounds that this structure had been divinely justified.
Burke, in fact was a deeply religious thinker, and yet his grounds for favouring this system is based more upon the weak basis of theories to the contrary of it.
He did not necessarily feel that political conceptions of natural right, which had emerged from enlightenment values, were wrong, ipso facto, but that the basis for reforming society on liberty, equality and other such predicates, were theoretically weak.
Thus Burke, and many others in the conservative tradition, appealed to a political realism rather than a political idealism – the politics of the day for enlightenment thinking.
Indeed the politics of the left that Zizek is thinking of above – that is to say Leninism – has its own issues with enlightenment thinking in its purest form (if we consider the disparity between scientific socialism and its utopian variant).
Enlightenment thinking had in fact supposed that in the absence of a corrupting modern society, men would become systematically – by their very nature – capable of rationality.
This supposes a rational human nature – of which Marxist-Leninism has no truck.
The parity between the left and conservatives – both in their traditional forms, before the purge of postmodern mush in modern politics – is in the role of government being the mediator of rationality, based loosely on a view of humanity that denies its monolithic nature (for Burke humans were the “fallen” in the religious sense of the word; for Marxists humans are mediated subjects through which ideology is transmitted).
From the outset, and in opposition to a modern political perversity, conservativism is the natural political ally of leftism, where liberalism is its political adversary.
John Harris said something in the Guardian today which resonated with me. His article is about how, when we question the Liberal Democrats’ free market, orange book clique taking over the party and being further to the right than some Tories, we forget that the party will not collapse “under the weight of its own contradictions” but will continue to fight on – the Labour party is one case in point.
Firstly, we at TCF certainly do not forget that the Labour party organised around the central contradictions of free market, laissez-faire capitalism, and I suspect not many others have forgotten this either.
Secondly, to use the Liberal Democrats being in power, as Harris does, as a sign that they are a working force, and not collapsing “under the weight…” does not add to his argument at all – the Liberal Democrats were mere kingmakers in the coalition, and their downfall has yet to be seen (I’m thinking the snubs they’ve been getting from the electorate locally, and the scheming eye of Simon Hughes).
By comparing them with the Labour, Harris is not matching like for like.
But nevertheless, the thing he said which resonated with me:
Marx and Engels may not be quite the influential titans they once were, but even among some of the most modernised minds on the left, one of their followers’ behavioural tics is alive and well: surveying something you either don’t like or can’t understand, and then loftily pronouncing that it will fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions. So far, it hasn’t applied to capitalism. Neither, I would wager, will it be true of either the coalition or the Liberal Democrats, though that doesn’t seem to have quietened August’s loudest political noise.
Having been to university myself, I too have been a Marxist (a phase that sadly wore off soon after I left), but I always saw this point – made by many – a little stupid. And Marx was not naive to this point. Because an economic model does not fall apart under the weight of its own contradictions, that does not mean it is not a spent force and that the end of history is in capitalism (which is why Francis Fukuyama wrote that book Our Posthuman Future – to show that he was wrong in 1989); it means either that we are playing with rusty goods so to speak (by which I obviously mean its existence is continued only because people are desperately trying to keep afloat a broken system for as long as possible after its sell by date, because it makes them better off) or that it has had to supplement itself with other models so as to sustain itself.
I think it is a cross between the two – a system that is past its sell by date that has saturated itself with liberal or social democratic systems of government welfare to hide that fact that its cracks are enormous (and they quite often fail to hide those gaps).
It was a flippant remark, but it’s not an unusual critique of Marx. The real case is he was right about capitalism, he just underestimated the power of bullshit by capitalists.