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The labour movement’s post-election battleground: Part I of II

1  Introduction

Back in January, I was invited by Left Futures to provide a response to a post by Trevor Fisher.  Trevor considers Labour a lost cause when it comes to austerity. This is his conclusion:

The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti-state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.

Trevor’s analysis is not, of course, an unusual one.   The idea that a Labour government will simply be ‘austerity-lite’ is now almost a mantra those who consider themselves left of Labour (within or outside the party).   Here are just a few examples expressing, in varying ways, anger or hopelessness or (in Sunny Hundal’s case) simply incomprehension at Labour’s purported plans to mimic the Tories in government.

Trevor’s analysis – like most others in this vein –  incorrect , for three main reasons:

  • Labour is part of the solution to the problems brought by five years of austerity, because it is actively planning for investment in public services;
  • The existing work of the People’s Assembly is, while impressive in many ways, misguided;
  • The idea that the best way to respond to the neoliberals’ anti-state consensus building is to support a return to the pre-2008 public service infrastructure of late capitalism is itself regressive.

In this essay, I present an alternative strategy for labour movement activism, which I contend takes us beyond these common errors of analysis by the Left. In part I, addressing the facts around Labour’s actual planning for government, before moving on to how and why so many people have misunderstood what Labour is about.   In part II, I look in details at what might be done for, by, with people like Trevor – no doubt a solid member of the labour movement, but who’s only recourse at the moment is another round of meetings and rallies calling, loudly but vainly, for the people to rise up against austerity.

2  What’s really being planned

Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’, and its central economic policy is now that it will never spend what it cannot save elsewhere.  I think this is a misguided strategy born of a narrow-minded elite in the Labour party, panicked by Tory control over opinion polls in 2001-12 (see section 3), but it is too now late to change that messaging in the 60-odd days to the election.

Behind the scenes it is different.  Labour HQ has calculators in the office, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally; the new rounds of cuts will have to start to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who to date have suffered more than other when their comparatively expensive needs have stopped being met, but who only vote once, and in relatively small numbers, so have been a calculated electoral write-off for the Coalition.

With a number of decent thinkers and planners – notably Jon Cruddas –  having fought a behind-the-scenes rearguard action against the fiscal conservatives, Labour is quietly planning to sustain and develop provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank (with an NS&I deposit) [1], which the Tott report commissioned by Labour makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from Pension Funds [2], and through allowing local authorities to bring forward spend from later years in a five year cycle, effectively allowing them to borrow from themselves. [3]  This is in addition to the existing prudential borrowing regime, which is likely to see greater use in an environment where local authorities are not so afraid as they are currently about what comes next from the centre.

The condition for this investment from these sources is that as far as possible what is spent should create ‘downstream savings’, and it is from the “what should have been spent” pot that government, including local government and freed-up health economy organisations, will create the return for investors.   It will be, to a significant extent, a welcome foreshortening of the Social Impact Bond process developed and tested over the last 10 years, but which has proved to be bureaucratically difficult in the absence of political will.

A key unanswered question at the moment is to what extent these non-traditional routes to borrowing for investment will replace normal borrowing.

NS&I is not a bank and cannot simply create money for investment, so will presumably be constrained by the amount invested in NS&I, currently around £105bn [4].  While there is some good practice emerging around the use of Local Government Pension Funds to fund public spending where there is clear social value, to date these investments have been limited to capital schemes where the rate of return back to the Funds has been easy to determine because income streams are produced by the investment.  It is more difficult to persuade Pension Fund trustees, who must abide by their fiduciary duties [5] to protect those funds, to invest in ‘social infrastructure’ which creates savings downstream, as these savings must then be converted into returns [6].

My current view is that these non-traditional routes will not replace traditional deficit spending to the extent needed, though that it’s a good start. Given this, the further, vital question arises of what level of investment need can feasibly be packaged as social investment (and therefore open non-traditional funding) rather than simply additional spending on public services [7].  In any event, and as I go on now to explore, this is a question which the Left should be addressing for its own sake.

3  The two orthodoxies

What I have set out above may be the quiet reality of preparation for government, but it’s one known about by very few people in the labour movement, largely because of the strategic decision by Labour’s strategists (on which more below), to avoid challenge to the prevailing ‘deficit fetishism’, and instead to try and gain power by focusing on other policy areas e.g. the NHS.

This strategic decision requires a commitment to cost-neutral spending promises i.e. any spending commitment must be paid for by cuts/savings to other areas of current spending.  In order to know what’s really being planned, it’s necessary to a) talk to people closer to the actual development work (which I’ve done); and b) read the whole of policy documents, not just the summaries (which I’ve done).

In the absence of wider understanding of what is really being planned, most actors and organisations who self-identify as Labour and/or the Left have split into two broad ‘orthodoxies’, with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between them.

On one side of the ‘fault line’ are those who say an incoming Labour-led government must be ‘realistic’ about the public finances, and cannot therefore afford to reverse Coalition cuts, and those who subscribe what I will refer broadly to as the ‘anti-austerity movement’, who think a Labour-led government’s first duty is to reverse the cuts and reset public financing and public service to circa 2009.

Both sides are wrong, as I shall go on to set out, because establishing why and how they came to be so wrong, and what impact this wrongness has had to date,  is essential if the labour movement is to bridge the divide (which I address in part II).

The realist orthodoxy

The ‘realists’ are wrong for fairly obvious macro-economic reasons.  There’s no need here to go over now fairly established consensus that fiscal consolidation didn’t work, and that the way to boost growth (and pay down the deficit sensibly) is through a wage-led recovery, with a major lever for this being public investment.  The ‘realist’ support for fiscal consolidation and continued austerity has never been driven primarily by economics; calls for fiscal prudence have largely (from about 2011-2 onwards) been about a political messaging that Labour ‘can be trusted’ with the public finances, and the view (actually a self-fulfilling narrative) that the British public will never be able to conceptualize standard Keynesian economic management as anything other than spendthrift.

This is evidenced most clearly in Anthony Painter’s [8] at times excellent (2013) Left Without a Future: Social Justice in Anxious Times.  In a book devoted to ideas about how a future Labour government can create a more socially just society in times of continued fiscal restraint, Anthony sets out the need for that fiscal restraint in just a few short paragraphs (pp. 75-77), some of which are in themselves arguments against restraint.  All of the reasoning is contestable, especially the notion that “two or three years of very low growth, barely moving deficits and political impotence” might lead to a real danger of default (p.76), [9] but in any event he lets the cat out of the bag when, after this short justification he reveals its post-hoc nature:

It was in response to this debate that Cooke et al. [Anthony is one of the al.] wrote In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice go Hand-in-Hand which was published in 2011 and created something of a stir in Labour circles.  Its core argument was that a reputation for fiscal responsibility was fundamental to any party aspiring to national leadership (p.78)

The realists’ economic rationale, then has never been anything much more than cover for short term electoral strategy, forged at a time when many in the Labour elite were concerned about the intractable opinion polls, which continued to show that the Coalition’s strategy of blaming a worldwide financial crisis on profligate public spending by Labour, was working remarkably well.  At that point, it made sense to this fairly small group of insiders, close to or within the pressure group Progress, that Labour should simply adopt a ‘balancing the books’ approach, because the battle for what economic common sense looks like had been lost. [10]

In their view, this was much more important than the longer term real-world impact of commitment to the In the Black doctrine largely, I suspect, because they simply didn’t consider real word impacts on the more vulnerable in society as being of themselves, important [11], even though it was clear by then that they, along with lower paid public sector workers themselves were facing the greatest direct burden of public sector cuts [12]

This all took place back in 2011-12.  Since then, Labour has, within the constraints it imposed upon itself by its commitment to no extra borrowing, brought to bear two broadly effective electoral responses to the Tories (while also playing Lib Dem Whack-a-Mole for light relief).  First, they have managed to articulate (in the Hall sense) the continued incompetencies [13] of the Tories in government with their elite background and narrowness of outlook (‘out of touch’ being the common phrase).   Second, they have managed to side step the Tories continuing lead on ‘economic competence’ by focusing on how improving figures at a national level of not translating into feelings of security and hope for the future amongst ‘real’ people.  You could even argue that Labour has managed to articulate all of these together, so that people think they are insecure and lacking in hope because Cameron is posh.  This has the added advantage of being true.

This is a good thing in the short term, and it is why a Labour-led government remains the most likely outcome despite a continuing poll lead for the Tories on economic competence.  The downside, though, is that what does or does not constitute fiscal responsibility – whether investment is actually better than  austerity – has become a taboo area within Labour, at least in public.  When Ed Balls committed to budget surplus in January 2014, leading In the Black Labour proponent Hopi Sen was simply able to tweet that the debate had been won.  To a large extent, he was right, although he underestimated the rearguard action that was mounted (see Part II for more details).

The effect of this, understandably, is that many of those who understand what actually fiscal responsibility is have now come to regard Labour as cowards and traitors.  A good case in point is Howard Reed, a decent economist, who penned White Flag Labour for Compass as early as January 2012 [14].

It could of course be argued that people like Howard should have spent a little more time looking at the kind of investments, set out above, which Labour is planning behind the scenes, rather than just the press statements, and that to effectively turn away from engagement with Labour over what it is getting right because it’s not getting everything right is actually very unhelpful to us all; indeed, this is pretty well Simon Wren-Lewis’ recent argument.

For myself, I don’t think such a blame game is helpful in the long run either; while I’ve tended towards it myself in the past, on reflection I think it’s more honest to hold myself to account for not having helped organise the forces of anti-austerity well enough back in 2011-12, not least because learning from what went wrong then is important for the new battle we face after the election.

I’ll come to this in detail on Part II, but the point to stress here is that many on and to the left of Labour attached themselves to the anti-austerity movement – to the extent that some former Labour activists are now standing against Labour in the general election – not because of actual pro-austerity policy from Labour, but because the fiscal conservatives within Labour, themselves driven by narrow political considerations rather than economic ones, created an environment in which plans for investment have remained largely hidden from view (e.g. in the IPPR Condition of Britain report (June 2014), the media and Labour’s own coverage of which failed to notice/deliberately declined to mention the chapters on innovative investment).

The anti-austerity orthodoxy

The ‘anti-austerians’ are wrong because simply returning public sector financing to the levels it enjoyed in the mid- to late 2000’s, without further consideration of how public services should be reformed, will be an utter disgrace, and a betrayal of ordinary people who depend on those services.  Yet this is apparently what is being proposed by an anti-austerity ‘movement’ backed by public sector unions who, understandably enough, are keen to defend their members’ terms and conditions in the narrowest sense of the term as best they can, but who appear to have rejected any responsibility they ever had for the quality of service provided.

The sad truth is that the quality of many public services has declined hugely in the past 20-30 years, and the pace of decline has increased, not simply because of the cuts but because of the way public servants do their work.  Journalist Kate Belgrave, for example, has recorded the transition of what we used to call employment services from a relatively harmless bureaucracy to a vicious institution which actively dehumanizes benefit claimants, and in which specific targets for inflicting misery on the already poor and powerless are implemented without challenge by trade unions.  In the NHS and care sector, the scandals at Winterbourne and at Mid-Staffs did not arise directly from public spending cuts or from privatisation, but from a decline in service standards which set in long before the Coalition came to power.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the quality of public services, and they form a duality.  First, the growth of managerialist ideology, itself a corollary of neoliberal economics, has created which are target- rather than value-driven, and in which every level of management holds the next one down accountable for reaching targets (often now called ‘outcomes’) while often preferring not to know how they are achieved.   Only last week, when earning a living tendering for a public sector contract (for a social enterprise) I was told by a senior manager that with the contract in question there was ‘no room for quality'; this was said with no hint of surprise.

Second, there has been a massive de-professionalization of the public services workforce.  Initially this de-professionalization was a conscious outcome of managerialism [15], as trade union and professional association concerns for the maintenance of quality were pushed to one side as impediments to competition-driven progress, but 30 years on most unions and associations simply no longer see it as their job to concern themselves with the quality of the service they offer to their fellow citizens; their sole role,  as they now see it, is to defend the terms and conditions of their members [16].

In my own profession, nursing, such a view of a trade union role has become institutionalized to the extent that when the Francis report recommended that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) be formally split into a ‘trade union side’ and a ‘quality of provision’ side, there was barely a murmur of protest from the RCN.  Even more revealingly, Francis did not even feel the need to recognise a possible role for Unison (the other main union/professional association for nurses) in ensuring or campaigning for quality of care.

The now endemic failure of the labour movement to care about the quality of services they provide damages it, of course; while would the non-unionised public support public servants’ industrial action in defence on terms and conditions if those same public servants don’t seem to care about them?

The anti-austerity movement is, frankly, an anachronism.  Its calls for a return to 201o spending, in the absence of proper reform, are in their own way as a regressive as the ‘realists’ call for continued austerity.   Now, I know to my cost [17] that such a bald statement, while perfectly defensible, is likely to be unhelpful to efforts to develop consensus around how a more progessive ‘post-austerity’ Labour might be organised for and won.  So let me be clear, even at the risk of repetition:  the vast majority of people who would now, if asked, hold to the anti-austerity orthodoxy position critiqued here, will be decent Labour (and ex-Labour) activists, members or supporters.

The fact that they support what I call an anachronistic position public services is not something for which they should be blamed, because the primary faults lies with a) a trade union movement which has overly narrowed its functions; b) those within the Labour party who, for the reasons set out above, have stymied a proper debate within the Labour party about what public service reform should and can be about [18].

There’s one more point to make about the anti-austerity movement as it’s developed to date, before I move on to how I think its members/supporters should think about the post-election period, and one which connects to those proposals.  This is that, while the anti-austerity movement has achieved precisely nothing of what it set out expressly to achieve, a good deal has been achieved as an unintended consequence.   While the primary ambition of retaining jobs and services by forcing councillors to spend up reserves then pass illegal budgets remains a pipe dream, the organisational and personal links forged at local, city and regional level, between grassroots trade unionists, service user activists and others such as engaged journalists and those who might self-define as anti-capitalists has been a very positive development.   As I’ll go onto suggest, it is through the emergence of an updated form of the Trades Council, properly allied to the appropriate power structures within the Labour party, that an effective working class post-austerity movement stands the greatest chance of success, and the fact that such organisational links have already been forged, even in a losing cause for now, offers promise.

Conversely, should the current anti-austerity movement move in the opposite direction, away from the Labour party power and resource that will make it effective, both it and those within Labour who believe in good quality public services and wider institutional development towards democratic socialism stand to be marginalised and alienated from each other even further than they are at the moment.

3  Developing a post-austerity movement

This is what I’ll turn to in part II.  I’ll argue that, while these two camps of orthodoxies currently seem poles apart, not least because of personal animosity and mutual name calling on both sides (and I’ve been guilty of that two), there  exists a substantial common ground between the two around which ideological and, more importantly, organisational consensus can be built.   Such a consensus, I will argue, might be built around seven core ideas, to which many can subscribe.  These are

i) that public services should have investment in human beings at their foundation;

ii) that such investment is as worthwhile, or more worthwhile, than capital investment, and that the ‘rate of return’ problem can be overcome;

iii) that public services are best when truly co-designed and co-produced, and that modern trade unions and trades councils have a key role to play here;

iv) that the institutional developments which allow for co-production will be most successful where they develop at a local level;

v) that while public service quality can be improved through intelligent, co-designed investment, such developments can and should act as a bridgehead to similar labour movement developments in the wider economy;

vi) that in order to facilitate all this, the Labour party will need to go beyond its Refounding Labour initiative and either open itself up to genuine labour movement direction, or risk becoming an irrelevance;

vii) that the window of opportunity after the election will be short, because if the two groupings described don’t coalesce organisationally around common interests, existing power interests 0 notably the narrow ones of the existing narrow trade union leadership and the Blairite right, will re-exert their power, and threaten the long-term future of the labour movement itself.

 

 Notes

[1] Of course this borrowing is already happening via NS&I, via the Coalition’s 2.8/4% fixed term bonds for people aged over 65.  As, Chris Dillow points out, the other word for this is corruption, because of the particular choice of investor, but that doesn’t mean that using the NS&I as an investment mechanism is in itself a bad thing.

[2] Tott’s report indicates this form of borrowing can be even cheaper than conventional borrowing through the sale of bonds by the government’s Debt Management Office

[3] This is not likely to be introduced in year 1 of a Labour government, as local Public Accounts Committees may be a condition of such an internal investment mechanism (see Chapter 10 of IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, which was effectively a Labour party report (a fact later confirmed by the Charities Commission, who reprimanded IPPR for being too overtly political.

[4] NS&I does not manage its own funds (and sadly, ATOS manage NS&I).  The funds are passed over to the National Loans Fund managed directly by the Treasury, where it is already used to fund roughly 10% of public borrowing.   There would presumably have to be a change in this arrangement if a proportion of NS&I funds were to be allocated direct to a British Investment Bank.

[5] The key obstacle to pension fund investment in social infrastructure has long been the fiduciary duty on trustees to maximise financial return to members, which has been taken as overriding all other factors and led pension funds to invest ‘safely’.  While there has been some movement towards a wider understanding of what members’ interests are, so as to allow invest in social and environmentally sound activities, and while there has been some very good local innovation in local government pension fund use, the recent Law Commission guidance remains very conservative in its approach, and there is still some way to go before we see a real rise in social investment by this route.

[6] Even when it comes to capital infrastructure, Osborne’s grand 2011 proclamation about tapping pension funds has so far turned out to be a damp squib, and Labour will need to re-energise this.

[7] I have been seeking to ‘crowdsource’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechanisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap.

[8] In my view, Anthony Painter is by far the best of the movers and shakers in the realist orthodoxy camp, and his Left without a Future (2013) is certainly worth a close reading.  While it is ultimately let down by the ill-conceived parameters of continued ‘tough choices’ Anthony provides for himself (as set out above), it is insightful both about how ‘investment’ should be seen in its widest sense, and in the need for the development of a range of new institutions aimed at delivering social justice (though I disagree with how his implicit suggestion around who should be responsible for designing these institutions, a matter on which I touch on in part 2 of this essay).  As I shall also set out in part 2 ,   it is to Anthony and some of his like-minded colleagues at RSA and IPPR, as well as to people like Jon Cruddas, that the (ex-austerity) labour movement will need to reach out to if it is to develop a truly effective post-austerity movement in the shortest time possible.

[9] Aside from the invalid short-shrift that Anthony gives to what he call the “ultra-Keynesian” argument – that there is real no barrier to deficit spending as long as it takes place within a functional economy – the other policy idea he dismisses all too easily is that of engineering inflation at around the 4-6 % level through quantitative easing (not the same, I should stress as deficit spending/investment on public services/infrastructure).

[10] That is not to say that countering the Tories credit card imagery was ever easy.  Such a metaphor fits neatly with Lakoff’s concept of the two central metaphors contesting the grounds in US politics:  the strict father vs. the nurturing father.  In these terms, it might be argued that Conservatives currently have the upper hand because the strict father metaphor has a hold, and it may be that Labour has to deliberately develop nurturing metaphors of its own as a way to ‘sell’ investment as a social good rather than a profligacy.

[11] I remember well Hazel Blears castigating me in a CLP meeting for being too focused on the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

[12] Of course, cuts to public spending also have indirect effects on the same group, by sucking money out of local economies and delaying recovery, and the weighting of cuts towards deprived areas has made this even more significant when it comes to regional inequalities.

[13] To blow my own trumpet for a second, I’ll add that I was amongst the first to advocate an opposition strategy of focusing on the details of incompetence, and it was my research around the maladministration of the Regional Growth Fund which created the ammunition for an early hit of this kind on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Unfortunately, while there have been other successes, the strategy was never deployed consistently.

[14] Howard Reed did engage with my reading of Labour’s investment plans, although he suggested I was over-optimistic.   Richard Murphy declined to engage, and continues to hold the view, reflected in Trevor’s Left Futures piece above, that Labour is Tory-lite.

[15] This is a conventional leftwing view. It is arguable that the legitimation of managerialism actually started earlier than this, and is as much a product of the socialist response to technological innovation in mass production as of neoliberalism.  As Peter Hain notes in his new book, Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is marked by a dismissal of GDH Cole’s proposals for a modern ‘guild socialism’, on the grounds that these are incompatible with mew technologies and mass production.   While Hain seems happy to take Crosland at his work, my own view is that the side-lining of the whole guild tradition is at the roots of today’s mega-unions’ compliance with de-professionalization, especially in public services.

[16] There are vestiges of the old commitment to public service quality.  Ironically, in the face of what came next from the PCS, in 2011 the union asked election candidates to sign up to a pledge heavily focused on the quality of public services.  By 2012, that emphasis appeared to have been lost, as the Workfare programme was critiqued not for what it did to people on benefits, but solely for the effect it had on the workforce.

[17] When the Liberal Conspiracy version of the first part of this two part post appeared, I was called a wide selection of unpleasant names for my supposed treachery, but there was little or no actual counter-argument.  While that’s unimportant in itself, I accept that the provocative tone I adopted in the piece was more about my self-righteousness than any attempt to help forge a better strategy for opposition.

[18] That is not to say that there has been no debate within mainstream Labour about what ‘proper’ public service reform should look like.  The Progress pamphlet Reform in an Age of Austerity (February 2014), for example, is actually quite good on some of the crucial aspects of reform – particularly that it will need to be ‘relationa’ and personalised, but like the IPPR report Condition of Britain (see above) it remains hampered by the self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, within which these worthy ideals are mostly undeliverable.

 

 

Franz Kafka and the socialist response to UKIP

May 3, 2013 1 comment

Today it looks like UKIP is on the rise, and may have broken through.  Very bad news.  At times like this, Kafka is need.

Kafka as Freudian?

There are about as many interpretations of Kafka’s work as numbers of doors I’ve knocked on in the last few months.    Lots.

There are some I don’t buy – it’s all just a straight condemnation of early 20thcentury bureaucracy because he had to work hard in a dull office, for example.

And at least until recently, I wasn’t convinced by wholly psychoanalytic explanations, though it was fairly obvious that Kafka had a grasp of Freudian concepts of the ego/id.

The more I re-read (and have learned German) though, the more convincing I find the Kafka-as-Freudian interpretation.  Certainly, the text is littered with what we might now call Freudian slips, where the unconscious (or ‘id’) peeps through the surface of the page.

This is facilitated by his regular use of the literary device of ‘erlebte Rede’ (‘experienced speech’) or indirect free speech, which collapses first and third person narrative; and indeed there is some evidence that Kafka was studious in the way he edited his work  to create this effect.

The notion that central to Kafka’s work is the tension between the ego and the id (in modern society), and that alienation, despair and death comes from the suppression of the id at the expense of the ego, is straightforward enough to sustain.  Just look at the way Kafka’s characters die for that evidence.  K (The Trial) dies ‘as though the shame were meant to outlive him’ because he never accepts his guilt – he never accepts that he is guilty of the suppression of his unconscious desires, instead indulging ever more convoluted rationalisations in a doomed bid to seek to win out over what must remain irrational because it is of the subconscious.

Gregor (Metamorphosis), on the other hand, dies happy (and his family goes out into the light for the first time in months) because he becomes accepting of the animal he is.  When does Gregor being to move towards a happy death? When his sister plays the violin – music transcends – and when he starts to accept that he is an animal (his id) rather than struggle against it.

And why does the officer in the penal colony willingly choose death through what to the explorer seems like (pre-modern) savagery, and yet still not get  ‘redemption’ on his face as he dies?

And of course The Castle ends with death in defeat, but reconciliation with defeat by what-is-irrational.

Kafka as postmodernist?

But that is not all there is to Kafka, not by a country doctor’s mile.

While Kafka’s work is ‘timeless’  – a message about needing to be true to yourself – such a relatively straightfoward interpretation risks leaving out from it a load of the words he actually wrote, especially about women.

To deal with this we need to set his work back into its  historic context of a new modernity/bureacuracy which was, for Kafka, heightening that level of alienation,  through the rise of an early capitalist consumerist society.

Ultimately, Kafka does not just question how people’s minds work within a social context, but also how ‘real’ that social context is in the first place.

In this respect he presages much of postmodern philosophical thought, and is the reason he is relevant to the Left.  Indeed I would argue that he is more relevant in the early 21st century than when leading thinkers in the left – notably Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin –  sought to claim him as one of our own some fifty years ago.

A useful starting for that interpretative journey, from an interpretation of Kafka as writer that just ‘messes with your Freudian head’ to one of Kafka as someone who has profoundly important things to say to us a century later is Jacques Lacan’s Marxian re-interpretation of Freud, who (as I’ve suggested) may have been at least an indirect influence on Kafka.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult to understand – indeed there are those who suggest that Lacan wrote impenetrably because he was, in the end, talking pure bollocks, whether or not in a knowingly ironic manner.

I don’t side with this argument, but I am happy to acknowledge that his primary texts are simply too hard for me and my small-size brain to handle, and I need to turn to intermediaries to get what he’s on about.

Fortunately, when there’s Slajov Zizek around to write a ‘How to Read’ book on Jacques Lacan, you’re in pretty safe hands.

So, what happens if you take a Lacanian approach to the text of The Trial, for example?

What happens is that, suddenly, the apparent irrationality of the Law starts to look like the inherent irrationality of the ‘desiring agency’ of Lacanian psychoanalysis.  That is to say, the law is all-that-is-desire, and in Lacanian terms the Marxian dialectic of structure and agency, the essential incompatibility of which creates the alienation of the individual, is collapsed into a permanence of alienation, because ‘the law’ controls both K’s desire and that which is desired.

This ties into later elaborations in Lacan, in which he expands upon the Marxist concept of surplus value to include what he terms ‘jouissance’ (or enjoyment). Similar to the notion of surplus value, Lacan holds that any social enjoyment we get through work, leisure, consumption, sex etc.  comes a at cost, and is mediated through some bureaucratic agency, and intensified through the subject’s own compulsion to enjoy. This enjoyment can never be fully realised because it is mediated through these agencies,  which ‘skim’ off ever greater surpluses, leaving only enough enjoyment to engender further (obsessive) compulsions, to further consume and enjoy.

And so it in The Trial. It’s as if the Law operates both as the site of obscene enjoyment (the magistrates’ books are full of porn, the couple have sex at the back of the examination room), and as the agency compelling K to enjoy while also forcing its prohibitions (the student working for the court carries off the washer woman whom K was trying to seduce).

The relationship between women and K, and between K and the Law, is central to the book.

The Law is a wholly unknowable entity, from which things emerge/disappear but no answers can be given.  K receives no answer from the Law as it has none to give him.

What, then, does desire (the Law?) want? It wants K to keep on desiring, which is why the Law in the book permits an unlimited postponement maintaining desire until death, and even beyond, as the shame of (unfulifilled) desire goes with K to the grave.  In short, Kafka expresses, in poetic form and fifty years ahead of his time a post-Marxist analysis of what it is to be alienated’.

(In passing, I think there’s a parallel here with Milan  Kundera’s ‘treatment’ of women in the Unbearable Lightness of Being, where  the skimming of the surplus value related to sexual enjoyment actually declines as the main protagonist Tomášstrives towards some form of revolutionary consciousness).

But this is not where it stops – if Kafka were simply a very early Freudian-Lacanian psychoanlayst, and an emergent post-Marxist, it would be impressive, and Kakfa’s work would still be captivating.   But it would hardly be something for the Left to hold on to now, as an important influence (and consoltation) for the hard times that we now face.

Kafka as post-liberal socialist

For me, the pinnacle of Kafka’s intellectual outpouring is NOT the Trial, though it may be the most perfect work in terms of how it entwines form and meaning (though I’d argue that Metamorphosis and The Castle are both up there).

For me, the pinnacle is the last (unfinished) novel, Amerika (alternative titles are available as he didn’t give it one).

Amerika is the oft overlooked third big novel, ‘the lighthearted one’ which doesn’t really fit with the other two.  What Amerika is, though, is a step forward in Kafka’s ‘postmodern’ vision, and one which takes us beyond Lacan to the harder edged, but ultimately more liberating social theory of Baudrillard (at least in his last work, The Intelligence of Evil: The Lucidity Pact).

Baudrillard is of course most famous (and mostly pilloried) for his concept of a late capitalist society which has become a totalising ‘virtual reality’ (‘The Gulf war did not take place’), a world in which consumer overload means there is no longer even any potential for the kind of ’alienation’ that the left has hitherto set out as an inevitablity of the surplus value-based system of capitalism. This is because the concept of alienation in itself proposes some form of residual reality, however unattainable, or in Marxist terms, however far from the consciousness of the proletariat..

It is possible to conceive of the Trial, and The Castle, as just such ‘realities’, from which only knowledge in death can release us (and I’m sure David Bowie had been reading Kafka rather than early Baudrillard when he penned Quicksand on Hunky Dory).

But Amerika provides the resolution to the philosophical impasse, just as The Lucidity Pact does so about a century later.

Essentially, the setting of Amerika IS a virtual reality.  It is no longer the near but never totalising (consciousness-excluding)  universes of The Trial or The Castle, where desire is unfulfilled and the end must be death and/or shame, depending on the level of guilt acceptance; instead it is a complete world,  where things seem as they are because what is written of them is based on photographic representations and travel guides  – the early 20th century equivalent of the television travel programme, in which you enjoy a virtual holiday without having to leave your armchair).

But, as with Baudrillard’s Lucidity Pact, there is a liberation even within the acknowledgment that there is no escape.

It is no coincidence that Rossmann, the central character, joins a theatre – the epitome of artificial representation – and that this seems to be the key to his ultimate happiness (albeit in an unfinished novel).

Moreover, it is no coincidence that, at the end of the novel, Rossmann chooses to take a technical position (notably returning to a childhood daydream) instead of an acting position in the theatre.  He is at once accommodating himself to the fact that the theatre is the best place for him, and taking satisfaction that he is able to see it at one (small) step’s remove.    Importantly for the process of reclaiming Kafka for the Left, it is through engagement and solidarity with his fellow workers (how different to K, who seeks to dominate) – workers who are a disparate bunch but who get on fine, despite different language backgrounds  – that Rossmann nears contentment.

The way Kafka set out this contentment brings us full circle to Kafka’s early short story Metamorphosis; the final (unfinished) passage has the train with the theatre on board moving out into the vastness of the nature of America, similar to, but on a vaster scale, than the walk in the springtime that Gregor’s family take after his death in Metamorphosis.. Here, it seems, is a poetic resolution of how to live (even in the literal sense) with the fact that all is unreal, unknowable and alienating.

Which is precisely what Baudrillard is up to in the Lucidity Pact:

At bottom…..we are faced with an alternative: either we suppose a real that is entirely permeable to history (to meaning, to the idea, to interpretation, to decision) and we ideologize or, by contrast, we suppose a real that is ultimately impenetrable and irreducible and in that case we poetize. (p. 63).

Baudrillard, then, seeks out – as an explicitly political project – an ‘otherness’ of thinking, as a means to create a strained but workable compromise-with-virtuality by which we might live.

Kafka, it seems to me, goes one stage further in his explicitly political ending to Amerika – it is is through communication and solidarity with other human beings that we actually manage to accommodate ourselves to this ‘otherness’. And here, strange though it may seem, I think both Kakfa and Baudrillard meet Jurgen Habermas and his chunky Theory of Communcative Action coming the other way.

Habermas gets there by a completely different route – rejecting from the off what he considered to be the innate conservatism of poststructuralist/modernist relativity in favour of an appeal to ‘ideal speech’ as the foundation for a new call to universal and interpersonal values.

But in the end, it seems to me, Baudrillard and Habermas are united in the view that, while the ‘soul searching’ of the past fifty years of postmodernist philosophical development may have been necessary and worthwhile, it has also been regressive in terms of commitment to action, and that it’s time to move on with a renewed commitment to a clarity of (political) communication – whether that be as a result of some filthy pact with devilish virtuality, or because  the values of the enlightenment has been rekindled.

And what, ultimately, is communication in the context of universal values?

It’s solidarity.

Ultimately, I’d argue that the only real difference between the political philosophy journeys of Baudrillard/Habermas and Kafka is that Kafka travelled the road in a few short tuberculous-ridden years in the early 20th century, and used a lot less words to get there.

And for that reason alone, Kafka is worth reclaiming by the Left for what he is – not the Czech ‘enigma’, or the troubled genius, but a genius political philosopher a hundred years ahead of his time.  As I’ve noted, there have been plenty of  attempts to claim Kafka as one of our own (Adorno, Arendt), and more recently Michael Lowy has sought to identify Kafka’s ‘libertarian socialist’  leanings.

Sinead Kennedy also had a pretty good stab at it, analysing from ‘the hard left’ how Kafka was given a pretty rough ride by Stalin and his not-very-good-at-philosophy-or-art mates, but how he makes a lot of sense to the Left.

I contend that Kafka makes more than a lot of sense.

I contend that he should be regarded as a leading intellectual light of the Left, a key weapon in the intellectual armoury of the Left as it seeks to combat the thirty-year philosophical hegemony of the New Right, and in its wake, the rise of a  nastier ‘post-liberalism’ swiftly shedding any remaining enlightenment principle, which in turn, at least in central Europe, is already giving way to something even darker.

 

Categories: Book Reviews, Socialism

On Habermas, Islamism and the great Left divide (part 1 of 2)

March 4, 2013 14 comments

The Secular Respectable Left

‘Why on earth do some left-wingers side with Islamists, when Islamists are so evil?’ is an on-going question-cum-accusation, levelled at people like Nick Cohen at people like…….well, people like me.

Thus Nick Cohen in the Spectator, suggests the way the ‘classic’ British left side with the Islamist establishment means they are simply racists:

Other speakers [at the launch of the Centre for Secular Space] were from Southall Black Sisters, Bengali secular campaigns against Tower Hamlets’ Islamist establishment and Iranian resistance groups – classic left wing figures, in other words. Yet they are ignored or in the case of Sahgal fired for speaking out.

All emphasized how many in the British state and British left were racists hiding behind liberal masks. On the left, the racism came in the constant postponement of campaigns to improve women’s lives whether they are immigrants or in the poor world. Their suffering must always be subordinated to the struggle against ‘American imperialism’. This would be bad enough if we did not see from the far Left way into the liberal mainstream supposed progressives allying with clerical reactionaries and clerical fascists. They ignore the victims of theocracy and accept their oppression.

Similarly, Carl Packman at Left Foot Forward, blames the far-left for mix of political immaturity and ‘paternalism':

And here is where the far-left and the British and American establishment can find harmony. While the latter needs the Muslim far-right in Saudi Arabia for cash, they keep quiet about human rights abuses. For the far-left the comradeship is just as dubious, if not slightly more immature.

Recently I was at the launch of a new book by Trotskyist writer and blogger Richard Seymour, who told a packed audience in Kings Cross that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left……..

If this isn’t paternalist (Muslim beliefs, whatever they are, are only temporary, easily overturned), I don’t know what is.

In the end, goes the core argument of the Cohen/Packman/Harry’s Place nexus, the far left/lefties/liberals [1] are the real right-wingers here, and they either need to change their ways or shut up, while the Secular Responsible Left (my coinage, get used to it) get on with the real job in hand of promoting human rights.

For myself, I think this analysis is at least as ‘immature’ as the politics it professes to critique. The suggestion that someone like Richard Seymour (he being a useful cipher for the broad doctrine of the leftist groupings around the SWP/Stop the War), is some kind of closet racist/paternalist, and that he’s “in harmony” with the British and American establishment, is frankly just silly [2]. Such an analysis fundamentally confuses agency with structure, and in the absence of any coherent analysis of why some on the far left/liberal left do seem to get aligned with reactionary Islam, the Secular Responsible Left falls back on the idea that, ultimately, they’re all just bad, wrong people.

In this two part article, I argue that such an approach is not simply politically immature in terms of its failure to distinguish structure from agency. I argue that is also deeply unhelpful as a political strategy for anyone really, really interested in a progressive socialism inclusive of human rights guarantees and the emancipation of the oppressed (and there can be no progressive socialism without that). In the end, accusations levelled at Seymour by Packman look and feel like sectarian squabbling getting in the away of constructive organisation, largely because that is what they are: ‘my integrity is bigger than yours’ political willy-waving fests may fill small halls of the like-minded, but they are not going to change the lives of marginalised women anytime soon.

Indeed the Secular Respectable Left is, I will argue (following John Gray p.125-6), more reactionary, more unhelpful to the cause of emancipation that they profess to espouse than are the far/liberal/mainstream left at whom they throw this same accusation.

Habermas and value pluralism

So what is a more ‘mature’ analysis of how some on the Left come, apparently, to side with the anti-human rights baddies against the goodies?

A good place to start is with the work Jurgen Habermas, who has devoted a large part of his career, from the early 1990s onwards, to resolving the tension that lies at the heart of the current debate: how do modern constitutional democracies best promote respect both for individual human rights and for the rights of groups of people to live by different cultural values (what has been termed the “struggle for recognition“), when such cultural values sometimes are so opposed to a liberal conception of human rights (and vice versa)? It is a resolution to this dilemma – itself a result of the multi-ethnic world that has developed through the 20th century – which forms Habermas’ whole ‘constitutional patriotism’ project, seeking to replace the comfortable majoritarian certainties of ethno-nationalist value consensus (comfortable for those who are included) with a newer commitment to a political culture which accommodates (and in time are, through discourse, adaptable to) different cultures and their value sets [3].

In Remarks on Legitimation through Human Rights (ch, 5 in Postnational Constellations: Political Essays) Habermas gets to the core:

The human rights discourse that has been argued on normative terms is plagued by the fundamental doubt about whether the form of legitimation that has arisen in the West can also hold up as plausible within the framework of other cultures. The most radical critics are Western intellectuals themselves. They maintain that the universal validity claimed for human rights merely hides a perfidious claim to power on the part of the West.

This is no accident. To gain some distance from one’s traditions and limited perspectives in one of the advantages of occidental rationalism. The European history of the interpretation of human rights is the history of such a decentring of out way of viewing things. So-called equal rights may have only been gradually extended to oppressed, marginalized, and excluded groups. Only after tough political struggles have workers, women, Jews, Romanies, gays and political refugees been recognized as “human beings” with a claim to fully equal treatment. The important thing now is that the individual advances in emancipation reveal in hindsight the ideological function that human rights had also fulfilled up to that time. That is, the egalitarian claim to universal validity and inclusion had also served to mask the de facto unequal treatment of those who were silently excluded. This observation has aroused the suspicion that human rights might be reducible to this ideological unction. Have they not always served to shield a false universality – an imaginary humanity, behind which an imperialist West could conceal its own way and interests (p.119-120).

It is this disjuncture between the rhetoric of universality and the practice of exclusion as the key means to establish and expand empire which is so meticulously detailed in Domenico Losurdo’s recent Liberalism: A Counter-History. And it is Habermas’ understanding of this ‘dialectic between subjugation and emancipation’ which provides for his key insight; this is to pick out both the negative and positive features of “occidental rationalism”: a tendency to ascribe any form of enduring inequality and exploitation to imperialism, which can hinder empirical analysis, balanced by a genuine openness other value sets.

The less respectable Left’s (Althusserian) engagement with value pluralism

This is precisely the situation in which some on the British left do now find themselves.

On the one hand, because the left positions itself primarily in opposition to the logic of imperialism (rooted, as Losurdo has set out so clearly, in the exclusionary tendencies of liberalism), it tends to see all events through this lens. Thus, as I set out in my recent anti-war left essay, the empirical evidence that some Western military intervention is not in fact motivated by a rapacious need for natural resources is discounted in favour of a narrative of post-colonial imperialism. In this narrative, the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ takes strong hold, and the tendency is simply to take the side of any group which also sets itself in opposition to the forces of Western imperialism [4]

On the other hand, there is the ‘positive’ dynamic, reflecting the other side of the coin of Habermas’ insight. This is that left-wing intellectuals of the Richard Seymour type appear to be genuinely motivated by their (Marxist) occidental rationalism to recognise that there are other ways of looking at rights than through the prism of liberalism.

In this reading, what the Secular Respectable Left see as a betrayal of liberal values and human rights can be seen simply as an acknowledgment by some on the left that there are other worldviews, which do not depend on the primacy of the individual, which are potentially as valid.

Take, for example two interpretations of this Harry’s Place article. ‘Lucy Lips’ attacks those she descibes the far left “anti-racists” (her inverted commas) for working with the East London Mosque, who in turn have hosted “Islamist preacher” Khaild Al-Fikri. As evidence, of the far left’s wrongness in its engagement, she quotes Al-Fikri from a previous conference:

Don’t be misleaded [sic] and misguided with those kaffir people who says it is freedom and you are a free man. They are kuffar. And when they say, and poison your mind with the word freedom, they mean there is no God. “Do whatever you want.” Because they are kuffar. … You need to protect your deen [religion] and iman [faith] because there are many things which will affect you, will come against you. Somebody will say to you “democracy, socialism, freedom”………And again for my sisters. Don’t be misguided. Don’t be misleaded [sic] by the kaffir theories and attitudes. You are very free when you are home with your husband and your kids. … Don’t say “I am a free woman, I want to run house, I want to work, I want to get money”. No! This is the duty of your husband.

Now, to my eyes, and to the eyes of most people reading this piece, this is pretty unpleasant reactionary stuff, at least at first reading. But stand back for a minute, strip away the insulting ‘kuffar’ term, and what you’re left with is little more than an expression of what Habermas has suggested: that the concept of ‘freedom’ is some kind of trap; that it is a Western invention aimed at diverting people from the true path of the divine; that Muslims should retain their own core ethical standards, even if they have to defend them against corrupt Western ones. Certainly, it’s arguable that the guidance on the role of women expressed here is, as Saeeda Shah has noted, an expression, of Islamic philosophy “misappropriated by those who have traditionally occupied the spaces of religious interpretation” (p.245), but notwithstanding the question of who, within a community, gets to establish community’s values and notms (and this is something I come back to in part 2), it still possible to recognise it as a valid expression of a particular ethical standpoint. And this, remember, is from someone widely considered so “extremist” that even to meet with a group which has previously invited him to speak under their roof is an indication of betrayal of all decency.

By way of comparison, here’s self-confessed American liberal Jonathan Haidt, talking about the period spent in Orissa (albeit a period I suspect is conveniently reconstructed for his arguments) during which he realised that the concept of freedom and rights might not have singular validity:

I had read about Shewder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. I could feel beauty in a moral code that emphasizes beauty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires. I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female). but for the first time in my life, i was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy. I had a place to stand, and from the vantages point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused (p.102).

Haidt’s recognition that different societies might have equally valid moral bases for the way in which their members lives their lives (whilst also recognising that who holds power is a key determinant) is not new. Indeed, Haidt quotes anthropologist Clifford Geertz approvingly:

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against is social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us. a rather peculiar idea within the contexts of the world’s cultures (p.126, quoted at p.14 in Haidt)

The challenge that Haidt and Geertz set themselves [5], as academics raised within the Western liberal tradition, is to put aside their preconception about what is morally correct, and embrace ‘value pluralism’. And this, it seems to me, is what those on the Left now prepared to engage with radical Islam are also trying to do. True, they don’t articulate it very well, preferring to explain any such engagement as anti-imperialist agitation rather than as a recognition that different worldviews, however alien to our own, have a validity for the simple reason that people have them [6]. Perhaps I even overestimate here the intelligence of some on the far left, though perhaps such a reliance on ‘tried and tested’ anti-imperialism narrative is understandable in the context of a media (including Harry’s Place) keen to misrepresent a call for the understanding of Islamic values as direct support for extremism.

Whatever the motivations, articulated or otherwise, of those on the Left prepared to deal with value pluralism, the important point is that only those on the (far) Left are prepared to engage with probably the most serious question of our times. That question is:

How, in a world in which capitalism has become the almost universal economic modus vivendi, and liberal values have underpinned the rise of capitalism, do we now best deal with the ‘struggle for recognition’ of a very different value set, in a way which both respects value pluralism but also pay proper heed to the emancipatory ideal that lies at the heart of what it is to be left-wing (whether this be Marxist or rooted in earlier Enlightenment thinking)?

Answering that question, again with reference to Habermas, is the task of part 2 of this article (coming soon). In the meantime, it’s worth noting (h/t @sunny_hundal) that attempts to reach out across the value-divide towards some form of long-term political/constiutional settlement, are not necessarily taking place in one direction only. No doubt the Islamic Society of Denmark are getting their version of Harry’s Place-style accusations of treachery from the Unsecular Respectable Islamists, but I applaud them as I applaud the efforts of those on the Left who are seeking some way forward, even while hampered by their Althusserian (see [4]) anti-imperialist ritual.

Notes

[1] Cohen in particular seems to use these terms interchangeably.

[2] In the accusation that the far/liberal left are operating in ‘harmony’ with the Western establishment, Packman finds himself in interesting company. Here’s revolutionary Marxist Samir Amin, the consternation of Alex Callinicos of the SWP, coming out in support of French intervetion in Mali, on the basis of an interesting argument that “reactionary political Islam” is in reality a support, rather than a threat, to Western imperialism, because its presence allows the imperialist powers to maintain their control over the people of the ‘triad’ (the US, Europe and Japan) in the name of a ‘war of the civilisations’.

Telle est la raison fondamentale pour laquelle les puissances de la triade – telles qu’elles sont et demeurent – y voient un allié stratégique. Le soutien systématique apporté par ces puissances à l’Islam politique réactionnaire a été et demeure l’une des raisons majeures des « succès » qu’il a enregistrés : les Talibans d’Afghanistan, le FIS en Algérie, les « Islamistes » en Somalie et au Soudan, ceux de Turquie, d’Egypte, de Tunisie et d’ailleurs ont tous bénéficié de ce soutien à un moment décisif pour leur saisie du pouvoir local. Aucune des composantes dites modérés de l’Islam politique ne s’est jamais dissociée véritablement des auteurs d’actes terroristes de leurs composantes dites « salafistes ». Ils ont tous bénéficié et continuent à bénéficier de « l’exil » dans les pays du Golfe, lorsque nécessaire. En Libye hier, en Syrie encore aujourd’hui ils continuent à être soutenus par ces mêmes puissances de la triade. En même temps les exactions et les crimes qu’ils commettent sont parfaitement intégrés dans le discours d’accompagnement de la stratégie fondée sur leur soutien : ils permettent de donner de la crédibilité à la thèse d’une « guerre des civilisations » qui facilite le ralliement « consensuel » des peuples de la triade au projet global du capital des monopoles. Les deux discours – la démocratie et la guerre au terrorisme – se complètent mutuellement dans cette stratégie.

For myself, I don’t buy the argument that, just because one political or ideological grouping does or says something than can be argued to be favourable to the interests of another grouping, that both these groupings must therefore have a common purpose.

[3] Casting Habermas’ sophisticated argument as simply as possible, constitutional patriotism acknowledges that in modern culturally plural societies the ethno-nationalism that used to bind people to a shared identity and thereby create the conditions for the legitimacy of the democratic state. That is, the two key underpinnings of the modern state form as developed in the 18th century – a national identity allied with a republican ideal of individual citizen operating in voluntary contract with each other to abide by the laws of the state – have become less firmly connected. Habermas’ believes that the 21st century state must find a new “functional equivalent for the fusion of the nation of citizens with the ethnic nation”, and that to do this we need to create a patriotic commitment to a legal and political constitution, however abstract, while allowing diverse cultures to flourish in their own terms. I’ll come back to this in part 2. For more, see Andrea Baumeister’s essay Diversity and Unity: The Problem with ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ for an intelligent critique.

[4] It strikes me that this tendency on the part of the Left to push aside any evidence that does not fit with the narrative of resource-hungry imperialism is, ironically, a good example of Althusserian interpellation. As Althusser says:

The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on. If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’. If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.

To this set of beliefs, we might perhaps add ‘Marxism’, in which name a large number of ritual practices have also been established. I would argue that, for many Marxists, who enter into that doctrine of their own free will, the act of interpellation is a strong one, with Marx(ism) maintaining all the key features of the (capital S) Subject. I wonder, indeed, whether it is this process of interpellation, and the commitment to ritual, which lies at the heart of the troubles both the SWP and the Catholic Church now face:

Were not men made in the image of God? As all theological reflection proves, whereas He ‘could’ perfectly well have done without men, God needs them, the Subject needs the subjects, just as men need God, the subjects need the Subject. Better: God needs men, the great Subject needs subjects, even in the terrible inversion of his image in them (when the subjects wallow in debauchery, i.e. sin).

[5] It’s worth noting here that openness to value pluralism is not a particular new concept at all. An awareness of the tension between universality and pluralism can be traced back at least as far as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, as an early liberal not caught up by the imperative felt by later liberals like JS Mill to justify imperialist expansion (on which see Jennifer Pitts), was not able to resolve these tensions, but the very fact that he – two centuries before Habermas was aware of them suggests that it continues to be an area still worthy of consideration. As Samuel Fleischacker has noted, in an interesting essay which argues that modern political philosophy might benefit from Smith’s implicitly anthropological approach:

Smith is unlikely to offer us any straightforward meta-ethical reconciliation between relativism and absolutism, and his promising hints about how, in ethics proper, to bring together pluralism and universalism, are undermined, to some degree, by his meta-ethical dilemma. But the problems he faces in these regards are our problems too, and thinking with Smith may help nudge us toward a solution to them, even if that solution is not explicitly to be found in Smith’s own work.

[6] Again, this is an ‘anthropological’ formulation, of the type which informs Adam Smith’s work

Tom Harris and the Burkean conception of representation

February 13, 2013 8 comments

Labour MP Tom Harris has written at Huffington Post to tell us what democracy is all about, taking the million-strong 2003 anti-war march (and an article from a Sam Parker* complaining that MPs didn’t do as the million asked) as his starting point:

In recent weeks, I have been contacted by constituents who have asked me to represent their anti-equal marriage views in parliament. I have had to remind them that I am a representative, not a delegate; democracy is as much about being accountable to the electorate for decisions already made as it is about sticking a finger in the air to decide which way the wind is blowing and then to vote accordingly. Had everyone who feels strongly against same sex marriage taken to the streets of the capital last weekend, it’s quite possible they could have numbered more than a million. But supporting the Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill would still have been the right thing to do…….

Is not getting your own way really reason enough to disillusion anyone about democracy? For my generation, defeat on issues about which we felt strongly was painful, but we never assumed we had some God-given right to get our own way just because we really, really cared.

Let’s set aside the merits or otherwise of invading Iraq.  For me, like Chris, this is an accounting issue on which I don’t have authoritative data (though my rather less concise rendition of this essentially Benthamesque position runs to around 10,000 words).

Instead, let’s focus on Tom Harris’s core assumption about what his role as MP entails.  Whether or not he knows it, it is remarkably close to the Burkean view, expressed in his reluctant speech to the electors of Bristol:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

According to the Burke-Harris conservative theory of representation, then, those who vote for MPs have no God-given right to get our own way, but MPs do have “a trust from Providence” to exercise their “mature judgment”.

Of course, MPs like Tom Harris tend to store up their special powers of judgment for the difficult decisions of state (e.g. whether to kill Iraqis), but are content to rely on the ‘common sense” judgments of the populace, or at least its media proxy, on matter such as the need to get tough on the (erm, non-existent) “second or third generations of families relying on benefits”.  This systemic hypocrisy aside, though, Tom’s faith in his own superior faculties is a good reflection of the paradox of modern parliamentary government: that what by objective standards is actually quite a straightforward job, requiring little initiative, has come to be seen as one which requires huge intellect and talent, and which conservatives therefore believe should be ever more greatly rewarded.

But while this paradoxical feature of modern parliamentary government has taken such deep root that it now largely goes unnoticed, it is worth pointing out that it might all have been quite different, at least for Labour MPs, if one event in particular in early Labour party history had turned out little differently.

I refer to the House of Lords’ Osborne judgment of 1909, which declared it unlawful trade unions to levy their members in order to the nascent Labour Party’s organisational and electioneering costs.  Writ large behind this judgment was the determination of the Lords to ensure that MPs should remain representatives in the Burkean sense, and not to become the delegates of forces beyond parliament.  Indeed, as the Labour scholar Henry Pelling tells us:

Lord Justice Farwell, in another concurring judgment, quoted Burke to the effect that ‘Parliament is not a congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests….. but a deliberate Assembly of one nation’ (p.893**).

This, while Pelling (writing in 1982) contends that in the long-run the judgment actually enhanced the position of the Labour party (notably through the introduction of MP salaries as a compensatory measure), it might be argued with the benefit of 30 years more hindsight, that the consequences for Labour,  as a party then developing a distinction in its conception of what an MP is in parliament for, were more negative.   The proof of this, it might also be argued, is that an ex-SDP MP like Tom can flaunt his quasi-Burkean elitism without even being aware (or being made aware) that there are contesting theories of representation.

Tom is not entirely wrong about Sam Parker.  It is wrong to assume that, just because you’re against war, everyone is, and that democracy has been betrayed if you don’t get your way.  But the real point here is not that Sam was wrong to protest, it’s that he – and the other million or so – were completely ineffective (as ‘Flying Rodent’ points out very funnily).

And in the end the reason they were (and will continue to be) ineffective is that faced by public pressure, MPs can always now rely on the Burkean defence.   As I set out both here and in my (pretty well unread) 10,000 worder on how to be good at being anti-war, the only real way to change that situation is through the labour movement: to challenge what MPs now consider are their inalienable rights to decide for themselves (which almost always leads to them deciding they want what their parliamentary bosses want), and to help them remember that another type of democratic representation, in which they are the delegate of the party, can and will exist.

If it was good enough for the PLP of 1909, it ‘s sure as hell good enough for Tom Harris and his ilk.

* [Update: For Sam Parker, you might as well read Laurie Penny  as their take is pretty well the same.]

** I do wonder if this is the first reference to ‘one nation’ politics.

Cameron opens the way for a triple Labour victory

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Update 3.30pm 23/01/2013: Miliband’s seemingly  statement that he doesn’t want an in/out referendum, this lunchtime at PMQs, merely highlights the need for the tactic advocated here: that whether Labour want it or not, Cameron’s earlier spineless legislation (European Union Act 2011) means that, if any progress is made to develop European treaties as set out below,  a referendum is a legal requirement.

So Cameron has promised a in/out referendum on membership of the European Union sometime in 2017.   Far from being “a pretty effective trap for Labour” (@philipoltermann), this should open the door for Labour both to confirm victory in the 2014 European elections, the 2015 general election, and then help change the European Union for the better via the in/out referendum.  A Labour triple whammy, courtesy of Cameron.  Sounds great?  Read on……

Let us assume, for a start, that Cameron follows through on the promise to draft referendum legislation before 2015, with a view to its enactment after the general election.  This, some pundits will say, is the main trap, because the Tories will be able to challenge Labour to a manifesto commitment on its enactment, claiming victory if it commits, claiming Labour is denying the people a voice if it doesn’t.

This, though, ignores the European Union Act 2011, enacted by Cameron as a panic measure to deflect from his early “cast-iron” commitment to referendum.  While the press have made the Act out to be a safeguard against powers being handed over to Europe without a referendum, section 4 of the Act covers a wide range of European treaty changes which, if agreed at intergovernmental level, will, by law, have to be presented to the British people in a referendum.  some of the changes requiring referendum have nothing to do with transfer of powers  Yet Cameron has today told us that he supports treaty change before an in/out referendum, in the context of his argument that such an in/out referendum needs to be delayed until the EU has got its house in order:

I agree too with what President Barroso and others have said. At some stage in the next few years the EU will need to agree on Treaty change to make the changes needed for the long term future of the Euro and to entrench the diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe that we seek. I believe the best way to do this will be in a new Treaty so I add my voice to those who are already calling for this.

Remarkably then, Cameron may find himself either having to use his veto on what he may consider to be good treaty changes, or being required, through a law made of his own spinelessness, calling a treaty-change referendum before an in/out referendum.

So far, so good.  Labour can simply argue that it is compelled by Cameron’s weakness on Europe to enact the draft legislation so as the avoid a farcical situation whereby a treaty-change referendum required under law becomes an in/out referendum by proxy, with a no vote on treaty change meaning a further vote becomes inevitable.

As I’ve set out earlier, a referendum on membership is, in any event, not a bad thing for Labour (on this I agree with Will Straw from IPPR).  The tactical battle won via Cameron’s own incompetence, Labour becomes free to engage with European partners post-2015 on the development of a social democratic alternative/revision to the Lisbon Treaty, and to flag up this pre-general election, and pre-2014 Euro elections, in a way which more clearly distinguishes it from the Tories on Europe than it has managed to date.  Francois Hollande will still be in office in 2015/6, Merkel may be in a weaker position to negotiate, and Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and others have a more than 50% chance, I’d say, of having governments with whom Labour can do business on the development of a centre-left treaty to replace/modify Lisbon.  It is on the basis of a clearly better-for-the-people Treaty that Labour would then call the in/out referendum.

What would a revised, social democratic Lisbon Treaty look like?  Space/time does not permit a full exposition here, but I think six things should be top of the list, reflecting how different a social democratic Europe post-2019 (ie. after the 2019 Euro elections and a leftist majority might look):

1) The treaty should establish the primacy of the European Parliament as decision-making agenda-setting body, with the European Commission removed from its role as one of the three key bodies involved in the current co-decision making process, and developed into a ‘neutral’ civil service operating under democratic command.

This will set Labour and its fellow European parties aside from the Tories, who under Cameron have stated clearly (see PMQs in early January, and repeated again today) that the sole legitimate democratic voice in Europe is the intergovernmental European Council of heads of state, currently presided over by van Rompuy.  Labour should argue that the Parliament, as long as it reforms its election system away from the current regional list system towards one where each MEP represents  distinct constituency, is now the body with the expertise (and Commission support) and legitimacy that is needed to govern the European Union, albeit with due reference to intergovernmental institutions (not just the European Council but also the strangely similarly named Council of the European Union).

This is not just the right thing to do, as it brings into play the importance of parties working across Europe to establish a majority and then coherent policy within the Parliament; it is also tactically useful, because it allows Labour to go into the 2014 European elections on the basis that the Tories and UKIP are actually just putting up ‘gravy-train’ candidates to be members of an institution they don’t even believe in, while Labour candidates actually want to get some work done.

2) The new treaty should create the legal conditions in which the frankly absurd Stability and Growth Pact and the accompanying ‘six-pack’ directive, are subsequently abolished.  These directives are the ones which effectively outlaw Keynesianism by imposing ludicrous constraints on surplus/deficit spending.   The treaty should then set out an alternative framework under which member states are required to use their spending power to maintain and enhance levels of social security, employment and income equality.  Whether this should include numerical targets and some form of sanction for non-compliance, mirroring the surplus/deficit targets/sanctions set out under a neoliberal EU, is open to debate (currently I would favour such).

3) In keeping with this significant change in emphasis to the EU’s role and the legitimacy of the European Parliament, the new treaty should reverse the decision under Lisbon to remove democratic control of the European Central Bank from the Parliament.

4) The treaty should enhance the existing, but ignored provision in Lisbon, to vary single market conditions on a temporary basis so as to allow for a form of artificial devaluation in countries running behind the EU’s economic leaders in terms of citizen incomes in a way which promotes convergence without the self-defeating austerity measures currently being used for that task.  EU structural funds should be used to make this happen.

5) Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in a way which a) gears subsidy to low wealth producers rather than to richer landowners who are able to use the income-based mechanism to rake in the cash; b) creates both long-term sustainability/reliability of supply, in a time of adverse climate change, and affordability i.e. the CAP should effectively become part of universal welfare provision around decent food.

6)  The restatement of the principle of free movement of labour, but with protection  from exploitation enhanced by the enactment of something similar to the UK’s Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, but broadened to encompass existing EU procurement law and to cover multi-nationals.

If the Labour leadership gets its collective head round both the short-term tactics of using Cameron’s own reckless 2011 legislation against him, and then starts setting out its distinctive view of a new social democratic EU shaped by it and its fellow leftist parties, it stands to win the 2014 euros, then the general election against Cameron and then (best of all) a referendum Yes against a Tory party led in 2015 by Gove, or a Gove acolyte, which is campaigning for No vote.

Of course, if Labour doesn’t do that, I guess Philip Oltermann may be right…..

The SWP meltdown, institutional legitimacy and the broader lesson for the left

January 14, 2013 6 comments

Laurie Penny thinks the SWP’s handling of rape allegations reflects badly on all of us, and that the SWP are only different because they are more open about their misogynist structures:

Other groups are not so brazen as to say that their moral struggles are simply more important than piffling issues of feminism, even if that’s what they really mean, nor to claim that as right-thinking people they and their leaders are above the law. The SWP’s leadership seem to have written it into their rules.

Actually, there’s no “seem” about it.  The leadership being above the law is written into the rules of the SWP.  That’s what makes it a self-declared Leninist revolutionary socialist party.  As SWP head boy Charlie Kimber makes clear in his comments at Harry’s place:

We live in what remains a profoundly sexist society, as is shown by the sex abuse scandals and cover-ups in mainstream institutions such as the BBC and the police. However, the SWP is not an institution of capitalist society but fights for the overthrow of the system. Our party has a proud tradition of fighting for women’s liberation, as is shown, for example, by our consistent campaigning over the decades to defend abortion, and by our criticism of George Galloway for his remarks about the Julian Assange rape accusations. Reflecting this tradition, our internal structures seek to promote women to leading roles and deal rigorously with any action by any member that is harmful or disrespectful of women (my emphasis).

That is to say, the SWP is committed, as a point of founding principle, to not engaging with the criminal justice system, but to handling “harmful or disrespectful” actions through its “internal structures”, which it regards as inherently superior to the legal institutions of the capitalist state.   Phil at AVPS makes the point very well:

[T]his crisis was precipitated entirely by the SWP’s own actions, but from the off they were caught in a bind  provided by their own revolutionary conceit.  If you’re in the business of  prosecuting class struggle to the point of the overthrow of capital, and you believe it is your party’s destiny to lead the working class in revolt, as far  as behaviour, misconduct and crimes committed by party members are concerned the  party is the sovereign body for pronouncing on questions of truth and guilt, of  sanction and punishment. Within the terms of party morality and the closed-loop  universe of the SWP’s particular form of revolutionary identity politics, they did the right thing investigating the allegations.

To be honest, I’ve never quite got how this works in practice, as there seem to be an awful lot of capitalist institutions that the SWP membership does engage with.  Rumour has it that it’s got a large property portfolio, and I’m pretty sure SWP members get around on Virgin Trains and the like.  Which institution it’s legitimate to engage with while organising for its downfall does seem a bit selective.

The key point, though, is that the SWP is not falling apart now because it didn’t call in the police; it’s falling apart because the justice system it used instead of the capitalist one apparently proved to be completely useless, in both senses of the term.  That is, it apparently wasn’t very well run (I won’t repeat the contended details here) but, even if it had been, the problem would still have remained that, in the event of a guilty verdict, there’d have been no way to mete out appropriate justice; the usual sentence for one of rape is one of imprisonment, but as far as I know the SWP don’t have any prisons.

In other words, the SWP has set out its stall as being a kind of state, operating within and against the capitalist state, but lacks most of the things that go to make up a state.

Now you can argue (as Laurie Penny might if she understood a bit more what does make the SWP different from other groups), that it is the very selectivity about what bits of the capitalist state to opt out of which betrays its misogynist heart – and I do wonder whether the party would have the same courage of its own institutions if the accusation had been, say, child abuse rather than rape.  That’s fair enough.

But I also wonder if there’s a wider learning point for the radical left in its anti-capitalist struggle, whether it be via “revolutionary” or “evolutionary” means.

What this sad episode, and the likely fall out shows us clearly enough is that, unless credible institutions which command widespread respect and are therefore seen as legitimate are in place before the borgeous institutions are torn down (or bypassed), then those same bourgeois institutions are likely to return in strengthened form, and with increased popular support.  There’s a glimpse of that in Laurie Penny’s own appeal to the sanctity of the law – not something you’d normally associate with her radical leanings – when it’s juxtaposed to the SWP’s own tawdry process.

This is not, of course, a novel insight.  We see fine solidaristic principle, followed by failure of legitimacy, and then mutual recrimination and lessened solidarity, everywhere we look.  The power of financial capitalism has been strengthened-by-scapegoat since the crisis, because there was no alternative system ready to replace it.  The anti-cuts campaigns have failed to date because there is not sufficient legitimacy in an alternative decision-making process to ensure that both elected representatives and officials have both the duty and the backing to deliver an alternative that sticks.  People going to job centres are treated poorly because unions have not yet been able to make their calls for solidarity with the workless more legitimate than the managerial directives imposed on staff.

All of which leads me to conclude that, ultimately, the left will only be any use at the grand scale if it gets over the self-imposed distinction (and accompanying hatreds) between revolution and evolution, and accepts that the quiet building of legitimate socialist institutions* in parallel with capitalist institutions, ready to replace them when the time comes, as just as much part of the struggle, and that the devotees of GDH Cole and RH Tawney are just as revolutionary, in their way, as those of Trotsky and Lenin.

*As a quick personal note: I was a member of the SWP briefly in the mid-1980s, taken in by the convincing rhetoric and (to me) new analysis of some very eloquent speakers and writers. I left when I was told that I needed to move my trade union stewardship focus away from the nitty-gritty of supporting workers in their workplace to defend their terms and conditions, defend them at disciplinaries etc.., in favour of more “revolutionary” activity.  When the time came to strike, the hospital I worked and organized at had a much bigger turnout than other places supposedly more under SWP inflluence.

The under-investment challenge for One Nation Labour

December 3, 2012 8 comments

Larry Elliot is very good in the Guardian today, as he uses the hook of the supposed increasing employment/flat-lining national output conundrum to set out the real problem:

What appears to have happened is that the rising profit share went to the financial sector and has been used to boost City pay and bonuses rather than used for new investment. In the bracing climate, few groups of workers are able to garner the full fruits of their labour: Premier League footballers are one, investment bankers another.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from this analysis. The first is that the task of rebalancing the economy may be even more daunting than first thought. If the financial sector is responsible for the entire increase in the profit share over the past three decades, that shows how dependent the economy has become on the City as a source of growth.

Go read it, and the forthcoming paper at Touchstone on which Larry bases his article.

The only problem with Larry’s article is the suggestion that this is groundbreaking analysis.  It’s not.  Sensible economists have known for about 40 years that under-investment is at the heart of Britain’s economic decline, and that at the heart of this under-investment lies the political hegemony of the City.  Here’s David Coates in 1986, talking about Britain’s post-colonial decline:

[O]nce British domination of word trade and industrial production  had gone, the interests of the two sections of British capital proved increasingly incompatible, and nationally-based industrialists found themselves locked into increasingly outmoded industries and production methods, whilst at the same time being disadvantaged in their access to long-term credit relative to their competitors, and subject to a political class in which financial interest had a disproportionately strong voice… They found it difficult to persuade bankers to make long-term loans to industry on any scale, or to put up risk capital in sufficient quantities, and hence were driven back into a disproprotionately heavy reliance on their own by now inadequate resources of internal funds to fuel the investment process

Financiers for their part, because of their worldwide interests, lacked any great concern with the successful expansion of the domestic productive base, and instead used their considerable political leverage…to hold successive British governments to policies that were vital to London’s role as an international money market but detrimental to any restructuring of British manufacturing industry (p 207-271).

Larry is absolutely right to say that “the task of rebalancing the economy may be even more daunting than first thought.”  At the heart of Labour’s One Nation project should be a courageous re-investment plan, based on a virtuous wage and demand growth circle.

This in turn demands three things: a) deficit spending on infrastructure and renwed public services; b) re-introduction of Trade Unions to the British economy; c) some form of pseudo-corporatist (possibly temporary) non-investment tax, where it costs corporations and banks more to hold surpluses over a certain percentage limit than it does to invest them productively.

I’m not sure Labour’s One Nation thinkers have fully grasped that yet. Unfortunately, there are unpleasant people starting to wait in the wings who do understand how national economies can be kick-started, but who will be keen to make that happen in ways decidedly inimical to the basic tenets of freedom and equality.  As Phil at AVPS has rightly noted:

There is probably a populist political space in British politics for a Pim Fortuyn-style formation. A right-wing Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment cloaked in a liberal garb, a dashing of authoritarianism, and Keynesian economics could have wide appeal.

For Pym Fortun, read Michael Gove.

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