Tag Archives: Labour

Corbyn and the crowd

In “Crowds and Party” Jodi Dean unpicks the nature of individualism and the impact of crowds in modern ‘communicative’ capitalism. I’ve written briefly about individualism in an earlier post and here I want to make a brief additional note about what Dean writes about crowds, and in particular draw a link from that to the recent British general election campaign.

Dean takes a psychoanalytical approach to understanding crowds using the work of Freud and Lacan among others. The key point here is that a crowd can create a rupture in the status quo. A point through which it is possible to see that things might be different than how they are now. Crowds are able to force a gap which can be held open and form a focus for politics – and a radical party of the left can keep that gap open and use the energy of the crowd to drive for systemic change.

The Labour Party campaign during the recent general election was certainly based on large rallies which brought together crowds of supporters. This was in marked contrast to Conservative Party events held in anonymous hangars to prevent anyone not invited from gaining access. These Labour events were visibly full of energy and passion. Corbyn is a strong speaker to a crowd, and the result was a sense of momentum and enthusiasm not seen in British politics for a while.

Add to this the decline in the influence of the traditional print and television media dependent on the party press office machinery, and the increasing influence of social media and the ‘peer to peer’ spread of news, and the ‘crowd’ seems to have had a profound effect. It created an opening for the prevailing view on the necessity of ‘austerity’ to be challenged. Unforeseen by most media commentators, the Labour Party was able to use this moment to secure a better election result than expected. More importantly they have changed the terms of debate. The Conservatives may have won formally, but they are now having to bend their government to the issues mobilised during the campaign.

In other words, what we are seeing now with Jeremy Corbyn is something which might be thought of as approaching an Event in the sense used by Alain Badiou – a concept also touched on by Dean briefly. The question now would seem to be whether beyond the confines of the election campaign Corbyn and Labour can keep the gap opened by the intrusion of the crowd open in the way described by Dean, and drive home the progressive shift it has started.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London, 2016)

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A short “future left” reading list

After a recent conversation with my dad, I decided to capture in one short post a reading list for anyone interested in future strategies for the modern left.

First for the long view analysis of where we are and how we got here, start with Robert Brenner’s “The Economics of Global Turbulence” (which I wrote a post about a short while ago) and a superb article by Wolfgang Streeck in New Left Review.

For some philosophical underpinning this article by Slavoj Zizek from 2000 with it’s critique of the “third way” and foreseeing it’s failure and the subsequent delivery of the working class to the far right. Also his “Living in the End Times“.

For the impact of this on practical politics and how the changes in the economy have changed politics on the left Owen Jones’ “Chavs” and Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics”.

And for what a programme for the modern left might look like, how it might be built, and what theory and technology need to underpin it Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism” and Srnicek and Williams “Inventing the Future”. For a slightly more philosophical approach to the need for a modern left see “Crowds and Party” by Jodi Dean.

And if you only read one book from the list, make it “Inventing the Future”, which is a truly superb analysis of where the left is and what it might do next.

It is worth pointing out that I don’t at present feel that Corbyn and those currently in charge of the Labour party are in tune with the thinking in these books at all. In fact they seem keener on re-fighting the battles of past years, a strategy surely bound to fail.

Brief Note on Identity Politics

There’s been something of a theme running through my reading recently around identity politics, particular after Hillary Clinton’s failure to defeat Donald Trump. Promoted by the modern left – particularly the neo-liberal leaning left in place of policies of radical economic change it has led the left into a dead end. The pursuit of neo-liberal economics have driven inequality to the point where those at the bottom of the heap are deserting the traditional left in droves in pursuit of someone with a stated opposition to the economic status quo. In other words, the left’s acceptance of neo-liberal economics and the replacement of economic struggle with an agenda based on political rights for minority groups has been a strategic failure.

This long quote from Owen Jones’ “Chavs” captures the point nicely. And “angry new right wing populism” seems like a reasonable description of Donald Trump.

“The demonization of the working class has also had a real role to play in the BNP’s success story. Although ruling elites have made it clear that there is nothing of worth in working-class culture, we have been (rightly) urged to celebrate the identities of minority groups. What’s more, liberal multiculturalism has understood inequality purely through the prism of race, disregarding that of class. Taken together, this has encouraged white working-class people to develop similar notions of ethnic pride, and to build an identity based on race so as to gain acceptance in multicultural society. The BNP has made the most of this disastrous redefinition of white working-class people as, effectively, another marginalized ethnic minority. ‘Treating the white working class as a new ethnic group only does the BNP a massive favour,’ says anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, ‘and so does not talking about a multiracial working class.’ It is unlikely that the BNP will ever win significant power, not least because of chronic incompetence and infighting, of the kind that crippled the party after the 2010 general election. But its rise is like a warning shot. Unless working-class people are properly represented once again and their concerns taken seriously, Britain faces the prospect of an angry new right-wing populism.”

Brexit and the Failure of the Third Way

I recently picked up a handful of second hand New Left Review journals in a local bookshop, varying in date from 1977 to 2000. They include a number of interesting articles, but following the referendum campaign in the UK and the impact of the populist right “Brexit” campaigners I found this short piece by Slavoj Zizek from 2000 on Jorg Haider especially relevant.

Jorg Haider was an Austrian politician who died in a car accident in 2008 – eight years after Zizek’s article – having lead the far right Freedom Party to significant success in Austrian elections, reaching 27% of the vote and joining the governing coalition in 1999.

Zizek uses Haider as a starting point to critique “third way” politics prevalent in 2000 and exemplified by Jeffrey Isaac in another article in the same edition of New Left Review where he argues that it is no longer possible to reject capitalism. The best that can be hoped for is an accommodation. That “coming to terms with capitalism” is both inevitable and desirable, and that left politics should focus on pragmatic problem solving.

Zizek argues forcefully that this approach in fact represents:

“social democracy purged of its minimal subversive sting, extinguishing even the faintest memory of anti-capitalism and class struggle”.

Zizek theorises that politicians of the centre need a radical right in opposition – something to build a coalition of democratic forces against, something to unite the rest of politics against. It is this that allows them to monopolise government. A strategy that is specifically designed to neuter the radical left, to prevent any attempt to challenge the system in the interests of the masses.

“The result is what one would expect. The populist Right moves to occupy the terrain evacuated by the Left, as the only ‘serious’ political force that still employs an anti-capitalist rhetoric”

Sixteen years after Zizek wrote this article, the Labour vote in Scotland collapsed, the Brexit campaign succeeded in attracting disaffected working class voters across wide swathes of traditionally Labour voting areas, and the Labour Party itself is on the verge of falling apart. All the while with a growing right wing insurgency, culminating in the openly racist referendum campaign.

As Zizek predicted then, the third way has turned out to be a dead end for left wing politics. It has developed a political class which has more in common with each other than with many of the people they are supposed to represent. As Rafael Behr points out in his dissection of the failure of the Remain campaign, Labour and Conservatives worked together in the push to stay in the European Union and felt far more in common with each other than might be expected of those supposedly on opposite sides of a class struggle:

“over the course of the campaign, the most senior remainers found collegiate sympathy in a shared world view. As one put it: “We were the pluralist, liberal, centrist force in British politics.” Pro-Europeanism became a proxy for the fusion of economic and social liberalism that had been a dominant philosophy of the political mainstream for a generation, although its proponents were scattered across partisan boundaries.”

But this world view simply is not shared by a large portion of the electorate that have seen their standards of living held static or decline in the name of maintaining global capitalism. Worse, this political class has driven a narrowing of the “Overton Window” of political discourse which has essentially made only one choice available, no matter who you vote for. As Zizek points out in his article:

“The consensual form of politics in our time is a bi-polar system that offers the appearance of a choice where essentially there is none, since today poles converge on a single economic stance”

It seems clear that the vote for Brexit is a revolt against this political class and the consensus form of politics that has been created. It is a revolt however that raises questions about how it can be expressed when the parties on the left have abandoned the field. The victory of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump suggest that the radical right are successfully exploiting this discontent.

The shift to the right will only be addressed when the modern left finds a way to express this discontent, providing a real alternative to the single economic vision offered by the mainstream political parties. Until then government remains in the grip of an increasingly discredited centre which both pushes dissent to the right and uses it to create the illusion that “there is no alternative“.

This edition of New Left Review is number 2 of the second series from January-March 2000 and was therefore written at the height of the ‘Third Way‘ debate.

A short note on Jeremy Corbyn

I feel compelled to add a very short note on Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge for the Labour leadership following the resignation of Ed Miliband. This is mostly driven by some of the political commentators I follow on Twitter (and my failure to successfully summarise my thoughts in 140 characters).

What has annoyed me is the wave of commentators arguing that he shouldn’t stand, that the fact that he is on the ballot paper at all simply demonstrates how unelectable the Labour Party has become. This prompts a couple of thoughts.

First, they may not be a majority but there are definitely people out there who agree with Jeremy Corbyn on at least some things, and aren’t in love with the current narrow consensus around which Labour and Conservative parties orbit. To argue that those alternative views shouldn’t even be allowed a hearing because many (or even most) others don’t agree with them strikes me as a significant denial of plural democracy. It is no wonder that voters might feel disengaged from modern British politics if the acceptable choices are so constrained. Indeed Labour’s assumption that voters broadly on the left would continue to vote for them even though the party no longer represented their beliefs is one of the significant underlying causes of their failure to perform better in the general election.

Second, I don’t buy the argument that Labour’s focus should be on whatever magic formula will make them ‘electable’. Primarily it seems what is suggested is that they work this out by concentrating on the focus group comments of a couple of hundred swing voters in key marginal constituencies. It strikes me that it is thinking like this that has got Labour into the mess it is in at the moment. Instead it should concentrate on building a movement that harnesses the support of the 76% of the population that didn’t vote for the current Conservative government, and gives them an incentive to vote Labour instead. Jeremy Corbyn may or may not be part of that movement. But pretending that he has no right to exist at all is surely unhelpful.

So I may not support Jeremy Corbyn, but political debate must be wide enough to encompass his views or our claim to be a democracy is pretty thin.