Tag Archives: Politics

Thoughts from the election morning after

The 2017 election campaign is now over, after a campaign where the approach taken by the two main parties could not have been more different. It does seem to me that the surprise loss of the Conservative majority shows that the basic alignment of British politics has shifted. Here are the points that came to mind when I began to reflect on the result afterwards.

First it suggests that the hegemony of  neoliberalism may be coming to an end. For the last forty years the economic policies of both main parties have been broadly similar. In 2017 however Labour ran with a manifesto which did not stick to the neoliberal economic script we have come to expect. Instead they promised to tax the affluent, nationalise key industries, and invest in public services even at the cost of higher borrowing. And what’s more it caught the mood of a significant number of voters whose living standards have been eroded by austerity and for whom the Conservative manifesto offered only more of the same. While there are also both ‘tactical’ and ‘process’ reasons for the result, this shouldn’t disguise the fact that the Labour manifesto was both left wing and popular. In future politics will have to accept that it is possible to be popular whilst supporting an alternative economic strategy.

Second, the style of stage managed campaigning which has dominated British politics in recent years was visibly defeated by a Labour campaign based less on repeated soundbites and more on large public rallies. There was a genuine attempt to energise voters around a positive vision of the future, rather than make a limited and technocratic retail offer. The contrast between a Conservative campaign style based on minimising exposure and Labour could not have been more clear. That’s not to suggest that the Labour campaign wasn’t stage managed, but the Lynton Crosby fear-and-soundbite campaign based on speeches in large hangars to small crowds  and minimal risk was soundly beaten. Future election campaigns will undoubtedly be very wary of being portrayed in the negative and risk averse manner of the Conservative campaign of 2017.

Third, the Labour campaign deliberately targeted young voters and appears (admittedly on currently incomplete evidence) to have succeeded in getting them to vote. The challenge for Labour now is to maintain that level of engagement when the reality is that we continue to have a Conservative government, albeit it a weakened one, and that there will not be an immediate and dramatic change. Political parties can no longer assume that elections can be won purely by tending to the needs of older voters. There is at least the possibility that this will bring some significant changes in policy.

I’m sure there are plenty of other points to be made. It was though very noticeable that the Conservatives interviewed on the weekend television politics shows were keen to load all the blame onto May and her campaign, and ignore the possible wider implications for the conventions of politics in Britain. Time will tell.

Bartleby the Scrivener

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street is a short story by Herman Melville (author of “Moby Dick”) published in 1853.shirtmockup-450x450

The story is told by a narrator who is a lawyer and employs Bartleby as a copyist. As time goes by, Bartleby begins responding to requests with the phrase “I would prefer not to”. Eventually he withdraws completely from any work, remaining a strange silent presence in the office. He seemingly survives without work or money or a home. The narrator tolerates him for a while but eventually after failing to persuade Bartleby to leave (“I would prefer not to”) moves offices to escape him – only to find later that Bartleby has died in prison after refusing to eat.

Most recently the story of Bartleby came to prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement for Bartleby’s use of passive resistance, an obvious parallel to the tactics used by the occupiers. Bartleby ‘occupies’ the narrator’s offices on Wall Street calmly but firmly refusing all requests that he work and confounding all the narrator’s requests to either work or leave. Bartleby’s actions have been seen as an exemplar for political action, challenging those in authority over him without expressing any concrete demands, seemingly exactly the pattern followed by Occupy.

Is this passive approach effective? In the story, the narrator relocates his business to escape Bartleby, and as far as we can tell continues to run a successful law practice. Bartleby’s resistance leads however to his imprisonment and eventual death. Whatever his grievance, it doesn’t seem to have been addressed. Similarly Occupy Wall Street was eventually evicted without seemingly having achieved much that’s tangible. Perhaps the moral we should be drawing here is about the limits of passive resistance. Both Bartleby and Occupy create disruption that is initially difficult for the authorities to know how to deal with. But eventually the system adapts and neutralises the threat.

I’m not convinced by this explanation however. If this is supposed to be about politics, then it is almost entirely absent from Melville’s story. Indeed the narrator passes a demonstration for the mayoral election on the street but ignores it, rushing on to his next meeting. It is difficult to believe that Bartleby is making a principled stand against, well, anything really. He simply prefers not to. His refusal is rather a failure to undertake the work required by his employer. This is however a more radical position. Bartleby is challenging the fundamental relationship of capitalist society, that of waged labour. He withdraws dramatically from the market economy – but still seemingly works on his own terms. He continues to copy, but refuses requests to take on other tasks. It is not the occupation of neutral space that is significant (as it was for Occupy) but the radical withdrawal from his employer’s authority. The lesson to be learned is a far more active and aggressive one than that of passive resistance taken by Occupy.

In other words, there really is no substitute for effective action which targets the core economic structures of society. Now that’s something for the modern left to reflect on.

Marx and Nationalism

Marx’s writings from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the time of the 1848 revolutions contain some controversial comments on nationality, and especially the Slav countries which at the time formed part of the Austro-Hungarian empire including modern Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Slovenia. A number of these articles are published in translation by Verso in the first volume of their collections of Marx’s political writings.

Lifting just a few quotes out of the articles on the “Magyar Struggle” or on ” Democratic Pan-Slavism” it is hard not to see an outrageous German chauvinism in these writings.

“The historical role of the South Slavs had thus come to an end for all time.” (Marx 2010, 218)

“Does a single one of these peoples… possess a national historical tradition…?” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… this national refuse is always the fanatical representative of the counter-revolution and remains so until it is completely exterminated or de-nationalised” (Marx 2010, 221)

“… the Austrian Germans… will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians.” (Marx 2010, 225)

“… the general war that will then break out will… annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names.” (Marx 2010, 225)

These articles are part of a series in which Marx is analysing the failures of 1848, and the forces mobilised by the Austrian and Prussian regimes to overcome the nascent revolution, and this context is significant. To put this in the context of the analysis of Marx’s mode of thinking outlined by Bertell Ollman, Marx is operating at a lower (and very particular) level of abstraction. In other words, Marx is not making a general point, but criticising the specific current conjuncture.

In fact what I think Marx is trying to do here is to criticise the shift towards pan-Slavism among the potentially revolutionary classes in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, and how this led political leaders who prioritised nationality to look to Russia for support and turn away from revolution. As the leader of the Holy Alliance Russia represented a primary threat to any hopes of revolution across Europe, a prop to the existing absolutist regimes. He is criticising nationalism as it is used to deflect from support for the revolution. As he states later on:

“Let us in any case have no illusions about this. With all pan-Slavists, nationality, ie. imaginary, general Slav nationality, comes before the revolution [Marx’s italics].” (Marx 2010, 244)

In other words this is Marx tackling one of the pitfalls facing the modern left. In the UK the UK Independence Party, in the US Donald Trump, and in France Marine Le Pen have all used appeals to nationalism with some success to pursue the support of the working class. In these articles Marx doesn’t find a strategy to tackle this beyond shrill denunciation. The modern left is similarly struggling to find an answer to the modern version of the same problem.

The articles in question are included in The Revolutions of 1848, Karl Marx, Verso London 2010.

The End of Liberalism

Slavoj Zizek has not had a good 2016 US election, arguing that Trump is just another centrist liberal and that given a vote he would vote for Trump.

There have been a number of explanations given in the regular media for Trump’s unexpected victory, but common among them is that racism is at the core of his success. Should we ascribe Trump’s win to intolerance? And what are the implications if we do? Is it the “whitelash” identified by some commentators?

Then I came across this passage in “Living in the End Times” from 2010, in which Zizek gives a typically eclectic take on “the coming apocalypse”, and I thought about the light it throws on the liberal media reaction:

“of course I am not against tolerance per se; what I oppose is the (contemporary and automatic) perception of racism as a problem of intolerance. Why are so many problems today perceived as problems of intolerance, rather than as problems of inequality, exploitation, or injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, rather than emancipation, political struggle, or even armed struggle? The source of this culturalisation is defeat, the failure of directly political solutions such as the social-democratic welfare state or various social projects…”

There can be no doubt that Trump ran an openly racist election campaign. It is also clear that race is an important influencing factor in US politics and society. Exit poll data suggests that 58% of white voters voted for Trump which at face value seems to suggest that Trump’s outward racism had a significant impact, that intolerance was at the heart of his success. But 57% of white voters chose Romney in 2012 so perhaps race isn’t the unique factor behind Trump’s success.

Similarly, 53% of voters with an income below $30,000 voted for Clinton which would seem to support the standard narrative. Poorer voters supported the Democratic candidate and therefore Trump’s victory was driven by angry white people, and economics had nothing to do with it.

And yet.

That 53% of voters in the under $30,000 income bracket voting for Clinton was 16 points down on Obama’s performance against Romney. 90% of voters who thought the country “generally on the right” track voted Hillary, but just 25% of those who thought it seriously off track. 63% of those who expected their children to have a worse life than today voted for Trump. Hillary was the continuity candidate, maintaining the existing economic settlement. The 53% from the lowest income bracket voting for Hillary masks the catastrophic shift to Trump. The economics is important.

In other words analysing Trump’s victory in terms of race (or gender, or sexuality) is an example of the left’s subordination to “identity politics”. By seeing politics through the lens of individual identities the left has lost sight of the economic system which colours voters’ willingness to support a continuation of the current state of affairs.

Although inflected by race and misogyny Trump’s pitch was aimed fundamentally at “the system”, a system which isn’t working for a large chunk of the population. His overt racism is part of the narrative he adopted to attracted voters disaffected voters.

The challenge for the left is therefore not to demand tolerance from a Trump administration but to lead social and economic change in a progressive direction. To change the system.

This leads to a final quote from Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic“.

“The decisive distinction between radicals and liberals is that the latter understand most social problems as relatively independent and haphazard happenings and try to solve them one at a time. Not aware of their shared identity as interrelated parts of the capitalist system, they cannot deal with these ills at the only level on which a successful solution is possible, on the level of the whole society, and are reduced in the last analysis to alternating between the extremes of condemnation and despair.”

The left in both the US and Western Europe has approached social and economic change as separated things which can be tackled individually. In the face of Trump we need to avoid both condemnation and despair and instead craft a genuinely progressive movement for change.

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”.

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.