Thursday, 10 May 2018

Can the left talk to the "white working class"?

Professor Green in the documentary
Working Class White Men


Matthew Goodwin, a Professor of Politics at Kent University, and co-author with Robert Ford of the seminal study of UKIP, Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge: 2014), spends a lot of time on Twitter sharing data that proves two things: one, populism is durable and deeply rooted in European electorates and two, European social democracy is dying for wont of an adequate response. Alongside this is a nagging insinuation: if social democracy wants to survive, it needs to appeal to working-class voters' deep, durable concerns about security, immigration, and cultural change. More often than not, it is one section of the working class in particular that is seen as the driver of populism, Brexit, and Trump: the white working class.

If it didn't invent it, Goodwin and Ford's book certainly popularised the phrase the "left behind" as a descriptor, first, of UKIP voters and then of the majority that voted for Brexit in 2016. Goodwin's prominence may advert less to his own brilliance, than the total inadequacy of prevailing political science to account for something like Brexit. This is not to insult Goodwin's achievement. More than anyone else - at least on Twitter - he has made Brexit at least loosely comprehensible to centrist commentators and concerned liberals. He is also a voice of sanity compared to the #FBPE crowd, a singular reminder that Brexit won and that no polling shows any evidence that it would not win again. A new centrist party, he argues, would almost certainly fail against the challenges of Britain's First Past the Post electoral system - and there my be deeper causes for its failure than that. In his view centrist voters are spread too thinly across the country to have significant impact on electoral results. But perhaps more seriously, centrism cannot call on any deep cultural attachments in order to wield together an electoral alliance. It is a permanent tabula rasa which rarely sustains complex political cultures for any period of time. Moreover, converting one of the existing major parties - the likely candidate being Labour - to a Remain position would spell electoral disaster for similar demographic and geographic reasons.

Goodwin's weaknesses are also what make him understandable to an 'educated', often 'liberal' and politically informed readership. His story about Brexit - and about European populism more broadly - is one of "preferences". This is a term he falls back on on occasion to explain what Brexit means to people who still struggle to comprehend why it happened. In a recent podcast he depicts populism as a "reaction" by working-class voters against the liberal era that started in the 1960s. It has been gestating since the 1970s and has gradually captured more of the concerns of more conservative, settled populations. "Preferences" come - presumably - from "interests" and allow political scientists - I suppose - the advantage of grouping sections of society by what they are supposed to want. They are useful to political science because they are measurable. Even if preferences themselves are not rational they can be rendered meaningful by rational inquiry. They can be inserted into systems of competing interests and the conflicts between them can be easily explored. But something is missing, something captured by the Freudian word "desire." All of political science is some kind of answer to the terrifying question, "What do the masses want?" What is terrifying for polite society here is not the answer to the question, which can be pretty mundane - faith, flag, nation, and all the rest - but the need to know. What liberals are looking at when they look at the "working class" is, in Freudian terms, a fear of their own impotence, their own inability to know, their own inability to control and direct the working class. This is why so often "the masses" appear in political science not as rational actors but as a mute blob of inchoate prejudices which must be rendered visible and comprehensible to reason.

One of the more glorious spectacles of the aftermath of the 2017 General Election was the sight of Matthew Goodwin eating his own book on live television after predicting the Labour Party would fail to reach 38% of the vote. Political science will, it turns out, eat itself. For all his credentials on populism, Goodwin had missed something about it. He had missed how an apparently unappealing, marginal left-winger could tap into a seam of anger in British society and articulate it to left-wing ends. Goodwin has dedicated a good deal of effort since to proving that Corbynism is a "blip", a perverse outcome of a flawed electoral system. This is another weakness of political science: when the analysis fails, it blames a system which prevents "preferences" from attaining their natural expression. Goodwin is ultimately right that the Labour electoral coalition is fragile and split down the middle on Brexit, but he is far from understanding what on earth is holding it together.

A typical left response to Goodwin's invocation of the "white working class" is more or less to deny its existence. This is a sure sign of failure of analysis - though this time on the left's part. The standard argument goes like this: materially speaking - that is, at the most authentic level of its existence - the working class is multi-racial or (which is really the opposite) it knows no race. There are internal cleavages within the working class, which are related to greater and lesser degrees of exploitation on the basis of citizenship, property, skill sets, racialisation, gender, and so on. Thus, there are racist layers of the working class, though they are really the minority. These layers tend to be richer, older, more propertied, and whiter - or perhaps on their way out of working class-dom altogether. The first problem with this view is that it neglects a principle lesson of Marxism: class is relational and is not only about material conditions but about how identities are articulated between different social groups. What the working class is at the level of some unmediated material reality is less important than how it is articulated through a given set of social relations. If the working class is not merely a material thing - if it is composed internally and externally of social relations - then it must be multi-racial and it must logically contain a white section. To the extent that some are racialised as non-white, some must be racialised as white. And while it's true that "in normal times" whiteness is invisible, times are rarely normal.

But for all that, the "white working class" should not be abstracted from its peculiar conditions of existence. Whiteness is a badge - often of citizenship, or of ownership, or of rights and respect - which allows certain people access to things they wouldn't otherwise get. Historically, the working class has been partially racialised as white. Its multi-racial character has been half-buried. The welfare state and the postwar settlement were heavily, if only implicitly, coded with whiteness. It was paid for partly out of the legacy of imperialism, the sterling zone, colonial export markets, and the pound's reserve currency status in the commonwealth. The left is rightly very cautious about using the term "white working class," but that does not mean there are not people - many people - who will identify in this way. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge a difficult fact about the society in which working class-ness is embedded. There is, then, always a left-wing struggle within the working class to convert it to anti-racism.

Goodwin's work, then, does pose a serious practical problem for the left. Even in the wake of the Windrush scandal, there remains widespread support for the "hostile environment" policy against immigrants. Although concerns about immigration have lost some of their intensity since the Brexit vote, we should not see this as the success of anti-racist movements but rather an increase in the feeling that the state is now "on side." Nor will racism subside because a left-wing Labour government manages to redistribute wealth downwards for the first time in decades. There is a fear on the left that if we talk about the "white working class", we might just conjure it into being, ignoring that it already exists as a settled social fact. But there is also the opposite tendency - the tendency of Blue Labour, occasionally Paul Mason, and sometimes Goodwin himself - that if we just talk about the white working class enough, they'll come round to us, they'll realise we aren't all "Tumblr liberals" obsessed with identity and safe spaces. We have to realise here that the increasingly explicit whiteness of a section of the working class is a product of a non-material "identity" turn in politics as a whole. I don't mean this in the sense Angela Nagle means it, that is, that identity politics is just bad and is the demon spawn of social media. We can't just get back to class politics, as if identity politics never happened and as if Brexit is not itself a matter of culture and identity as much as economics (as Goodwin has rightly said). 

Being white and working class doesn't make someone racist. But we also need to be aware that those who talk up whiteness, who see something in whiteness per se that is worth celebrating, generally do so out of a sense of grievance. The danger, then, is the left becomes hectoring, insisting that poorer white people experience their loss of status in an age of multiple forms of insecurity as a loss of their historical claim to privilege in the form of their whiteness - the lack of the lack in Lacan's terms. The job is not to abolish whiteness but to displace it, even to disperse it, and to substitute it with something else.

In Professor Green's documentary Working Class White Men there is a nice scene where a teenage model is on his way to Japan for his big break. Professor Green asks the young man if anyone in his family has ever been to Tokyo before and he says, "We go on English holidays - to Tenerife - and we stay in the resort and watch the entertainment. That's all we do." It is a familiar enough description of the English abroad, but is it necessarily or exclusively a white one? Well, perhaps, yes, actually. Indeed the issues that Green catalogues - unemployment, criminalisation, absent dads - are not the preserve of white people. Yet, in a society in which a certain culture of whiteness became synonymous with working class life, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs and the communities built around them is experienced - partially at least - in racialised terms. The experience of economic decline is over-determined by cultural, political, and - crucially - inter-generational factors. It is the latter - the continuities and discontinuities of generational heritage - that weight these experiences towards racialised and nationalistic conclusions.    

It is this over determination of lived experience that suggests a workable left strategy can only be developed out of a return to theory. The theory of hegemony in the left tradition, from Gramsci to Stuart Hall, is the best alternative I know of to the bland "preferences" and "interest groups" of political science. Hegemony is about how power always incorporates subjects, pulling them into its orbit and inducting select groups into situations of relative privilege at the expense of others. It is a necessarily cultural process, but one that does not do away with material matters. Indeed, in the process of building hegemony, we find the material and ideal in constant relations of mutual determination. The primacy of one over the other in actual social formations is never finally established.

Building an effective counter-power - "counter-hegemony" - involves articulating diverse groups into a formidable political will. The success of socialist and social democratic parties, trade unions, and social movements in the past suggests that "preferences" are not just givens but are formed through political activity. This is not to say that the preferences of white people - or of anyone - are infinitely malleable. Only that there is potential for apparently settled views to be shifted - however slightly - over time and through experience. The task is ultimately to find ways of making that happen through political action.
   

Sunday, 4 February 2018

There Is No Outside of Ideology: A Quick Note on What Everyone Should Already Know About Politics


A truism on the left, but widely misunderstood beyond it

There has for a long time been a view that bad politics is “ideology driven” and good politics is “policy driven”. Bad politics is ill-informed and emotive; good politics pragmatic and founded on a what-works attitude. Or as one Twitter user put it, left and right are ideological; the centre is nice people doing the best they can for stupid people. Politics is reduced to a set of technical procedures - a profession.

So I thought I’d outline the view, commonly accepted in the social sciences, that all politics is ideological. This sort of discussion can get very jargon-heavy and this can cloud some of the basic consensus that exists out there, so I’ll state it as simply as possible and won’t use obscure terms. A further caveat is that this will involve necessarily sweeping generalisations about what the “hard sciences” do and what the “social sciences” do. But I intend this to lay a common basis for further discussion, not to be the final word.

The belief that all politics is ideological can be justified in the following ways.

  1. Society is not the same kind of object as a plant, a solar system, or an atom. When photosynthesis is described, the description does nothing to affect the internal structure of the process. Society is not like this for two reasons: I) the observer of social processes (an individual academic) is an immediate product of the processes they are observing - every individual comes from a particular society and a particular background within that society so how they understand society will be structured by this ii) society itself is influenced by our conceptions of it - for example, the more economists tell us we are utility maximising, self-interested consumers, the more we will come to think of ourselves in those terms and adjust our behaviour and expectations of others in line with those terms. Description of society changes the object it describes.
  2. The above subject/object distinction (between scientific observer and the object of society) does not remove the basis of scientific enquiry, but places the two in a dialectical relationship. The latter just means that subject and object are mutually constitutive and the back and forth between the two leads to a process of continual, open-ended change: our observations about society change society itself, and these changes then impact on us and change our observations about society. 
  3. Society consists of different groups with opposed interests - different groups with different stakes in society struggle over how society should be organised and to whose benefit. Moreover, the way these groups construct what is in their interest is not the foundation of politics, but is the actual stuff of politics. In other words, groups don’t exist in a simple relationship to their “rational self-interest”, but rather build specific conceptions of what is in their interest through political struggle with other groups. This means that politics involves a struggle within social groups over how to define and pursue different interests as well as a struggle between social groups. Social leadership is not just about domination but also about building consent - and part of this is the struggle within and between groups of how interests are defined (this is the meaning of the popular notion of “hegemony”).
  4. Since politics involves building conceptions of the interests of different, opposed groups, all social science work is political - that means simply that it is related to the composition of particular interests and participates, however indirectly, in the process of building and legitimising particular ways of thinking about society. There is no neutral position outside of ur superior to politics (contra much political science)
  5. Social objectivity does exist but not in the way that nature exists - because social objectivity is a set of relations which are constantly open to change by different types of social actors. No empirical observation describes a simple matter of social fact, but operates with specific assumptions about how society works and will reinforce or undermine assumptions about society. That said, society is not infinitely plastic: Society is composed fundamentally of relations among social actors. These relations can be reorganised, but that takes real effort and long processes of material and discursive struggle.

By now it should be clear why the attempt to classify some politics as “ideology-free” is the purest gesture of ideology. The ultimate victory of a social group depends on its ability to “naturalise” its world view. That is, to make its way of going about pursuing its own interests as simply the natural order of things.

None of this is to say we cannot make empirical observations about society in the way we can about nature. It is only to say that in the social sciences a statement is always more than merely empirical. This is because individual statements take on a fuller meaning when integrated into a broader discourse. So to say “society consists of individuals” may be an empirical statement, but its discursive meaning only becomes clear when we place it in a broader context. For example, when the statement is taken in the Thatcherite sense of “society consists *only* of individuals (and families)” (I.e it does not consist of classes). All empirical statements therefore appear in a wider discursive context and this context accounts for part (but not all of) the meaning. That “society consists of individuals” is not a matter for the social sciences, unless it comes with broader assumptions (which, of course, it always does). These broader assumptions can always be contested and this is the sense in which politics - even at its most scientific - is about struggles between different ways of building and articulating the interests of opposed social groups.

This raises the question of what scientific as opposed to ideological thinking is. I’m of the view that scientific thinking is a highly specific variant of ideological thinking - that is to say, scientific thinking is ideological thinking but executed under carefully controlled conditions and with carefully and explicitly defined assumptions. In other words, the goal is not to expunge the ideological from the scientific, but to make the ideological presuppositions of science explicit. 

To be clear, then, acknowledging your own ideology and its active role in shaping your politics leads to better politics as a whole. There is no “outside” of ideology. There are only various critical relations to ideology. Not to boast, but the fact I come from a very clear ideological background - and am aware of it - does not make me less self-critical but clarifies the basis of self-criticism. I come from a Marxist background and know full well the dangers of Marxist dogma. What about you? If your answer to that question is, “I have no ideology” then you’re probably a centrist dad. 





Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Left Should Celebrate Its Marxist Heritage



People on the left need to stop insisting there is a large gulf between their “common sense” policies and some radical spectre called Marxism.

This sort of thing reached a nadir a year or so ago when John McDonnell couldn’t get on TV without being asked if he was a Marxist. To be fair to the Shadow Chancellor, he didn’t exactly deny Marx’s influence on his thinking, but listed a range of socialist and non-socialist economists on the left who are part of his outlook. The real problem was when parts of left Twitter responded by @ing Andrew Marr with Tweets claiming the question was analogous to asking David Cameron is he was a Nazi. This is a bad take on many, hopefully obvious levels. 

Recently it has cropped up again in response to increasingly unhinged allegations by a visibly ruffled right wing press that the nation’s youth has fallen to communism. You don’t have to be a Marxist to raise corporation tax to 25%, but being a Marxist certainly helps. This is because contemporary Marxist economics is full of interesting, heterodox analysis about how modern economies work and it’s increasingly easy to take that theory and build policy out of it.

Publicly disavowing Marxism’s influence on the contemporary left might seem expedient in the short term. But it won’t stop accusations of communism. And if anything we should respond by saying yes, indeed, most Marxists would agree that we need to raise corporation tax. But they’d also go further and say we need de-commodified public goods and public spaces, and the right to democratic control over economic life. We should be insisting that Marxism shares a lot with popular common sense. 

This is not to say that most Labour members or even Momentum members have any interest in the finer aspects of dialectical materialist philosophy. But some of the basic presuppositions of Marxism - that we live in a class society, that there are values which exist outside of market commodification, that the image of homo-economicus does not come close to explaining human nature - are a part of the texture of progressive politics around the world. And today, Marx is being reimagined for the modern world.

This hasn’t always been true: for a time after the fall of the Soviet Union, there didn’t seem to be much life in the vast body of Marxist political and economic theory. History’s most powerful and influential anti-capitalist theory had somewhat fallen by the wayside. But no more. Take the SOAS economist Costas Lapavitsas, for example. Lapavitsas is as influenced by Rudolph Hilferding’s Marxist work on financialisation as he is by the infamous German philosopher himself. A basis in Marxist value theory and, in particular, Marx’s theory of money has spawned one of the most innovative and comprehensive analyses of the contemporary conjuncture. Lapavitsas, in collaboration with the Keynesian Heiner Flassbeck, is also a trenchant critic of the monetary arrangements of the Eurozone. 

Or take the range of conceptual innovations of David Harvey, who has recast Marxian theory as a critique of geographically- fixed processes of accumulation. Or even Lapavtisas’ fellow Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, whose work is eclectic but nevertheless underpinned by a specifically Marxist conception of value formation under capitalism. Both Harvey and Varoufakis contrast exchange value (or the value of marketised goods) and use value (or the real human needs and desire that exist regardless of the market). Out of this they have produced compelling and exciting theories about how our contemporary world works. There is nothing as thrilling or true to be found in orthodox economics as Harvey’s notion of “accumulation by dispossession.” This is Harvey’s way of talking about the continual recourse to violent expropriation which underpins the ‘norms’ of market processes. Anyone confronted with the darker underside of the bright and gleaming capitalist market - a netherworld of lawless super-exploitation - will recognise Harvey’s description. The dismantling of social protections and the continual destruction of people’s mode of existence is here explained as a prerequisite for capitalist exchange value creation.

Marxist political economy is both more accessible than orthodox economics and truer to the world in which we actually live. Fundamentally Marxism sees society as divided into classes and these classes must struggle for control over socially produced goods. Wealth is primarily social wealth and is only individualised by relations of production, the institutions of the state, legal forms, and ideology. Of course, it paints a simple picture of a complex reality - just like any theory. But its basic components - of groups defined by their relation to the means of production, wealth, and the state - allows even in its simplest form for a far richer picture of the world than orthodox economics. For most orthodox economists we have only individuals with their utility maximising self-interest, firms with their innovative drive for profit, and governments with their bias for public choice. This is a world without passion or conviction or many of the things that make us complex - it is a world without politics.

There are limits and shortcomings to Marxism. The less said of its so called orthodox variant - endorsed by the Comintern during the Cold War era - the better. And it is true that the left must always be aware of the intellectually moribund and outright dangerous, anti-democratic strains of Marxism which led to Stalinism. Just as extreme nationalism, colonialist imperialism, and environmentally destructive consumerism developed in part out of the classical liberal worldview, Marxism can become dangerous if it is not rooted in the daily lives and democratic movements of the broad mass of people. 

Moreover, some more heterodox Marxism can still be at least potentially theoretically reductive. Even the work of great political Marxists like Ellen Meiksins Wood can sometimes appear to reduce ‘non-economic’ forms of exploitation such as misogyny to hangovers from past modes of production (however useful they may be to capital). Rather than seeing misogyny and other forms of oppression as vital components of the contemporary capitalist system, Marxism can sometimes depict them as secondary to the ‘foundational’ forms of class exploitation which are inscribed in the capitalist mode of production itself. Of course, the simplified Marxist model of a capitalist mode of production cannot be mapped onto really existing societies without taking account of all their complexities.

It would also be wrong to argue that the left should be exclusively Marxist to the neglect of other traditions of critique of capitalist society - from anarchism to the more critical end of post-Keynesianism. Just as in real life, theory should constantly cross-pollinate in order to remain vital. 

The left risks internalising the anti-intellectualism of the British right, which has always argued that theory is “irrelevant to the real needs.” We should not be doctrinaire in our thinking, but nor should we allow self-styled ‘moderates’ to get away with the claim that they are merely practical solution-seekers. It is the old right which clings desperately to an outdated ideology, while the left is - finally - moving with the times. 


The right wants to turn Marxist into a pejorative. It wants to foreclose fundamental arguments about the nature of the societies in which we live and to make its own worldview appear as a reflection of the natural order of things. Most of all, it wants to neutralise the threat of a newly-powerful left which is finally - hesitantly - finding its voice. The left should not only embrace its Marxist heritage, but celebrate its radicalism. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Keynes and Revolution



There was a time in autumn 1917 when Vladimir Illyich Lenin, firebrand of the revolution and scourge of reformism, let it be known that he favoured the peaceful formation of a social-democratic government. In the essay On Compromises Lenin called on his erstwhile enemies the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to form a government with Bolshevik support in order to shepherd the faltering February revolution through the gates of democracy. As Lenin prevaricated Hegel's World Spirit itself - in the form of St Petersburg's radicalised popular classes - swelled towards the gates of the Winter Palace. In a foxhole everyone, it seems, is a compromiser. As China Mieville puts it in his recent book on the October Revolution, "To be radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. 'To patiently explain.' How easy to forget people do not need or await permission to move." After preparing all their lives for the definitive revolution, when the irresistible moment came the Bolsheviks almost blinked.


Geoff Mann's strange book, In the Long Run We Are All Dead (2017), is subtitled Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution. Much of the book is not concerned with revolution of the kind Lenin was contemplating, but what Robespierre famously termed révolution sans révolution. The book is strange in two ways: first, it is a very leftist (self-confessedly Gramscian) intervention into the world of high political economy, placing Keynesianism not so much in a context but in a genealogical map. Thus, thinkers and political actors as diverse as Hegel and Robespierre are Keynesians. "The key is that the Keynesian critique is not only Keynes's critique, but a thematic and a set of concerns, that runs throughout the history of liberal capitalism since its first moments."(44) For the essence of Keynesianism is the impulse to rescue civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) from the destructiveness of the market system - to save civilisation from its own internal contradictions whilst ultimately preserving it. These contradictions arise from the "sphere of self-interested particularity" in which "individual interest is unmoored from collective welfare." (46) Mann describes the Hegelian-Keynesian - or just Keynesian - intellectual project as one which sets out to remedy the modern world's ills by careful palliative work rather than overthrow. What is surprising is how little explicit effort Mann makes to shield himself from accusations of anachronism, and one wonders how seriously he expects the categorisation to be taken. Mann's defence, when it comes, is to argue no more than that putting thinkers in their proper "place" is a "holdover" from the age of "progress." (45) We can choose to accept this relative suspension of linearity or not at little cost to Mann's overriding preoccupation, which is really to affirm the existence of something that is not liberalism as conventionally understood and not radical socialism or conservatism, but some other thing related to all three but nevertheless distinct.

The second strange thing about Mann's book is the recurrence of the first person, as Mann repeatedly identifies his own attraction to Keynesianism even as he chides much of the left for falling into this very trap. At a certain level there is an honesty to this and a willingness to accept that there is no non-ideological, god's-eye-view perspective to be taken against ideology as such. But it also begs the question of how urgent Mann feels it is to unpick Keynesianism or to escape it when he repeatedly professes his own fondness for it. This is not so much a criticism as a question about aims and intentions. It is not clear if Mann believes that Keynesianism needs to be substituted with Marxism or if the two can coexist. Perhaps it is not his intention to be so proscriptive, but the scope of the explicitly political diagnosis feels betrayed by too little attention to a politics beyond Keynes. The book really comes into its own in the final pages, when he accuses the left of harbouring an "inability or unwillingness to follow through on the revolutionary promise." Aspects of this resonate with Mieville's argument that all too often the left believes it has to a great extent explained past failures by merely admitting them: 'Of course, mistakes were made.' Here Mann is arguing that in revolution we all too often turn back from the precipice, and even in our analyses after the fact the same gesture is repeated so that the true scope of the failure is never revealed to us. Yet Mann does not properly embrace revolution either. In the final lines of the book we find Mann talking up the "radical kernel at the heart of Keynesianism" and its refusal either to properly reject the present system or simply to celebrate it.

Anyone who has struggled through Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), will be relieved that Mann dispenses with much of the technical argument of High Keynesianism in favour of outlining its broad theoretical and political preoccupations. He identifies several. Firstly, Keynesianism situates itself within the concrete being (Sein) of "modern communities" - expressed through political economy - as opposed to an abstract vision of how those communities ought to be (Sollen).(230) Next, it assembles several key economic concepts and their inter-relations. For Keynes the central motivation of the investor was yield - return on investment - the expected future rate of which determined the level of investment and the level of liquidity (cash) preference in the economy at large. The key word here is expected: as capitalism is a forward-facing system in which investments are made with one eye trained on the future, the inherent "qualitative uncertainty" (234) of the future has a central role to play. If the rate of interest - the price of money, reflective of anticipated risk - increases relative to profits (or the "marginal efficiency of capital"), liquidity preference will rise and the rate of investment in enterprise decrease. Psychological preferences, Keynes argues, are such that a modern community will always consume slightly less than it earns - "effective demand" is the expected rate of this demand and if it is expected to fall then of course the environment for productive activity is perceived to contain greater uncertainty and therefore liquidity preference will rise.(246) "According to Keynes, investment decisions are determined by the difference, if any, between the return businesses can expect from investing in "productive activity" and the return they can expect from lending money (by purchasing corporate or government debt) relative to their desire to hold cash for speculative or precautionary reasons (their liquidity preference)."(247) Third, Keynes uses this theory - in which psychological uncertainty is so central - to elaborate an analysis of the great scourge of his day - unemployment - and its corrosive effect on capitalist civilisation. If the level of effective demand - that is, that based on future expectations and taking into account increasing uncertainty - in an economy falls, there will be involuntary unemployment - or a labour market that cannot reach a price floor and cannot clear. By adding such caveats to the "classical" theory of self-righting markets, Keynes - just like all "past" Keynesians - believed he was advancing a scientific corrective to a flawed theory. Finally, Keynes re-articulates the classical theory's separation of politics and economics. The system of liberal capitalism can be saved from the entrance of mass politics - that is to say, revolution - onto the stage of economics by technical and specialised correctives to a flawed theory that poorly reflects how the world truly is. Keynes believed in cheap but controlled access to credit - low interest rates to ensure productive investment remained inviting and to maintain business confidence - coupled with some government activity to shape the climate in which private investment decisions were made. The problem with Mann's assertion that such a corrective is "the principal objective of all varieties of Keynesianism" (257) is that there is no reason to think it is unique to Keynesianism. Mann implies that is is only when the separation of the political from the economic spheres which founds modern civilisation is placed under threat that Keynesianism appears. Yet this unstable separation of politics from economics is constantly under threat in the modern world. Since the capitalist state helps to produce capitalist markets and they in turn impact upon it, the line between them is crossed as a matter of course. As Mann puts it, "the tools of political economy as science are the principal means by which liberal government implements and maintains this separation [of politics from economics]; on the other, the separation is produced so as to make the expression "political economy" appear oxymoronic" because the economy is supposed to be by definition non-political. Keynesianism is, Mann argues, the project of legitimating the existing social order by careful construction of and maintenance of the separation. But could this not apply to any attempt to save liberal capitalism from itself and restore civilisation to its supposed "sanity"? What is missing here is the historical specificity of Keynesianism as it is widely understood: as one intellectual facet of a broader class compromise that developed out of the breakdown of liberal order in the first half of the Twentieth Century, one which could not have found the success it did in any other epoch.

The most succinct way of justifying this latter claim is through a brief digression into the internal tensions of formal structure. For many radicals, the capitalist "mode of production" (the name given to the vast, multi-tiered, interconnected structure of modern social formations) is distinguished by its epistemological and existential separation of politics from the economic. Under capitalism the state is theoretically and practically distinct from an autonomous sphere called the market; the practice of liberal, democratic or authoritarian politics distinct from commodity production and exchange, labour and capital. Fredric Jameson is fond of applying formal oppositions to his readings of culture. In particular the Greimasian semiotic rectangle is used to map the oppositions and negations in the formal structure of a text. My contention is that much the same process can be undertaken in relation to political economy. In the Greimasian semiotic rectangle of political economy, the opposition politics/economics is counter-posed to its negative opposition not-politics/not-economics.


Politics                                  Political economy                          Economics




State                                                          Market





Not-economics                           Abstract reason                          Not-politics

Between the opposition of politics and economics there is the apparent oxymoron of political economy itself. Here is where the separation is policed through a concrete science in the possession of specialists, experts and technocrats - Keynes's "universal class." On either side of this opposition stand the State (the realm proper to the non-economic, political type) and the Market (that of the non-political, economic type) respectively. Finally, the fourth logical position is that of the non-political, non-economic type or the sphere of detached, abstract reason occupied, in the Keynesian imaginary, by the Kantian Sollen (Ought) as opposed to the concrete Sein (Being). As is the case with Fredric Jameson's work in The Political Unconscious, this mapping of the formal structure of political economy merely highlights the internal tensions between the different points. Precisely because the structuring opposition politics/economics is never complete, we find that the state and the market are never finally separable either. Nor for that matter is abstract reason a mere shadowy projection of the real thought of political economy. The formal structure of political economy is rather an attempt to resolve what are ultimately antagonisms in the social situation of modernity, or more specifically an attempt to prevent the intrusion of mass politics into the realm of economic policy. Public choice theory, which in its most extreme iterations excoriates democratic politicians for indulging people's desire for welfare payments, is one of many non-Keynesian theoretical innovations which operate with these formal tensions. Political economy is always ultimately an attempt to regulate how the economic is politicized through its separation from formal politics.

The space of political economy is self-evidently contradictory, of course, tasked as it is with policing the politics/economy distinction, whilst, in the sheer fact of its existence, pointing to a deeper identity between the two separated terms. As Jameson again argues, difference must be based on the background of a prior identity. Both radical and heterodox critics of conventional political economy are wont to criticise the depoliticization of various aspects of public policy which pertain to the economy - a classic being the so-called "production of money", which takes place in both the private sector (among banks issuing loans and so forth) and the public sector (the central bank of a given economy or economies). Radicals will also often remind conventional economists that a good deal of what happens "in the market" relies not on the formal equalities of market exchange but on politically-constituted power. A further complication arises from the fact that most radicals and heterodox economists are themselves Keynesians or heavily-influenced by Keynes. An ambivalent relationship exists between this awkward critique of political economy and Keynesianism per se (which, like Marxism, is also a critique of political economy). After all, radicals do not entirely reject the Keynesian gesture of the critique of abstract reason or its preference for practical knowledge and science. The very status of abstract knowledge would, Marxists argue, not be possible without the evolution of the commodity form, the specific mode of abstract reification unique to capitalism. It is only possible for thought to attain such autonomy from practical life where the world itself has become abstract through the spread of the commodity form. This process of abstract specialisation and separation of branches of knowledge and disciplines depends on the spread of commodification itself: it is the source of capitalism's special intellectual strength, its infinite adaptability, and simultaneously the source of so much of the radical critique of it. Marxism endorses the separation of politics and the economic not as a bold innovation in the science of governance, but as a fundamental social fact of modernity. It is Marxism itself which, having entered into the most protracted and arcane political conflicts with the capitalist state, has done more than any other science to develop a theory of its "relative autonomy". Mann's book is both a player in this long tradition of self-reflexive critique in political economy and a victim of it.

Like so many books - both good and bad - which negotiate a vast pre-existing body of work in an unconventional way, the text comes fully into its own only at the end, when the theoretical position is fully drawn and the anticipated objections (however fleetingly) dealt with. In this space of relative autonomy from the weight of dead generations, it becomes clear this is a book about Marx-as-revolutionary and Keynes-as-reformer. Though Mann does not use the word reform and is careful to distinguish Keynes from the distinctive tradition of reformist social democracy, the two amount to something similar. If social democracy's intellectual telos is the conclusion that it is best not to throw out the baby of market-based exchange with the bath water of capitalist iniquity, then for Keynes this is both destination and point of departure. What is a journey for social democrats is self-evident for Keynes. For both Hegel and Keynes, Mann writes, "Freedom develops in the recognition of necessity's necessity."(386) Marx's "freedom from the realm of necessity" becomes, then, an enlightened embrace of the essential role necessity - that is, poverty - plays in disciplining and shaping civil society.

It is in this section on Marx and Keynes that Mann confesses that, in writing the book, he discovered the "reluctant, even repressed" Keynesian in himself.(387) Yet in the end the choice between Marx-the-revolutionary and Keynes-the-reformer is rarely made definitively by anyone outside of the most dogmatic sects. Movements of the radical left around the globe issue calls for both restoration of liberal institutions and the overthrow of the existing regime, often in the same breath. The choice - when it comes - is made for us, and it is only on the precipice that the question of whether our institutions, forms of organisation, modes of activism, and intellectual culture render us capable of assenting to the decision of world history.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Brexit and Blair



Tony Blair claims that a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would, in combination with Brexit, "floor" Britain. Blair's prognosis on Corbyn has hardly shifted since 2015 when he famously claimed that supporters of the left winger should "get a heart transplant." Blair has always said he wouldn't want to win on a Corbyn style platform because it would be "bad" for Britain. Brexit is hardly a factor, so why the coupling of the two now?

These fittingly vague assertions are, of course, embedded in Blair's personal ideology, one for which nationalisation and stronger unions are in and of themselves "bad" because they are not "modern." Blair has never seen fit to elaborate on what his conception of modernity denotes, but no doubt for him it means shiny glass buildings and serious men in sharp suits and board rooms. The sleek, slimline, ultimately anonymous corporate capitalism of 1990s fantasy. Trade unions and big government are a priori bad for such a vision.

If there is some substance buried deep within Blair's claims about Corbynism, it comes from the soft left discovery in the mid-1980s that a left government needs capitalism - especially financial capital - on side or it will be crushed. The conclusion of Blairism about the nature of capitalism was developed out of the soft left's belief that social-democratic reforms could indeed be won if the left built a broad hegemony across society, not challenging capital directly but winning it over.

The simple proposition - that the left needed financial markets to function properly under its watch, perhaps more than the right did because of the reflexive cultural and ideological preferences of capital itself - gave some basic rationality to the Blairite project. And behind it in turn was a long, imagined history of left governments who came triumphantly to power on a mandate to challenge vested interests, only to be squashed by the powers that be. There is something of the Wilson and Callahan and even Mitterrand years in this vision, but also at least as much of Chris Mullins' hard left Harry Perkins in the fictional A Very British Coup. It is ultimately an ideological synthesis, a thick texture of operative assumptions about how the world works - the Sitten of the soft left - that proscribes a priori an outwardly radical left government which sets itself up in direct opposition to the power of capital. That road, this wisdom says, can only end in ruin.

So it's faintly surprising that Blair should include Brexit as a factor in his assessment. Surely Corbynism is doomed or it's not - regardless of Brexit. But if we are to follow the implicit argument of those like Blair - and beyond - who are now saying Brexit will scupper Corbynism to its logical conclusion, then it seems clear there must be circumstances in which Corbynism could succeed. In which a parliamentary socialist government in direct conflict with capital - especially finance - is not crushed.

To understand how Brexit could do for Corbynism, as Blair says it will, we need to define the circumstances in which Corbynism would not fail. But first, what is Corbynism? In short, it is an attempt to rebuild the productive capacities of the British economy, against the power of finance, along broadly left-wing lines. That means a democratisation of industry, greater powers for workers, more redistribution of wealth, and humane immigration and defence policies. But in terms of raw economics, it means a huge increase in state activity in the private and public sphere, a massive injection of targeted investment in industry in the hope of boosting productivity, kick starting growth, and creating new, better and better-protected jobs. 

If finance capital broadly benefits from an economy where industrial productivity is low and liquidity preference is high, such an industrial strategy represents a classic Keynesian challenge to the power of finance. The ability of such a government to implement its programme depends not only on its ability to avoid what is known as an "investment strike" (when capital refuses to invest because of high taxes), but also to sidestep the massive institutional power of finance capital in particular. The classical Keynesian programme can only be implemented where there is space for an alliance between so-called productive capitalists and the labour force against the "rentier."

Yet even here things are not as simple as they seem. Finance cannot be easily isolated from the "real" economy - especially in a context where much industry has itself been financialised (operating in markets without need of banks, financing themselves through own capital and generating much of its profit through financial transactions rather than through production itself). Corbynism's success would depend on its ability to attract rather than repulse existing financial markets, offering them a range of buy-offs in the form of a growth in different types of sovereign debt instruments with varied yields. Next, it would need to incentivise private investment through access to cheap but controlled credit. The biggest risk would not come from movements against the pound directly, which the government could weather, but sabotage and corruption in the state. Capital can be coaxed into investment; it will be harder to get it to abide by the government's terms.

The risks also intensify over the medium term. Corbyn is promising a basically Keynesian investment strategy, but as the economist Michal Kalecki observed, economics is not merely a technical art but a matter of conflicting political interests. If a government pursues a full employment model, redistributing wealth to the people, capital will oppose it not simply because it is objectively either "good" or "bad" economics, but because full employment is a de facto threat to capitalist power. Capital broadly understands full employment as leading to higher wages as labour shortages increase and the power of organised capital grows. Full employment and an active industrial policy reduce people's reliance on credit and act as a disincentive to finance. Low interest rates mean less cost for investment and inflation erodes the overall value of debt - both bad for finance. This is why moves by a Labour government to rebuild the productive sector - even if they don't tamper directly with the power of finance - will still be challenged by the financial sector. Whether or not Corbynism can work through these challenges depends not on the technical limits of the art of economics, but on politics. Will people be willing to fight the power of capital in the name - as Corbyn says - of "the many not the few?"

So to Brexit. It is taken as gospel by some on the centre-left that hard Brexit makes a radical left economic programme harder to achieve, at least in the short-term. But this is only true if hard Brexit is taken to mean exit in conditions close to - or identical to - WTO terms - or the famous "no deal." If the government is saddled with a huge Brexit bill whilst the pound is weakening against the euro, the government's power to borrow for investment will be significantly curtailed. The yield on British sovereign debt (gilts) is already increasing because of concern about Brexit, making it more expensive for the government to borrow to finance public spending. This could actually combine with asset sell-offs as the pound weakens, meaning both public and private assets see their values fall simultaneously in the context of Brexit. Once again, however, the greatest risk to an embattled government of the left would not actually come from a weakening currency or from capital movements or the increasing cost of public expenditure. All of these are admittedly objective strains, but bearable ones for a properly sovereign government (with power over its own currency). The point, however, is that under capitalism a government's sovereignty is always contested - between democratic, popular sovereignty and the sovereignty of markets. There are forces within and beyond the state that would place enormous political pressure on the government to relent on its programme and implement spending cuts.

In other words, the logic of Blairism dictates that Brexit will only hasten the inevitable failure of Corbynism. However narrowly ideological, Blairism points to real difficulties - both political and economic - for a left government. 

As Richard Seymour has argued elsewhere, Labour would lean towards a softer Brexit than the Tories not only because of its ideological reflexes, but because a worse deal would make implementing the Corbynite programme harder. As Seymour correctly argues, this is not simply a technical matter - about what markets will allow governments to do in given conditions - but a political matter related to what capital will let social democracy get away with. But Seymour doesn't articulate something crucial: a softer Brexit will form a central plank on Labour's pitch to finance. If there is another election, if Labour wins, if Labour negotiates Brexit, if there is a successful deal struck with Europe, and if the government can then survive long enough to implement at least some of its radical programme, it will be to some extent because Labour has successfully placated the financial sector by promising it the minimum possible change to its current status - a status built on the regulatory "efficiencies" built into British finance's integration into the EU.

But that's a lot of ifs. After all, finance capital could buy into Tory plans for a low-tax Britain. Indeed, if finance alone dictated political outcomes, that would be its preference. The point is Labour has to combine its democratic mandate with enough continuity to please just enough of the financial sector. 

How can it do this? If Keynes is right, then government policy which lowers real (not just central bank) interest rates while boosting investment opportunities will encourage investment as entrepreneurial spirits are excited and expectations about the future are improved. Investment demand will increase and the government will be in a position to coordinate it. The government's activities have a multiplier effect: as investment and consumer confidence rise, opportunities for further expansion open up in a virtuous circle. If Kalecki is right we are in a more complex world in which the struggle is not simply between economic rationality and ideological darkness, but between competing political interests. In Kalecki's world the government will have to fight bitterly to implement its programme against the will of global capitalist finance.

The image, peddled by Britain's right-wing press, of a monstrous European bureaucracy bent on scuppering the Chances of the plucky Brits, is clearly driven by dark fantasy, and yet illusions about an "honourable deal" (as Syriza used to call it) are problematic too. Labour should not kid itself that goodwill and openness can get round the German imperative to protect the EU in its current form at all costs. The British government will have to foot a huge bill, and a Labour government, determined to cause the minimum institutional dislocation, will be pilloried by the right if it maintains either single market access or membership (and with it freedom of movement). The costs for a Labour government are the worst of all possible worlds and the compensation only the slim promise of maybe implementing their social-democratic programme in unfavourable economic circumstances.

A few things can be done while Labour is still in opposition in terms of readying people for the battle ahead. First, activists in the wider movements should make the case for keeping some form of freedom of movement from the EU. The more we argue that FoM is "over" because of Brexit, the harder arguments about immigration will become. Labour may need to maintain FoM in any event in order to maintain single market access. Labour should argue - more strongly than it is - that a good Brexit deal won't prioritise immigration, but jobs. That means a deal which secures the British government the right to provide state aid to ailing industries, and to undertake nationalisation and other forms of public ownership currently made very difficult by the European treaties. It should argue for our sovereign right to take democratic control in areas of high economic priority for the public. It should also argue that only a good deal can prevent the strangulation of the British economy and the government by the power of capital. 

Finally, a word on why Labour should - contra ardent remainers who want to turn the tables on Brexit altogether - embrace our exit from the EU. First, there is the issue of the referendum. The democratic vote to leave was made and there is little public support for a reversal. Another referendum would see another victory for leave. Any attempt to reverse the decision would entrench public disillusionment with politics. Second, there is the not insignificant matter of the EU itself. If the British left has taken a pragmatic path regarding the EU in recent history, it is not because we have been converted to that organisation's virtues but only because the alternative was worse. Isolationism and protectionism are the answers of the far right, not the left. In the referendum many leftists - myself included - opted for pragmatic opposition to neoliberalism inside the EU rather than the phantasm of "left exit." In an ideal world that would still be my choice. But since that option has been foreclosed we have, in my opinion, no choice but to opt for international arrangements which resemble much of what we had as members whilst softening the EU's most neoliberal impositions on national government through our exit deal. While we should keep the basic requirements of the single market (and FoM), we should demand the right for a new role for government and democracy in the economy. The left argument for sovereignty - that global capital and its institutions should not ride roughshod over democracy - will be central to our vision for Britain outside of the EU.

If Brexit is unavoidable, then it is crucial we on the left think about the country we want outside of the EU. We do not wish to reverse globalisation or integration because of the inevitable economic chaos that would ensue, but nor do we wish to give a cartelised, neoliberal bureaucracy carte blanche over what industrial policy can be in the twenty-first century. Our Brexit deal will begin a real renewal of popular sovereignty, allowing social-democratic governments the right to implement radical reforms in the name of the people. It will take decades to gradually unwind the institutional architecture that sustains the gross inequalities of a global financial muses capitalism. Nor do we have a straight substitution for it in the form of a return to the postwar nation-state system. A left government in the UK won't be able to rewrite the rules of the global financial order over night. The first thing that needs to be done is to implement urgent social-democratic reforms to the domestic, productive economy whilst placating finance and the EU. While we cannot undo globalisation, we can reshape our relationship with it on a more egalitarian and ultimately democratic basis. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hipster Armageddon in Hamburg?




During last week's meeting of the G20 in Hamburg massive, organised protests spilled over into relatively severe violence over night, as shops were smashed and looted, cop cars and domestic vehicles set on fire, and running clashes took place between the police and the protestors.

According to reports, these riots may have been fairly spontaneous, a reaction to the police's heavy-handed tactics and an expression of sheer frustration that peaceful protests were harried and snubbed. The more reflective media reactions - especially from liberal papers outside of Germany - has involved some questioning of Merkel's decision to host the G20 in the famously radical city. It was almost as if she was asking for a showdown, the Guardian said. But within Germany these riots have been met with bafflement, melancholy and rage. It's been a while since Germany saw political violence on anything like this scale (Blocupy's anti-ECB protests in Frankfurt a couple of years ago representing a distant second). Germany is supposed to be placid, largely comfortable with Merkel's neoliberal rule and the economic ruination  of the policies she represents. This was nothing as compared with Genoa or Seattle, but the toll on the city is evident and no doubt traumatic for residents. The morning after the clashes saw the same peppy mass clean up mobilisations that Boris Johnson - broom in hand - hijacked in London after the riots in 2011.

Like those riots, there is a convenient scapegoat: the narcissistic urban hipster and anarcho-poseurs of the so-called Black Bloc. One image in particular - of a black-clad, bearded anarchist-bro shooting a selfie amid the smouldering ruins of other people's stuff - went viral. Whether the photo is real or not is beside the point: it says more about the consumer of such images than it does about the supposed culprit. Rather like the "sick", "feral" youth who looted in Britain in 2011, it reproduces people's prejudices for their own enjoyment. It allows people to both dread and mock the nihilistic, self-absorbed youth for whom destruction of property is just an opportunity for self-promotion on social media.

The Black Bloc is a convenient scapegoat for all of this. They fit a useful archetype: that of the pompous, pseudo-intellectual dude-bro who will pontificate on the abolition of private property whilst having equally strong preferences about the micro-foam on his organic flat white. It is a myth, of course, but like all myths it has an element of truth to it. What needs pointing out is the absurdity of the belief that these young men's narcissism is what causes riots. 

A word then in the Black Bloc's defence: they don't generally come to riot. If you've had proper fascists bearing down on you - not your Milos or some other pale alt-lighters but proper NF thugs charging at you - and the Black Bloc are the only guys who manage to intervene between you and them, you'll be happy they exist. They're not exclusively - perhaps not even majority - white and male. They are not a group as such, but rather black bloc is a style and practice of protest. It is dedicated, believe it or not, to community outreach. Win friends in the communities. Encourage big turnouts. Make the fascists feel small. I've been to Black Bloc training sessions and seen for myself the mix - yes, of egotism at times, but also heroic self-sacrifice and dedication. I don't agree with their politics but I'm almost always glad they're around. They'll defend other protesters from the police and the far-right alike.

You can readily question the politics of the Black Bloc - encased as it is in layers of autonomista anti-statism and horizontalism, generally opposed to any form of conventional political activity and believing the best form of struggle is always direct action against the vastly superior force of the police. Moreover, its endorsement of violence against private property ignores the fact that some private property belongs to people who should be on their side. That smashing up ordinary people's cars doesn't help to build a broad movement to oppose capitalism. It just makes them look like noisy pricks. Whatever you think of the system of private property, smashing up someone's car is not how you abolish it.

But the riots of last week cannot be reduced to the Black Bloc and nor should even they be caricatured simply as narcissistic millennials. The increasing militarisation of protest has led to regular upsurges in violence, as protesters attempting anything more than a passive A-to-B singalong get hounded by legions of armed officers with water cannon. 

People who had endorsed black bloc tactics were central to planning and initiating the peaceful project to occupy Zuccotti Park in New York and turn it into a festival of direct democracy during the era of Occupy Wall Street. But Occupy was violently suppressed and shut down for the crime of trying to make unjustly-privatised space available for peaceful, political deliberation. The lesson is obvious and oft repeated: power cedes nothing without a demand.

There is likely to be a lot more ugliness before the world gets any better. This is neither to endorse the violence or even to argue for a view of it as particularly useful politically. Rather, it is simply to argue that where a militarised state defends a hollowed out democracy, the confrontations with those who want change will inevitably be ugly. The organisational question is how to channel that energy into lasting institutions and real gains.