Sunday, 29 March 2020

Keir Starmer's Loyal Opposition


Coronavirus has meant that the already low level of public interest in the Labour leadership election has dwindled to nothing. Although I’ve been mostly ignoring the actually-existing election, I am finding ways during the lockdown to torture myself with an imagined alternative.

That imagined alternative should serve to demonstrate just how meek the actually-existing Labour left has been. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn should have endorsed Rebecca Long-Bailey. She was always going to be styled as the Corbynite candidate, so why not embrace it? No, it’s not the done thing for existing or former leaders to endorse current candidates, but that never stopped Miliband, Brown or Blair from intervening against Corbyn. There should have been an opening rally (remember those?) in early January with RLB joined by McDonnell, Abbott, and Corbyn, along with leading figures in Unite, Momentum, and other unions and affiliated socialist societies that ultimately backed her. The reasons this didn’t happen are clear: McDonnell and Abbott backed RLB quietly, presumably because they didn’t want to tarnish her reputation as a unifier ahead of the campaign (fat lot of good that did). Corbyn stayed mostly neutral (a few nudging video appearances aside) presumably for similar, flawed reasons. RLB had to actively win over the support of Unite and Momentum, which might have both gone for softer left choices if there had been one. The early work RLB had to do reflected the lack of preparedness of the left for a leadership campaign. But how on earth could the Corbynites have been so negligent – so complacent – as to not anticipate a challenge from the right in the likely event that Labour eventually lost the 2019 election? How did they fail to coordinate their allies and game-plan a succession? I think this boils down to two things: firstly, some genuinely believed – after 2017 – that whatever happened, they would do well enough in the election to avoid Corbyn resigning (remember Murphy’s ‘every seat is up for grabs’?) and secondly, they may have fatally underestimated the resilience and organisation of the Labour right. The latter knew exactly what to do once 2019 was lost: rally behind Starmer, keep a low profile, get read for a purge of the Corbynites from at least the upper ranks of the party.

Keir Starmer had no problem in the early, crucial days of the campaign styling himself as a left-wing radical (as laughable as the claim may seem to many familiar with his career in Public Prosecutions). RLB could easily have outflanked him from the left on green politics, public ownership, anti-racism, and anti-war politics. Corbyn won in 2015 and 2016 because he understood the membership and was open about his own politics. RLB made several clumsy concessions to journalistic opinion that made her and Starmer seem pretty similar. She signed up to some dodgy pledges on antisemitism; she promised to press the nuclear button; she made noises about ‘progressive patriotism’. A decision was clearly made early on to look tough in the areas that Corbyn looked weak. But Corbyn never looked weak in these areas to the Labour selectorate – these were the things they liked about him. No nuclear fetishism. No compromise on migrants’ rights. No equivocation on the Israel-Palestine question. Just as Labour members previously voted for Corbyn knowing that these things could be electoral liabilities, principled, clear stances win dividends with the membership. Once Corbyn became leader, he and his team too often failed to lead in these areas and instead looked to appease their critics. RLB was showing in her campaign that the Labour left had not yet found the resolve to fight on these issues and that her leadership would suffer from the same wrong-footedness as Corbyn’s. This is why Starmer is going to win: his campaign in the early days looked surefooted, even if his politics are guff.  

On the eve of an inevitable Starmer victory, reports emerged from excited staffers about what they plan to do in office. A shadow cabinet well to the right of Ed Miliband’s; a ‘purge’ of existing Corbynite personnel; and (perhaps most importantly) a polite but firm request for the resignation of left-wing General Secretary Jennie Fornby. In a few weeks Corbyn’s legacy could be completely eradicated. The institutional weight of the party remained firmly on the right even during Corbyn’s tenure. The few meaningful changes of personnel won by Corbynism will be easily shaken off. Next will be the erosion of the policy platform. Starmer has already indicated he won’t be keeping the more ‘fringe’ stuff (the four-day week; worker-ownership schemes; free broadband – all announced but left under-developed by McDonnell). If his rumoured Shadow Cabinet is anything to go by, there is likely to be no meaningful commitment to expanding public ownership, scrapping tuition fees, democratising the economy, or even re-nationalising the NHS. Instead expect some targeted public investment and tweaks to the welfare state.

Starmer’s public style in recent weeks – a non-presence in the early weeks of the Coronavirus crisis; a deference to the government’s public health approach; waffly non-policy about banding together and fighting the virus – indicates exactly what kind of leadership we can expect under him. I half expect him to announce the abolition of the Labour Party due to it being improper to have a formal opposition in times of crisis. It is not clear if Starmer’s ‘forensic’ style belongs in a political party at all or if it is more like the loyal, constructive advice of government experts. Those who are now sighing with relief because the long-anticipated ‘effective opposition’ is on its way all really seem to want done with the tedium of party politics. Certainly, they want done with Labour party politics. Their vision is that of an elite social layer of technocrats who may not be formal officeholders, but are well-placed to intone sternly at the populist jesters who are. The goal is not to win power, but to berate the populist right from positions of professional high status. So it is obvious then that Keir Stermer – the least political of politicians; a man of impeccable professional credentials; a man ill-suited to any form of party life – is their man.

At the next election, then, if Labour exists at all, it will likely wind up running to the right of the Tories on the issue of the deficit and public finances. I do not mean by this that Labour will be running to the right of the Tories on public spending generally. No doubt they will promise a few extra billion on the NHS or on infrastructure spending (not too much, mind). But, given Starmer’s own disposition and the politics of his associates, they will be occupying the dull, ‘sensible’ terrain recently vacated by Johnson’s Tories. Labour will be weighted towards a fiscal conservatism that has never really mattered to the Tories when in power. Starmer’s Labour will cast itself as the party of professional competence in distinction to Johnson’ reckless Tories. Starmer will promise to close the deficit through some tax increases and some better provisioning at HMRC. Johnson, meanwhile, will run on letting him finish what he has started: ‘record’ NHS investment; more nurses; more doctors; more infrastructure; more jobs. The coming recession – perhaps even depression – may not be blamed on the Tories because it has come in the form of a public health crisis. Starmer will be in no position to exploit the actual failures of the Tory response (his whole approach has been to loyally advise rather than criticise); nor the underlying economic and social weaknesses that have made Britain so susceptible to crisis (that would require a radical critique of privatisation and financialisation, which Starmer has no appetite for). So it is that Labour will be led by its most hesitant, cautious, pro- establishment leading politician in an era of unprecedented crisis and turmoil. You couldn’t imagine a better death sentence.

Some of this is the left’s fault. The left was in power for four years. For a moment, it looked unassailable. It had the leadership and Shadow Cabinet; it had the unions; the General Secretary was supportive; there was an NEC majority; the membership was united. Only the MPs and some official enclaves (Deputy Leadership; personnel at HQ; councils; the Mayor of London’s office) seemed to be holding out. A wave of departing centrist MPs only seemed to improve the left’s prospects. But ultimately Corbynism failed. This was partly due to Corbyn and McDonnell’s reluctance to further alienate the Labour right. They possibly saw it as necessary to keep the old Labour right as well as the left-leaning fractions of liberalism on board. But the latter certainly were never on board and would never be reconciled to Corbynism. The left more broadly was often emollient. It backed away from Open Selection. It allowed itself to be dragged towards a second referendum on Brexit. It accepted the right’s definition of anti-semitism to the neglect of Palestinian rights.  
If there is a rational kernel to the membership’s (and some ex-Corbynites) support of Starmer it is that they now believe it is not possible to fight a war on two fronts. Corbynism’s fight was with two arms of the British establishment and the state: on the one hand, the Tory right and, on the other, the liberal centre. To win Corbyn had to demolish the political leadership of liberalism and hegemonise its base. Only after that could it pose a serious challenge to Toryism. Because Corbynism failed, many of its former supporters will now accept their subordination to liberalism. Starmer represents capitulation on the first front. The problem is he also represents a priori capitulation in the fight with Toryism.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Nationalise Everything? - Rishi Sunak's Brave New World


In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, the British government has announced plans to subsidise 80 percent of the salaries of workers in firms threatened with closure. If British lobby journalists are to be believed, the government has just 'nationalised' the entire private sector. Except it hasn't. What it has done is offer an effective subsidy to private firms to continue paying wages. Crisis capitalism is no stranger to subsidies: you can think of Quantitative Easing (whereby a central bank buys up debt held by private sector financial firms in order to provide them with cash) as a kind of subsidy. Since 2008 capitalism has become increasingly reliant on these elaborately stylised subsidies, except because they are done by central banks and have complicated names we don't think of them as such. Where this new intervention does differ from the past – in Chancellor Rishi Sunak's words it's 'unprecedented' – is in the particular conditionality of the subsidy (it has to go to workers rather than bosses) and is coming direct from central government rather than from a delegated 'non-political' authority like a central bank. For the first time in the Coronavirus crisis, the government has broken a taboo of neoliberal orthodoxy: central government – the Treasury in particular – is going to spend a lot of money to keep people in work. That said, the full coercive power of the law will not be brought to bear on firms, as it remains an essentially voluntary arrangement. Workers will likely have to push for firms to adopt it.

The policy comes later than other countries, far beyond the point at which a full-scale health and economic crisis could be avoided, and its very necessity points to underlying weaknesses in the British model of capitalism. The absence of trade union-negotiated employer commitments and a threadbare social safety net has meant that few automatic stabilisers now kick in in a crisis. The British economy is built on a deregulated labour market and the ease with which workers are 'hired and fired' is responsible not only for the Tories' 'jobs miracle' but also the growth of a precarious sector which is extremely vulnerable in a downturn. A common facet of advanced capitalist economies today is a protected core workforce (with full-time hours, protected contracts, and trade union representation) accompanied by a growing peripheral precariat. The peculiarity of British capitalism is that the core workforce is vulnerable to lay-offs, while the precariat is even worse off.

Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's plan for the government to cover up to 90 percent of salaries, whilst also taking a range of steps to ensure the welfare of the newly unemployed, the self-employed (who will effectively become unemployed during the shutdown), and the sick would have been far more effective, but was always a pipe dream with this Conservative government. McDonnell's plan made a specific commitment to raise sick pay and unemployment compensation up to the level of the real living wage. No such provision has been made in the actual announcements. The TUC has trumpeted its involvement in this undoubtedly positive outcome for some workers, but typically for today's unions, they covered a privileged layer of workers but failed to fight for the most vulnerable. As the the Prime Minister promised that restaurants could convert themselves into takeaways during the closures, it is worth remembering that the likely delivery drivers enabling these services will be precariously employed gig economy workers for platforms like Deliveroo. There was precious little for them in the announcements. In essence these measures enable just enough social reproduction (that is, the basic stuff of everyday life) to keep the reproduction of capital going.

So what do the measures achieve? Firstly, the government has offered grants to all employers of any size that cover 80 percent of each worker's wage. If the offer is widely taken up, it will keep people in work. It violates a common assumption in market societies that workers kept on the payroll despite their underlying redundancy is a dangerous inefficiency. It distorts what are supposed to be the basic tenets of a market economy and as such could only be tolerated in the most extreme of situations. That is an indicator of how bad things are. In context the new wage subsidy is wholly necessary to avoid an immediate social catastrophe. Next, there are more measures for business including postponed tax payments and more loans that follow the £330 billion announced a few days ago. Then, there is a volley of measures that cover Universal Credit claimants (an extra £1,000 a year on the basic rate), private-sector renters (covering 30% of local market rents), and the self-employed (removing the minimum income threshold on Universal Credit so that self-employed people can access an equivalent to statutory sick pay). What it does not do is provide further certainty for renters beyond the suspension of payments previously announced, nor does it increase sick pay or reduce the five-week Universal Credit waiting time. Together, these measures direct low-paid renters, the self-employed, the unemployed and the sick towards the bureaucratic, punitive and underfunded benefits system. For these people, the benefits system remains below its 2010 level of provision, while also being harder to access. This is potentially disastrous because the people who need support most will have to jump through hoops to get it. As Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in the Commons this week, in this crisis, the health of all of us is dependent on the health of the most vulnerable.

It is worth putting the scale of these measures in their proper context. The Conservatives are responsible for a shredding of the benefits system that was supposed to be in place in times of crisis. They have also presided over ten years of real-terms cuts to the NHS, which now threatens to collapse in the wake of unprecedented demand for ICUs. A deregulated labour market – championed by both Labour and Conservative governments alike – has reduced workplace protections and made jobs much more vulnerable in a crash. Restrictive trade union laws implemented by successive governments since Thatcher have reduced workers' bargaining power. Perhaps most pertinent – but least remarked upon – is the growth of private-sector debt and the entanglement of non-financial corporate firms in the growth of financial markets – especially since 2008. In this crisis we have not yet seen any banks collapse, despite the nosediving stock markets, the ructions in short-term lending markets, and the fleeing of investors towards cash and highly liquid assets. This is partly because monetary institutions have an existing arsenal of weapons – rates cuts, repo and commercial paper market interventions, Quantitative Easing and dollar swap lines – by which cash can be pumped into markets and debt payments and other bills can continue to be covered. But banks are also in a relatively healthier state because the riskiest fringes of the securitised mortgage market have disappeared. The real threat comes from heavily indebted corporate firms, which for years have failed to make investments in productivity-enhancing technology, training the labour force, or in increasing wages. Households are also doing badly: remember that it is productivity that allows wages to sustainably rise and in a low productivity, labour intensive economy, returns to labour stagnate while retained earning go to the bosses. Stagnating earnings have led households to take on debt (credit has remained plentiful, as anyone with a credit card will tell you),  in order to fund lifestyles dependent on globalised consumption. Instead, the flood of cheap money rolling in from central bank interventions and low interest rates has enabled them to borrow extensively. But even for relatively well-performing firms, markets are fundamentally future-oriented. As the scale of scheduled debt repayments grows relative to forecasted future income, firms can face insurmountable solvency issues. The Coronavirus crisis – which has buckled the labour supply and crushed consumer demand – has radically curtailed expected future earnings. This along with the heavy burden of debt is what threatens a complete corporate meltdown. To be clear, no country in the world is going to survive this crisis unscathed. Few are as ill prepared for it as the UK.

What comes next may be equally as mould breaking. Because supply lines in contemporary capitalism are global and production is generally low on inventories, disruptions can cause rapid collapses in output. As Coronavirus spreads, we are likely to see production in many industries cease. Food production – which remains labour intensive and therefore equally vulnerable to a pandemic – could also suffer. So far the empty supermarket shelves have been the result of spiking demand as panic-buying increases. We could soon see supply-side shortages as global supply chains are interrupted. The challenge for the government will be to maintain food supplies by substituting domestic production for imports (ironically, such import substitution strategies were once staples of Third World economies and were much frowned upon by the leading lights of global capitalism). Another interesting question is the energy supply, where a major outbreak threatens staffing. Finally, and most crucially, is the rate of infection among health service workers. In each of these areas, the government may have to introduce advanced safety measures to protect their respective workforces from viral contagion. If the outbreak is very severe, the state will have to take an almost militarised, commanding role over key economic sectors. All of this assumes the worst, but it is the government's job to plan for such eventualities. For a democratic socialist like me, the prospect of state-command capitalism is not a delightful one. Violent, suppressive measures – especially in border enforcement and in the prison system – are a likelihood. Tory governments may relish the latter, but they do not usually seek to take such a directive role over the pillars of economic production. The next few months could see the government forced to take up a much more interventionist role than its current wage subsidy policy does.

The incompetence of the government in the early weeks of the outbreak has been widely under-reported, perhaps because of a reluctance of major journalists to look like they are scaremongering. The government's weak 'advice' for people to stay away from others has been fundamentally undermined by delays to the wage subsidy announcement. They may deny it ever existed now, but the early strategy of creating 'herd immunity' (maximising the spread of the infection while not disrupting normal economic activity) undoubtedly helped contribute to the impending disaster. This does not inspire much faith in its ability to rationally plan and organise the kinds of economic interventions that may soon become necessary. Something that has characterised the last forty years of capitalist state development is a general reduction in its capacity to take outright directive actions. The era of outsourcing investment to the private sector and delegating regulation to 'depoliticised' institutions has created a vast but hollow state structure. There is no guarantee that the government will be able to rapidly expand the state's capacity and expertise. 

Finally, there is the question of how to fund a growth in public expenditure in the middle of an economic downturn. No government – Labour or Tory – would dare raise taxes on such a weakened private sector. Instead the government will increase public borrowing. In the last crisis yields on government debt fell as investors sought a harbour in a storm. This time – at least for the time being – investors are keener on hoarding cash – dollars in particular – as the most liquid of all assets. Central banks will have to commit to purchasing government debt – possibly, in another violation of neoliberal lore – directly from governments rather than in so-called secondary markets. Convincing central bank intervention should bring down yields and stabilise prices, meaning the state can borrow more for less. Panicked investors might seek to flee the UK, leading to a crash in sterling (we have seen the pound falling relative to the dollar this week). To combat this, the government may need to break the foundational macroeconomic law of neoliberalism and impose capital controls, compelling domestic investors to put their money into public debt.

Capitalism, then, but not as we know it. Or at least, not as its propagandists have described it. In truth, capitalism has been feeding off public subsidies ever since 2008. The jobs miracle of 2010-2019 can even be traced back to the low interest rates and the flood of cash ploughed into the private sector by central banks. In the coming year or two, the rules on the limits of state involvement in the economy (particularly where fiscal policy, state direction, and civil liberties are concerned) are going to be upended. The left can make demands in this context, but it should not mistake what is happening for a wholly progressive change. This is not a case of 'we're all socialists now'. Indeed, the government will attempt to restore capitalist profitability by any means because its legitimacy depends on the social function of profit. The left should seek to use this crisis to make clear the underlying iniquities driving it and for the expanded functions of the state to take a more democratic and socially just form than they will under the Conservatives.


Sunday, 29 December 2019

Radicalising in Power- 2010-2019





The decade began and ended with the election of Conservative governments. In the four general election between 2010 and 2019, each ended with Tory victories and an increase in the Conservatives' share of the popular vote. A defining majority in 2019 appears to set the Tory party up for a further decade in power. This glance at the state of British party politics in 2019 would suggest we are now in a period of Conservative hegemony at least as profound as Thatcher’s. Yet the coloration of these governments reflects the turmoil that has actually surrounded them. After Brexit, Cameron’s glossy sub-Blairism slipped abruptly and seemingly without legacy into the sterner, hectoring National Conservatism of Theresa May. This too was curtailed with vanishingly little to its name in the long fallout from the 2017 election. Finally, Boris Johnson’s brand of dishevelled authoritarian nationalism has forged an intimidating, if potentially unstable, social coalition. The possibility of big majorities - unknown to the Tories since Thatcher - is back and with it the promise of a generation of Conservative rule.

The perverse effect of a decade of unrest and upheaval has been the strengthening of the Conservative Party. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 appears now as a sharp shock to a political system and national settlement that was already fraying. Following it British politics experienced a series of crises that were symptomatic of its deep constitutional and geopolitical inadequacies. Two referendums – the Scottish and the European – have defined the terrain on which the Conservative Party has rebuilt itself – albeit in a regionally and nationally uneven manner. From a national embarrassment under Major in 1997 to a seeming colossus in 2019, it is a compelling if disconcerting story. This is a rare example of a party radicalising in office, under the pressure of crisis and demands from radical fractions within its ranks.
What of the opposition? Three successive orientations have been put down by the Tory machine. Brown for the Labour right; Miliband for its centre-left; and Corbyn for its radical left wing. It was the latter that, to the shock of most commentators, proved the most difficult for the Tories to beat. Brownism’s exhaustion in 2010 was down to its own internal contradictions and a restyled Blairism was enough to displace it. Cameron’s government’s only claim to distinction was the extent to which it ate the social fabric of the country, eventually undermining the ruling class’s tenuous social legitimacy and driving the conditions of poverty and exclusion that aided the Vote Leave campaign. Miliband attempted a rejuvenation of the party that had become so ossified and alienated from its social base by invoking some of the concerns of the Tribunite soft left while tilting at the nationalist preoccupations of ‘traditional’ (i.e. white) Labour voters. This ramshackle confection of technocratic neo-Keynesianism, modest reformism, and red-blooded nationalism was easily seen off by the more professional Cameron. The latter was the more shameless in his orientation to the Home Counties and the middle to upper classes. He was therefore the more honest choice. Miliband was of basically the same class layer as the Cameron circle, even if he struck a slightly different pose.

The resemblance of party leaders to each other in the first half of the decade - Miliband, Clegg, Cameron - perhaps symbolises how narrow the range of options had become. It was a stifling period. The first break came in 2014 and the narrow vote of Scotland to remain in the Union. Miliband’s disastrous backing of the Stronger Together campaign helped kill off the last support for Labour in Scotland. The 2015 election saw Scotland turn entirely SNP yellow. This was only the first definitive severance of the Labour Party from its heartlands. More would follow.

Between 2015 and 2017, a hesitant and faltering left leadership struggled to keep the Labour Party on the road. It was widely expected that the working class backing of Brexit and the popularity of May would see off this failed experiment. But it did not. The drastic growth in the Tory vote share that May won was almost entirely offset by an unpredicted burst of support for Corbyn. Labour pinched seats back in Scotland; held on to much of the North East and West; made inroads in the South; remained hegemonic in Wales; became unchallengeable in London. Only the Midlands threatened to turn blue. 

Under Corbyn Labour offered simple and unequivocal repudiation of Tory rule: growing poverty and inequality; the ragged state of public services; local councils going bust; the high cost of privatised transport and utilities in the midst of a wage squeeze. As an alternative it offered a recognisable social-democratic settlement: higher incomes, higher public spending, investment, and a healthier economy and polity that would deliver stable returns to productive capital. Given the relative truce over Brexit - with both parties offering only slightly softer or harder variants - it was possible for at least some Labour Leave voters to plump for Corbyn, while the English and Welsh cities moved increasingly in Labour’s direction. 

May atrophied in the wake of 2017, standing down after the failure of her Brexit negotiations in 2019. As her replacement, Johnson took the opportunity to capitalise on the public’s frustration with the protracted Brexit process and pin the blame for it on the parliamentary opposition. The decade closed with that strategy’s total success. Labour became the party of process over outcome; the Tories the party of speedy and decisive action. The deftness of the Tories' trap was not to guide the opposition blindly into a cul-de-sac, but to foreclose alternatives and have the opposition enter willingly. Labour joined in the disruption to the Brexit process and the parliamentary chaos not unaware of the potential risks, but with little idea of what else it could do.

May had made similar claims to Johnson: a coalition of chaos; more dithering over Brexit; a ‘vote for me is a vote for Brexit’; a Tory majority guarantees Brexit. Why did it work for Johnson but not for May? Part of the answer is surely that the public had grown to distrust Corbyn in the meantime, blaming his party for delay and seeing Labour’s plan for a second referendum as an attempt to scupper the whole thing. Corbyn had eventually backed the second referendum idea under intense pressure from influential, remain-supporting factions within the party’s membership and among its MPs. Moreover, little was done in the Corbyn years to rebuild trust in the party by embedding it in the places abandoned by Blairism. The community organising unit set up by Corbyn was a start but not enough to stem the tide of abstentions and defections. 

The potential for Johnson’s - and May’s - majority was inscribed into the national, regional and sociological dynamics of the Brexit vote and the Scottish independence crisis. Labour had lost its Scottish firewall in 2015. The Brexit vote was achieved with a vital layer of working class support that went along with traditional petty bourgeois and small capitalist Euroscepticism. This working class layer tended to be whiter, less urban, older, more propertied, and living in towns with decimated industries. The decades long retreat of organised labour and the disappearance of traditional industries under Thatcherite onslaught eroded the cultural basis of labourism. The party of the British working class, seeing that the game was up for these solidaristic forms of social organisation, shifted its allegiance over the course of the long 1990s to the more metropolitan middle classes. Labour’s vote share gradually dwindled down across these regions; but the hard right under UKIP split the right wing vote and allowed Labour to safely keep many of these seats. The Leave coalition that formed in 2016 started the stitching of these two factions of the British right together. The scene was set for a united right under the Conservatives to crush Labour in the north, just as Labour had been crushed by Scottish nationalism north of the border. May could not pull this off because of Labour’s effective 2017 counter-strategy.

By 2019, the potential for this coalition was finally realised. Johnson had simplicity (Get Brexit Done), targeted messaging (including millions on Facebook ads), and a press that had spent four years painting Corbyn as basically illegitimate. The Corbyn-led Labour Party failed to respond adequately to any of these challenges. The obvious failure was in the broad election strategy. It fought an offensive campaign in Tory held marginals, but ignored its angry Leave-voting northern seats. Crucially, it failed to connect its radical policies to a central demand that would have broad appeal in these areas. Despite unprecedented work by activists, it may simply be that the party sent its ground troops to the wrong places. Underlying all of these errors was the simple fact that most of these voters had no reason to believe the party’s promises. A five minute doorstep conversation with an activist from out of town is not sufficient to undo years of pent up frustration and resentment. As many have said since the election, Labour needs to rebuild a radical culture in these towns and become a visible and positive part of their social fabric.

What has widely been seen as a period of open contestation over the future of British capitalism may in hindsight look more like the slow consolidation of a new regime. Successive Conservative administrations may in future be seen as stages in the development of this regime. It was built by seizing the sclerotic institutions of British Conservatism and rewiring them for a more aggressive, data driven era. The Conservative Party - shorn of a mass membership or any organic link to wider social layers - now operates as a social media channel. It is funded mainly by large donations from the super rich; it recruits its expertise from the tech world; and does its best to hoard attention and meme-ify the most reactionary proclivities of British society. The electoral coalition it now wields is one that was carefully identified and produced, poked and prodded, titillated into existence. This is a regime that uses the power of data expertise to secure ruling class domination in an era of profound discontent, disillusionment, and growing social dysfunction. It would be overly sanguine to assume that the worsening of material conditions alone could undo such a coalition.

Brexit itself was the great experiment in which these lessons were first learned. It was Brexit that killed Cameron’s tepid sub-Blairism and helped Cummings et al remodel the Tory party into a more aggressive, slimmed down, and overtly reactionary operation. The usual backing of the press and the meekness of the broadcasters helped, but the central thrust was undoubtedly in the libidinal economies of online. Circling this drain was always Johnson, though the Tory leadership initially eluded him. Despite the credit he got for heading up the Leave campaign, his personal capacity for thuggish and unpredictable behaviour apparently drove his closest allies to put the knife into his 2016 leadership campaign. Michael Gove made a run at it himself, but was beaten out by May. May’s short, disastrous tenure points perhaps to the reliance of this new regime on quite specific personalities and operators. Johnson is the perfect politician for such a regime, exuding the necessary insouciance and bonhomie to get away with the petty slander and repetitiveness necessary for the success of contemporary Toryism. Prior to Brexit, Johnson was at a relatively low ebb. His too-flagrant careerism seemed to set him at odds with Cameron’s unrumpled sheen and May’s moralising approach. Yet it is clear that Johnson’s ruthless, self-centred careerism is an asset for at least some parts of the electorate. After all, as long as he wants what they want, his self-centredness makes him look oddly reliable. Given the general degradation of the concept of trust, flagrant self-interest is at least more honest than the dissimulations of a Cameron. As with Trump, the prior erosion of faith in the functioning of a decent political system makes it hard to oppose Johnson on moral grounds. If they’re all in it for themselves, at least he doesn’t pretend otherwise. His famously naked ambition chimes well with the surprising adaptability of the ruling social bloc that is cohered around him. Here the interests he organises and articulates have not changed much: big capital; finance; sections of the upper and lower middle classes. This bloc combines necessary deference to the imperatives of rentier and financial profit with a smattering of popular social authoritarianism for the base. In contemporary economic and social sciences literature, it is common to find the language of resilience as the essential tonic in a volatile, marketised world. The British ruling class has found its resilience in a form of adaptability. What allows that adaptability to go on so successfully is the hollowing out of so much that once supported a relatively robust opposition. The death of the big industries; the collapse of trade unionism; the muddled and disoriented political left; the thinning out of dissenting media. The ideological complexion of this bloc is flexible to a degree, though not so much as is sometimes suggested: despite adopting a hodgepodge of spending commitments, its popular appeal is to state authoritarianism (more police, stronger borders, curbs on human rights obligations) rather than welfare. And since its broader purpose is to leave the dominant mode of accumulation in place, no alteration to the financialisation of daily life, the inequality machine, or the shit jobs paradigm is countenanced. The strong state and the free economy indeed.

None of this happened of its own accord. The conditions of life in contemporary Britain are marked above all by a regional fracturing which has long since been identified as the symptom of the slow death of the British imperial state. The material basis of popular consent for the centralised British state went with Keynesianism. The slow break up of the Union is fast reaching a crescendo in the form of both Brexit’s inevitable unification of Ireland and the triumphant nationalism of Scotland. Wales limps on reluctantly in England’s shadow with no clear alternative settlement in sight. Yet even within England the industrial dislocations have driven the stronger, more outward looking sections of the broad working population into the big urban centres. Much of England’s rural and small urban economy has been decimated, its only political consolation a rejectionist anti-globalism and anti-metropolitanism. Small shifts in suburban demographics - as younger, more multicultural and progressive groups leave the over-priced centres - have hardly compensated for the rise of anti-metropolitanism elsewhere. The institutions that could stitch together these divided regions with a shared working class consciousness have not been built by a severely weakened and disoriented Labour Party. Thus the demographic patterning, regional fracturing, cultural divisions, and dysfunctional institutions of the current set up militate against a revival of social democracy and in favour of reactionary populism. 

The trend outlined here mostly accounts for 2019’s dismal election failure by the Labour Party. Of course, there were severe mistakes made by the leadership in the short campaign which compounded the trend: a misallocation of funds and activists to Tory marginals rather than Labour ones; a muddled and over-complicated policy message; the unpopularity of the leader and the failure to own up to his and our failings on antisemitism. The final electoral phenomenon that still warrants explanation in this account, however, is the success of 2017. That achievement - of a ten point increase in Labour’s popular vote share to nearly 41% - now looks like a deviation from an otherwise clear trend of secular decline in Labour’s vote. It offers - for those willing to look - a glimpse of an alternative way forward. 

The Corbyn surge of 2017 was down to a range of factors few of which are accounted for in most media narratives. The austerity generation - the young who struggle with rents, a high cost of living, poor public services, stagnating or falling real wages, and the inability to settle down in life - had staged a series of rebellions against their post-crash fate. These are well-known, from Occupy to the anti-austerity movement to the 2011 riots. These coalesced in and around the Labour Party and allowed for the election of its most left-wing ever leader. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved at first - and again after 2017 - no better at articulating a convincing alternative to the Tories. But the brief period in 2017 when, compelled by a wave of working age enthusiasm, the leadership seized the initiative from the Tories is worth thinking about. Volatility in popular sentiment - a function of the very weakness of consent-making institutions in British life - made it possible for Labour to reach out briefly from its base in the cities and to capture some of the towns that were abandoning it. Labour kept its message broad and simple; offered tangible and immediate improvements to people’s lives; and fought a genuinely innovative campaign. Significantly perhaps, it also accepted the Brexit referendum result. The reduction of that same leadership to desperately pumping out secondhand memes on social media platforms in the final moments of the 2019 campaign was clear evidence of its failure to maintain a consistent message or build on the enthusiasm of 2017. At no point in 2019 did the Corbyn leadership genuinely have the initiative or even really the attention of the voters it needed. It was, as the sensible centrists like to say, talking to itself. 

Recovery from this unenviable position will - needless to say - not be easy. There remains a core Labour vote in the north that is above 30% at least. Heroic efforts by committed socialists in the North of England should not go unmentioned. The spiritual home of Tory Euroscepticism and xenophobia remains the South. Most working age people under the age of 50 will likely still vote Labour at the next election. Higher turnout will be essential - some Labour Leave seats saw turnout as low as 50% in 2019. To ensure that turnout is high, Labour needs to - as many have already said - build trust. A useful case study might be the much celebrated and admired city of Preston. A smaller, northeastern city with a Labour MP and Labour controlled council, Preston is often cited as an example of Corbynism in power. The famous Preston Model anchors investment around local institutions. It is a rare case of good governance under neoliberal austerity. Labour councils must adapt this model across England and Wales, providing living examples of the alternative. Many have suggested Labour turn towards community organising and that will have its place. But in terms of building faith in the Party, nothing is more effective than actual evidence of governing differently and better. There is evidence in the 2019 results that returning to at least 2017 levels of support is possible in five years’ time. Johnson’s majority was an impressive feat, built on the unique Brexit polarity, the depression of voter turnout, and the unconvincing position of the Labour Party. There is residual support for Labour if it can be tapped effectively.

The latter requires more than a clever message or strategy. The national and regional fracturing of the British state and economy will be the decisive political variable in years to come. Currently it benefits the Conservatives as the Party of order. To find an answer to complex constitutional and existential questions for the British state, Labour will need to think beyond its standard economism and towards fundamental questions of democracy in the ‘good society’ of the future


Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Labour Split: How Worried Should the Left Be?


The launch of a new centrist group of seven ex-Labour MPs was met with much derision online yesterday - especially after one member of the group, Angela Smith, made a racist gaff on live TV and had to release a recorded apology. It was, as they say in centrist circles, ‘just like an episode of the Thick of It’. They have as yet no policies, no clear messaging, and no functioning website. But the prospect of a split has long elicited a sense of foreboding from at least some sections of the left of the Labour Party (markedly more amongst commentators than members, from what I can see).

Some polling has implied that a new party would be quite popular with voters, so how worried should the left and the Corbyn leadership be about this particular nascent split? First of all, as many people have noted in, this is not the SDP: the conditions and personalities are markedly worse. The split could damage Labour’s electoral prospects in the short term and potentially keep the Tories in power, but it is also an opportunity to make the PLP a more progressive body, which is the area of party administration that Corbynism has been weakest on. Getting shot of these deadweights creates the chance to select good socialist and progressive parliamentary candidates to replace them. 

When Corbyn was elected Labour leader, many prominent figures on the left insisted that unity would be the watchword, yet it was always apparent to honest participants in the Corbyn movement that some kind of split would be essential and even healthy - for all factions. Below is why this remains the case.

The splitters are likely to fail in the long term to build a convincing electoral alternative, even if initial polling is favourable. The reasons for this can be seen in the ideological complexion of the current group of seven splitters. Each is either a Blairite or from the far right flank of Brownism. What this means in concrete terms is suggested by the voting records: financial and fiscal orthodoxy; extensive privatisation; unabashed commitment to foreign intervention and war; at best the shakiest of commitments to ‘fair pay’ burnishes their social democratic credentials. Some of these views alienate them from even the soft left and old right of the Labour Party - with whom Corbynism will have to make common cause if it is going to win an election. Not only that, but these are wildly unpopular policy positions with the wider public. Their only card is a commitment to a second referendum on Brexit, which Umunna has flip-flopped dishonestly on over the years. 

Moreover, the social basis of the new group is very weak. Blairism was and is a peculiar product of a very stifled political system, one that was reliant for its success on a certain apolitical disinterest among many voters (what the political scientist Peter Mair called 'cartel politics' as opposed to representational politics). In a more partisan era, it is not clear how it can sustain its appeal. Unlike the old Labour right, with its organic roots in the union movement, it does not clearly represent any particular social constituency apart from the very small number of upper middle class and super rich donors who have historically funded Blairism handsomely. Hence the appeal of the splitters is likely to be thin even if it initially gets some traction. 

The other thing they’ll be given ample space to shout about is antisemtism, which has been shown to be far less prevalent than widely insisted. This can - and has - damaged Corbyn and they’ll continue to use it.

This aside, the left should be exultant. A faction of the party that has few roots in Labour tradition and is abhorred by others wings of the party for its kamikaze wrecking behaviour has excluded itself from further participation. They could of course damage Labour electorally, but we should have a little more faith in our ability to recover votes with a popular socialist platform. 

The left may need a coalition with the liberal sections of the middle class to win power. But the latter is not this lot. With no convincing claim to represent any part of society (one that could only be affirmed if they win by elections - which they won’t), they can be marginalised. The presence of such MPs in in a Labour government- even the twenty or so that might follow them -  would be a disaster for implementing socialist policy. So the splitters may just have given the left the space it needs to get new MPs who can coalesce around a broad, genuinely progressive programme. 

Goodbye and good riddance then.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

'Worthy of Orwell...'




'Something something something... white working class'





No writer haunts the national consciousness like George Orwell (this, as we'll see, is a very Orwellish sentence). Orwell is everywhere – from the Spectator to the London Review of Books – if everywhere means literary, middle-class England (this too is an Orwellish construction). Orwell himself was consistently mean about the English middle class. This meanness has often been understood as a form of moral tutoring, a kind of auto-criticism within the class itself. When English writers write about Orwell they adopt a certain tone – not Orwellian but Orwellish - in order to remonstrate with themselves. Half the job of Orwellishness is to remind us that there is no contemporary Orwell whilst simultaneously auditioning for the job. Jason Cowley personifies the tendency:

'With Hitchens dead and Amis becalmed, what is missing from the literary-political landscape is a figure with the significance of George Orwell or HG Wells, someone who writes novels as well as political essays and popular journalism, and to whom we can turn and learn from in moments of national consequence or crisis, and around whom others can gather, as today they still gather around Orwell.'

The obsessive habit of name-dropping (though always the same names) is accompanied by a racy, adjective-laden depiction of 'the Culture', as if anyone in the wider world had noticed 'Amis becalmed' or would care if they did. Cowley is editor of that most Orwellish paper, the Newstatesman, writing here in the most Orwellish of forms, a Financial Times long-read. Arguably, there is precisely zero call for another Orwell. Orwell never died – was never allowed to die – because Orwell never inhabited the real world. He inhabited a celestial England to which he was elevated even during his lifetime. This patriotic, sceptical cloud-land became the place from where self-declared literary titans threw dazzling thunder bolts of mild xenophobia and tawdry nostalgia down on an unsuspecting public for much of the 20th century. In his epic lament, Cowley calls Orwell a ‘Tory anarchist’ – which sounds like exactly the sort of person you’d meet in any Whitehall pub on a Tuesday afternoon – as if it’s a compliment. Orwell’s politics are supposed to be complex. This is what we are all supposed to admire about him – he liked tea, but also nationalisation. The Orwellish style – this nebulous cloud of romantic humdrum – has given several generations of whiskey-soaked ‘essayists’ an excuse to dislike Jews, Muslims and women. It’s given Orwell – or rather ‘the Orwells’ - instant access to both the left and the right. The person nobody mentions in connection with Orwell is John Maynard Keynes. But there are ringing similarities: the ‘poison pen’; the straddling of multiple literary and political worlds; bohemian eclecticism mixed with a devotion to bourgeois English mores. Keynes is the only real rival to Orwell’s claim to represent the English middle-class Man of the mid-20th century. Why the distance between them? Perhaps Keynes was too ‘queer’. Or too establishment. Orwell was from genuinely modest origins, unlike Keynes. But for all Orwell’s anti-establishment chic, he was basically a Mandarin.

There is no greater prize in ‘English letters’ – or at least among those who talk about things like ‘English letters’ - than to be declared ‘worthy of Orwell’. But the Orwellish preference in ‘English letters’ has recently got a bit more sophisticated. In the 80s and 90s, those who were ‘worthy of Orwell’ were usually to be found at serious parties talking about the loss of the stately aristocratic virtues to ‘mass culture’ or in war-torn countries profiling rebel fighters. They were anti-totalitarian to a man, methodologically individualist and made scepticism into a lifestyle choice rather than a philosophical doctrine. But then there was the Iraq War and the Financial Crash. Like the rest of culture, the Orwells have been irrevocably changed by these two signal crises of late capitalism. Iraq discredited the sceptical poise because it showed the self-proclaimed ‘anti-totalitarians’ to be rather more sceptical of some ideals than others. They were good at debunking Stalinism, not so much Neoconservatism. For all their hatred of ‘double-speak’, Bush’s campaign of ‘nation-building’ went largely unquestioned by the Orwells. Then there was the crash and amidst the new squalor of austerity and bailouts, literary England remembered the existence of homegrown poverty. Orwell’s anti-totalitarian novels (Animal Farm and 1984) were quickly replaced by his thirties journalism (Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier) as an off-the-shelf model for talking and thinking about social crisis.

Stephen Armstrong was quick out of the blocks with The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited (2011), which retraced Orwell’s footsteps through the unemployed, abandoned North of England. Armstrong had actually been beaten to it by Beatrix Campbell, whose Wigan Pier Revisited was released in the 1980s. But she was not Orwellish because she was a feminist and a pop culture critic. On the back of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level (2010), academic and popular sociology returned its attention to questions of equality and poverty. An industry was built around unveiling and cataloguing this poverty. Rolled into this was a concern both with national identity and representations of class: Kate Fox’s Watching the English (2004) treated Englishness as a ticklish anthropological subject. Some of this ‘culturalism’ predated the financial crash, when Blairism did its best to dismantle class solidarity and break society up into identitarian interest groups, the forgotten ‘white working class’ first among them. Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class (2005) helped popularise the term. The TV presenter and One Nation Tory Jeremy Paxman wrote a history of ‘the English’. The Guardian journalist John Harris started producing video diaries in which he explored the forgotten corners of ‘left behind Britain’ and chronicled the natives’ ‘legitimate concerns’. At the grubbier end of this videography were shows like Benefits Street and Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away. For some years after the recession it was hard to escape dinner table conversation about scroungers and benefits cheats. The Tories did their best to cultivate class hatred and impose elaborate forms of punishment on the feckless. Whether sympathetic or not, this cultural outpouring betokened a certain kind of libidinal investment in deviant poverty. Naturally, in these class-rule culture wars, in which poverty was a matter of culture and manners, Orwell was never far away. Ben Judah’s account of immigrant poverty in London was deemed ‘Orwell-like’ by the Guardian, though the author disliked the mood of Orwell worship. The enfolding of class into culture and culture into nation is indelibly associated with the name of Orwell. Russell Brand declared Owen Jones ‘our generation’s Orwell’. The Atlantic magazine mobilised Orwell’s patriotism in the Brexit wars. One of the best ‘Centrist Dad’ troll accounts on Twitter, ‘Simon Hedges’, exhorts its followers to ‘read some effing Orwell’.

Orwell already had a special prize for political writing named after him, but in 2015 a whole new category was invented – the Orwell prize for ‘Exposing Britain’s Social Evils’. The winner in 2018 was the Financial Times for its long read on Britain’s ‘left behind’ coastal towns. It is a rare kind of journalism that is increasingly highly prized, and incidentally like nothing Orwell ever wrote: a combination of macro-level statistics, qualitative interview, reportage, and the occasional personal insight. It insists there are practical solutions to the mental health crisis in Blackpool – hard economic measures like regulating the private rental sector and boosting education standards – while remaining unmoved by the possibility of wholesale social transformation. This view, if anything, unites the new social journalism. There is a great deal of emphasis on individual actors and activists in the public and third sectors proposing creative solutions to the dearth of community and social cohesion in deprived areas. Its Orwellishness comes from its self-conscious refusal of any utopian demand and indeed a squeamishness about formal politics per se. As with the so-called ‘Preston Model’ so celebrated by the current Labour Party leadership, necessity is seen as the mother of invention. ‘The willingness to co-operate and innovate here is born, in part, out of stretched resources,’ the FT says. There is in this willingness to celebrate people’s resourcefulness, a danger of slipping into complacency about the suffering caused by central government and the ease with which it could all be ended.

The winner of this year’s conventional Orwell book prize was Darren McGarvey’s (AKA Scottish rapper Loki’s) Poverty Safari (2017), a memoir-cum-diatribe against poverty in contemporary Britain. The writing is good and McGarvey is insightful. While acknowledging the left’s achievements and the best of its open, inclusive community activism, he is admirably honest about the deep resentments that sometimes fuel it. This psychological insight is more often than not turned inwards, and it at times makes for painful reading. There is much exploration of McGarvey’s own addictive personality, his emotional self-indulgence, and his deep frustrations. These are often channelled into a kind of political hyper-activism, a blustery, condemnatory attitude that McGarvey is quick to denounce and that most will recognise as a major part of life on the left. It is this kind of pent-up, misdirected energy that results in ‘call-out’ culture and the singling out of ‘traitors’ to the cause. McGarvey has little time for the iconography of the old left. The Labour Party and the trade unions are entirely absent from this account of life in Scotland’s poorest communities and its most radical movements. This surely says as much about the nature of the modern labour movement as it does about McGarvey’s own politics. For his part, McGarvey wants a more tolerant, understanding political culture, one that acknowledges the merits and flaws of life on opposing sides of the political divide: ‘Whether it be the left blaming the rich or the right blaming the poor, we tend only to be interested in whichever half of the story absolves us of responsibility for the problem.’

McGarvey is correct that politics has become more polarised. But how to account for it? ‘As social inequality widens and the chasms in our relative experiences become more pronounced, we make assumptions about the people on the other side,’ McGarvey says. This is a point that rarely gets mentioned in debates about fake news and angry politics. The conditions that once led to a higher degree of social consensus – long-run financial stability; a state with the macro-economic levers to manage disturbances; the production and reproduction of certain kinds of social labour by a legal apparatus and set of regulatory mechanisms that led to a high rate of social inclusion – seem to have vanished. The pervasive sense of civic corruption; the feeling that ‘special interests’ have captured the public realm; the lurching from crisis to crisis that has characterised the last twenty years or more; the acute social distress that has gripped working-class communities – these are rooted in the decreasing ability of the state to produce and regulate specific kinds of socio-economic consensus.

If a return to certain widely-shared social norms and conventions is your goal (and I’m not sure this should be the left’s goal), how do you go about getting there? Is it really the case that such profound political disagreements can be resolved by listening to the other side’s ‘legitimate concerns’? McGarvey goes out of his way to accommodate those who disagree with the left on immigration: their views should be heard; their concerns should be met with answers; their dislike of immigrants should be accepted as only one facet of their complex characters. This is all true, to an extent. But it left me feeling confused as to what all this listening, understanding, and respecting is supposed to achieve. Are we – who do not hold immigration responsible for inequality and poverty, nor even the rapid rate of cultural change – supposed to just agree with people who hold the opposite view? Is it really condescending and middle class to say that you think someone is wrong? That surely should be part of the dialogue. There is a risk in this discourse about the breakdown of civil debate, that the breakdown itself is blamed on the emerging ‘extremes’. It posits an equivalence between left and right (the ‘fascism of the left’ as Gina Miller recently put it) and blames them both for society’s problems. This is to mistake symptom for cause. Rebuilding consensus will be a process of winning serious socio-economic arguments, not simply listening to the other side’s concerns.

The book comes draped in endorsements from the very left-of-centre liberal voices – Guardian writers, novelists, think tank campaigners and crusading lords – that McGarvey abhors. In awarding the prize to McGarvey, Lord Adonis said, ‘As I was chairing the judges I had not the slightest doubt Orwell would have given the prize to this book.’ There are few who exemplify the strange philosophical and professional journey of the Labour far-right better than Adonis: from the aspiring lower-middle class, he graduated from Oxford, after which he ducked out of a parliamentary contest to become Tony Blair’s education advisor. He was the early architect of the academisation of schools, signalling the end of a period of relatively egalitarian comprehensive education in the UK. Having never held prominent elected office, Blair made him a peer and he has since ensconced himself – at Osborne’s invitation – on the National Infrastructure Board. His most recent incarnation is as an anti-Brexit campaigner of the kind that would presumably infuriate Loki. Other endorsements included Paul Mason, who said, ‘If The Road to Wigan Pier had been written by a Wigan miner and not an Etonian rebel, this is what might have been achieved.’ On occasion, Mason, like Adonis in his new book with Will Hutton, is happy to introduce new, coercive measures to regulate the migration system in the name of rebuilding social trust and belief in Britain’s failing elites. There is a macho, back-to-basics undercurrent of ‘looking after one’s own’ in all of this that echoes with a certain kind of Orwellishness. The reception of McGarvey’s book points to the increasingly broad acceptance of this position on the liberal left.

What really defines Orwellish writing is a shared assumption – a feeling, an intuition – which states that the human tendency to generalise and to differentiate at once unites communities and divides people into groups. It creates a bounded empathy, one with natural limits that cannot be extended forever. Thus, community feeling is sometimes unfortunate, but absolutely necessary and undefeatable anyway. The opening line of Orwell’s sentimental The Lion and The Unicorn (1941) serves as a neat demonstration of this shared intuition: ‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’ There is a raw fatalism at work here: whatever the grand schemes of rationalists, humans will inevitably seek out the homely, the familiar, the safe. Lest this be mistaken for outright conservative romanticism, it is worth noting that Orwell does not see this as mere irrationality – a matter of the sentiments – but rather a reasonable process of social construction. It is human nature that gives us the collective ‘alikeness’ of the nation, but also divides communities into the great castes. Orwell’s argument runs something to the effect that the ‘Real England’ - the England of the vast majority – can overcome the spectre of the caste system by a democratic revolution.

There is a slew of publications that publish contemporary Orwells. The most dispiriting are the Cold War leftovers like Nick Cohen at the Obeserver and David Aaronovitch at the Times. But a more considered variant can be found at the more sophisticated literary magazines. As in depth investigative journalism is increasingly seen as unaffordable among the Murdoch-owned titans, a slimmed down version of it has migrated to the high-end qualities. The aforementioned Financial Times has had a go, but nowhere is the liberal conscience more piqued than at the London Review of Books. The latter is an increasingly natural home for vexed academics, literary types and journalists alike to hold forth on the social woes of the day. Out of this mass migration a new kind of long-form writing has emerged. Some of the most widely respected mainstream journalists now write their best work for low circulation weeklies. Technology is also at work here: the internet obviously reduces reproduction costs and expands capacity, while websites allow for increasingly expansive, multi-platform pieces to becomes major publication ‘events’. A mini-site may play host to a combination of video, infographic and written content.

This is not a case of form merely dictating content, however. There is an autonomous politics to Orwellishness that emerges out of the history of the UK’s taste for social observation and is expressed through the use of the Orwellish form of the social essay. What I want to identify here is not exactly what Joe Kennedy calls ‘authentocracy’ (in a wonderful book of cultural and political criticism of that name). Authentocracy, in Kennedy’s definition, is a diffuse ambience in popular culture that is mobilised by relatively ‘progressive’ types to make them seem in touch with the ‘rooted’ sections of the working class. It is a self-conscious adoption on the part of these progressives of a clumsily constructed ‘realism’ that is intended to compensate for their past cosmopolitanism. As if, to compensate for their embrace of global capitalism, financialisation, and the neoliberal institutions of the EU, it is enough to look askance at immigration and so-called ‘frothy coffee’. The power of Kennedy’s analysis derives partly from its extensiveness: authentocracy pervades contemporary culture. It is a general attitude, a disposition, articulated in toe-curlingly self-conscious pleas for ‘common sense’. Precisely because it is aimed at the spectre of a mass audience (the sceptical, patriotic, but largely silent ‘white working class’ majority) it appears on every available media platform. What I want to identify is rather a peculiar set of political analyses that are deployed in the course of the Orwellish literary form of social observation.

Perhaps the most controversial example of this politics was Andrew O’Hagan’s The Tower. Over the course of ninety pages the essay recounts the circumstances of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which took the lives of over seventy people. It combines a detailed factual account of the night with extensive witness interviews, biography, stylised photography, an accompanying short film, and – at the centre of it – O’Hagan as disenchanted observer. It is a self-conscious panorama-in-microcosm of modern Britain in which the writer’s eye falls on institutional malfeasance, inequality, individual foible, and mass outrage. O’Hagan is a good pick for the role: a Scottish social essayist and novelist whose previous works have been impeccably ‘bottom up’. His play, The Missing, had already been praised by The Guardian as ‘an arresting, genre-defying work – part speculative memoir, part Orwellian social reportage.’ He also carries a whiff of the authentic: as he says in the essay, he grew up on a council estate. He started out his work wanting, he says, to ‘get the bastards who did this’. He was ‘enthused’ by the general outrage at what had happened. But, in time, he finds the anger to be almost entirely misplaced. He singles out the opprobrium levelled at the local Conservative-led council as an example of how misplaced this social rage became. He often conflates well-placed criticism of the austerity that has been imposed on public services with criticism of council workers themselves.

O’Hagan sets out to show how the fire was transformed into a media and political spectacle, in which different interest groups vied to assert their own interpretation on events with scant regard for the truth. ‘The tower was a progenitor of myth, as well as sharp truths, usually both at the same time, and there was no guide as to how they might be sifted and clarified,’ he says. But it’s clear that O’Hagan has political motives of his own when it comes to interpreting the fire. He wants to tell us a story about the erosion of truth in an age of passion. He believes that the real lives of those who lived in the Tower are being erased by warring political agendas. The ‘liberal conscience’ that wanted to blame Tory austerity for the fire has, he suggests, perhaps become ‘estranged from reality’. Orwell too hated the liberal conscience – which he associated with middle-class socialists, going as far as to argue that no true working man had ever been a ‘logical’ or ‘consistent’ socialist. This thudding anti-intellectualism is a hallmark of Orwellishness: it cleaves to a common sense that dislikes outlandish claims and sees all ideology as the confection of the chattering classes. O’Hagan’s piece takes the same line on working-class activists as Orwell: they are not really working class, but merely activists. They do not ‘work with their hands’ as Orwell puts it, and so are alienated from the grubby realities of working-class life. O’Hagan reveals himself to be a distinctly prejudiced observer of events around Grenfell and no doubt his work will soon be forgotten or regarded as the apologia for the powerful that it really is. Meanwhile, the Justice4Grenfell community campaign continues to organise monthly marches to calmly but determinedly demand prosecutions against those who failed to regulate the cladding of the building. Orwellish writing seeks to depoliticise daily life and to see politics itself as something that is merely imposed on life by the embarrassing spectacle of intellectualism.

Yet there could not be a clearer case of Britain’s class system leading directly to the deaths of dozens of people, nor of people’s ability to see through obfuscation and demand justice, than Grenfell. The latter is proof positive of the political truth of daily life: those who don’t have power are readily sacrificed by those who do. It is not seen in this way by the new Orwellishness, which wants to argue instead that common sense is being betrayed by demented theoreticians of political violence and upheaval on both sides. The underlying political impulse beneath the new Orwellishness it is to police who can be a progressive and what can be considered the ‘common sense’ substance of progressive politics. By identifying a universal moral culpability for the fire (the firemen, the trade union, the redevelopers, the Tory council, the residents themselves), it seeks to rescue society from politics.

To this end, a central political distinction is constructed: between the wholesome working class and the nefarious, bourgeois ideologists. Orwell himself indulged this distinction. On the one hand, there were the dim-witted, naive working-class socialists who were entirely undoctrinaire in their thinking and just wanted to alleviate poverty. On the other hand were:

the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers of whom [George Bernard] Shaw is the prototype, and the astute young social-literary climbers who are Communists now, as they will be Fascists five years hence, because it is all the go, and all that dreary tribe of high-minded' women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat.

The world of socialism is one of dilettantes and imposters, quacks and ideologues, parasites and opportunists. What this suspicion-bordering-on-revulsion crystallises into, in political terms, is a distinctively English style of intra-class snobbery. The upper reaches of the English civil service have always been haunted by its black sheep – its Kim Phillbys and John Cairncrosses – its barely suppressed sexual deviance and the cosmopolitanism sometimes cultivated by the prodigal sons of many a colonial administrator. While this colonial heterodoxy of the English elite spawned its doughty, patriotic Orwells, it had its fair share of traitors too. This really is what Orwellishness is against: the existence of dissidence at either end of the class spectrum. It permits no truly working-class intellectualism (a contradiction in terms for this elite, Mandarin ideology) and no authentic socialism of the thinking classes. It allots to each in the social order its right place, tolerating a plebeian anti-poverty so long as it does not have ambitions to redesign the hallowed institutions of social order.

The resulting politics is invariably oriented to ‘grand reform’ projects (see again Hutton and Adonis’s new book), but usually with the emphasis on national revival and restoration. The latter should be taken quite seriously: reform-as-restoration is central to this politics. It wants to return dislocated identities to their former centrality, burying the uncertainty and impotence in concrete. In this sense, whatever new political conjugations have been formed in the light of the crisis are faddish hobby-horses of the much-maligned ‘chattering classes’ (of which these authors are – by any definition – members). In the end, its morality is based around a call to return to clear social boundaries and roles. ‘Whither Orwell?’ He’s everywhere – and don’t you forget it – but perhaps only as a constructed absence. By remaining in permanent absentia, Orwell can in fact assume a structural significance. As long as Orwell is absent, there can be an appeal for his return, and with him a return to order. In his absence, society is universally culpable, all are guilty of unreason and the antics of post-truth. If only we could bring Orwell back, we could revive the polity. All of this is a particularly hollow echo of Orwell’s own desire for a ‘democratic revolution’ which would realise the promise of Englishness.

It is in this way that the social crisis brought about by the great financial crash of 2007-8, and the resulting crisis of politics and representation since, is recuperated into a story of patriotism, national revival, freedom, truth, and journalism. For ultimately, among the new Orwells, the object of study may have changed – from 20th century totalitarianism to post-truth in the post-crash era – but the subject remains the same – the truth-seeking journalist. As one new book has it, the ‘death of truth’ is brought about when citizens retreat from civic engagement. The goal thus becomes ‘to examine how a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the value of truth, and what that means for the world.’ Evoking Orwell in this context – as the man who highlighted the ways in which a ‘nation’ can fall to ‘demagoguery’ - is a way of rendering the social crises of the 21st century in broadly 20th century terms. Orwellishness has still not really recovered from the Cold War and continues to see the contemporary world through 20th century blinkers.

There are literally dozens of these accounts of ‘post-truth’, most of which make some reference to the aftermath of the financial crisis. To stick with the aforementioned, the author Michiko Kakutani does a very bad job of explaining why truth has fallen from favour. She makes reference to the financial crash, to rapid changes in technology, and to polarisation, yet none of these amounts on its own to an explanation of why emotion has entered politics and ‘reason’ and ‘consensus’ have been pushed aside. The question of where post-truth has come from is raised, only to be dashed by yet more examination of the psychology of the Trumpian villain. When the long durĂ©e rears its head, it takes the form of a denunciation of the slow growth of moral relativism. ‘For decades now, objectivity – or even the idea that people can aspire toward ascertaining the best available truth – has been falling out of favour.’ And why is this? Because, of course, the ‘New Left’ has been trampling on the legacy of scientific reason and calm, disinterested analysis. For while the Right has its Trumps, the Left has its deconstructivist philosophers, who are equally bad.

The intellectual world that the new Orwells are making for us – one lapped up by the Comment is Free pages of the Guardian and the Op-Ed section of the New York Times alike – is one in which an imagined consensus can be defended by recourse to a reanimated sense of patriotic purpose. It announces a kind of universal social culpability for the existence of ‘post-truth’ while telling us that a few cool heads can save us. Its invocation of Orwell harks back to the Cold War, a time when post-truth was in its supposed infancy. In doing so it provides an explanation for the crash, the social crisis, and the crisis of politics that fails to look our rotten class structure in the eye. Rather than seeing the crisis as a result of the concentration of power in the hands of the few, it sees it as the product of a generalised civilisational malaise – one that our enterprising heroes can rescue us all from.