Sunday, 31 July 2016

Assessing Corbynism

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, September 2015. Getty

We are being asked to vote again for a Labour leader so it might be worth looking over the past nine months to assess Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the party. There are a number of things - let's say six for starters - that a radical left leadership of the Labour Party must do. Now, you might not want a radical Labour leadership (I do) but that's a separate issue. Things need to be judged on their own terms.

What are the things that Corbynism has to achieve - the things that are baseline requirements for success? I've got six - by all means chip in with more. But clearly none of them is "triangulate to the right on welfare cuts and embrace austerity." Because by definition if a radical left - or any left - leadership does that it counts as failure (see: Syriza, see also: Ed Miliband). Here I list them and rate Corbynism on each and I find a mix of successes and failures.

1. Win material gains for working people through parliament and on the streets. This is always first and foremost. It cannot be postponed until the arrival of a progressive government

Last year the majority of Labour MPs abstained on a vote on the Conservatives' flagship Welfare Bill, which would cut billions in working tax credits to low income earners. Jeremy Corbyn and a few rebels voted against it. When Corbyn became Labour leader he led opposition across society to further readings of the bill, after which it was hacked away at by the House of Lords, crushing George Osborne's budget. Eventually Ian Duncan Smith resigned as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and billions remain in the pockets of poverty-wage and poorer workers. The crushing of Osborne's entire budgetary plan for the Parliament managed to fundamentally destabilise the Tory government.

2. Develop a serious economic alternative to austerity ready for government

John McDonnell, Corbyn's ally and Shadow Chancellor, has spent months touring the country and running economics seminars, lectures and major conferences on the British economy with guest spots from economic heavyweights. The end result? Labour is not only a serious anti-austerity party, it also has serious economic ideas. The Labour Party will set up a National Investment Bank to mobilise £500 billion to rebalance the British economy and rebuild the country. Austerity is not only wrong - it's now also a politically dead. Thanks to the intellectual work McDonnell has done alongside the likes of Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Labour is ready with a convincing, radical alternative to the deficit spending the Tories will now have to embark on because of Brexit - spending which will largely go towards the wealthy. Get this straight: the Tories are now a pro-deficit party. Labour only wants to borrow for investment in struggling areas. This is directly because of John McDonnell.

3. Develop a coherent anti-war policy

Corbyn is a lifelong unilateralist and as the recent Parliamentary vote on Trident renewal shows, Labour in Parliament does not agree. Corbyn has failed to win over almost anyone in the Parliamentary Labour Party to his position, despite a widespread lack of enthusiasm for nuclear arms in society at large. This has also not become a make-or-break issue for Corbyn supporters, which must surely count as a major failure. Part of a leader's job is to articulate sentiments into full-blown commitments. Corbyn has not done this on the foreign policy issue closest to his heart. Nevertheless, his speeches on the Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq are defining moments of his leadership and he no doubt gave voice to the lingering fury that exists in Iraq's wake.

4. Mobilise grassroots support and activism within the Labour Party

Corbyn's leadership has brought hundreds of thousands into the Labour Party and many thousands more into active politics for the first time. Yet within Labour and across the wider movements rumours circulate constantly that these members are simply absentee "clicktivits." Anecdotally speaking this is believable: I've heard plenty of Labour people complain of no-shows and even people inside Corbyn's support group Momentum bemoan a lack of groundwork. This is unfortunate, but it's in the nature of political activism: it never runs in a smooth line but comes in fits and spurts. Corbyn could conceivably have done more to encourage not only membership but broader and deeper political action on the part of his followers - however, this would have come at the cost of his ailing support among Labour MPs.

5. Build a vast social movement that reaches into every corner of British society and is willing to come onto the streets

The elusive dream of all leftists the world over. Notoriously difficult to build, even harder to control. No, Corbyn has not done this. He has attended strikes - namely, the junior doctors' strike - held meetings across the country, addressed Union conferences and shown up at every celebration of working class, BAME and LGBTQ culture going. These actions are virtually unprecedented by any Labour leader - or indeed any parliamentary leader - ever. But the dynamic so far just hasn't been there. Part of this comes down to the situation - with the left's long-term institutional weakness - but it is also down to the allocation of Corbynism's limited energies.

6. Carry enough of the country with them to make election viable. The vehicles for this are Labour in parliament the establishment media and social media

Labour support was at, immediately below or just above that of the Tories in most polls up to Brexit (things were much worse a year ago, before Corbyn became leader). Corbyn seemed to be able to exert some control over the majority of the Labour Party. And despite the patent media hostility to him (and let's not forget Labour as a whole) things seemed to be slotting into a routine. Not much, but something to build on. Then came the coup - and the evident drop in the polls - with a no doubt crushing effect on Corbyn's presumed competence. Tactically canny as ever, this will be the line of attack by Corbyn's enemies in the leadership election. Unfortunately Corbyn's success in the country is closely correlated with his ability to command his MPs. Without them he will look to some like a disaster and there's nothing we can do about that. Perhaps a smoother media operation could avert some of the worst damage inflicted by resignations - but that would require much more time and resources than the team can possibly have.

This obviously brings us to the Parliamebtary Labour Party and the mainstream media. Both work through well established networks and both unconsciously reinforce an image of what is acceptable and unacceptable in politics. This is not conspiracy, but simply an outgrowth of how networks of power work. The left must understand this simple fact and be creative in how it responds. I've often felt frustrated by Team Corbyn's inability to  play the media at its own game, rather as Podemos has done in Spain (as explained in Pablo Iglesias's long form interview with the New Left Review last year). But it is worth recalling that Podemos has suffered in recent elections. There are some battles that cannot be fought through media cycles but are long term, patient affairs. Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been more hostile to Corbyn than many anticipated. Though many can be brought round, some will never be. But where would the Left ever find itself in more favourable circumstances? These are costly, wearisome battles - but Corbynism has no choice but to engage in them if it is to be successful in its central goal of rebuilding the labour movement. To shrug in fear would be to evacuate a historic responsibility. Corbyn is not in all ways best placed to fight all these battles. But the situation is fraught with objective contradictions that no leader could simply overcome. These are after all the dangers of wielding power and holding a position of leadership.

One stark fact emerges from the above: success for Corbynism in one area necessarily leads to setbacks elsewhere. Each of these crucial tasks exists in a relation of tension with the others. And sometimes these tensions will explode. Progress organising a grassroots movement immediately enrages Labour MPs who feel threatened by Party democracy. Dogged attacks on the Tories from the left further alienates Labour's wealthy donors and enrages the right-wing media. Time and money invested in formulating serious economic policy leaves Team Corbyn less able to prepare itself for media onslaughts. Making a rational, honest case for remaining and reforming the EU leaves Corbyn open to attacks by his MPs for not being serious about EU membership. And so on ad infinitum. This is not to say that these aims are fundamentally incompatible - only that they are made so under the present circumstances. Team Corbyn is stranded with limited resources at the head of a vast, hostile Party machinery, facing off against an equally hostile state and dodging fire from the many militarised encampments of civil society.

None of this should come as news - indeed many of us were warning of it to begin with. But at the same time none of this means Corbyn's leadership is doomed or that support is pointless. It simply means that successes are limited and provisional. As is true of all politics - just ask both David Cameron and George Osborne, whose careers have just come to a disastrous end. What's all the more surprising about this is that in September last year the whole of the British press believed they were Teflon. George Osborne was supposed to be the ultimate postmodern politician, someone for whom the brute laws of reality no longer mattered as long as he could spin a story. Well, reality caught up with them both. And the past year - since the media helped land the Tories a majority - has been an unprecedented disaster for both the Cameron leadership and the establishment media. They have called everything wrong and now they're out.

In light of all this there is something of the Freudian Super-ego about Corbynism's left-wing critics. Whilst demanding that Corbyn does better, their supposed pragmatism is used to declare the necessary failure of any political project that does not absolutely prioritise accommodation with the centre. Yet by their own definition these are impossible demands. These demands cannot be met because Corbynism's left-wing critics do not really want us to meet them.

In the face of the massive challenges to Corbynism and left-wing leadership more generally in the UK, we should not simply give up. We must instead honestly admit our defeats and build on our limited successes. Corbynism must eventually meet the historical demands placed upon it if it is to win out in the long-run. There will be setbacks in future, but as long as we are strategic that is no cause for despair.  

Monday, 18 July 2016

Brexit is a Pseudo-Event

Alain Badiou: France's most influential radical philosopher
structures his entire philosophy around a notion of the event

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, set amidst the heroic arrival of Garibaldi in Sicily and the ensuing unification of Italy, contains one of the great clich├ęs of political reaction. "Everything needs to change so that everything can remain the same," is the assured counsel of Tancredi Falconeri, an aristocrat convert to the nationalist cause. Falconeri here gives voice to that enduring ability of the ruling class to change its stripes and adapt to new facts. No matter the epoch-shaking nature of certain events, they will only ever play into the hands of the ruling elite.

Such is the case with Brexit: despite the mounting political headcount and the seismic shock to Britain's economic and political system, the country is likely to remain firmly in the hands of its long-term political masters. A government inclined to impose authoritarian cruelty on the poor, people of colour, foreigners and women has emerged as the only available option, fronted indeed by a close ally of the former Prime Minister. Even as the Conservatives doubled-down on their immigrant-bashing (refusing to guarantee the rights of European nationals currently residing in the UK), the Chancellor announced plans to further slash corporation tax to just fifteen percent. As the long-term commitment to budgetary discipline is yet again kicked down the road, the Chancellor's emphasis was entirely on soothing the market's jitters over sterling and winning back waverers in the City. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage may have quit as leader of UKIP, but his attendance at the parties of the UK's grateful media barons will no doubt still be keenly sought. Boris Johnson managed a silence of several days before he was back in the cabinet by elite demand.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou advances the notion that some events are - despite all the outward appearance of violence - merely pseudo-events. Before we can sketch how he can make this claim, we have to quickly look at his definition of what an authentic event is. Badiou believes that each dominant "situation" (the prevailing conditions which allow being to be ordered into a world) is constituted via the exclusion of one element. Badiou refers to the much-abused but useful notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary subject, excluded from influence over the circulation of capital, as the subject whose formation intrudes on the situation of capitalism and shatters it with its demands for political representation. This shattering is what Badiou calls an authentic event. Badiou insists that mathematics is the only means by which being can be described (it's complicated) and so therefore this kind evental opening in being - in which the excluded "part of no part" intrudes into the order of being and disrupts it - is productive of truth. Authentic events produce truths - or more controversially, conditions where unflinching loyalty (what Badiou calls "fidelity") can be declared. In Badiou's understanding it is impossible to anticipate an event exactly, they simply happen and the choice is whether to dedicate oneself to the event or to turn away from it. An authentic event must propel its excluded element to a "maximal intensity of appearance" by rupturing being. In a political event, then, a group that is basically invisible or unable to create the grounds of its own visibility in the dominant order, must stake its claim.

It is this appearance of a new political subject that truly marks an event and it is this subject which names the event. There are philosophical problems with such a theory, of course, in that it makes political events purely subjective - nameable only by those who participate in the project. But it is nevertheless useful for understanding Brexit from the perspective of radical philosophy. Brexit is a pseudo-event because it does not rupture being and fails to propel any subordinate group into the limelight. As we can already see from the masses of data, no single political subject can emerge from the Brexit debacle: the very wealthy, small business owners, many petit-bourgeois, and huge swathes of the declining working class are counted among the leave data. There is no sign of some unprecedented emergence and however much commentators attempt to be shocked by the vote, it is clear that it falls into a pre-ordained, easily marked out story.

So perhaps we can adjust Lampedusa's dictum of the renascent aristocracy: "Everything must change in order that nothing new emerges." In its enthusiasm for a return to the days of grand political strategy much of the intellectual left has forgotten this kind of ontological categorisation of events. With oppositions of the left - and also the far right - forming across much of the previously moribund political terrain of the west, this return to immediate engagement with actual politics is both necessary and appealing. But we would do well to remember that the "potentials" and "possibilities" for the left that can be unpicked from the Brexit tangle are exceedingly narrow. This is not fully understood with reference to the "balance of political forces" - it has to be taken to a higher level of abstraction. Brexit cannot yield meaningful opportunities for the left because it is incapable of producing a subject which breaks with the dominant order.

Slavoj Zizek, one of Badiou's closest philosophical allies, describes the pseudo-event as an aestheticised dramatisation of the event shorn of its radical implications, and has used the rise of fascism as the best example. The discourses assembled around the Brexit vote do not present any intensification of class struggle in the left's sense but rather its displacement by racial and national tensions. Brexit even comes with its own racialised others: the usually Muslim immigrant/refugee in whose favour the cosmopolitan Brussels bunch secretly lobby. Brexit, unlike the rise of fascism, is not articulated exclusively around the rejection of the racial other. Rather it is a form of petty-bourgeois and relatively impoverished working-class nationalist reaction - but reaction nevertheless.

The idea that the left can easily exploit the ruling class divisions opened up by Brexit is highly dangerous. How then to fight the racial discourses articulated through Brexit? It is important that this fight be undertaken in a way which respects the democratic decision to leave the European Union. It is not Exit itself that the left should resent, only the manner of its undertaking and the political discourses which are articulated through it. Here, it seems to me, it is worth returning to Badiou, who argued a few years ago, in the wake of the re-election of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, that the first gesture of a radical politics must be to assert that 'there is only one world of living men and women.' This was said in the face of Sarkozy's repeated deployment of a cultural-nationalist ontology: 'we' constitute this place, and those not from here should love it or leave. "The single world of living men and women may have laws," Badiou writes, "what it cannot have is subjective or 'cultural' preconditions for existence within it - to demand that you have to be like everyone else. The single world is precisely the place where an unlimited set of differences exist. Philosophically, far from casting doubt on the unity of the world, these differences are its principle of existence." Fighting the racist or at least racialising discourses around Brexit doesn't entail fighting for EU membership. Instead we should work to consolidate that which is universal in all identities. This insistence on universality is not, Badiou argues, an argument to abolish all other particular forms of identity, but rather to supplement them with fully developed commonalities. In other words to say that from the perspective of the world "no one is illegal." Once we declare that we inhabit a shared world - a single world shared by those drowning in boats in the Mediterranean or fleeing war in Syria or languishing in camps in Calais - we can develop solidarities that are universal.    

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Corbyn's Critics on the Left

The argument from Corbyn's soft supporters/soft critics about his frustrating poor performance in the media over the last nine months is an interesting one.

There are examples of Corbyn screwing up - like not going for the Tories over IDS' resignation. I'd add some sloppy tv appearances and, more importantly, his failure to rein in the right or minimise the attacks from the right.

Many of the complaints from people like Owen Jones have been nebulous, with few specifics and no concrete suggestions about how anyone could have done differently.

I wouldn't put Corbyn's limitation down to inexperience/personality but rather to style. He is clearly uncomfortable criticising individuals or channelling popular aggression. He is a conciliatory type who stresses unity and working together and though his criticisms are stinging they are often targeted at an anonymous system or at most a loose collective - "a powerful few" "the elites". He doesn't do combative. This sits badly in the Westminster "bear pit." 

Something that's has been missing is mass mobilisations - but he's been treading a careful line not trying to piss off the PLP till now.

I also don't think he's a "master strategist" in the way everyone used to call Osborne (in the end it turned out Osborne's string-pulling was farcical and the harsh economic reality of his own failures caught up with him). Corbyn is good at attacking the government, probing its weaknesses and imposing defeats on it. He's not apparently always best at spinning those victories into a media narrative.

But all of these criticisms are speculation since we simply can't see what's really going on behind the scenes: if there's frustration with him we have to remember his every act is mediatized and fed to us via the press. Do we simply project frustration with the media onto Corbyn, expecting or demanding truly superhuman feats?

On the one hand, Owen Jones wants Corbyn to lead a principled left-wing opposition doggedly attacking the Tories. On the other hand, he wants a media spectacle designed to win over the soft left and hearten the PLP. I'm not saying these two are fundamentally irreconcilable, only that - in the present circumstances - there is simply too much to be done for any leadership team to manage. 

How can you work with a group like Momentum, attend protests and strikes, fight to democratise the party and simultaneously present a friendly media face that can keep the Guardian (which has always hated him) and the Mirror on side? How can you do any of this and not alienate the PLP, thus exposing Labour's internal chaos to the public and having a negative effect on the polls?

For the moment, there's so much to do all at once and the left is so historically weak that it's impossible to expect success from Corbyn's team on all fronts at once. And the constant demand that he "do better" - as opposed to serious ideas about how to improve the operation - just plays in to the hands of his enemies on all sides.