Archive for September, 2015

Some thoughts on Corbyn’s victory and the current situation

I’ve been attempting to write a follow up article on Corbyn for Jacobin over the past few days. It’s not been going very well for various reasons. Here are some of the key observations I want to make in bullet point form. (Obviously this need some boiling down!)

  • As has been endlessly pointed out, just a few short weeks ago nobody could have predicted the groundswell of mass support that Corbyn’s leadership campaign picked up, much less the thumping majority that he achieved.
  • But this goes for the radical left as much as much as for anybody else. Indeed on the day that Corbyn scraped together the nominations that he needed to meet the deadline to enter the contest I remember telling some of my students very emphatically that he didn’t stand a hope in hell of winning. How wrong I was. But it’s not just me – ‘Corbynmania’ runs counter to much (by no means all, but much) of the radical left’s analysis of labourism for the past few decades. Corbyn and the movement around him have exploded what we had taken to be settled truisms about the absolute hopelessness of any attempt to harness the Labour party as a vehicle for socialist advance.
  • This calls for a significant rethink on the part of the extra Labour Party left (much of which has been reduced to the part of more or less passive onlookers as the mobilisation around Corbyn catalysed and surged ahead). At the very least it calls for a certain degree of humility on the part of the radical left. It doesn’t have all the answers. It doesn’t have very many of them. There is little more embarrassing at the moment than the sight of certain left groups chasing after the Corbyn bandwagon – racing though the dust they’ve been left behind in – while attempting to dispense cock-sure advice to the Corbynistas about what they ought to be doing.
  • There’s a certain mode of political ‘intervention’ characteristic of Leninist groups – a kind of political brass neck – that involves setting out confident diagnoses in relation to the strategic and organisational weaknesses of rival formations and tendencies while remaining absurdly silent and uncritical in relation to their own evident weaknesses, silences and indeed in relation to their own evident histories of failure. There’s a lot of this about at the moment in relation to Corbnmania. But maybe they should unlearn some of that absurd overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something to learn from the Corbynistas.
  • This doesn’t mean that we were wrong about there being structural limits, or deeply embedded obstacles and pitfalls, inherent in labourism or in parliamentary reformism more broadly. Corbyn is already beginning to run up against some of these and he and the movement around him will certainly encounter more and more of these more and more forcefully as they/if they advance further. It does mean, however, that we were substantially wrong about the apparent death of social democracy, the complete marginalisation of the Labour left and so on. While Labour has not been ‘reclaimed’, some of the commanding heights of the party have been seized – for now. This is more than any of us expected. Maybe there are more surprises in store. None of us can claim in good faith to be absolutely sure about how things will develop from here.
  • It was, paradoxically, the total defeat of the Labour left in the 1980s that created the conditions for Corbyn’s victory some 30 years later. The smashing of Bennism in the 1980s and process of party recomposition under the developing hegemony of the ‘modernising’ right that reached its apogee under Blair was as much about the snuffing out of democracy and the disempowerment of the membership as it was about the shift to the neoliberal centre in policy terms (indeed the former was largely the precondition for the latter). This centralisation of power led, over time, to the hollowing out of the party. The right presided over a more or less lifeless party machine – a transmission belt for neoliberal policies. But this was a shallow and brittle hegemony. When the Corbyn challenge breathed life into sections of the membership again the right found that it simply didn’t have a rooted mass base of support out in the CLPs – it didn’t have the foot soldiers to resist the Corbyn advance and was swept away with ease.
  • Ed Miliband’s accession to the leadership in 2010 reflected a weakening of the right’s grip over the party in some ways, but, almost as if he was ashamed about the effrontery he’d shown in beating the right’s preferred candidate – his own brother, David – Ed Miliband thought it necessary to placate the right by giving them something that would (they and he thought) shore up their domination in future. The reform of the party electoral system (stemming from the 2014 Collins review) – in particular the introduction of OMOV and votes for supporters as well as members – was designed to dilute the power of the unions in leadership elections and thus, it was thought, guarantee that the ‘right’ candidates would be victorious in future contests. It didn’t work out that way. It was a big miscalculation. What was meant to strengthen the hold of the right over the party in fact provided a way for a candidate of the party’s ‘hard left’ to take control. Corbyn, or candidate like him, could never have won under the previous electoral college system. In more than one way then the ground for Corbyn’s shock victory was prepared by the party right over-reaching itself. In fairness, though (as pointed out above) nobody could have foreseen the great surge of political mobilisation of members and supporters that drove forward the Corbyn challenge.
  • As I have pointed out elsewhere, this surge is the specific expression in England/Britain of a wider trend of political radicalisation across Europe. Whereas in other countries a radical anti-austerity mood crystallised in the form of electoral challenges from without to the established parties of social democracy, in England/Britain – no doubt because of the peculiarities of the first past the post system – it took root within the traditional party of social democracy. Indeed several commentators have pointed out that what we are seeing in the UK now isn’t any longer the slow ‘Pasokification’ of Labour but a simultaneous and rapid process of ‘Pasokification’ and ‘Syriza-ification’ – the emergence of a sort of dual power within Labour. This of course is a very unstable situation but one pregnant with opportunities. It’s also largely unprecedented.
  • Nevertheless Corbyn’s position is extremely precarious. Though the hollowing out of the party over the 1980s, 90s and beyond under the hegemony of the right prepared the ground, in a nice irony of history, for the Corbyn victory this same hollowing out is also now a source of weakness for Corbyn. The Labour left as an organised body, well rooted among the structures of the party, has never been weaker than it is now. The right occupy most of the strategic positions within the institutions of the party and are well dug in. The recent influx of new members – the shock force behind Corbyn’s victory – is unlikely to change the balance of forces within established party structures in the short term.
  • The Labour right is still reeling from the blow of Corbyn’s thumping majority. It’s unlikely to attempt any serious move to topple Corbyn in the short term. Corbyn’s sizeable majority over the other three leadership candidates combined provides him with a legitimacy that it’s going to be very hard for anyone to dispute openly for the time being. For all the talk in the run up to the election of a quick ‘coup’ against Corbyn in the event of his victory it’s clear, now, that this plan cannot be put into action – you can’t argue with a 59.5% share of the vote. There has also been some discussion of a spilt or defections from the right. I think this is unlikely (for now, anyway, things might change) – it would be a very high risk strategy for anyone to take and could well be career suicide for those involved. It wouldn’t look good either for the same reason that an attempted putsch wouldn’t. The much more sensible strategy would be to play a longer game – in part waiting more or less passively for Corbyn to run up against the hard limits of ‘political realities’ and for his currently mobilised support to tire and drift away, and in part a more direct low key war of attrition to grind Corbyn down and demoralise his supporters. This would play to their current key strength – almost compete domination of the party apparatuses. All they need to do is sit tight and do what they can to gradually ratchet-up the pressure on Corbyn while waiting for his supporters to get bored and fall back into political inactivity. This indeed seems to be the sort of strategy they are settling on – it’s more or less what Luke Akehurst (a key commentator from the party’s right) describes here in relation to the emerging balance of forces in the party.
  • They’ll be assisted in this strategy of course by most of the media which is almost uniformly hostile to Corbyn. The tone of this hostility varies – from hysterical terror and outrage on the part of the Daily Mail to condescension toward the silly little children on the part of the inner circle of columnists at the Guardian – but it all functions in the same way. The effect of it is a constant grinding away at Corbyn and his closest allies (McDonnell in particular); force him to ‘condemn’ this or that, explain this or that, apologise for this or that, clarify this or that, keep trying to trip him up, make him look stupid incompetent, shifty. Keep him on the back foot, unbalance him, make him look like he’s permanently buffeted by ‘scandal’ (i.e. any old trivial bullshit) and not in control. Everything and anything, no matter how trivial, is worked up into a mini-scandal – not wearing a tie, not singing the national anthem, having a beard. This is going to go on and on, week in week out until Corbyn is removed, collapses… or wins the next election (at which point the real shitstorm begins). They want to grind him down to the point of exhaustion. I’ve a sneaking suspicion the intention is to give him a mental breakdown. They’ve got 5 years to do it.
  • Nevertheless there’s a certain pedagogical effect to all of this. It must be an eye-opener for many of Corbyn’s newly politicised supporters to see the range of forces now lining up to oppose him in a tacit alliance – from the Tories, to most of the media, to some of the state, to most of the established Labour Party. Simplifying only slightly we can all observe an unspoken, loose, but nevertheless distinct, cross-party closing of ranks that reveals a truth about the locus of a fundamental political dividing line. It’s not Labour versus the Tories. It’s the movement around Corbyn versus everyone else including the large bulk of the Labour party. And this ‘everyone else’ commands huge power and resources. Even the most inexperienced Corbynista must now be developing a firm grasp of the sort of forces that he (and they as part of the wider movement) are up against and how difficult the fight will be. This is a good and necessary thing. Better this is grasped sooner rather than later.
  • As almost all leftwing commentators are pointing out, it is imperative to maintain and to build the movement around Corbyn – this is the only real counterweight that can be deployed against the forces and pressures bearing down on Corbyn and his (very small group) of comrades within the PLP. Maintaining the momentum of the Corbyn movement is key. Much easier said than done of course.
  • Much of the problem in this respect is that in order to do this – lead the Labour party within the structures of Westminster and provide a focal point around which a wider mobilised movement coheres – Corbyn is going to be pulled in two directions. In fact he’s got to make the Labour party a vehicle for something it was designed to snuff out. He’s got to run the machine (inasmuch as he can run something he doesn’t fully control) against itself. As a range of classic studies of the Labour party have shown – notably those of Ralph Miliband and David Coates – one of the major functions of the Labour party, embedded in its structural DNA, is ‘management of discontent‘ and it does this, in particular, by systematically channelling extra-parliamentary struggle into more containable and much more harmless forms. So leading Labour while simultaneously providing leadership to a wider mass movement is going to be a difficult trick to pull off to say the least.
  • Obviously, much here will turn on the ability of the movement to maintain a certain critical distance and autonomy in relation to Corbyn. This, in turn, demands that the movement goes beyond Labour party members to encompass other forces and groups on the left too. It was enormously encouraging in this regard to see that Caroline Lucas of the Greens is keen to discuss electoral pacts with Corbyn in order to build what she calls a ‘progressive majority‘ alliance in Britain – although it appears that the Greens are rowing back from this now. Most groups on the radical left are keen to work with Corbyn (rather than denounce him for his reformism – for now at least). It remains to be seen whether Corbyn will reach out to these other forces. If he does so, of course, this move is likely encounter severe hostility and obstruction from the Labour right and Labour tribalists more broadly. But it’s this or slow suffocation.
  • Nevertheless the radical left needs to keep things in perspective here. We are pitifully weak and we’ve been behind the curve during this whole process – as we’ve seen the Corbyn surge and victory confounded a lot of what we’ve been saying for ever about Labour and the death of social democracy and left us as more or less passive bystanders. The last thin we should do is start issuing orders to any movement around Corbyn. We aren’t the commanders.
  • Much of the left will approach the business of working with a movement around Corbyn by, essentially, trying to shoehorn the whole unpredictable and largely unprecedented process into its preconceived schematic formulations. No doubt Corbyn and Corbynistas will be pigeonholed into categories of comfortingly familiar jargon (‘left reformists’) and talked down to in a more than mildly condescending and know it all manner. This will be a way of not really having to think about the concrete specifics of the current political situation and its dynamic. The Corbyn movement will be seen as a bunch of political naifs who must be won to ‘the correct revolutionary perspective’ by ‘patiently explaining’ etc  and recruited also to the vanguard party of the working class (which will just happen to be the party the issuer of this proclamation belongs to, natch). But the vast bulk of the Corbynista movement is not going to join any of the existing parties. It isn’t going to happen. If there is a split in Labour or some other form of significant recomposition on the left it’s not going take the form of a mass decampment to any existing organisation. It’s going to be something new and something emerging from within the Corbynista movement itself. It will be something we will join, not something of ours they will join.
  • We also need to pick up on wider political and strategic lessons. The Corbyn phenomenon is part of a broader phenomenon across Europe. What unites the formations that have made political headway recently – Syriza, Podemos, the Corbyn movement – is the conviction that the question of political power has to be confronted. That is, anti-austerity movements have to set their sights on winning government office as a necessary and central component of a wider, ambitious strategy of change.
  • The organic dynamic, at work here is toward the formation of left governments of radical reform. We just have to accept this. We’ve seen the pitfalls and problems of this approach of course in the case of Syriza – the brick wall it ran into from day one. Of course we need to learn lessons from this. But these can’t be to fall back on too easy invocations of revolutionary certainty such as to call for ‘smashing the state’ (whatever that means concretely) and for the ‘seizure of power’ on the part of workers’ soviets (what workers’ soviets? Where are they? Are they down the back of the sofa?) which is a resolution of real problems at the level of phraseology only.
  • Like it or not we need to think seriously about ‘transitional programmes’ and ‘transitional demands’, about the possibilities of radical reform and we need to return to re-examine the concept of ‘structural reforms’ (Gorz), Ralph Miliband’s ‘strong reformism’ and, yes, to the resources of (left) Eurocommunism.
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A note on zombies

A zombie is a functioning mass of meat, bone and digestive tract with no purpose other than its own physical being and with no need for any purpose other than this. It is perfectly autotelic. It has no need for meaning, or interpretation or narrative or decision. It just is. It is raw physical existence from which ego, sentience, thought have been expelled and radically obliterated. The zombie is in a sense the human Real – the brute material reality of our being before it is carved up by language. The zombie achieves a complete wholeness and unity that the living cannot attain. It is a human body fully reconciled with the world around it and at one with it, knowing no separation or distance from it. This is why we’re so fascinated by the undead – it’s because, secretly, we envy them.

At least that’s part of it. The other part of the fascination of course is anxiety. But this is the other side of the same coin. The zombie myth reveals the repressed truth of our existence – which is that the sentient, conscious part of us (the ‘I’) is at most the mere tip of the iceberg of our full being (in fact the ego is probably more ephemeral than that and possibly a fiction). The figure of the zombie represents our terror of ourselves. Our fear of that part of us that sleepwalks, that drives on autopilot, that breathes, digests, repairs, grows, degenerates without any conscious decision or supervision. It symbolises our estrangement from our unknowable shadow self over which we have little or no control and which is also most of what we are. Who can look into a mirror for more than a minute without a nagging sense of the uncanny? Who and what is this that stares back, familiar and strange? This form onto which we project a name and a history and an ‘I’. This mass of skin and flesh and skull. You and I are zombies who dream that we are not.

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