Saturday, 4 March 2017

Owen Jones and Naive Cynicism

Why has there been a rapid descent in the eyes of many Jeremy Corbyn supporters of Owen Jones? Formerly the favoured son of the British radical left, he finds himself hanging out with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell in the demonology, and he didn't even have to sex up a dossier to get there. It interests me and disturbs me for a couple of reasons. Interests because his latest missives (here and here) are pretty obvious and should be totally uncontroversial. But, and this is the disturbing bit, for some, they are anything but. What the hell is going on?

Naive cynicism, that's what. This is the "spontaneous" mode of thought entirely appropriate to the age of anti-politics and, you might argue, the logical common sense culmination of our economics. You know what it is, especially if you were out in Stoke, it's jolly old you're-all-the-same-ism. The view that everyone, everyone is self-interested and motivated by ulterior reasons. For example, I write this blog because gizzajob. Owen has criticisms of Corbs because he wants a seat/is paid to by The Graun. I think you get the picture. This belief about hidden agendas isn't just a property of loyal Corbyn supporters. I've seen it assume different forms over the last three or four years in the mutterings of, respectively, UKIP supporters, ScotNats, self-identified Milifandom (remember that?), and our friends over the water for whom Donald Trump is their saviour. It shades into conspiracy theory, but it's something a bit more than that: a bona fide political phenomenon.

From within Corbynism, that is as a trend and movement rather than a body of ideas, there is a correspondence between naive cynicism as a sensibility and the 18 months Jeremy has held the leadership. First, there was the character assassination during the 2015 leadership campaign. Then came more press attacks and sniping in the media from MPs. This was followed by the attempted coup, a summer of flailing ourselves in the full glare of the media, and since then even more bad press and endless speculation about the leadership and eventual succession. For many Jeremy supporters, this is an appalling spectacle and they're absolutely right: no other political leader, perhaps not even Arthur Scargill at the height of the Miners' Strike has faced such levels of hostility. It's one reason why, for instance, I set aside my Corbyn scepticism and voted for him second time round. With this not totally-unjustified siege mentality, more than a few take the view that if you're not defending the leader and the party but raising criticisms of your own, you're not helping. In fact, worse than that, you're part of the amalgam of enemies lining up to put the boot in. In Owen's case, because he's using his Graun slot to raise tricky questions instead of taking on the enemy 100% of the time, he's part of the problem. As is anyone vaguely on the left and not sold on the leadership and its strategy. Even worse, because of Owen's history, presence and prior following, his doubts amount to a red Tory Trojan horse designed to undermine confidence in Corbyn and supplant him. Owen's noted enthusiasm for Clive Lewis is evidence enough that he's not interested in making the project work.

Naive cynicism finds more fuel from the parliamentary party not respecting the will of the members, and it burns with a great deal of resentment. Now, though the briefings and public slaggings off have piped right down, the boycott of front bench positions is still on. And Labour MPs continue to infuriate Jeremy supporters by greeting him with silence every time he bobs up at Prime Minister's Questions, refuse to shout encouragement, barrack the Tories and back him even when, time after time, Theresa May comes off worse. This rubs off on Owen's work because while he criticises the right of the party for not understanding where Corbynism came from in the first place (and, it has to be said, they're still not interested and hope it will simply go away), in their view he doesn't take the PLP to task enough for not fulfilling their obligations. If the party's public representatives did unite behind the leader, if they did all pull in the same direction then our media problems would disappear and people would take a look at Labour's radical policies. The flip side to naive cynicism is naive faith, that everything would be okay if Corbyn and Corbynism was given a chance. Only if that were the case ...

The persistence of naive cynicism among Corbyn's supporters is reinforced by the actions and inactions of others, but its ultimate root lies in the continued immaturity of Corbynism as a movement. Last summer, I wrote about how he was the focal point of a diffuse anti-austerity/left anti-politics sentiment looking for a catalyst to bring it into being, and the adulation and support Jeremy received was symptomatic of a young movement in the process of formation. This, however, was organising from a low base - the tidal wave of support thrust aloft a Labour left that was barely clinging on as Alex Nunns argues - and it was mostly masses of atomised individuals encouraged to join the party by the strength of social media ties. Events have conspired since to disperse the movement. Corbyn supporters have become involved in constituency parties and campaigning activity mostly as individuals or small groups and mixing with old members. This was inevitable and necessary, but without a clear lead from either Momentum (as it became bogged down in internal battles) or strategic guidance from the leader's office about what the left should be doing now, or even attempts from within the left to push political education - something sorely missing from the Labour Party as a whole - the Corbyn movement became stuck. Now fed by an ecology of blogs and spokespeople who coheres it solely as a support group, this does precious little to develop it as a movement that can turn outwards and work around the obstacles presented by a hostile media and recalcitrant political establishment. Because its development is stuck, it's starting to shake to pieces.

It doesn't have to be like this. Naive cynicism is the start of something. It's the most elementary form of rejectionist thinking and is malleable in all kinds of directions. The job of everyone in the labour movement who fancies themselves leftwing is to engage, persuade, develop and push the enthusiasm and energy Corbyn brought into the party, of shaping nascent oppositionism into critically-minded materially-rooted socialist politics. But development requires action from the leadership too, and they will find good advice about what needs to be done - ironically - in the very pieces by Owen that have earned a whirlwind of condemnation.

32 comments:

Ludus57 said...

The vast number of Labour MPs were selected under the aegis of Tony Blair's dispensation. It appears that an essential qualification was to be fundamentally apolitical. We now pay the price for this, because for them, political survival will depend on the ability to connect and communicate effectively with their constituent s. That is something they are singularly badly equipped for. My evidence is their general no-show for the referendum campaign.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Phil. But then, as a petit-bourgeois academic who abandoned the one true Trotskyist faith, you would say all this - wouldn't you???

When Corbyn was first elected in 2015 I was hopeful (if not optimistic) that the obvious immaturity of the politics he represented would be overcome by the rapid realisation that the quantum of his victory disguised significant qualitative weaknesses:

- The lack of a refined and robust policy agenda ready to go;

- A slim basis of support in the PLP that would require a subtle strategy of coalition-building and divide-and-rule in order to marginalise the hard-line Blairites and other discontents who would rather see the Party suffer defeat than see Corbyn succeed;

- A vanguardist mentality of many of those around him that confused their own world-view with that of the broader electorate;

- A movement of supporters whose political immaturity is reflected in the highly emotive, conspiratorial and catastrophist nature of their defence of Corbyn's leadership (and their demonisation of his opponents).

Leading Labour from the left against a hostile PLP and hostile media, in the context of a largely decollectivised and depoliticised working class, was always going to require an exceptional set of political skills. Corbyn and his close team simply aren't up to the job. He is just not good enough to navigate such a treacherous political landscape. He should stand down before the next party conference. Those on the left who have the capacity to learn lessons from the past 18 months should now focus on what they can do to make a future leadership bid by Clive Lewis a success.

The future of Labour as a credible party of opposition and potential government is more important than indulging the political hysterics of those who would rather the party crash and burn than see Corbyn replaced as leader.

Michael

John A said...

Good stuff. I think one thing you don't mention which is relevant is a growing hatred of The Guardian amongst those on the left (who increasingly see it as an establishment paper mainly concerned with promoting US wars/regime change, protecting the neoliberal staus quo, burnishing identity-politics and bashing anyone genuinely left-of-centre). Monbiot is also a target for the same reason - people just want to lash out at The Guardian, which gets worse every year.

Anonymous said...

The Guardian has always been a liberal paper, it encouraged readers to vote libdem in 2010. It backs every NATO war. Pro Zionist. Last week rehabilitated Bush, gives Blair a platform.


Yesterday it published one report on the NHS demo.
Nothing today. It's like it never happened.



Braingrass said...

The problem with your analysis is not that it isn't true but that it lacks contextual depth. Your criticism of those who disagree with Owen both politically and strategically is that they lack thought and insight, and that they are only responding emotionally. You accuse them of being subjective. Owen is paid by the Guardian to write op-ed pieces. These pieces themselves are subjective (op-ed pieces started in American when people realised they sold more papers than more objective conventional reporting). It shouldn't surprise you that some people would respond to them subjectively. This is precisely what he is paid to write and the Guardian is hoping that he will get this response. It is noticeable that Owen never responds to any objective criticism of his writing. He only ever retweets articles like you that support him. That I suppose, subjectively speaking, is understandable. What is a little more interesting is that he also retweets personal abuse. This paints the picture that objectively he is right, because look all the sensible people who agree with him, and if anyone does disagree with them, then it is only personal abuse. This is precisely the picture you have painted in this blog.

willshome said...

I’ve been nothing but sad at the decline of Owen Jones as a political commentator. In fact I wondered if he had become unwell. I have nothing against him as a person but think perhaps a nice long holiday is called for.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the leader of a fanatical coterie of the deluded, he embodies a set of core socialist beliefs that many of us have waited two decades to hear enunciated, and that is why we have returned to the Labour Party of our youth, to join the youths of today who hear his message and new and fresh.

Is he getting an unparalleled kicking from opponents of socialism? Yes. Is the answer to abandon socialism for another generation? No. Would Corbynistas accept an equally committed, equally authentic, but more obviously charismatic and universally admired socialist as their leader? Yes. Does the Parliamentary Labour Party currently include any such? No. So slagging of the current leader when there is nothing equal to him, let alone better, is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

When that British Justin Trudeau emerges (and sorry Owen, it’s not your mate Clive, against whom I have nothing personal and who has a fine career ahead of him) then come back off holiday and promote him (or her). I’m sure Jeremy would serve loyally in his or her cabinet in any one of a number of suitable roles.

Anonymous said...

If the party respected what their members stood for, & got behind their elected leader, there would't be all this narrative & attack from the right wing press. Jeremy Corbyn would part the sea. No such luck with this sort of analysis.

Karen Smith said...

To imply you must blindly follow the leader or you're not a 'proper' left wing Labour supporter is rubbish. Owen Jones, and indeed anyone else, are perfectly entitled to point out the weaknesses of Corbyn. I started off as a Corbyn supporter but have changed my position. I agree that JC has suffered unprecedented hostility, but digging your heels in and saying people 'should' support him is not going to work. The by election results show that his unpopularity isn't just in opinion polls, it is in actual votes in actual ballot boxes. We need someone who will unite the party. The final straw for me personally was how badly let down I have been by Labour over the Brexit situation. Instead of offering an opposition, JC is supporting the government every step of the way.

Mark Livingston said...

If Corbyn resigned, Clive Lewis wouldn't get onto the ballot paper. If somehow did to get on it and and he won, he'd be a prisoner of the Blairite Labour establishment just like Jeremy, and the press would be no less hostile. If he didn't get onto the ballot paper a powerless New Labour creature of the right would win; but Mandelson and Blunkett would be calling the shots. We'd be Tory-lite again within two beats of a gnat's wing, and we would lose in 2020 (as we did in 2010 and 2015). Liz Kendall and our other Blairite comrades would pull the party even further to the right. (The mind boggles.) So, Owen's cri de coeur is a call for socialists to either capitulate totally to the inevitable now, or capitulate totally in 2020. Some choice!

I'm off to the pub...

Phil said...

"Your criticism of those who disagree with Owen both politically and strategically is that they lack thought and insight, and that they are only responding emotionally."

Absolutely not.

The problem with writing a short blog post is you cannot full flesh out the context. That's what hyperlinking is for, of which there are many in this piece. They include plenty of related material that puts naive cynicism in context.

Neil Stuart said...

I like Clive Lewis but disagreed with his decision to resign from the shadow cabinet. He should've stayed and worked closely with Jeremy Corbyn to try and find a middle ground politics, attractive to both Corbyn's supporters and the general electorate.

Anonymous said...

Not even accurate. Look at when most Labour MPs were selected ......there have been two elections since Blair stood down. And I'm sure that MPs like Skinner, Abbott, McDonell, Corbyn himself and many other veterans of the Left would be delighted to know that they were Blairites too, using your logic.

deno said...

Has the elephant in the room gone unnoticed? Whilst many would think Corbyn's policies reasonable the perception of the wider electorate is that he does not have the ability or stature to be party leader let alone prime minister. Obviously there is only one way this can be resolved so Labour has a future

Stephen Bellamy said...

The most worrying thing about Jones is his ambivalent attitude to racism. His getting into bed with the racist JLM is alarming to say the least

Anonymous said...

Owen Jones has many admirable qualities. Political nous is not among them. If he thinks he knows how the Labour Party should be run, let him stand for office, and work his way up to the leadership. Then he can put his grand schemes into effect, and we'll see how they work. And one day, we might get his memoirs of his time at Number 10.

Only half-joking here. Mr Jones is a valuable voice. But he has got ideas above his station. He is, let us remember, a Guardian columnist approximately half the age of the average British journalist. He has energy, verve, and skill. What he does not have is wisdom. He confuses (as someone once put it) the things of logic with the logic of things.

Simon Allison said...

Incisive and accurate. If only Corbyn's most vocal supporters had the plasticity to appreciate it.

Simon Allison said...

That's unfair.

David Lindsay said...

Two years ago, if any event were addressed by Owen Jones, then he himself was the event. But, like Peter Tatchell, he has now joined the long list of old left-wing star turns who resent having been made into supporting acts by a man whom they had spent decades assuming was the cloakroom attendant, yet who turns out to have an appeal beyond their wildest dreams.

Jones’s insistence that anti-Trump events are only “official” if they are approved by him is the mark of a man who has quite taken leave of his senses. When I pointed out that his approach to certain previous military interventions and American Presidents made him an impossible spokesman or figurehead for the opposition to Donald Trump, then he blocked me on Twitter and unfriended me on Facebook, after the manner of a petulant teenager. He is utterly unused to criticism, and he reacts to it very badly indeed.

His flip-flop on withdrawal from the European Union bespoke a lack of order or clarity in his thinking, and a certain opportunism that was also evident in the decision of his close friend, Clive Lewis, to resign from the Shadow Cabinet in order to vote against the activation of Article 50. Lewis is now the other key figure in the “official” demonstrations against Trump.

But when Jeremy Corbyn departs the Labour Leadership, at the time of his choosing and not before the middle of the next Parliament at the absolute earliest, then he will be succeeded by one of three people. Those are all from the 2015 intake. In no particular order, they are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Richard Burgon. None of those is Clive Lewis, nor is any of them likely to engage the services of Owen Jones.

Moreover, two of them are women, but neither of those women is Jess Phillips. Phillips has built a media career on the lie that MPs first elected in 2015, and especially the women among them, have not enjoyed preferment under Corbyn. But they have. So it’s you, Jess. It’s just you. Yet she is now dropping broad enough intends that she intends to stand for the Leadership this year. Well, bring that on, say I. For the sheer hilarity, bring it on.

Although Phillips does at least have the advantage of being a member of the House of Commons, and indeed a resident of the United Kingdom. David Miliband is neither of those things. The attempted revival of the Transatlantic Torturer declared that Corbyn’s enemies included no sitting MP whom anyone might consider capable of becoming Leader of the Labour Party.

Who cares what David Miliband says about anything? He was once beaten by Ed Miliband, and that is quite a feat. Big before Twitter and Facebook were, he was such an object of ridicule in his day that he would be drowned in the gales of derision these days. But he is a nasty piece of work. Whereas Phillips, Lewis and Jones are merely laughable.

Anonymous said...

Owen, just like anyone else (this writer included), can change their mind.

I recall his early enthusiastic support for Corbyn and the hopes he invested in him. It's not overdoing it to claim he was something of a cheerleader. Nothing wrong in that. Just as there is nothing wrong in reassessing things after a bumpy and, lets be honest here, a thoroughly disappointing spell as party leader. Notwithstanding the difficulties he has had to face, Corbyn has manifestly failed to deliver on just about any meaningful measure of a successful leader.
Labour are now further away from power than when he took office. Thats just a fact and surely one all in the party and those who support it have to confront.

Steve

Boatwalker said...

There has been considerable naivety about Owen Jones and what and who he represents. Owen Jones came to prominence as an articulate left blogger and campaigner, willing to speak up for many who are outside the usual political channels He owes his authority and legitimacy to the esteem gifted to him because of his earlier positions Critically he holds no elected office representing the Labour Party, and is accountable to no one other than himself. Despite claiming to be of the Left, he has in recent month joined the chorus those who bash Corbyn personally. Not surprisingly those who support Corbyn and believed that Jones spoke for them feel somewhat aggrieved.

IainF said...

"As is anyone vaguely on the left and not sold on the leadership and its strategy."

Could someone explain to me the Corbyn Left strategy as I cannot, for the life of me, discern one.

People want Corbyn to lead some kind of mass movement but they forget the kind of politicians that he and people around him like Seamus Milne are. They are essentially backroom factionalisers (if that's even a word), similar to the Socialist Action types that used to be around Livingstone.

They are very good at what they do in the arcane world of "Leftland" but as for winning general elections, forget it.

IainF said...

"When that British Justin Trudeau"

Only in Canada could a politician that vapid rise to the top.

Has sideways digs at Trump on Twitter for a month after the inauguration then is all toothy grins and hugs with him when he actually meets him in person. Just like any other Canadian PM when they meet a US President.

Anonymous said...

Bootwalker said:

Despite claiming to be of the Left, he has in recent month joined the chorus those who bash Corbyn personally.

He works for The Guardian, a center-left newspaper that has endorsed the third party (currently Lib Dems) at five out of the last ten General Elections, including the one that gave us the Coalition. (Polly Toynbee, a Guardian columnist of undisclosed merit, actually stood as an SDP candidate for Parliament in 1983).

The Guardian is instinctively anti-Corbyn in the same way (and for precisely the same reasons) that it was instinctively pro-Blair. One thing I have never seen analysed, although I am sure the material is out there and currently untapped, is the extent to which Blair promised a deal with the Lib Dems during The Guardian's 'sleaze-busting' period under the Major Government and then dropped them like a hot brick he got into office.

Traditional thinking has always been that, once elected, Blair cynically abandoned a coalition project he didn't need after all. My hunch is that he had actually been keeping The Guardian onside as much as anything else, by wooing the party that the paper actually preferred.

It is perhaps inevitable that Mr Jones's position has begun to shuffle into alignment with the magnetic field of his employment environment.

Adam York said...

Phil,some decent pieces on your blog.This isn't one of them.Owen Jones has certainly got form critisising JC but in my ltd observations his interviewing of Lisa Nandy(fairly careerist by all accounts)was enough.I think most JC support would just be disappointed rather than assuming (cynically...)that self-interest was involved.Richard Murphy(tax chap) has quite a similar line ie JC leadership didn't enthusiastically take up my earlier suggestions so I'm going to snipe from here on in.

I don't think it is too much to ask for Labour supporters to refrain from publicly attacking their own leadership? Helpful critique does not equal a call to resign.Much of the critisism still crudely smacks of the personal and lacks much specific that the leadership should be doing.The twitter phrase of late "playing the man not the ball".

You may be surprised how much support JC has across the left,and the UK,and how aware many people are of the lack of alternatives.There is a long way to go at a local level with many CLPs being v.weak and 150 Labour MPs who actually voted to protect Blair.I don't think it is niave to be aware of that,or the global strength of the opposition.

Malcolm X still ringing pretty true “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Adam York

Anonymous said...

The Guardian isn't centre left. No centre left paper would give Blair a platform. Agree with the rest of your comment.

Anonymous said...

"People want Corbyn to lead some kind of mass movement"

There was a massive demo in support of the NHS on Saturday. I doubt there were many Tories there.

Blissex said...

«when Jeremy Corbyn departs the Labour Leadership, at the time of his choosing and not before the middle of the next Parliament at the absolute earliest, then he will be succeeded by one of three people.»

They are not bad, but the obvious candidate for leader in 2020 is Andy Burnham, who will have been metropolitan mayor of Manchester to that point. Even if the right will oppose him for having stuck by Corbyn as shadow home secretary. That has burned his bridges with them, and he is the only major brownista who still has some democratic socialist thoughts.

Blissex said...

«Would Corbynistas accept an equally committed, equally authentic, but more obviously charismatic and universally admired socialist as their leader? Yes. Does the Parliamentary Labour Party currently include any such? No.»

And that is largely the core of the matter (except that describing today's J Corbyn as "socialist" is neither useful not accurate, he must be astonished to find himself a new R Hattersley).

O Jones forgets that, and also that «If Corbyn resigned, Clive Lewis wouldn't get onto the ballot paper»: and indeed that traps J Corbyn where he is because even if he wanted to resign he must not until the 15%-of-PLP nominations bar is lowered enough that an MP of the small Labour wing of the New Labour PLP can be nominated.

That's the truly big deal: as the shenanigans during the most recent leadership contest about nomination rules in the New Labour PLP and the right to vote among Labour Party members have shown, nomination rules and right to vote rules are central to the New Labour establishment attempts to control the party.

As to the merit of the J Corbyn leadership he seems to many to be quite charismatic, capable, with clear policies that are quite popular.

The major issue is that for both personal history and political position reasons he attracts the unremitting hostility of the New Labour PLP and of the press sponsoring the New Labour and the Conservatives. That's a very significant issue; perhaps another leader with the same policies would not have the same personal history issues, but the political position issues would be the same and attract the same unremitting hostility.

There is clearly a window of neocon/neoliberal acceptability for a major party leader, and nobody today with a political position similar to those of R Hattersley is within that window.

Igor Belanov said...

@ Blissex

I think Burnham now qualifies as a has-been, having lost out heavily in two leadership contests and taken the easy way out to seek a prestige, almost non-political office at regional level. A lot of Labour politicians and members are going to ask where he was when the going got tough at national level.

Blissex said...

Look I am not particularly a fan of the brownistas, but I think that A Burnham could be a good thing for Labour.

«easy way out to seek a prestige, almost non-political office at regional level.»

The way I see it is that he opted for the only "high level" elected office available to a Labour politician today apart from mayor of the London metropolitan area, and he only took that option after J Corbyn won the new leadership contest, which is quite significant.

«A lot of Labour politicians and members are going to ask where he was when the going got tough at national level.»

And this is precisely my point: while 60 "soft left" and mandelsonian front benchers quit after the referendum, some of them with very public, quotable, personal attacks against J Corbyn, he (and J Ashworth and a few others) stayed with him, even making a statement of support, thus burning his bridges with the others. That took considerable political courage when «the going got tough». Now he is a bit opportunistically getting a higher profile elected position, but that looks good to me. He will be able as mayor of a great metropolitan area to speak against the government from a prominent elected position.

Overall I like the A Burnham option because the Labour wing of the party really needs allies in the PLP; having 60-70% of the membership is just not enough. The most plausible people for that are the core brownistas, who have not forgotten the constant hostility of the mandelsonians and how they undermined, with the help of the mandelsonian-friendly press, first Brown himself, then E Miliband, to advance a political programme far to the right to that of the brownistas. That A Burnham and J Ashworth (both core brownistas) remained in J Corbyn's shadow team seems to me a very, very significant detail.

The problem is that as in every other election Labour has a chance of winning, regardless of leader, only if the Conservatives screw up big time, in particular on house prices in the south-east, and whoever is leader in the next election might be burned pointlessly as a result.

Anonymous said...

The Guardian isn't centre left. No centre left paper would give Blair a platform.

Run that by me again? This looks rather like the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, which is because that's what it is.

Anonymous said...

Owen Jones should just stick to posting his cat fondling videos on youtube!