Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Lazzarato, Debt, and Identity

Have just finished reading Maurizio Lazzarato's The Making of the Indebted Man, a work that packs a helluva punch for such a slim volume. It covers everything: the origins of neoliberalism, the constitutive character of debt to the project, the 2007-8 crisis, social security reform, shifting governance in capitalist societies, a critique of the risk society thesis, and an advancement of a theory of the ubiquity of stupidity. Lazzarato, famed for being the originator of the concept of immaterial labour, is able to accomplish his wide-ranging analysis by drawing on the young Marx, Nietzsche of On The Genealogy of Morality, the late Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari and remain entirely readable. You should therefore seek it out and read it for yourself.

This is not a review by any means (here's one, and more on Papa Lazz here), but he does throw down a challenge to the work of Hardt and Negri long championed on this blog. First off, debt precedes exchange: in other words, economics is founded on the relationship between creditor and debtor. In neoliberalism, this power relation is naturalised via finance, overshadows everything, is naturalised and is simultaneously constitutive of the production of subjectivities and economic production (also occurring at the same time and inseparable from one another). What does this mean for how different subject positions condition and connect with one another? The debt relation already enforces a compulsory entrepreneurship of the debtor, reproducing subordination and resistance between the subordinate proletarianised position this (unwittingly, ironically) engenders and the control/command of capital, but what about horizontal relationships? On this, Hardt and Negri are optimistic that the excess of social production haphazardly captured by the employer/employee relation and exploited for surplus value contributes to the "social store" of human capacities - the common - and forges new links, networks, ways of being and becoming, and the immanent potential of more resistance to capital. This can and does go awry as the subject positions and trajectories so generated can become self-contained, immutable identities akin to properties. What are the theoretical implications if we think about debt as constitutive of these processes too? It underpins the peculiar form of estrangement/alienation specific to immaterial labour and therefore supplies a satisfying explanation for it. This also suggests this is a tendency that will spontaneously occur in the absence of political struggle, as per Lenin's observations concerning the spontaneity of trade union consciousness. But does it have more subtle effects corrosive of solidarity too, rendering Negri's optimism null and void or, at best, naive?

These are just jottings, but is something I hope to think about in more depth in a side project working through the issues Mark Fisher alighted on in his (in)famous Vampire's Castle essay. One thing's for certain, I can see more Lazzarato in my future.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Retirement at 75: It's about Class, Stupid.

Bryan Mosley was a regular face on the telly growing up. Better known to millions as Alf Roberts, the kindly shopkeep from Coronation Street I remember hearing the news that he died of a heart attack just over a month into retirement. A tragedy for his family to be sure especially as he was only 67, but also a reminder to the rest of us that retirement, if we get there, could be briefer than we expect. This brings us to the latest wheeze from Iain Duncan Smith's favourite think tank, the grossly misnamed Centre for Social Justice, about their proposal to raise the retirement age to 75. No need to fret about what to do in retirement or concern yourself with how long its going to last if a sizeable chunk of the population stand little chance of seeing it.

What cod argument do the CSJ offer by way of justifying raising the pension age by eight more years? Crucial to their position is the Old Age Dependency Ratio, the number of over 65s there are per 100 of the working age population, which is defined as between 15 and 64. 2018 is the most recent data point, and has the UK reporting 28.6 over 65s per 100 workers. This is lower than France (31.6), Germany (32.8), Italy (35.2), and Spain (29.2), and is among the lowest in EU terms - it is certainly the lowest of the major powers. As the OADR is increasing over time, the argument goes that as our elderly population are increasing at a faster rate than the working population, this implies a greater chunk of the budget is going to have to be given over to social security for the old at the expense of other things, such as investment in infrastructure, maintaining low taxes, and welfare provision for, say, child benefit or the dole. As a Tory think tank for whom snatching entitlements is catnip, reducing the social security bill is the overriding objection. Therefore increasing the state pension age is a way of keeping the OADR in sustainable limits. But, but, to pay lip service to the social justice in their name IDS would only countenance raising the age if there is the requisite support. Ah yes. Just as disabled people were fraudulently chucked off Employment Support Allowance and social housing tenants were expected to find bedroom tax and council tax monies because "support" was available.

It goes without saying this is the most stupid idea to have come from the Tories since the Dementia Tax debacle. Of course, we must reiterate this isn't policy, it's "thinking aloud". And like most Tory policies ostensibly aimed at helping people, the evidential base for it is poor and the inevitable consequences swept under the rug. For instance, look at the CSJ's wailing about OADR. All it tells you is the ratio of old people to young people, nothing else. It doesn't measure the number of over 65s who, in the parlance, remain "economically active" (a particularly stupid term anyway because the every act of spending cash is economic activity). It doesn't say what proportion of the social security budget goes to meeting the needs of elderly people. It doesn't reveal anything about the extent of public spending, the level of taxation, nor the productivity of the economy underpinning the welfare system. For instance, staying within the terms of mainstream economics why are the recommendation proffered by the CSJ treated as the most obvious one? Instead of forcing people to work for longer, surely it would be more useful to invest and raise productivity, returning greater tax revenues to the exchequer, and consequently having more cash to keep the retirement age as is and perhaps even, gasp, lowering it?

We know why this doesn't occur. It's because the Tories are committed to the cult of work. While it is true many people find a sense of purpose inside work, a great many more find meaning in their activities outside of it. That is outside the immediate power relationship between worker and boss, and so most people have an instrumentalised relation to work: it's something you have to do so you can do the things you want to do. Anything that threatens to loosen the command work has over the majority of our lives is something the Tories instinctively feel threatened by. Just look at their responses to the idea of the basic income, for instance. And anything subordinating more and more of life to the workplace is something that strengthens their position and feels entirely right to them. In other words, and this point needs emphasising time and again, Tory politics is driven less by the (wrong) perception of the technocratic requirements of successfully managing British capitalism. Front and centre, first and always, is the strengthening and perpetuation of bourgeois class relations.

Yet surely, all that said, going into an election with such a policy floating about the Tory ether is electoral bromide, right? Well, yes. You can pretty much write off winning over the bulk of under-60s. And among the current Tory base, which is disproportionately elderly (as well as disproportionately declining) - perhaps not so much. As much of them are retired already or aren't projected to be affected by the phasing in of the proposed change, for them it's another opportunity to inflict the school of hard knocks on the coddled and spoiled generations coming after them. Just as the consequences of Brexit is set on separating the wheat from the chaff, seeing and knowing younger people have to work for longer generates a sense of satisfaction they they're getting a taste of the bitter medicine the post-war generation (think they) knew. This is self-validation through the suffering of others, of making oneself feel good about the world because you've played a part in administering a shock to a proxy for whatever group you feel bitterness toward (uppity women, minority ethnicities, younger people with their phones and youth). Just as the Tories successfully invested in generational wars for electoral profit in the past, the promise of a miserable old age for other people would appeal to the spiteful plenty in their voter coalition.

Covering all the grounds for opposing raising the retirement age to 75 would result in a much longer post, but what it does demonstrate is how out of ideas the Tories are. For all of Johnson's contrived optimism, the Tories turn to the crudest and short-sighted means of reinforcing their class rule. It again underlines the fact that they are beatable, and are seemingly bent on helping us with this task.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Revisiting Harry's Place

Fancy a deep dive into the blogging wars of the pre-Corbyn left? Of course you do. In this episode of Reel Politik, Jack and Geraint pop along to the cemetery and dig up an old adversary: Harry's Place. Long time hangers-ons of the British left will remember the role this blog, now a shadow of what once was, had in drawing together the pro-war "left" before, during and after the Iraq War. They were self-appointed arbiters of political decency (hence the term, 'decents') who fulminated against anyone concerned with stopping the UK government's penchant for wars as well as critics of Israel, and played a mobilising role in putting together the now (largely forgotten) Euston Manifesto. For those of you who weren't around, imagine the meltiest centrism combined with the scurrilousness of Gnasher Jew and you've got a good idea of their positioning and output. Which included publishing people's addresses and trying to get them sacked from their jobs. Charming.

This place never got on their radar back in the day because the my focus has never really been foreign policy and Israel, but I did write about HP on a couple of occasions: for the anniversary of the UK Left Network discussion list, and to mark their decade of "service".

Jack and Geraint make a persuasive case that HP was the progenitor of much of the Corbynphobic hysteria we've witnessed issue forth from all quarters these last four years. And there's going to be a part two too! Highly recommended.

As with all podcasts, Reel Politik could do with your support, so please follow it on Twitter here and please consider supporting via Patreon here.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

On Corbynphobia

Writing last October, I argued that a chunk of the so-called People's Vote campaign were motivated less by the case for a second referendum and reversing Brexit and more about driving a wedge between Jeremy Corbyn and the (mostly) pro-EU base of Corbynism. And this argument has been conclusively proven over the last few days. Not only have the Liberal Democrats so thoroughly exposed their opportunism and posturing to their newly-won layer of voters, so Chuka Umunna and his former ex-Labour colleagues grouped in whatever the two sides of Change UK are calling themselves today have also shown their opposition to Brexit is subordinate to their (failed) factional aim of deposing Corbyn. Pathetic.

What's the root of this? After all, think about it for a moment. In his open letter to other parties, independents, and "rebel" Tories, Jeremy Corbyn proposed a temporary caretaker government. This wouldn't implement any Labour policy, and be limited to requesting an extension to Article 50 (which the PM can do without a Commons vote) and organising a general election. What. Then. Is. The. Problem? Dismissing idiot suggestions Corbyn's sojourn in Downing Street would end in the Russians parading down The Mall, and the violent overthrow of the capitalist class, their reasons for preferring a no deal Brexit are as self-interested and tawdry as you'd expect.

First off, there is normalisation. As Chris Dillow suggests, having Corbyn in position automatically makes him Prime Ministerial. The great taboo is broken and as the sky won't fall in, his stature grows. It gets people used to the idea of Corbz in the top job, even if he's there for a few weeks and sticks by his word, and that is a weapon Labour must never be allowed to wield.

Again, why? Looking at Labour's 2017 manifesto, while it was a welcome departure from the programmes of preceding decades it didn't portend the liquidation of private property. Nevertheless, it marked a change in political climate by offering a strategy aimed at rebalancing capitalism. Forget the nonsense Osborne used to trot out about public/private, London/the regions, manufacturing/finance, the only balance that truly matters is between labour and capital. If implemented the whip hand employers have enjoyed over employees would be reversed. The looting of public property stopped. The subordination of all to market logics ended. Add to this the Corbynist programme of renationalising the utilities and the rail on the basis of mass participation, and you can grasp the horror this presents capital and its satraps. In order to save and rejuvenate British capitalism, not only is making inroads to prevailing class relations necessary, Labour's institutional blueprint presents a launch pad for the further erosion of bourgeois class power. You don't get to be the longest lived capitalist class in the world without instinctively having a feel for existential threats, even if you can't articulate it in anything but the crudest, red-baiting, Cold War-nostalgic terms.

How is this sense of threat sublimated through the rest of the mainstream body politic? For the Tories, it's obvious. It's a direct attack on their interests (literally so, seeing as most of the parliamentary party have business and rentier interests of their own) and creates a political economy they'd have a hard time adapting to. Hence the likes of Dominic Grieve and Oliver Letwin saying no to a caretaker government. A pro-EU Tory is still a Tory, after all. But others? Considering the sole service Gordon Brown's photocopier rendered to the labour movement is his summation of centrist/liberal thought it's hard to see where these enthusiasts for cutting social security and privatising public assets would have in a world after Corbyn. Because their careers were handed to them on a plate, they lack the wherewithal and the will to make a political argument and organise accordingly - as the muppet show of Change UK attested. To save their wretched niche in the political ecology, opposition to Corbynism comes first, even if it means a no deal Brexit. Saving their own skin and "ideology-free" ideology is a reactionary medium that serves as well as any type of Toryism.

It was always going to be like this. For the bulk of centrism and liberalism, class interests trump all other considerations. It's their narrow, minority concerns determining their Corbynphobia. A no deal Brexit would be a catastrophe for British capitalism and an international humiliation greater than even the Suez crisis, but is a price these frauds are happy to pay because, well, you're going to pay it. To the contrary the Corbynist programme would transform the country and lift the living standards and life chances of millions of people, but it would be at the expense of the Tories and their centrist mini-mes giving up their overweening power and influence. We can't very well have that, can we?

Image Credit

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Liberal Democrats' Worst Nightmare

It's not been a good day for the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson. Still on a high after snatching a seat at the Brecon by-election, chillaxing in the after glow of picking up another recruit from the much-missed Change UK, and making uncomfortable waves for Labour with her Tom Watson chum-in, I expect she arose this morning felling quite chuffed. 

And then that utter bastard Jeremy Corbyn went and ruined everything. 

In his letter to the leaders of opposition parties, and the smattering of independents and disgruntled Tories, he holds out the hand of friendship. To stop no deal, in the event of a successful no confidence in Boris Johnson's government JCorbz proposes a Labour-led caretaker government that would apply for an Article 50 extension and call a general election in which Labour would campaign on the basis of a second referendum with the option of remaining. Surely the Liberal Democrats, the self-styled party of remain would applaud Labour's move to stop no deal. After all, this disastrous outcome must be avoided at all costs, yes?

Not on your nelly. Throughout the day the LibDems have doubled down on their refusal to back Labour's plan. This is despite a positive reception from Caroline Lucas (partly making up for the weekend's nonsense), a cautious welcome from pro-EU Tories, and pressure from centrist Labour MPs. Awkwardly, even Sarah Wollaston, the newest LibDem MP, has shown a flash of pragmatism. And so watching LibDems, FBPE weirdos, the remnants of Change UK, and Z-list celebrities lose the plot on Twitter this afternoon was the most fun I've had on that blasted platform for many a year. Because for all their bluster, Labour's plan against no deal is the LibDems' worst nightmare.

First off, name me a single LibDem policy that isn't punting for a second referendum. Unless you're a real nerd or the LibDem spox for something or another, you can't name one. Just as Nigel Farage cornered Brexit in the dog days of Theresa May's premiership, the LibDems under Uncle Vince and Jo Swinson believed, not unreasonably, that they could do the same by positioning their party as the remain party. And what do you know, it worked for this year's EU elections. In a second order election given to the venting of frustrations, they took moderate pro-EU voters off the Tories and remainy Labour voters (and not a few members) impatient at its refusal to simply become an outright remain party. In the victory flush, the party calculated they could carry on and repair the damage inflicted on them by their near-death coalition experience years ahead of the most optimistic forecasts of recovery. They didn't pay attention to the pivoting toward a second referendum by Labour's leadership and, well, the small matter of repeatedly trooping the PLP through the voting lobbies against May's deal and no deal. The notion Corbyn is a secret Brexiteer around whom Stalinoid pig iron and tractor fetishists enforced the leader's will with a chain link lash meant there was absolutely no chance he'd seize the initiative back from the LibDems. Hubris and Nemesis, when will they ever learn.

By refusing Labour's offer, Swinson and co. are left with a rump of hard remainers and very little else. And by accepting Corbyn's proposal, their strategy collapses and they lose some of the voters they've recently won over anyway. Sucks to be them, but also sucks to be us if they are prepared to kamikaze and throw away the opportunity of thwarting no deal - the position they've staked everything on. Oh yes, and there is another matter of self-interest the LibDems won't declare that has a bearing on their decision-making. Polling consistently shows the SNP are surging in Scotland thanks to the ongoing Brexit nonsense and the distinctly English nationalist tone pushed by Johnson and friends. We're not talking 2015 tsunami here, but certainly enough to knock back the 2017 Tory, Labour and LibDem recovery. Would Swinson's East Dunbartonshire seat be one of those to fall? Ordinarily, a 6,000-strong majority is a comfortable cushion to have, and she shouldn't have anything to worry about. Ordinarily.

Once again, Corbyn's opponents have grossly underestimated the Labour leader and believed their own hype about their genius and savvy. They've got caught out, and are getting rinsed. We now have a clear road map about what can be done. Will it work? Who can say, but all of a sudden it's Labour who are offering a solution out of the Brexit impasse. The choice is now clear: no deal and all that entails with Boris Johnson, or a deal or no Brexit with Jeremy Corbyn. What's it to be?

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Curious Case of Tom Watson

Is there anyone more predictable in politics than Tom Watson? As night follows day, wherever the Labour leadership put a plus he places a minus. And where a negative is identified, the Deputy Leader tells us to do the opposite. Whatever the issue and whenever the time, Tom does his best to infuriate the bulk of the party membership, bask in the spotlight, and derail matters as much as possible. No wonder his keen enthusiasm for a second referendum doesn't extend to his own mandate. Yet, of late, while he is instrumental to the tedious, low-level war against the sovereignty of the membership in general and Corbynism in particular, there has been a shift in his behaviour other party watchers and professional Kremlinologists have failed to remark upon.

At a heavily trailed event earlier today, Tom shared a platform with Jo Swinson and called for parties to set aside their differences and come together to stop a no deal Brexit. Fair enough. Speaking at For our Future's Sake and Our Future Our Choice, appropriately FFS and OFOC respectively, he said no deal would be a disaster, it lacks democratic legitimacy, and we need a second referendum. For her part, Swinson had some sharp words about tribalism and how the Liberal Democrats would work cooperatively across party lines against no deal. And that's it. What could be more innocuous than a pair of centrist MPs having a nice chat and photo opportunity about an issue they share common ground on?

Let's examine this from a few angles. Firstly, on any Labour/LibDem deal. While it is completely fanciful for all kinds of reasons, there is nothing unprincipled about doing a deal with a minor bourgeois party provided the workers' party is in the driving seat. So apart from fleeting episodes where some Tories think their interests coincide with Labour on a vote-by-vote basis, the kinds of outright scabbery we've seen in Scotland in defence of the status quo is an absolute no. But where the LibDems are concerned, assuming Labour cannot form a government by itself, then it all depends on the specifics of any putative deal. A confidence and supply in exchange for electoral reform or some other policy (do they even have policies that aren't Brexit-related these days?) provided it does not harm prevent Labour's programme is, on paper, do-able. A full fledged coalition? I would err in handing any ministry over to them but, again, it depends on the specifics of a putative coalition agreement. If the LibDems' desire to swan around in ministerial cars trumps their very flexible principles, then okay. And besides, they know as well as anyone that underneath the froth Jeremy Corbyn isn't about to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy. It has its transitional aspects, but it's a stretch to describe the 2017 manifesto as a socialist document.

This said, going out his way to court the LibDems right now isn't the most subtle of messaging. Reading the political body language, Tom knows full well that, despite her mealy mouthed pleas for unity, Swinson has ruled out working with Labour for as long as Jez remains the leader. So much for putting aside politics in the national interest. Tom, however, is happily going along with this. By saying Labour needs to work with the Swinson and friends, he is purposely and shamelessly capitulating to their key demand without any conditionalities of his own. And he's doing this entirely for selfish factional reasons. In all essentials, he is saying Labour must remove its leader to unite with the LibDems without saying Labour must remove its leader to unite with the LibDems. This sort of clever-clever positioning is so transparent, so feeble minded, it's hard to believe Tom was once rated an "operator" and a master of the "dark arts".

And it's here we get to the really interesting bit. Tom might relish his role as a "trouble maker" and self-styled shop steward for Labour MPs gearing up for reselection season, but he does so as a freelance. Seasoned readers will know Tom has long associated with Labour First, and the nexus between it, the WestMids regional office, and the right in Unite. They provided a network of influence that buttressed Tom's power and allowed him to confer patronage on aspirant careerists and back-scratchers. Unfortunately for Labour First, it is a shadow of what it once was. Forced out into open campaigning by the mass character of Corbynism, the destruction of its institutional base in the party apparat and the unions, and its routine defeat in internal party elections has reduced them to a mailing list of the like-minded who occasionally throw a sparsely attended conference and fringe meetings. The regular gatherings that used to take place in the WestMids between the Labour First core MPs seldom occurs these days. Therefore, while Tom could never be described as beholden to the faction that made him he was, to an extent, concerned with and attended to its collective interests. No more it seems. For example, while the remainder of Labour First supporters would agree, and might even cheer on his use of anti-semitism for factional purposes and cosying up to the decrepit and declining remnants of Labour unionism in Scotland, his EU positioning is much more ambiguous, and, from LF's point of view, deeply unhelpful.

Most Labour MPs associated with LF believe Brexit should be delivered and recoil at the idea of a second referendum, let alone the idea of revoking Article 50. For example, Stoke North & Kidsgrove MP Ruth Smeeth abstained on extending Article 50 whereas Labour as whole supported it, and voted against a second referendum, resigning from her front bench role attached to Tom Watson's office to do so. Readers are welcome to debate whether leave voters are going to be swung by their MPs positioning on this (the vote was 72.1% leave in the constituency), but whatever the merits or otherwise a not insignificant number of our parliamentarians are wedded to this approach, and that includes most Labour First MPs. From their perspective, Tom's new found enthusiasm for another referendum and the EU not only undermines their efforts - effectively throwing some of his closest colleagues under a bus - but he too runs the risk of falling beneath the wheels. Unlike very remainy Labour MPs who almost exclusively hail from very remainy seats, Tom's West Bromwich East constituency voted 68.2% to leave.

Has Tom become fully consumed by his own legend as a Very Important Person in the Labour game of factional intrigue, or does his freelancing antics speak to the collapse of his faction, the release from residual concerns for them, and the ongoing decomposition of the Labour right? The truth is it's all of these things, and because of them the criticisms and positions he takes are likely to become more opportunistic and more erratic the longer he stays in post. Why not do yourself and all the party a favour Tom and allow someone else the chance to step up?

Monday, 12 August 2019

The Demise of Caroline Lucas

By now you will have heard about Caroline Lucas's emergency all-female cabinet in response to the looming no deal Brexit. And the derision has proven to be near universal. From proposing a cross-party alliance among politicians with little in common to the essentialist supposition that women are bound to do a better job of negotiating Brexit because, well, they're women (um, Theresa May?) and to the noted exclusion of black and minority ethnicity women from her fantasy cabinet. An absence compounded by her clarification/apology that all the leading women in British politics happen to be white. So quite how did the very Brexity backbench Yvette Cooper get selected for Caroline's gang over the very remainy actual Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott? Readers can speculate about this oversight.

Unfortunately for the Green Party's sole MP, this crass initiative has pretty much trashed her reputation among a left who've happily given her the time of day. Despite the space she has put between the Greens and Corbynism, and going full-on remain since the EU referendum. It's a distance travelled from green radicalism to green liberalism, but why the journey at all? What happened to the searing critic of the Blair government and all-round champion of good causes?

Some, particularly on the left, might point to the original sin of green politics: the analytical primacy of the relationship of our species to the environment. Notwithstanding the diversity within green thought and the integration of leftist positions, most of what you might call mainstream green politics swerves or downgrades the importance of class analysis: as if the logics of capital and the exploitation of labour has little to do with our collective species relationship to the environment. Conceived this way, what matters is the doing of something to prevent unsustainable usage of the Earth's resources and climate change which, historically, in the early years of the Greens resolved into a division between radicalism and pragmatism.

The Green Party in England and Wales (the Scottish Greens are a separate organisation) has undergone significant shifts during its history. Starting out as People, this was a conservative and misanthropic sect steeped in Malthusian population control - compare this to the (West) German Greens who were a party hailing from the new social movements of the 1970s. In the 80s it moved to the left, which is where it has sat ever since with varying degrees of radicalism. Caroline Lucas, for instance, has been arrested at Faslane protesting Trident and at Balcombe in an action against fracking. During the 2015 general election campaign, the Greens - then under Natalie Bennett's leadership - formed a de facto alliance with the SNP and Plaid Cymru and were able to place themselves to Labour's left and poll over a million votes for their efforts. Leftism paid.

And then it didn't pay any more. The emergence of Corbynism has made it impossible for the Greens to operate profitably against Labour's left flank, as the 2017 election underlined. The election of Jonathan Bartley as co-leader, in retrospect, appears a significant moment the party acknowledged the new political reality it operated in. Unlike Caroline Lucas and his co-leader, Sian Berry, who have backgrounds in activism, Bartley worked on John Major's leadership campaign to see off John Redwood in 1995, described himself as late as 2010 as a "floating voter" and had a wonkish career flitting between think tanks and doing odds and sods commentary for the BBC. In other words, he's the first senior Green figure who is entirely the product of Westminster and its environs. And you know what social being does, right? It tends to condition consciousness. Bartley was elected jointly with Lucas in September 2016 after the Greens heavy involvement in the remain campaign, with the latter being one of its most visible advocates during the referendum. Particularly since continuity remain took to the streets Lucas has allowed herself to be positioned as the greenish wing of EU fandom, associating the party more with Brexit than other issues. Meanwhile Labour has stolen their march on a green industrial strategy, opposition to fracking, and support (admittedly guarded) for Extinction Rebellion stunts. Still, the current turn hasn't harmed the Greens' electoral standing. In the EU elections this year the party polled 1.4m votes, its best results since it won 2.3m back in 1989. Likewise when it comes to local elections and by-elections, the Greens have proven more adept at picking up disgruntled centre/floating Tory votes than disgruntled lefties or Blairy refugees from Corbynism. Which means they're fishing in the same pond as the Liberal Democrats.

All of a sudden, the desire for a remain alliance or some such nonsense becomes clearer. Nick Cohen looked like he had egg on his stupid face when the first piece of proper journalism he did for nigh-on 20 years got roundly mocked by Sian Berry on social media, but as someone on the party's left would she necessarily be involved in tete tetes between the offices of Caroline Lucas and Jo Swinson? From the Greens' point of view, it makes sense for them to come to an arrangement with the yellow party thanks to the near identical constituency profile. And also to reach out to politicians in other parties who broadly fit with/might appeal to this sub strata of the electorate, and make them look like the much celebrated "grown-ups in the room". So the two halves of what was Change UK, the SNP and Plaid, certain "soft" Tories like Justine Greening, and remainy Labour members like Emily Thornberry were dutifully namechecked. And Yvette Cooper got included too because she's part of the same milieu, and is a great hope of the centrists - even though her Brexit position is more Brexity than the stance of the supposed closet leaver leading the Labour Party.

Being and consciousness, remember that? When you move in new layers there is a tendency to acquire their habits of thought. The elite circles of continuity remain, the studios, the corridors, tearooms, and parliamentary offices of assorted MPs are rarefied environments where individual politicians and figures appear within the milieu as significant personalities with real world pull. How else to explain the continued crush for the sulky Alastair Campbell? But it is also a dismissive, near preternaturally white environment where the nostrums of social liberal inclusion demand the requisite lip service, but little beyond that. Diane Abbott and other leading women of colour in the Labour Party do not mix in these exalted centrist circles, nor are they onside politically speaking. Therefore when Lucas said her fantasy cabinet was composed of leading women, her mind automatically connected to her narrow parliamentary squad.

Yes, Caroline Lucas's standing has suffered from this episode, less thanks to the implicit racism in her letter but because it demonstrates how far she's travelled from an activist politics to the most vapid parliamentary gesture politics. A sad demise, all told.

Countering Tough-on-Crime Populism

"I want criminals to feel terror" Priti Patel proudly boasted in the interview about her priorities as Home Secretary last week. And over the last couple of days, Boris Johnson announced £85m extra for the Crown Prosecution Service to aid its prosecution of violent offences, a review of sentencing for crimes of that ilk, 10,000 new prison places, and the expansion of stop-and-search powers to all police forces. This comes after pinching Labour's policy to recruit 20,000 extra coppers following years of decline. Okay, so why are we going here? Well, it's all about preparedness for a general election. When you even have BBC Breakfast political correspondents going with this line, there is little point pretending it is anything else. What is also interesting is the notable coincidence of a cluster of stories around the crime theme, almost as if the Tories' grid is being aided and abetted by Aunty. We have over-reporting of assaults on police officers, and a prominent feature on so-called county line drug crime. Though funnily enough, the BBC aren't as keen to cover Diane Abbott's attack on the Tories for presiding over a burgeoning mental health crisis among the police.

Okay. According to the pundit chatter of the last few weeks Johnson's galaxy brain strategist, Dominic Cummings, is renowned for doing the most unpredictable things. And yet his form suggests not. A thought experiment: if you wanted to win the EU referendum for leave, does it take real strategic insight to come up with a play on people's anxieties and fears? Likewise, if your approach is about keeping together the Tory voter coalition which very nearly shattered during the EU elections, wouldn't you go hard on traditional Tory themes?

And so we have Crime Week, a set of overlapping policy announcements designed to hog the silly season headlines. This not-at-all-predictable splurge of positions and money are about seizing some much-needed political initiative on matters other than Brexit. The tough posture on crime and criminals gives the Tory editorial offices something uncontroversial to swallow and regurgitate and, crucially, attempts to wrestle the crime mantle back from Labour. After all, readers might remember Theresa May's attempts to capitalise on the jihadi knife attacks in London just prior to the general election and how it didn't stick thanks to her record of cutting back on coppers and the failure to fund their (admittedly problematic) Prevent strategy properly. The hope is the short sharp smack of punitive punishment combined with a more prisons/more screws/more plod pledge casts these unhappy episodes into the abyss and present Johnson's government as a clean break. It's about perception, the idea something is being done to arrest the knife crime epidemic and random violence. It's not about evidence, efficacy, or what does and doesn't work.

Will it work? After all, criminals are never going to attract sympathy from the rest of the population. And to have someone as hardline and vicious as Patel in post is unlikely to cost the Tories either. At least where one's toughness credentials are the main political currency, and the problems of nuance (and racism) aren't about to trouble the base unduly. Shall we remind ourselves of them? The Tory electoral coalition is disproportionately made up of the retired, of the petit bourgeois, sections of the middle class, and (traditionally) big capital. Furthermore, their ontologies - ways of being and becoming in the world - predispose them toward certain political cues. As explained a number of times, anxiety is constitutive of their existences as classes and strata. The petit bourgeois are always threatened by commercial realities dominated by big business, and jealously guards their property and income generated from the sweat of their brow - hence a general ill-disposal to trade unions, labour and social democratic parties, and socialism. The rightist middle class are typically managers, and their anxieties stem from the churn of change (restructures), career competition, the possibility of redundancy, and those assumed through the acquisition of property. And lastly, pensioners of all classes are subject to something akin to petit bourgeois pressures. Again, property is important but more so are fixed incomes and modest investments, which cannot be supplemented by re-entering the labour market in many cases. Add to this the anxieties attending the experience of old age, including dependence on the health system, and the (privatised) individuation consequent of retiring from work, you have sets of constituencies susceptible to having their fears exploited by anyone promising order, security and authority. Often sublimated into other vectors of uncertainty - Britain's place in the world, foreigners "coming 'ere", the acceptance of ethnic and sexual minorities by their children and grandchildren - these are fretted over and talked up by various politicians for influence and votes. And so it is with crime. The idea of the state as a big stick appeals because it is a forceful imposition of order on to a chaos they feel could overwhelm them.

How can Labour counter this? Pointing out the cynicism of the Tories and how their running down of policing and crime prevention did work to a degree in 2017, and has to be part of the strategic mix. But, ideally, we need to shift the parameters of the debate away from "hard" punishment versus "soft" rehabilitation and frame it more pragmatically in terms of what works, to borrow a favourite Tony Blair phrase. This, of course, is a stance that affirms rehabilitation and reform over the birching of scallywags. But ultimately, a crime and policing policy cannot stand on its own. The second aim, beyond the specific nuts and bolts of criminal justice, is the implementation of a programme that simultaneously makes crime less likely and de-weaponises it as a mobilising issue for the right. Again, part of our job is to demobilise the Tory condition while mobilising ours. The potency of the fear of crime can be reduced by addressing the anxieties that underpin the Tory mass electorate through other means, and is one reason why Labour's present package of measures for small business, skills retraining, and retention of current support for pensioners are all necessary.

Even where the Tories appear strong they are weak. And that is no less true when it comes to crime and policing.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

New Left Blogs August 2019

Is there something in the water? After a barren few months with scanty numbers of new starts, eight whole new(ish) blogs, pod casts and Facebook groups grabbed some attention since our last outing. Put the ado away and check these sites out.

1. 12 Rules for WHAT (Twitter)

2. Breaking Binaries (Twitter)

3. Gammon Magazine (Twitter)

4. John McInally Blog

5. Life in the Left Lane (Twitter)

6. Mandatory Redistribution Party (Twitter)

7. Socialist Alternative

8. Utopian Drivel (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs and podcasts that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs etc. that have started within the last 12 months or thereabouts. The new blog round up appears when there are enough new blogs to justify a post!

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Cancelling Cancelled Culture

The future is indefinitely delayed and may never arrive. I haven't written much/at all about Mark Fisher's work for no particular reason, but I've often thought along the same lines as Magdalen Rose had certain themes that easily periodise them, but you can't say the same for the 00s and this decade (we can't even reach a consensus about what we should call it). For example, when you think about the 1980s the popular imagination is littered with hair spray, neon, electropop and stadium rock, arcade and video games, and catalogues stuffed with an overabundance of gender normative toys. All of it the glitzy and kitsch accompaniment to a grimy decade of intense class conflict and right wing revanchism. It might be too early to talk about the 2010s, but the 2000s lie 10 years in the past and we lack a retrospective consensus about its highlights and themes (reality TV? The PlayStation 2?), it's all uncertain and a bit baffling. Instead, the two decades bleed together in a continuum of incremental change, a sort of an eternal present.

As far as Mark was concerned, the idea that the future could be different and would be different has been suspended. Despite the coming of the internet and the proliferation of social media, the gloomy prognosis is, effectively and culturally speaking, we're living the long 90s. The USSR fell, markets are everywhere and, to pinch Frederic Jameson's much quoted line , it's easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The permanent present is postmodernism on steroids. Everything has become utterly fragmented, our ontologies are centred on the individual, consequently meaning there is no point everyone can cohere around. Decentering and contradictory cultural flows are the moment. No wonder even Twitter tribes are identity anchors for some. Therefore in retrospect, the postmodernism debates of the 80s and 90s only identified the trends and tendencies that have come to fruition since the turn of the century. And so with the splintering of culture, so the broad characterisations that were possible in prior decades no longer pertain. The cultural conformism Adorno and Marcuse worried about has become something more insidious: the generalisation of individuated choice within a limited, market-driven purview.

Two very brief points. One confirming and inviting further investigation of the genesis and sustenance of capitalist realism and its culture without a horizon, and a critical, more hopeful note against overstating it.

One of the consequences of Thatcher's dismantling of the post-war settlement was the virtual liquidation of the industrial working class and the break up of its communities. Capital was relieved of its responsibilities to provide decent standards of living and acquired a footloose mobility that pulled manufacturing plant out of the UK and exported jobs to the low waged economies of the East, and got stuck into speculating for short-term profits. The production of socially useful use values did not offer the same rewards. The superficial dynamism of capital found its dizzying corollary in the hyper stylised cultural churn of the 80s: neoliberal yuppie culture with its wine bars and shoulder pads, the rise of the geeks and the nerds, the cultivation of the irreverent spirit, the mainstreaming of queer cultures and diasporic influences, these all grabbed (analytical) attention, but this movement masked the solidification of something else. While class was in ferment and undergoing the process of recomposition, in another sense it was grinding to a halt. Just as Thatcher's housing revolution bequeathed a crisis two decades after she left office, remodelling the social in capital's image and working to inculcate bourgeois habits meant class seized up too. Officially concerned politicians have made careers presiding over social mobility commissions and banging on about aspiration, almost as if the reason why the professions are dominated by the literal children of professionals is because working class people aren't ambitious enough.

The rest is for another time, but when it comes to cultural production the same applies. While the internet has afforded new outlets for music, entertainment and the ghastly "influencers", this goes hand in hand with celebrity culture and the gate-keeping roles still played by the big ents companies. And what do we see here? The former has also seized up, with either the offspring of the famous becoming famous or, increasingly, younger actors, singers, and screen writers getting disproportionately drawn from privileged, affluent, and bourgeois layers. This is partly thanks to the decimation of arts education in schools, but also the punitive work policies overseen by successive governments. As Tony Blair courted the cream of Britpop and desperately sought inclusion in the Cool Britannia moment, his workfare approach to social security meant budding working class talent were forced into jobs at the expense of perfecting their craft. In an ancient NME interview, Richard Ashcroft said in his experience the dole worked as a sort of arts subsidy and gave The Verve space to do their thing. New Labour in its pledge to eradicate youth unemployment ensured this avenue of social mobility was shut down. And the consequence? Fewer people from working class backgrounds are entering the halls of cultural production, which are becoming increasingly hallowed, and so the children of the well remunerated are filling it instead. The consequence is a certain narrowness in mainstream cultural production. If the privileged are telling the stories, certain tales will never get told. The future is cancelled because they, as beneficiaries of the system, cannot see beyond the eternal present.

What went before was no golden age as it came with its own sexual and racialised exclusions. Nevertheless, the post-war period and rising affluence did see real social mobility (often wrongly attributed to grammar schools), but no more. The upper echelons of all walks of life are increasingly restricted to those who start from positions of economic and social advantage, and this is as true of key figures on the left as anywhere else.

A reason to be gloomy then? No. I do wonder what Mark would have made of Corbynism's success at the last general election and the optimism it stoked up on the left. Because it is easy to overstate cancelled culture and negated futures. As I write, the left wing Labour Party is a mass organisation that reaches into every community and every social circle in the land. It is truly a beast which, when mobilised, is a factor in electoral politics in and of itself. And it has transformed consciousness. For the first time since the 1980s socialism is mainstream and even communism is abroad. A new generation of leftist thinkers and writers have broken through and built large followings, the sorts of strategic debates about class and identity politics that exercised many a dusty academic tome in the 1990s command mass participation, and there is an upwelling of working class youth movements. The inner city origins of dubstep, grime, trap and deep house predate Corbynism and, arguably, helped lay some of the groundwork for it. These are as much moments of cultural production from below as punk, the Chicago/Detroit house scene, and acid house were. This does not prevent its co-option and repackaging by big capital (after all, Wiley has a MBE), but it demonstrates the continued vitality of the subaltern and the impossibility of its horizons getting swamped and subsumed by the mainstream in all aspects. The experience of becoming the classed other to cancelled culture always carries the promise of its negating the negated future of capitalist realism to itself, and exploding its reach as the infrastructure of a generalised counter-hegemony and alternative to official cultural production.

The cancellation of cancelled culture? We could be heading that way. The increased reliance of capital on immaterial labour, the movement away from "classical" surplus extraction to new vectors of capitalist exploitation, and all in the context of the attention economy introduces a new dynamic of tendency in class relations. The growing dependence of capital on labour's cognitive and social capacities as opposed to the physicality of bodies, the fact the increasingly dominant force of production - the mass employment of human brains - is hired and not owned by capital, the skills and knowledge labour acquires in the immaterial "production" process exceeds work and effectively becomes part of the common social store, able to be deployed elsewhere for payment or enjoyment; and the intangibility and, often, infinite reproducibility of commodities makes warehousing - the control of supply - exceptionally difficult. Capital has to and is developing new forms of capture to hold all this down and sustain the class relations underpinning it: the production of neoliberal subjectivity, the dissemination of capitalist realism, the stripping back of workers' rights and inducing greater precarity into labour markets, are all effects and responses to the tendency to capitalist self-cancellation. Yet all this does is increase the bind - constricting cognitive labour has the knock on of reducing the capacities of the immaterial labour on which it depends, which knocks on to surplus extraction and profits, while letting it be increases the potentials of it becoming something other than a vector of capitalist exploitation.

Politically our job is to critique and contest the encroachments of capital and its logics, increase the possibilities of cultural production against the market and bourgeois culture, and organise to mobilise for our party, our institutions, and our ways of being and becoming. The cancellation of cancelled culture, of reclaiming, rethinking, and restating the possibility of a better future is entirely doable. After all, they need us. We do not need them.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Nothing Compares 2 GNU

A short while ago we were discussing the imploding thought processes of our centrist friends, and just today a great new fancy has emerged, born fully formed from their Jupiterean heads. The grand wheeze? Well, why not go one better than the 'Remain Alliance' that helped the Liberal Democrats over the line in the Brecon by-election and go for a Government of National Unity (or the funny haha acronym, GNU). No one liberal hero is pushing it. The proposal is entirely crowd sourced and has welled up from the Follow Back Pro Europe Twitter crowd like a tumescent zit.

The idea goes something like this. Following the government's hard ball brinkmanship over Brexit, the opportunities for derailing no deal are slim to negligible, depending on who you decide to ask. With a one week window between recess and the start of party conference season, opportunities for putting motions down etc. are fraught with risk. The only sure fire way of thwarting Johnson's foolhardy scheme then is to, well, throw him out of office. You see, having spotted that the Prime Minister's working majority is one a national government could come together comprised of Labour, the LibDems, sundry indies, Caroline Lucas, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and disgruntled Tories. The back-of-a-burgundy-passport calculations stack up, so why not? Yes, Jeremy Corbyn is an obstacle but getting shot of him won't be a problem, especially as plenty of centrist Labour MPs could fill the Prime Minister's role. Johnson is then no confidenced, the coalition form a government, and they oversee a second referendum while extending/revoking Article 50 (only a proper referendum you understand, no lies nor Russians allowed this time). Once the will of the people is delivered we have a general election and live happily ever after because politics returns to normal.

Yes, more barking than Battersea Dogs' Home and as cringe as the fantasy cabinets your Rafael Behrs and Polly Townbees proffer at early evening drinks. For one, how do they affect Jeremy Corbyn's removal? The latest, low-intensity efforts can't pretend stellar success, so how does a bunch of yellow diamond Verhofstadt stans who put the clueless into, well, clueless think our man JCorbz can be eased out to pasture where Labour MPs have previously failed? Unfortunately, they don't say - though if they have any special insight I'm sure the Labour right are happy to listen.

And we have the stupid empiricism, oh yes. This putative GNU has an on-paper majority, and that is where it would stay. Why do they suppose all Labour MPs and their wayward independent progeny would go along with the scheme? We had goodness knows how many indicative votes and votes against Theresa May's Brexit deal. In the last Parliamentary session, Labour whipped against no deal no less than three times, and still there were Labour people prepared to defy party discipline. And our liberal chums might remember some more MPs recently indicating that they would vote for any Tory deal, and some concede no deal if it means Brexit happens. In short, their GNU cannot command a majority.

Then there are the wider politics. If you are a leave voter of any political persuasion, how would a backroom deal cooked up by MPs look to them? And then there are the ramifications of replacing the government without a general election. The transition from one Prime Minister to another PM from the same party is something most people can live with. There was hardly a popular clamour for a general election in 2017, and as much as we might like one to happen yesterday there isn't much of a desire out there in real land for one now either. But turfing one government out and replacing it with another of a different complexion entirely, that certainly brings up big legitimation issues - even if its remit is limited to the delivering a second referendum (which isn't in the bag by the way, remain fans). Shall we talk about the political situation after a GNU? Who do you think would benefit? Certainly not the parties to the stitch up. Johnson's strategy is already about trying to monopolise the leave vote and hoping this would be enough to win versus a divided opposition. A temporary GNU alliance would strap rocket boosters under the Tories: there is no political credit for thwarting Brexit in so brazen a manner, and it would be Labour- as the biggest party - that would pay the heaviest price.

A good job then this is but a fever dream, a spasm of delusional palpitations as fast-fading liberalism continues its downward spiral. If our centrist friends are serious about stopping no deal, then they might reflect on whether their silly beggar's posturing - being for a remain alliance the one minute, but ruling out SNP participation and having nothing to do with Labour unless Corbyn goes the next - isn't the best way of building bridges. Instead, I'd recommend putting the sauce away and considering the real option open after recess: Labour will table a no confidence motion in the government, and its up to the other parties to back it. If it passes, we're in election territory and everything is up for grabs. The question is are the LibDems and their online cheerleaders going to grasp the real opportunity, or does talking a good fight matter more?

John McDonnell is Right about Scotland

John McDonnell was a bit naughty talking off the cuff about the Labour Party and its approach to Scottish independence. But he's right. In his chat with Iain Dale at the Edinburgh fringe, the shadow chancellor said a Labour government would not stand in the way of a second Scottish independence referendum if Holyrood was minded to call one. This is against Conservative policy and, as it happens, Labour policy too. Ian Murray, the ever-useless member for Edinburgh South and the sole Labour survivor of the 2015 wipe out retorted that this is giving succour to those "who want to divide communities and people", and runs against Labour's "internationalist" values. What codswallop.

Let's consider Labour's strategic dilemma in Scotland. The party generally is against Scottish independence and would prefer either the UK, or some reformed, federalised successor state to continue with Scotland as an integral part of it. The latter is my view, as it happens. And yet the people Scottish Labour needs to win over to become the dominant political power in the land again have largely deposited their identification with our party in the bin and transferred loyalties to the SNP. And, to be honest, who can blame them? Labour's leadership of the Better Together campaign was an abject disaster for the party. It wasn't so much appearing on platforms with Tories that was the issue - I doubt few were turned off by a then largely-unknown Ruth Davidson ostentatiously clapping Gordon Brown at one of his animated speeches. It was seeing Labour sharing politics with the likes of Dave and Osborne, and parroting the very same attack lines. The Yes campaign and the SNP framed their movement as an anti-establishment insurgency, and Labour, the party that had Scotland all sewn up for decades, myopically situated itself at logger heads against its own voters. Instead of a positive case for sticking with the UK, apocalyptic vistas and miserabilism were its preferred fare. And thus apocalypse and untold misery were duly visited upon the party less than a year later.

It wasn't just the referendum that destroyed Scottish Labour. The withering of the party's roots, the long stranglehold on politics, its stupid strategy of opposing the SNP government from the right, this is what the Scottish Labour establishment did. It was less the case of devolution and the Holyrood parliament that opened the doors to the SNP, it was the complacency and failures of Scottish Labour to renew itself and adapt. How then to pull the situation back? As plenty of people have noticed, the wave of Corbynism that transformed the party's fortunes in England and Wales barely made a dent in Scotland. Though the party was able to claw back six more seats in 2017, its support grew by fewer than 10,000 votes, and prior to this there was no Corbynmania, no swamping of constituency parties by an avalanche of new members. This was because the same kinds of people who responded to the Corbynist opening elsewhere had already been activated and politicised by the referendum, and owed their allegiances, in the main, to the SNP. And in 2017 Scottish Labour didn't even try to win over these left leaning voters. It doubled down on a core vote strategy aimed squarely at unionist voters, up to and including local arrangements with Tories to keep the nationalists out. What a grotesque turn of affairs - but one native to the constitutional cretinism of the Labour unionist establishment.

Naturally, Scottish Labour wants unionist voters to, um, vote for it. The problem is they are a declining constituency. Its old base in industrial trade unionism, as the Scottish corollary of leveraging the bargaining power of labour to extract concessions from the bosses, and social democratic legislation from the (UK) state has largely evaporated. The base of Scottish unionism, like its cousin in Northern Ireland, is not replacing itself. Even more than the case in Ulster, in terms of mass purchase unionism is a legacy ideology. The problem with Scottish Labour is its bureaucracy, networks, and governing elite were drawn from these layers well into the Blair years and remain so situated, even though the constituency is thinning and Labour are forced to compete with the Tories for hegemony over it, while leaving the loyalties of the bulk of SNP voters uncontested. A cracked strategy that can only compound Labour's marginality and doom it to a dwindling fate.

It doesn't have to be like this. Plenty of unionist Labour voters would still respond to a strong left platform even if our Scottish manifesto doesn't dribble sycophancy over the monarchy and the UK's cherished institutions. And so, the election of Richard Leonard as leader was definitely a step in the right direction. But 18 months on little has changed, and why? Because the majority of people, people who should be our people, believe the SNP are doing an okay job in government and that they offer a vision of a Scotland that could work for them. Meanwhile Labour is associated with the status quo, and one set on taking us all put of the European Union in defiance of the preference of Scottish voters. Labour are perceived an author of Scotland's problems, not a solution to them.

In this sense, something has to give. For Labour to get a hearing it needs a position on the national question that can begin a conversation with progressive voters instead of repelling them. Independence and the hopes and interests bound up with it aren't going to disappear the longer you deny a referendum. On the contrary, given how much has changed since 2014 - particularly with regard to Brexit - the more you're stoking support for one. Therefore, John McDonnell's suggestion that Westminster should not have a veto on an independence vote is the starting point of rethinking how the constitution should work. Devolving more power to Holyrood, including the hand over of the prerogative of determining Scotland's self-determination is not pandering to nationalism, as the likes of Ian Murray argue, but a sensible way of undercutting it and pitching for the SNP's voters. Given Scottish Labour is on the trajectory of long-term decline, the situation needs turning around. What is there to lose apart from the shambling gait of a party on the verge of collapse?

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Conservatism's Last Hurrah?

Good to see someone else thinking and writing about the decline of Conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic. In this episode of Politics Theory Other, Alex interviews Andy Beckett about his recent Graun article on this very topic. Of particular interest, Andy alights upon the studied refusal of conservative governments to be competent administrators.

As always, Politics Theory Other needs your support. Please consider doing so here.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Centrist Dreams Don't Die

Just when you thought it was safe to enter the water, it appears. The sea empties with panicked bathers scrambling as far away from the waves they can. They turn and what do they see rising from the foam? Not the jaws and fins of a Great White, no. For bobbing out of the waves is that wretched beast, much-hyped, defeated, and now split into three. Undaunted it keeps coming back, no matter how many times Roy Schneider dynamites the bleeder. It can only be one thing: your friend and mine, another centrist party fantasy.

Following hot on the heels of, um, Gavin Shuker's call for a new party, Kate Maltby the sometime Tory is demanding Labour MPs jump ship. "We're not far off a general election", she wails, "and time is running out to stop Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson!" She does at least acknowledge one aspect of political reality: the Labour leader has the confidence of the party membership and is not going anywhere this side of Brexit. She says MPs spending time shoring themselves up against the possibility of deselection are "wasting their time" (easy to say when you're not a Labour MP wanting to carry on being a Labour MP) because the time for a new centrist party, or a strengthened Liberal Democrats, is now.

Maltby goes on to say how "wonderful" it is to see Heidi Allen and Luciana Berger "liberated" from their parties. Yes, it's nice to be responsible for the sum total of sod all without any expectations or accountability to the members, the activists, and the party who put you there. But, suddenly remembering Change UK actually launched and justly failed, this adventure was "premature". The "social democrats" failed to turn up to the party. Now, however, the time is right. If Labour people leave the party and set up shop independently or prefer shacking up with the LibDems, then some Tories will follow their lead. And ... and ... and ...? Well, that's it.

As a media "personality" I imagine Maltby got more than the standard £75 for this drivel, but for what? This article says nothing, and doesn't even try making a case. Why should rebellious Labour MPs pitch their tent in another camp? What has changed since the formation of Change UK to necessitate this outburst? Well, we have seen some developments. The previous tenant at Number 10 has moved on and Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister. But apart from this, the situation is broadly the same despite earnest efforts to present the contrary. The parliamentary arithmetic has shifted against Johnson and the no deal fanatics thanks to the Brecon by-election, and that has only added to the majority against exiting minus an arrangement with the EU. The polling since his assumption of office have mostly moved in his favour, but the overall flow is away from the four-party politics sundry pundits were getting excited about a few short weeks ago and back toward the big two. And so early August is looking looking like mid-February: two-party politics, a Brexit impasse, and no deal weighing on Westminster brains like a nightmare. And just as there was neither rhyme nor reason for cack-handedly launching a centrist party then, there's no reason for one now.

Finding bourgeois politics commentators who understand politics is expecting too much these days, and so Maltby isn't a one off. She's by no means the worst this mildew-reeking stable has to offer either. Her strata, the polite society of establishment media has seen their world implode. Thanks to social media, they are abused (challenged) for writing guff, and their status as opinion formers is shot. They make bank selling words to The Graun and reviewing papers for the BBC (commentators commenting on comment), but they're nothing special. Seeing their political analogues easily brushed aside by a left wing membership in Labour, and their remainer soulmates on the Tory benches routed by a party on a suicide run, it's all a rude reminder that their world is on its way out. They don't understand and certainly don't like what the fates have ushered in in its place, even more so because it doesn't afford them the same privileged role as entitled opinion formers. And in their consequent state of anomie they have nothing left but bad faith, like Dan Hodges, the same article regurgitated time and again, as per Nick Cohen, and piss and wind, such as Kate Maltby and co. The mine for centrist bellyaching and clueless takes might be profitable for now, but it's by no means inexhaustible. So enjoy, if that's the right word, this sub-genre of political writing while it lasts. It's not long for this world.

Stanning for Corbyn, and Other Twitter Tribes

Twitter is a blessing and a curse. Mostly a curse. It enables the rapid networking and dissemination of information - any information - but simultaneously doubles down and condenses the pathologies of platform capitalism and the attention economy. I'm reminded of this every single moment of scrolling through my Twitter feed and seeing shared articles and bad tempered polemic mixed in with attention seeking and mind-bending narcissism. Normally, you just go with the wretched flow. In terms of a cost/benefit analysis the price of scrying performative stupidity is outweighed by the pay off of decent opinion and info. But the toxicity does grate, and a lot of what is bad has to do with the Twitter tribes.

Because I inhabit a very particular online universe, there are two groups who are especially annoying and sometimes toxic. The Follow Back Pro Europe crowd, grouped by their totemic #FBPE hashtag overlap with the worst people in the Liberal Democrats, the Labour right, and with centrism more generally. However, the target of my ire this last weekend - and the subject of this post - are ostensible allies. People who regularly use #SocialistSunday or #SocialistAnyDay, and combine this with Chris Williamson fandom, tweet about Israel and Zionism as if they're the only active forces in British politics, enthusiastically push The Canary and reckon prominent left wingers, like Owen Jones, have sold their souls because they write for the bourgeois press. While, as a whole, they don't think Jeremy Corbyn is a messiah, there is a certain black-and-white moralistic streak running through their group identity that rules out nuance or perceiving the world as shades of grey. These then, for want of a better phrase, are the Corbyn stans. So-named after the titular character from the famous Eminem hit, a stan (or stans) is a not-terribly flattering term for someone or a group of people who aren't so much stalkers, but will doggedly and dogmatically push an idea, a movement, or a figure in a particularly single-minded way. Consider this in the context of the Labour Party. This single mindedness can and often is pushed to the detriment of the object of their ostensible support, such as supporting figures who have proven themselves obvious liabilities and touting obsessions and arguments long disavowed and, in most instances, not ever endorsed by the Labour leadership. There is a bit more to this. Stanning should also evoke the Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa, which were ethnically homogenous constructs set up by the regime to keep the white minority and black majority apart. That is the typical end point of stanning, whether willed or not: the constitution of an undifferentiated intentional community, one that is ghettoised not by repression from without but the pressures of conformity from within.

Why am I writing about this now? Because this weekend we have seen well-known social media anti-racism campaigner, @a_leesha1 driven off Twitter (hopefully temporarily) following a series of exchanges with older activists, nearly all of whom are Corbyn stans. They did not like how she used her following to point out incidences of racism on the left, sometimes unconscious, sometimes not, and so turned on her as if she was some kind of apostate. Try imagining the spectacle of middle aged white people telling a young British Asian woman what is and isn't racist (which isn't difficult to envisage if you're familiar with Dan Hodges' output) - and you've got the general gist of what happened. No one likes their deficiencies pointed out, but for a clutch of self-described leftists and ostensible Corbyn supporters to behave like this is appalling. In typical social media fashion the crimson mist has descended, and rather than confront their own deficiencies they have lashed out in a coordinated excommunication of Aleesha. Whatever she'd done prior to this clash, as far as they were concerned she wasn't really one of them, isn't worth paying attention to, and politics is better without her presence.

These dynamics are nothing new, but in the age of social media they have acquired a certain virulence as well as persistence in what is a dynamic and fluid environment. It's incongruent. In a medium of proliferating networks and news, it might be reasonable to expect identities to possess a certain fluidity, and yet groups and sub-groups of stans - Corbyn-centric, FBPE, Brexit Party/Farageist stans, Tory Twitter generally - reproduce and persist. And what we see in politics is by no means unique to it. Sports, fandoms, fashion and style, music, and, unsurprisingly, celebrity, stanning is a fact of digital life This, alas, is more than just a consequence of Twitter, but rather the alignment of the platform architecture to the inculcation, interpellation, and invention of identity in advanced capitalist societies.

As we have seen recently, self-styled traditional Marxists have counterposed identity politics to class identities and class locations. The former is a matter of lifestyle or oppressions ascribed to particular embodied characteristics - sex, sexuality, skin tone, presence of physical/mental impairments, age. Class on the other hand is about our relationship to the means of production, whether we have to sell our labour power in return for a wage or salary to physically and culturally reproduce ourselves and our families as human beings, or not. For the so-called orthodox, while being oppressed as a woman or as a disabled person is awful and these struggles are important, they are cut across by common class interests around which we should organise. This implies there is a tension between the two, a tension arising out of their separate character and rootedness in different and separate structures of exploitation and oppression, and one that should be resolved in favour of emphasising, with varying degrees of crudity, class first.

This is wrong. It baldly states your experiences as a disabled person, as a gay person are inessential, an attitude that encouraged the formation of women's liberation, gay liberation, and anti-racist movements independently of and separate from labour movements. The truth of the matter is different identity locations have been nurtured and managed since capitalism began its path to global dominance in the late mediaeval period. For example, race has a history and it is inseparable from colonialism, slavery, and "conventional" capitalist exploitation. The historical experience of surplus labour and surplus value cannot be told without the brutal enforcement of racial hierarchies. Likewise, the division of labour in the fields and the factory was not the neat, disinterested technocratic affair reading too much Weber would have you believe, but is absolutely premised on sexual divisions of labour. All-women workforces were used to undercut men in the same way ethnicity and nationalities were used to cultivate competition within the working class, and as the power of trade unions grew, as disposable incomes grew, the better off layers of workers imitated the respectable mores of their supervisors, managers, and employers. The idea of the working man is a result of late 19th century trade union struggle to keep women out the workplace to increase wages, and it was this absence of economic independence that was and is the material root of the private patriarchies of the proletarian household.

Capitalism did not emerge in a vacuum. It was the by-no-means-inevitable outcome of the class struggles of decaying feudalism, and evolved alongside the development of the modern state. In the home of capitalism, England, the development of the nation state and capitalism were coterminous, mutually constitutive, and mutually conditioning. As capitalism evolved, the state became more than a military apparatus oriented against threats at home and abroad, it had the job of managing populations, which was fairly pressing considering its administrative centre tended to be among the most densely populated cities. This management problematic beget systems of knowledge and classification about its population - often arrived at through the threat and actual application of violence to human bodies, and the invention of identity categories through the application of disciplinary power. For example, the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality was concerned with the 19th century invention of the homosexual as a particular subject, or type of human being, whereas prior to then and despite the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse and sexual relationships, so-called sodomites were merely men who happened to engage in illegal sexual activity. Their behaviour did not define them. The invention of homosexuality was at the same time the invention of sexuality as such, which in the Victorian imaginary was bound up with moral rectitude: sex and sexuality started saying a great deal about who you are, an outlook that persists to this day. To what end? Well, you can't manage populations if you don't have technologies and prohibitions governing reproduction.

Class politics and identity politics or, if you prefer, the politics of the body are integral and integrated. It is nonsensical to oppose the two. However, this doesn't mean their configurations don't change, and since the 1960s they have. As recounted many times here, in the post-war period the state expanded even further and touched more points of social life than previously. Following the Italian autonomists, greater layers of workers were employed whose object, to all intents and purposes, was the reproduction of capitalism and the management of its consequences. What are health and social services if not to mend the people broken physically and spiritually by it so they can be thrown back into the fray? What this development also represents is the complete subsumption of society as a whole to the dictates of capital. The needs of accumulation were primary everywhere at all times. Class struggle is less a point of production thing, it is generalised to all areas of the social. So teachers, who educate and train the next generation of workers, are confronting capital when they take industrial action. When women's movements and LGBT movements challenged gendered and sexual repression, they were taking on capital by contesting its politics of reproduction, and so on. These collective challenges were fed by and fed into new modes of individuation.

In Capital, Marx discusses the individuation of the worker, how the formal, legal relationship between employer and employee is individual - workers get a certain wage or salary in return for X hours of labour power under the foremen/manager's direction. They are addressed and treated as individuals: their relationship to the boss class is not collective, unless there is strong trade union organisation. In the post-war period, (relative) economic stability married to rising wages opened the doors to mass consumption and privatised forms of entertainment. The invention of the teenager, a house with all the mod cons, fashion and style, these inculcated an acquisitive individual sensibility and, in a number of crucial ways, eroded the collectivist cultures underpinning mass semi-active affiliation to Labour ... and the Conservatives. Identity wasn't something just ascribed and interpellated from above, but could be cultivated and styled from below, albeit bounded by class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. The Teddy Boys, as an early youth movement, were macho, hard-drinking and hard living, overwhelmingly working class and male. It came and went (though sometimes, you can espy the odd old Ted) but generated a set of markers and touchstones subsequent movements would take on: sets of consumptive practices, a more or less coherent group identity and a nascent solidarity, and an instrumentalist attitude to work: that was something you had to do, the life outside of the workplace was where you wanted to be.

As mass consumption was normalised, so was marketing. Firms were in the active business of generating identity locations to capture the minds and the wallets of the (relatively) affluent mass. The music industry and its rapid churn of fashions, along with the lightning fast turnover of artists and groups generated youth movements and ecosystems around genres and acts, deepening the naturalisation of the private, instrumentally-oriented and acquisitive individual further. Indeed, the keeping up with the Joneses, the habituation of millions of workers to rising living standards helped ensure trade union organisation and collective bargaining as the means of raising wages retained its relevance. Collectivism at work supported individualism at leisure. The whole shebang presented as a coherent, functional whole even to radical critics.

This individuation and the expansion of the state were never at cross-purposes from one another. The kinds of work millions of workers were engaged with, with the consequences of maintaining and reproducing the system, was not productive labour in the view of vulgar economics. It did not directly produce value, rather they produced the social infrastructure that made 'conventional' capitalist exploitation possible. They did not make stuff, their labour was, for want of a better phrase, immaterial. Its object was the production and reproduction of care, knowledge, moralities, relationships, and immaterial workers had to (and have to) draw on their own capacities as socialised beings to undertake this work, mobilising their own subjectivities and identities. In other words, through the expansion of the state its provision of services were in the business of conditioning and generating new identities, and accomplished this by exploiting the socialised selves and identities of its personnel.

Without getting too much into the history of the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s, it had two chief consequences as far as immaterial labour and the constitution of identities were concerned. With privatisation of sections of the state, with the shift away from primary industry and manufacturing to services, the axis of knowledge generation and service provision moved to the private sector and became direct vectors of capitalist accumulation. Secondly, the policies of the Thatcher and Reagan governments and later pretty much all the advanced countries intersected with and directly cultivated the acquisitive individualism welling up from below. It became a blueprint for social engineering. And so while the programme of privatisation and marketisation is commonly associated with neoliberalism, in its more insidious forms it is a mode of subjection, a means of cultivating human beings of a particular kind. And for Thatcher and friends, those human beings were mini-entrepreneurs whose acquisitive nature went beyond the stacking up of consumer durables but were oriented to the accumulation of capital and property. Throughout her reign, her war against post-war social democracy was about inculcating these sensibilities - the privatisation programme, the council house sell offs, conditionalities attached to social security, even the introduction of the Poll Tax had the object of remaking the souls of millions of people. This process was deepened by Major as well as, to their eternal discredit, Blair and Brown, and was pushed even further under Cameron and the recently departed Theresa May. What this accomplished was a fusion of identity constitution and the entrepreneurial self. You were free to style your own identity within the conditions imposed by long standing inequalities and oppression, but the state and its institutions expected you to orient to them as mini-capitalists with your self as the asset. In the job markets from the 80s onwards, employers were less interested in what your body could do but what kind of person you were, and how your personality, intelligence and aptitudes would benefit their organisation. The language of unlocking potential and aspiration encourages a subjectivity in which the self is saleable.

This neoliberal self selects for certain personality traits then: it emphasises the showy over the staid, the confident over the reticent, the sociable over the shy, and the narcissistic over the modest, the possession of which confers real economic/job market advantages. And it is exactly these sorts of traits social media, and Twitter in particular, exaggerate. All social media is based on attention. The more time you spend on a particular platform, the more data the host gathers about your habits and the better able they are to sell targeted advertising. For example, this blog is hosted by Blogger, which is owned by Google. It carries no advertisements. However, Google insists on inserting cookies onto your computer/device so it can build up a data picture of you. Because you regularly visit this place, or you click on certain posts while avoiding others, that's all grist for the Google data mill who will use those choices to sell advertising space targeting you on other platforms it owns. And, in return for my data and your data, they ever so generously provide this wee blog and its storage space to me for free.

Other social media platforms ramp up the neoliberal sensibilities. Over its evolution since 2006, Twitter has been modified multiple times, often by pressure from Twitter users. Nearly all its features - hashtags, retweets, favourites/likes, threading, extra characters, image and video hosting - these were not thought out in advance but were added as users demanded their inclusion, or developed their own workarounds. Twitter (allegedly) gathers the wisdom of crowds, and exists as is for that self-same reason. But the actual logic of the platform itself is almost chemical pure neoliberalism. The number of followers one has is a validation of sorts, especially if the follower-to-follow ratio is high. And from here, the number of retweets and likes your missives receive suggests you're making your way, that your messages, whatever they might be, are resonating. And on top of that Twitter have added a load of metrics so you can see how many page impressions your profile has had, along with tweet performance and a whole lot of other stuff. The temptation is to keep plugging away, keep churning out the hot takes and the witty repartee and your influence will grow, all of it available in handy metric form. In other words, Twitter offers a crude measure of one's social capital. It puts rocket boosters under the neoliberal self, while mining self-curated identities for data

What has the evolution of identity under capitalism and its rendering by social media got to do with Twitter tribes? Well, for one, the emergence of consumerist/subcultural identities have always attracted and recruited the like-minded. But there is something else: the pathologies particular to and immanent in the acquisitive and neoliberal self. Contemporary identities can present themselves as ready made social locations, something you can acquire off-the-peg that are packaged with cognitive structures, styles, language, and exclusive social spaces. In other words, we are encouraged to orient toward and appreciate identity as if it's property: a complete self-contained package. Identity is irresolutely social and only possible because we are social beings, yet it is sold as an individual attribute, a design for life. Its appearance, to borrow the old language, is not its essence, which is inseparable from the abstract relationships underpinning capitalist exploitation. The fusion of class and identity at the point of (immaterial) production goes unacknowledged, its collective character as the strategic fulcrum of exploitation and capital accumulation is unremarked. The collective life of collective identity is talked up solely in terms of consumerist tribes by marketing language: it very definitely isn't a site of class struggle with the potential of proliferating networks and combining with other locations, other identities in an alliance against capital. Rather it is a path to individual fulfillment, expression, and bliss. Keeping it narrow like this is a way of negating the potential of identity beyond the neoliberal entrepreneurial self. It is the common sense, a species of economism not unlike the trade union consciousness Lenin once wrote about, in which the every day realities of exploitation are consented to and one's eyes are forced down by the weight of convention and routine.

The Twitter tribes mirror economism in the age of immaterial production. The accumulation logics married to identity-as-exclusion, of its assertion against what it's not, draw together the like-minded. Their networks condense as they expand, drawing toward the centre those who most identify with the identity properties of the tribe while expelling dissenters, the faint hearted, and those not fully signed up to whatever totalising narrative or politics they're promulgating. And, as we have seen, this even happens in leftist movements, in movements ostensibly dedicated to doing away with capitalism. In this particular case Corbyn is the lynchpin not for a transformative socialist politics, but for the constitution of identities in which moral purity is defined in terms of one's distance from what is rejected. This is the new economism in extremis: the radicalism and their in-groupness is fetishised and the possibility of loosening up, of identifying themselves in terms of the actual movement they are nominally part of, warts and all, is foreclosed. There is no reaching out, no room for collaboration and alliances. It's all a zero sum game: they are the true. Everyone and anyone who falls short, like taking anti-semitism seriously, challenging racism when they find incidences of it, or have dared venture criticisms of Corbynism from within Corbynism, well; they're out, not worth bothering with, and should be chased off if needs be.

While it is annoying, frustrating, damaging, and dispiriting, we should not find this behaviour in left wing movements surprising. As we've noted on many occasions, all political parties and social movements, all of them, are affected and afflicted with the prejudices and outlooks of the society they are part of. Labour has them all - sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, national chauvinism, and the rest. Therefore the economism appropriate to the age has its home too, and is systematically reproduced by the logics of capital, of class and identity formation, and the (necessary) participation of political activists on social media. Better political education is only one way of addressing the problem - drawing more people into active, flesh-and-blood participation, while attacking neoliberal culture and building our own institutions of cultural production, all have a role to play. Most crucial of all is the inculcation of a more flexible, more fluid movement identity that identifies with the objectives we have set ourselves ahead of luxuriating in the fact of the movement itself. To be fair, we do have that, this is what the bulk of Corbynism is like: a proper broad church united around a common programme. But for as long as neoliberal sensibilities reign supreme without challenge, stanning will present a self-erected barrier we have to persistently and ceaselessly struggle to overcome.