Saturday 30 November 2013

Whither Left Unity?

Today saw the launch of Britain's newest political party. Left Unity is officially alive. Since Ken Loach called for a left alternative to Labour back in March, there has been a tortuous road to today's official start, as the cpgb's coverage and comment has demonstrated in anything but gripping detail. Yet 10,000 Facebook likes, 1,000 paid up members, and a founding conference later, the new party is with us. The closing speaker remarked Saturday 30th November *could* be a historic day. Is this boosterism for the troops, the usual left hype that attends these sorts of events; or, *gasp*, could Left Unity be a real contender?

Let's be blunt. Unity initiatives on the far left have a chequered history. It got to the point of absurdity when the two main Trotskyist outfits - the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party - had their own unity/recomposition projects. Off the top of my head, since 1996 we've had the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales, Forward Wales, Respect, The United Socialist Party, Socialist Green Unity Coalition, Campaign for a New Workers' Party, Solidarity, Left List, No2EU, and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. This does not count fringe-of-the-fringe projects like Republican Communist Network, Campaign for a Marxist Party, and Anti-Capitalist Initiative. There's probably more I've missed. The point is all at best were still born or worst fractured, ironically leaving the constituent parts at a further remove than was the case at the outset.

If the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, the odds are stacked against Left Unity breaking the sectarian mould. That said, there is something slightly different about LU that gives them an edge over these failing and failed projects.

The cpgb argues that if the revolutionary left practiced democratic centralism Bolshevik-style, i.e. open factions, open platforms, open debate and discussion, but unity in action, then the intractability of far left sectarianism would be resolved. Remember what I said about latter day Leninists unwilling to use Marxism to look at themselves? Sectarianism exists not because everyone bar the cpgb have misread Lenin's writings, but because they negatively express the outlook of the petty apparatuses/bureaucracies each far left organisation possesses, the material imperative to compete against revolutionary Others in a small but crowded marketplace, the strategic orientations to the different milieux they target, and the need to main discrete party identities. Sectarianism is deeply rooted in the far left's conditions of existence, and is reproduced unreflexively in a party's outlook. One can easily pay lip service to overcoming sectarianism, while obliviously reproducing that sectarianism. Hence self-decribed Leninist organisations share slight variations on a 'party-first' theme that structures their activity. This is why "unity" between different parties ostensibly standing for exactly the same thing has always come undone, and is never likely to be superseded.

LU is immediately at an advantage because it avoids this. The SWP aren't interested, not that anyone would have anything to do with this increasingly depraved cult anyway. And the SP think their self-important TUSC front is a significant step toward a mk II Labour Party. If only the misleaders of the working class and Elvis could be shoved aside. LU therefore can't be turned on and off at will by unaccountable cliques of ultra-correct revolutionary leaders. Smaller Trot outfits like Workers Power are in, and will no doubt make a pain of themselves in the LU branches they live in, but they are very much a minority - even in a membership as low as 1,000.

Neither is LU beholden to a Galloway-like figurehead. Ken Loach might make films lefties hold dear, but a man with the populist touch he isn't. And to be fair he has not sought such a position. He has used his platform to cohere a regroupment process that has led to today. He does not claim to be the leader. He has no wish to stamp the new party with the semi-Trot politics he holds. Despite the grumbles of the cpgb and the various tiny platforms recognised prior to conference, LU appears to break fundamentally with two key drivers that have wrecked unity projects of the past.

Well, perhaps not fundamentally. From casually observing LU's comments section on occasion, and seeing who gets named in Weekly Worker reports, there's more than a few folk involved who've been through the sorry experience of unities past. Most are veterans of the left, of activists without an abode to call their own. And had either the SWP or SP been involved, I'd have bet my bottom dollar that many would not have touched LU with someone else's. The second point regarding sectarianism is that LU is now a proper "player". It might have the ambition to reach out to the great mass of working people, but along the way it will have to compete with the Trots who are doing the same. Especially the SP's TUSC, who despite mustering tiny of handfuls of votes think they're The Most Significant Thing Ever because Bob Crow every year convinces RMT conference to endorse them. It will mean clashes in council and parliamentary votes, and perhaps a jostling for position on future demonstrations.

Nevertheless, as tenuous a bureaucratic relationship the SP's TUSC has with the RMT, on paper it does have that labour movement link. What of LU? Among its members are union activists, branch secretaries and so on. Yet, as the SP might argue, they represent no one but themselves. The party is a coming together of atomised lefties and micro-Trots. But then again, unlike TUSC, LU exists for itself. There is a possibility, however remote, that it could become something other than it is. That will never be the case with the SP's electoral vehicle.

Ah, prospects. Ruminating on the prospects of a 'left UKIP' earlier this year, I then argued there is some political space to the left of Labour. It is much tighter than was the case during the Blair/Brown years, but a constituency of pissed off ex-Labour voters and leftish anti-politics types does exist. Typically this manifests itself in the 1-2% you can expect to vote for far left candidates at election time. And as the Greens, BNP, and UKIP have shown, if you can sort out unity among your milieu you can face outward instead of inward. There's a few more percentage points to be grabbed and theoretically LU could build up a presence equal to the Greens.

This is only if it plays its cards right, and at present the new party holds only dud hands. To make its mark it has to exhaustively contest as many elections as it can, but unlike TUSC LU has to work them consistently to build up a base. To build its profile it has to work systematically in the labour movement and the procession of protest movements that come and go. To be fair (again? What's up with me?) there is no suggestion from what I've seen that they anticipate nothing but a slog.

But the single biggest thing, the challenge I think LU will find insurmountable is, as always, Labour. Only the most blinkered pretend the party is fundamentally the same beast as it was in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. It might be more complex than the rigid schemas of the far left allow, but Labour has shifted back to social democratic politics. It has cottoned on that living standards are being hammered and, as a result, the party is the only one addressing those concerns. When the two main parties find themselves on opposite sides on the bedroom tax, NHS privatisation, house building, energy prices, apprenticeships, economic strategy, care for the elderly, breaking up the banks, and workplace rights, it's obvious who should form the next government. And while LU is something looking to become something else, so is Labour. Who, for instance, is going to listen to LU when Labour has a realistic chance of putting its policies into practice? Who will be tempted to support LU when it will be massively squeezed by the next election's high stakes?

Ultimately, while LU has got the potential to be much better than its various Trotty forerunners, as far as its prospects go the most it can ever hope for is minor party status. And I don't think it will ever come close to UKIP levels of support. If so, then what is the point?

Friday 29 November 2013

By-Election Results November 2013

Number  of candidates
Total vote
+/- Oct
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**


* There was one by-election in Scotland.
** There were no by-elections in Wales.
*** There were independent clashes in four contests.
**** 'Other' this month consisted of Wear Valley Ind (360), Harrow First (173), It's Our County (987), Elvis (31), City Ind (861), Its Our County (429), SPGB (22)

Overall, 41,474 votes were cast over 25 individual local (tier one and tier two) authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison see October's results here.

The low variance in Tory and Labour vote shares and averages might indicate an underlying stability about those figures. Though always remember, these are second (or perhaps third) order elections in which local issues tend to come to the fore. The dramatic increase in performance by Independents and, to a lesser extent, the Others and an improvement in UKIP - without undue extra media exposure this last month - points to a combination of local political scenes and anti-politics protesting working its way through to slightly depress the vote of the traditional main parties.

Social Critique after Austerity

Interesting workshop coming up at Keele Uni. I'll be putting something in.

Social and Political Critique in the Age of Austerity
A one day workshop at Keele University
10.30am-6pm, Wednesday 12th February, 2014

This one day workshop is devoted to the discussion of critical politics in the contemporary age of austerity. Following the 2007 global economic crash, which led to a raft of government bank bail outs and nationalisations across America and Europe, a cunning ideological reversal took place – the crash was no longer the result of the hubris of the neoliberal financial sector, which had developed the idea of ‘riskless risk’ where reckless stock market speculation and the creation of value ex nihilo could produce endless profit, but rather the immoral wastefulness of the people and society. According to this ideological position, which was advanced by governments across Europe, the welfare state, and in many respects society itself, was transformed into an ‘exorbitant privilege’ that was simply unaffordable. In fact, in order to pay for their wastefulness the people were not only expected to give up their public services, but also required to accept ever lower wages, and a general state of social and economic precariousness.

This is the current state of play across America and Europe, where the neoliberal state has exploited the crash in order to retrofit society for violent competition with Asian capitalism. In the face of this race to the bottom, key thinkers such as David Graeber, Antonio Negri, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Costas Douzinas have spoken out against the new form Naomi Klein calls neoliberal disaster capitalism and given voice to the protest, rebellion, and revolt taking place across the world.

The objective of this workshop is to build upon the works of these key thinkers and explore the possibility for resistance in the age of austerity. We invite contributions from a range of disciplines focused on diverse social and political contexts and a variety of theoretical perspectives. Contributors may choose to focus on austerity and resistance across Europe, including the UK, Greece, Spain, and Italy; the Occupy movement; the media construction of austerity, including the idea of the undeserving poor who are seen to be living off public funds; methods for the organisation of resistance; the concept of the multitude and the digital commons; anti-capitalist thought; or transformative social and political theory and practice more generally. Most importantly, we are keen to emphasise that this list is not exhaustive - the key principle behind the workshop is that debate should open up a space for social and political creativity. In this way we are keen to encourage potential contributors to be creative and explore new possibilities for political change in a historical period where change seems absolutely necessary, but also impossible to envisage. In this respect, we encourage contributions from a variety of participants – academics, post-graduate students, activists, and others engaged in thinking through the possibilities of change under conditions of crisis and austerity.

The workshop will close with a lecture from Professor Costas Douzinas (Birkbeck), author of Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis: Greece and the Future of Europe.

In order to take part in the event please send a 250 word abstract to Emma Head (, by Monday 23rd December. This event is being organised jointly by Mark Featherstone (Keele Sociology) and Emma Head (Keele Sociology and the BSA Digital Sociology study group). Registration will open in early January. Confirmed speakers will be notified by 7th January.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Boris Dissected

If only. Last night de Pfeffel Johnson delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture in defence of inequality. Funny how you always get people who benefit from this state of affairs singing its praises. But anyway, there was a five minute brouhaha that will last until another leading Tory says something outrageous in a day or two. Perched as I am in front of the computer 24 hours after, chances are I might have the last word. So here goes.

1. de Pfeffel Johnson isn't like other politicians. He doesn't hide behind spin. He tells it as he sees it. It doesn't matter if his praise for inequality turns to ashes when burned by evidence. That IQ tests are meaningless. Or that selective education writes off kids - mainly working class kids - at a young age. He's the anti-politician politician. You know exactly where you stand with him.

2. Hold on a moment, de Pfeffel Johnson is caring. Read the speech carefully. Greed is good, but only if it's backed up by solid values. He notes "... if there is to be a boom in the 20-teens, I hope it is one that is marked by a genuine sense of community and acts of prodigious philanthropy, and I wish the snob value and prestige that the Americans attach to act of giving would somehow manifest itself here, or manifest itself more vividly." On one level he's repeating Adam Smith, who noted how the complex of needs and wants in a society are best met by millions of individuals pursuing their own interests in market economies. But like Smith, de Pfeffel Johnson isn't blind to ethics. The hard hearted logic of capital can be softened by the warm glow of philanthropy. Please note the absence of society collectively addressing market failure. Rather, it is left to the whims of billionaire softies.

3. de Pfeffel Johnson wasn't expounding his political philosophy because he felt like it. These things, whatever subjective motivations, take place against a political backdrop and will always be interpreted in that context. In this the speech fused together the two tendencies of contemporary Toryism - the patrician elitism sans one nation commitments, and hard right market totalitarianism. You could be forgiven for thinking some position-jockeying for life after 2015 is going on.

4. It's a Tory speech by a leading Tory, so it was always going to be riddled with stupid empiricism. And before he gave it, I could have told you it would be a backward looking speech. As the organic representatives of the most decadent sections of the ruling class, they have to return to the scenes of the 80s because there is nothing more they can do. What does a privatiser and deregulator do when almost everything has been privatised and deregulated? And when the needs of capital, the needs of their own class demand energetic industrial activism on the part of the state, what then?

Cut through the cynical bonhomie. de Pfeffel Johnson is as bankrupt as the rest of his party. If this is a foretaste of the programme he would offer as Tory leader, that permanent Labour majority is certainly more likely.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Far Left and Revolutionary Identity Politics

The Workers' Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought. An outfit nearly everyone, and I include hardy leftyspotters among their number, had never heard of until a few days ago. A. Balakrishnan, as with all little Lenins (or Mao Mini-Mes), has probably long-fantasised that like the dialectic itself, the WIMLMZT would become a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie. The Toy Town "institute" have certainly achieved that, but rather than keeping the company of the revolutionary heroes some might suggest our "comrade" should count Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro among his fellow travellers. Of course, Balakrishnan and his partner are entitled to a bourgeois concept they are unlikely to recognise - the presumption of innocence. But once again, after a terrible year for the far left, cult-like practices among revolutionary socialists are back under the spotlight. They serve as a reminder of why old Karl turned his back on those who would describe themselves as 'Marxists'.

As Tariq Ali notes, Maoism was never a big deal on these shores. The Communist Party followed by the big three of Trotskyism more or less had the lion share of self-identifying Marxist activists. As such from the get go Mao-fans were consigned to the fringes. And we're not talking the labour movement here, their fringe was of petit bourgeois radicalism, of politicised intentional communes, "hard" anti-American/anti-imperialism, and uncompromising ultra-leftism. Taking their cue from the Trotskyists, but with a different pantheon, revolutionary history was of betrayal after successive betrayal. When Khrushchev betrayed and denounced Stalin, proletarian leadership passed to Mao. After his passing and the disposal of the Gang of Four by the "capitalist-roaders", the red thread was - depending on your preferences - grasped by Albania's Uncle Enver, or sundry Maoist groupuscules. Judging by Balakhrishnan's denunciation of British, Irish and Canadian Maoists I'm guessing he thought the world historic task of global proletarian revolution fell to him.

Messianism is not the unique property of Maoists. Just as the far right is divided among would-be fuehrers who brook no opposition, so the far left is split between collectives of varying sizes, each uniquely offering the correct politics and the right leadership to sweep capitalism away - if only the working class would listen to them instead of their traditional (mis)leaders. If you subscribe to a group with grand pretensions of a glorious mission, one shouldn't be surprised if they act a bit strange. Or self-destruct spectacularly.

Marxism remains the basis for a thoroughly materialist explanation of human societies. Its understanding of the dynamism of social relations and, particularly, how capitalism works remains unsurpassed. Just as one can only build on Darwin and Einstein, not junk them; so it is with Marx. So why are Trotskyists, Maoists, whatever, not prepared to turn the Marxist tools they fetishise back on themselves? Let's play with some rough and probably unready thoughts.

The upsurge of radicalism across Western Europe and North America in the late 60s did not correspond to an economic crisis, but were the consequences of newly-hegemonic processes unleashed by the post-war boom. One strand, at least in Europe, was the institutionalisation of class struggle via the various corporatist arrangements national capitals struck with labour movements. Across the Atlantic, the civil rights movement was shaking up politics. But at the same time, for both, culture was coming to terms with a new individual: the consumer. This was, and remains, a figure heavily coated in middle class varnish, but since the early 50s the media technologies of the day inculcated a kind of individualism that realised itself through commodities. This individualism had a heightened sense of self and a common sense feeling of freedom that could be explored away from the workplace. What was the preserve of the wealthy from previous ages, the individual, the self, was a "project" within the parameters the prevailing order conceded. So far, so Frankfurt.

There were limits to the new rules of the game. You were blocked from realising individuated freedom by your gender. By your skin colour. By your sexuality. By your education. By the money in the bank. And the subjectivity appropriate to consumption was never completely dazzled by commodity fetishism. The Civil Rights movement was, first and foremost, a reform-minded movement that wanted the American promise extended to African-Americans in the South. It assumed a more revolutionary quality in the North because the much more abstract intertwining of race and class thwarted that promise in the absence of easily-identifiable Jim Crow laws and overt institutional racism. Freedom, dignity, recognition, these were obviously denied in this case. In all these cases. And when society is hailing more and more people as individual selves, when capital needs them for the growing domestic markets, blockages caused by gender, race, class and sexuality make for social explosions.

Trotskyism predated all this by four decades. Before the war, the struggle between it and the dominant Stalinism was bloody, and it was almost always the Trotskyists on the receiving end. Key cadres were systematically murdered. Trotskyism was under siege. By the time the 1960s came around Stalinism and Trotskyism, a vast differential between them, had adapted to the corporatist arrangements of their respective countries. For the Stalinists, communism had some validity among West European labour movements. The Trotskyists too were firmly oriented toward trade union activity and/or entry jobs in their country's dominant social democratic party. Both were oriented toward a certain idea and understanding of working class consciousness.

This changed. Millions marched on to the political stage in the late 60s, and for most of them it was a fleeting experience. Yet some stuck around, being attracted to the New Left and the anti-Vietnam War movement, and latterly the "new" struggles against oppression. These hooked into the senses of self of many activists - women getting a raw deal in the movement, and they were many, entirely understandably gravitated toward each other on the basis of their experiences. The same was true of gay men. And, albeit to a more limited extent in Europe, black and minority ethnicities. A number of activists likewise gravitated toward Maoism and Trotskyism (giving dour Stalinism a body swerve). In Britain, the International Socialists (the SWP's forerunner) and the International Marxist Group (of Tariq Ali!) scooped up the new generation of activists for whom socialism and revolutionary politics wasn't rooted in "old-style" class consciousness, but a congruence of values and identity between the group and the new recruit. Such individuals had always been around radical and revolutionary causes. But what was different were the much larger numbers who were so motivated.

Throughout the period the class compromise of the post-war settlement was dismantled, the cultural trends driven by capital and encouraged by neoliberal reworkings of the state and politics strengthened the new individualism. The labour movement base of the far left, which was never massive, contracted sharply and the recruits picked up were increasingly drawn toward revolutionary politics out of personal disenchantment. The class wasn't the same, but The Class as an identity marker became more important - whether one was "authentically" working class or not. And with increasing numbers entering revolutionary politics and imbibing positions and party branding as markers of personal identity, so new drivers of sectarian behaviour came into play - one wasn't necessarily asserting one's self against the crushing anonymity of capital, but against "betrayers" in the labour movement. Up to and including other self-described revolutionaries, of course. Identity was reinforced by an insularity, of Stakhanovite paper sales and financial sacrifices, of the amount of work you personally undertook, of positions won in trade unions or wider struggles, of collective get togethers and jamborees, and a party press whose primary audience was an organisation's own members.

As the culture of individuality has shifted these last 10 years in an even more narcissistic direction, so the politics and activities of far left organisations have assumed more pathological forms. Accentuation of senses of self-importance is one, allowing some to think they're above morality and the law. The depravity and cultishness that sees an alleged rape survivor harassed by people who call themselves socialists is another. Into this mix you can add a determination to continue ploughing the same furrow, despite reality confounding perspectives time and again. Without the connection to the labour movement, indeed thanks to their growing alienation from it, membership replacement absolutely depends on picking up the atomised and the disenchanted. The more they lose their moorings, the more they are absorbed in the identity work the party is increasingly involved in. Analysis and policy is no more about changing the world. Revolutionary politics, which was always a tenuous proposition in Britain anyway, has given away fully to revolutionary identity politics.

Balakhrishnan's group was a product of the shouty, shouty ultra-leftist milieu of the 70s. British Maoism bypassed the decades-long fall of Trotskyism into revolutionary identity politics because they were adrift and degenerate to begin with. They were the vision of Trotskyism's future, of a fringe movement which, admittedly, did impact on wider politics from time to time, but were nonetheless in historic decline. Isolated, unable and unwilling to match its ultra-revolutionism with the real rhythms of British capitalism outside its 13 properties, it would have been remarkable had the Workers' Institute cult not collapsed into barbarism-in-one-household. With a future for British Trotskyism that holds nothing but the revolutionary treadmill, of ceaseless sidelining and permanent impotence, one is left hoping that whatever future pathologies and dysfunctions their condition manifests, please let none be as awful as the appalling abuses revealed this week.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

How TV Frames the Working Class

That there Owen Jones has been in the media again, talking about the portrayal of working class people. Below is a much shorter American film about the same. Yes, it's a bit dated but the point comes through loud and clear.