Tuesday 2 August 2016

Is Corbynism a Social Movement?

Matt Bolton's The Terrifying Hubris of Corbynism has had a lot of traction as a Marxist critique of our Jeremy and the movement gathered behind him. True to the weird times in which we live, it has been shared and talked up by sundry MPs associated with the ancien regime in the Labour Party. If they're having to rely on materialist dialectics to make a case for them, you know they're in trouble. But I'm not here to make light of Matt's piece. It's a weighty analysis that deserves serious consideration and, unlike some who are now embracing Citizen Smith after spending a political life time attacking the policies he's pushing, it is written entirely in good faith. Which is something of a rarity in this fevered fight for the party.

So, from the off, I know where Matt's critique is coming from. He offers a dread vision of a blighted polity in which the Tories and UKIP triumph over a fatally wounded Labour Party, and use the opportunity our paralysis affords to refashion Britain in their image. Forget the magnanimous beams Theresa May radiated from the steps of Number 10 three short weeks ago. This is Toryism red in tooth and claw, their best chance to transform these islands into the world's favourite offshore tax haven, of coming up with even more ways to shovel tax payer gold into the gaping maws of big Tory donors, and expecting the hoi polloi to get by on zero hour contracts with no social security safety net and certainly no NHS. This dog-eat-dog dystopia may not come to pass, but the point remains: they can, theoretically, do what they damn well like and there's nothing we can do about it. And as Matt points out, the current state of extra-parliamentary politics doesn't stack up too impressively against the resources the Tories can muster to force their programme through. It follows that in the state we're in, keeping the party together (somehow) and winning the next election is the best hope we have of stopping the Tories.

I have some sympathy with Matt's view because for much of the last five or six years, it's where I was myself. This appreciation of the balance of forces was the reason why I went for Yvette Cooper over Jeremy Corbyn last year. But, in retrospect, I think that was wrong. It was wrong because the situation Matt describes has come to an end. Politics as we've known it since the mid-late 1980s has melted and become fluid. The old truths are unreliable, and the new ones are slippery and likely to put us on our arses unless we get to grips with what is happening.

Last week, I made the case that politics is undergoing a realignment. The last time this happened was in the early part of the last century, when the Liberals (as was) were displaced by Labour as the second party of British politics. That, however, took decades. Now, everything is sped up. Consider the political scene just prior to the 2010 general election and see how alien it is now. The LibDems were big enough to be a junior partner in a government, Labour's hold on its Scottish heartlands looked unassailable, UKIP was a ginger group that performed well in European elections and annoyed with its "character" of a front man, and Labour's mainstream was about to elect a centrist soft left-leaning guy who, like his predecessors, were 100% made in Westminster. The upending of all this to the unfamiliar and uncertain politics we have now are interlinked and represent the long-coming political fall out of the Thatcherite settlement. The Tory programme of privatisation, deregulation, market fundamentalism, and attacks on social security, trade unions, and workers' protections - none of which were reversed and in some cases, were deepened during the Blair/Brown years - dispersed and atomised large swathes of the population. Not just the poor who are always hardest hit by the Tories, but the powerlessness, the feelings and fears of insecurity - even if one was "doing well", of being ignored and told there's no alternative, of seemingly unlistening and uncaring politicians, in any number of ways this was going to work its way into politics sooner or later. That and the profound changes to the nature of work around the emergence of the post-industrial/knowledge economy for growing numbers of people (Paul Mason, drawing on the work of Antonio Negri and the critique of political economy by Yann Moulier Boutang is especially good on thinking through this 'new' constituency and what it means as it starts flexing its collective muscles). Et voila ladies and gentleman, I give you the mess we're in.

It's with this in mind that we come to the most problematic part of Matt's piece, the 'hubris' of his title. This needs quoting in full:
It is merely to say that simply pointing to the numbers of new members says nothing about the existence or quality of a ‘social movement’. For the vast majority of ‘new members’, joining the party was not a promise of future activity, but a gesture of general support — perhaps similar to signing a Change.org petition — for whatever they thought Corbyn as Labour leader symbolised.

In this sense, Corbynism has been (at least up to now) as much of a top-down mediated phenomenon as anything under Blair. It is rather a simulation of a social movement — a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with ‘what Jeremy stands for’. It makes people feel like they are part of a ‘social movement’ without having to engage in the tricky, boring work of actually building one. This is why the figure of Corbyn himself is so vital, why his tenacity in holding onto the leadership trumps questions of whether he is actually able to wield it in parliament. Because if Corbynism actually was a social movement that had developed over time and culminated in, rather than started with, Corbyn’s leadership victory — if Momentum really was the rebirth of Militant, with well-organised new members embedded within their local parties, taking up positions of power, standing for office — then the importance of Corbyn himself would be correspondingly reduced. The fact that everything rides on Corbyn staying in power testifies precisely to the lack, the weakness, of the ‘social movement’ of which he is the supposed avatar.
Permit me a round about way of answering this point. In sociology, the method of investigation known as the ideal type has and continues to be deeply influential. Associated with the work of early 20th century German social theorist Max Weber, it works like this. Suppose there is a particular phenomenon you wish to investigate, say bureaucracy, you make a hypothesis about what it looks like and how it operates, and then by way of investigation and analysis you discover whether it conforms to or departs from this model. You take it away, refine it, and apply it to other situations and circumstances, all the time refining your hypothesis - or ideal type - so it more accurately resembles the properties of bureaucracy in common. This method has its uses, but comes with two caveats. It tends to provide conceptual snapshots and isn't very good at thinking about dynamism and change. It can also lend itself to the minutiae of concept border wars in academia. And the second is to avoid mistaking the model for reality itself. It is only ever an approximation and one that exists in words and presentations. It is not the thing it is describing.

Unfortunately, I think Matt falls into both these errors. He argues that Corbynism is a simulacra of a social movement. It isn't a real one because the adherents Matt has encountered in his CLP and online do not match up to what activists in a proper movement looks like, such as the (relatively) politically sophisticated and hyper active supporters of Militant back in the day. In reality, how movements emerge are a process. Social movements are the purposeful, sustained mobilisation of large groups of people organising toward a series of political and/or social objectives. They never emerge fully formed and can in their early phases look like the remotest of primitive ancestors. Within days, St Petersburg peasants and workers went from clutching portraits of their beloved Tsar as they petitioned him to calling for his head as Russia almost tipped into revolution in 1905. The civil rights movement and its morphing into violent insurrection in parts of the northern US had its roots in the gospel, in pacifism, and a faith in American constitutionalism. How many activists have come into politics via beliefs in fairness, spirituality, conspiracy theory, and other ideas that at best partially reveal, and it worst obscure the realities of social life? The world over, millions have. And they always will. The movement of people coming into Labour are a work in progress, because we're all works in progress. The shouting on social media, the lack of sophistication with which some new comrades express themselves, the lapsing into semi-conspiratorial modes of thought, all are symptomatic of masses of new people getting drawn to politics. But among them there are future Labour ministers and perhaps even a Prime Minister who has got involved because of Jeremy Corbyn.

And this brings me onto the second problem with Matt's argument: his bewilderment at the role Corbyn's figure plays in all this. In short, he passes over the role of personalities in social processes. By standing, and particularly after the tax credit debacle, the very simple arguments Jeremy made stood out against a principle-lite background of managerialist waffle. Whether you support him or not, his was a seed that fell on ground ready to receive it. Matters were helped by being virtually unknown outside of Westminster and the established left. He was therefore a clean pair of hands and the subsequent attempts to vilify him only drove his support further. There is nothing particularly "culty" about this. As social animals that relate to other people, throughout human history individuals have acted as lightning rods for social forces. What Corbyn did by setting out his stall was nothing superhuman. He and his campaign attracted hundreds of thousands to the party. These were your ones and your twos existing, in the main, without any prior collective relationship between them except for shared frustrations, values, and trajectories. They all moved as one directly into Labour as either members or supporters, and this movement naturally invested Corbyn as its organising point. Again, to reiterate, this is entirely normal. Movements of varying coherence have latched onto figures like Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, and Tony Blair to cite three modern examples. Because some in these movements project onto the leading personality their hopes and aspirations, it's unsurprising people should feel personally affronted when they come under attack. Given the disingenuous criticisms and some of the most disgusting press a political leader in this country has ever received, should we be shocked that so many are prepared to uncritically defend Jeremy?

Presently, as a new movement for socialist politics it is dependent on Jeremy because it's the most obvious rallying point. If he were to disappear from the scene for whatever reason, because of its infancy it could be easily dispersed. But when he wins and the Labour Party shudders under another membership surge, it will cohere more in the party structures, in the Momentum and Red Labour meetings, it will carry on networking online and some of it into the unglamorous political work old hands wear like badges of pride. As it is exposed to more politics, and not a few shenanigans on the part of Jeremy's opponents, as a collective it will learn, become more sophisticated, more self-activating and, crucially, less dependent on the anchor of Corbyn's leadership.

I understand why some comrades like Matt are despairing. A huge party doesn't necessarily win elections, what's happening has far from lifted our standing in opinion polls, and there are plenty in Corbyn's camp who naively assume we don't need to persuade voters who previously went for the Tories. But I think this realignment of politics which is energising and in effect refounding the Labour Party opens up new possibilities for politics, which includes not necessarily losing the next general election. That argument, however, has to wait for a future post.


Igor Belanov said...

Is Matt Bolton Eric Hobsbawm from beyond the grave? That could be any one of his 'realist' journalistic pieces, desperately trying to recreate the Popular Front while his CPGB allies were attempting to force Gramscian theory into a defence of Kinnock and the Labour right.

It all reminds me of Emile Zola's 'Germinal', where the bar owner Rasseneur constantly claims he's a socialist while stating that the time is never ripe for any sort of radical action. Most of us that are familiar with left-wing politics are aware of the weaknesses of 'Corbynism' in its current position. But surely any radical leftist has to side with a movement (even if we chose to accept that it was composed mainly of 'clicktivists') that aims to broaden politics out of Westminster and provide a conduit for socialist arguments and an increase in genuine activism. The whole problem at present is that the new and 'rejuvenated' members have effectively had to spend the last year defending the choice many made last summer rather than actually achieving the ability to campaign for the party and left-wing causes on both a broader and deeper level.

Retreating and transferring all power back to the timid, unappealing PLP clique hardly seems to me to be a recipe for strengthening the left, and a group that is so resistant to democratisation of its own party is hardly likely to stretch to democratising the political system, socio-economic conditions or everyday life. It's really not enough (and damned poor Marxism) to keep telling people to be patient and to remain quiet and continue to back the lesser evil.

(PS: Good piece Phil.)

Speedy said...

"Politics as we've known it since the mid-late 1980s has come to an end and become fluid."

Yes, and no, if by fluid you mean the Left has flushed itself down the toilet.

Look - it is easy for 500,000 Guardian-Indi readers to pledge £3 and even a handful of them to go to a few meetings. But this will not sway 40 million voters. It is an utter delusion. It is the worst sort of X Factor politics. It is Brexit for the middle classes.

I realise you are being loyal and are bending the way the wind blows, but you are experienced enough to know that this is a complete waste of time. You can spin it whatever way you want, but you are talking to yourself (JC's favourite audience by far).

Oh, you could re-engage the working class, but it would have to be with the kind of politics that your £3 supporters would never swallow, not least re immigration.

David Timoney said...

Very good. I think a sociological perspective is exactly what is needed to understand contemporary politics. A couple of thoughts:

It is a cliché that Corbyn supporters are middle-class clicktivists, despite the scare stories mediated by the Guardian and BBC shouting about thuggish entryism in Wallasey and other CLPs. There's an obvious contradiction in the simultaneous claims that Corbyn is being propelled by £3 dilletantes in Hackney and homophobic ex-Militant dockers in New Brighton. My impression is that the influx of new blood has energised "ordinary party members", who are getting increasingly bolshy.

I was struck the other day by the various comments made on Cameron's honours list. While many objected to the particular choices, citing cronyism and the devaluation of the system, Corbyn was one of the few to make a genuinely principled point, namely that being an elected politician was sufficient honour in itself. A lot of Corbyn's continuing popularity is because he articulates positions that the politico-media establishment dismiss as unrealistic at best and naive at worst. This chasm of understanding is revolutionary.

Boffy said...

"This dog-eat-dog dystopia may not come to pass, but the point remains: they can, theoretically, do what they damn well like and there's nothing we can do about it."

The emphasis, at least, here should be on the theoretically. I don't think that everything May said was just hot air and dissembling. The reason the old politics - Blairism, The Third Way, the political centre, whatever you want to call it - is dead is because there has been a real material change in economic conditions.

May did not have to make the statement she did about putting workers on boards, for example. But, it mirrors statements made last year by Andy Haldane at the Bank of England, and on the same day by Hillary Clinton, of the need for changes in laws on corporate governance, because shareholders were simply feeding more and more profits to shareholders as dividends, rather than using profits for investment.

The same kinds of statements are coming out of central banks, the IMF, OECD and so on saying that monetarism has run its course in providing stimulus - in fact it provided the wrong kind of stimulus - and that countries have to now engage in large scale fiscal expansion.

Its the same situation that can be seen in the reports on housing yesterday, that the number of homeowners continues to drop, because houses are way, way, way too expensive. They are bought to let by people seeking capital gain rather than rent.

Even in theory, the ability to simply hand over more money to the money-capitalists has reached its limit. The reason the proportion of profits handed out as dividends has risen, is because dividend yields have fallen as asset prices have risen massively. Even as the rate of profit might rise, unless more productive-capital is accumulated, so as to increase the mass of profit, the amount that can be paid out in interest (dividends) gets squeezed, hence the proportion rises, as the representatives of shareholders attempt to maintain the yield.

Even conservative politicians and ideologists are recognising that things cannot continue in the old way. Trying to do so is simply driving ever faster to an even bigger financial crash than 2008. Look at the 38% drop in UK commercial property prices that happened within about a week, and the freezing of access to property funds, look at the continued collapse of Italian and other European banks, only kept alive by ECB funding, and hugely fictitious property prices.

No, May cannot simply feed more money to the money-capitalists, the economic laws discovered by Marx continue to apply, and they are about to asset themselves in a very big way.

Phil said...

I'm really tired of this 'clicktivist' line - as if all real Labour Party members go to meetings and go out door-knocking from the day they join. If my experience is anything to go by, a lot of new members take months before they actually get round to attending a ward meeting. When they get there, of course, the meeting is just a meeting - it's pretty boring, mostly, and nobody takes any notice of them. This didn't bother me, as a time-served old hack, but some younger recruits might well decide not to bother another time.

For all that, when it is permitted to meet again my ward party is going to have to find a larger room to do it in. Every meeting I've been to has opened with the ceremonial Deployment of the Extra Folding Chairs, and the last couple have had people standing throughout. Attendance has gone up in line with membership, or a bit faster - which is to say, about one member in 12 attends meetings, compared with about one in 15 before the surge.

One mistake people like Bolton make is overlooking comparisons like these - outside periods of near-revolutionary intensity, it's never been the norm for every participant in a movement to be an activist. (The comparison with Militant shows that Bolton hasn't thought this through; the good old RSL was many things, but nobody would ever call it a social movement.) Another mistake is supposing - on one hand - that it's always the same one in twelve who attends meetings while eleven stay at home, and - on the other hand - that the eleven aren't actually doing anything that says they're Labour. Come to that, even the one in twelve don't seem to be spending very much of their time witnessing for the cause - a couple of meetings a month, a round of leafletting and the rest of your life's your own? Movements inspire people to think differently, act differently, talk differently. Local Labour parties - when the buggers let us get them up and running again - have the chance to be at the heart of something big.

But we can't afford to have party meetings shut down again. When Corbyn wins he needs to have a pretty solid peace offering prepared.

Unknown said...

"This dog-eat-dog dystopia may not come to pass", for many of us it's already here, the safety net is now so full of holes it can no longer bear weight.

Hundreds of thousands of people now relying on food banks, The Disabled and sick suddenly declared "fit to work" by decree overnight despite their conditions not improving. The sanctioning of job seekers, a polite way of saying the removal of the ability to pay bills and eat. sanctions are something that was only supposed to be used against countries, not your own people.

BCFG said...

Speedy keeps up his nonsense that Corbyn’s supports are all Middle class. This is not supported by the facts or the Guardians hostile coverage of Corbyn!! The thousands who turned out for Corbyn in Liverpool and other Northern working class communities are not Guardian readers!

What the facts do establish is that the New labour project was built on disenfranchising the working class and empowering the Middle class. So effectively all political choice was taken away from the working class and the Middle classes had the veritable buffet choice, they could easily and with all sincerity vote for the Tories, Labour, the Greens, the Lib dems, UKIP. They were spoilt for choice.

New Labour also empowered the Middle class in another way, it ensured the PLP were from a privileged section of society and any working class representation was severely diminished. This is an acknowledged trend. And a deliberate one.

So we now no longer have democracy but a technocracy where MP’s are experts in running departments, managers not representatives. If the Yvette Cooper ;oving left are happy with this technocratic state of affairs then they should argue that all politics is scrapped and instead we appoint MP’s based on their technical abilities. They should argue that the purely ceremonial process of voting in elections is scrapped in favour of a corporatist state structure. This would have 2 advantages, it would get rid of the facade and save lots of money.

It is either than or support the grass roots movement inspired by the election of Corbyn.

A vote for New Labour is a vote for the disenfranchisement of the working class. How very Marxists!!

Speedy said...

I don't disagree with you BCFG. Trouble is, I think both New Labour and Corbyn Labour are different sides of the same bourgeois coin and I would rather have a Labour - albeit a lukewarm one - than none at all.

Funnily enough, there is one issue on which they both agree, either overtly or covertly - mass immigration - which is pretty much where both left their erstwhile supporters behind. You didn't think they were actually passing judgement on Millibean's economic strategy, do you? Indeed, both also share a disdain for the working class patriotism that lost them Scotland and ushered in Tory rule to Westminster, so functionally, both have disengaged with working class concerns, whatever you might think of them.

This is why all this talk of social movements etc is so hopelessly out of touch with the "labour" they were created to represent. Sure, they can appeal to the 'left", but there simply aren;t enough of them to win an election - which is why Labour is heading the same way as the Liberals did when they took their place. The rest is all blah.

Lidl_Janus said...

Presented, without (initial) commentary, Helen Lewis at the New Statesman.

BCFG said...

On Planet Boffy the Tories are ready to leap into the centre left and deliver some policies with a more 'social democratic' bent.

Meanwhile in the real world the Tories moved £2bn from the NHS and into the public health budget for no other reason than politically it is easier to cut council public health budgets than politically sensitive NHS budgets and are now in the process of busily drastically reducing the public health budget at a time when demand is growing faster than ever! Public health bodies are now asking people, what the hell do we spend the reduced budget on! Theresa May cares about the poor, bullshit!

Meanwhile as the environment succumbs to the ravages of industrial society (whose insane appetite for consumption knows no bounds, including the laws of physics) bus routes are being cut back just at a moment in history when buses are needed as the efficient mode of transport. So industrial society has an insane appetite for consumption, just not the consumption we actually and urgently need!

This is the true face of Tory and the Centre. The fact is it is the centre who keep this whole insanity in equilibrium. Time for the centre to disappear!

Blissex said...

«bewilderment at the role Corbyn's figure plays in all this. In short, he passes over the role of personalities in social processes.»

A lot of people understand that while not being an absolute, "personnel is policy" is quite reliable.

Blissex said...

«A huge party doesn't necessarily win elections, what's happening has far from lifted our standing in opinion polls,»

In the UK for a long time voters haven't voted for oppositions, but against governments: "throw the bums out". When a government party does not screw up UK then voters don't tell themselves "but the opposition has a better manifesto", or "amazing leadership the opposition has got", they vote for the devil they know. In particular in southern England constituencies "screw up" means house prices stop growing or fall.

Leaders (and even policies) matter a lot less, perhaps even not very much, to oppositions for winning elections. They matter more to what is done after the election is lost by the government.

Anyhow so far the best strategy for Labour was to keep quiet and hope the Conservatives screw up, while rebuilding the party and its treasury for the next "real" election, and E Milliband and J Corbyn have followed that simple strategy.

J Corbyn is a bit naive and awkward, but still he is quite popular. Anyhow so far the polls have been "variable", and J Corbyn has not made them worse, and arguably a bit better. One day maybe he will get back some seats in Scotland, which surely must be the priority for Labour (and saving the Union), rather than chasing southern middle class tory votes that are very happing voting the Conservatives. Look at the column "Con Lead" since the start the year here:


The gap is usually small, no worse than it was at the very least, and on June 25th the gap was zero. This must have terrorized the New Labour PLP.

In addition there is the "small matter" of the votes for austerity and to support the nasty benefits custs that the PLP supported with an abstention; and those votes in the end are the real divide. Did those votes help Labour polls to surge?

Currently the New Labour strategy is mandelsonian (quote from 1999): «Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe»; New Labour's behaviour "is compatible with" thinking that Labour should just get rid of the lower class votes, which they seem to think are sooner or later going UKIP anyhow, and steal the pro-EU upper-middle class votes (which used to be Liberal votes in the glory days of N Clegg) from the Conservatives.

They want to rebrand the party as "Quasi-Conservatives for Europe" in essence. Maybe "Democratic Liberals for Europe" would be also good, but that brand has not done so well so far :-). Maybe instead they will split and be called the "Progress in Europe" party. :-) S Wren-Lewis has suggested that business and establishment interests are very keen to fund a "for Europe" version of the Conservatives, as it turned out that the Conservatives are anti-EU in their majority.

So "New Conservatives for Europe" are looking at the 2/3 of Labour voters who voted "Remain" plus the 1/3 of Conservative voters (many of them ex-Liberal voters) who also voted "Remain". That does not seem to me a winning electoral base, because it is somewhat smaller than the losing 48% for "Remain", because a chunk of "Remain" was in N.I. and Scotland. But maybe with UKIP splitting at general election time the Conservative vote it could get a majority of seats. After all the Conservatives won a (bare) majority of seats with 28%.
But I think New Labour are far keener on mandelsonian ideological purity than winning elections.

David Turner said...

I wish to comment about "clicktivism" as a phenomenon not to be sneered at. Many of us baby boomers, reduced by our circumstances, age and infirmity to increasing online time are still a vital resource. Oddly, we, having embraced the new world of the internet with fervour, have also a great deal more time than we did. We read more and walk less. We are continuing to learn new skills in order to postpone dementia. There are a lot of us and we pay our subs. Some I know have engaged with politics for the very first time and we are as excited about it as any 18 year old. We resent the loss of power and we see social injustice far more keenly than we did when distracted by work. Most importantly, nearing death, we are becoming increasingly fearless because we have nothing to lose. The future of mass movements is far more likely to be dominated by daily internet contact than by rare mass meetings or cosy monthly local cabals. Lobbying groups like 38 degrees, change.org and avaaz have changed everything. I wonder if the Iraq war could have been stopped more readily by a 38 degree petition than by the march to Westminster. No police force can "kettle" a petition and when we really care about something, see how it goes viral in moments. Here is where the real power lies. Times they are really a-changing in a way Dylan could only have dreamed about and we, of his generation are ready as before, but now enabled.

Anonymous said...

Corbyn. Our very own High Sparrow.

Blissex said...

«and we pay our subs»

That is very very important. A lot of politics is "pay-per-play" (but less so in the UK than in the USA).

I always tell people that if something matters to them they should fund it.
Give funds to the people doing the work for something you care about.
Even small individual contributions build up when many do it.