Thursday 24 August 2017

The Third Way after Corbynism

When Blairites write about the future, they cannot help but hark back to the past. This is what mars the contribution of Ed Jones in the latest Progress. For someone who argues that "centrists" still haven't come to terms with Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism (true), he too has a difficult time getting to grips with it.

After getting bludgeoned with links to previous forays on this topic, regular readers will know my posts about Corbynism. That its emergence expresses broad trends within the development of British capitalism signified by a) the increasing importance of immaterial labour, b) the growing dominance and social weight of networked/socialised workers, and c) the consequent fusing of economic and social production. What this means for people is a life more precarious and more individuated with fewer opportunities - particularly for younger people. However, their networked character makes them less susceptible to the divide-and-rule tactics beloved of the old media arms of British capital and the beggar-thy-neighbour policies of the Conservatives and the hard right. Corbynism was able to win over this then latent, now awakening mass of people because, far from looking backwards, its platform was the most modern on offer during the general election.

It's all very well saying these things, but what is the evidence this is happening? After all, the history of political punditry (and social theory) is full of faddy approaches that lay great emphasis on what turned out to be fleeting phenomena. There are three key reasons to believe this approach is correct. First, it was forecast. In discussing my reasons for voting Jeremy Corbyn in last summer's leadership election, I argued his leadership was opening the Labour Party into becoming a self-organising machine that could go where the establishment politics of the centre left cannot reach. Lo and behold the massive physical and digital infrastructure it built confounded the critics and beat all expectations in this year's general election. It mobilised people the mainstream did not believe could be mobilised. Second, the rise of the immaterial worker explains the idiosyncratic pattern of Labour gains, of its proven ability to win over large numbers of comparatively well-to-do middle class people and professionals and the low paid precarious worker. Here's the proof. Thirdly, because immaterial labour has become an important constituency of waged labour in the last 50 years or so and a site of direct capital accumulation since the Thatcher/Reagan programme of privatisation got underway, and its importance has increased over time you are more likely to find younger people as immaterial workers and socialised into its norms, which would translate into a relationship between age and voting patterns. And what has proven to be the starkest feature of the 2017 general election?

There are some other indicators I'm working up into a professional publication, but they will suffice for this post. Unfortunately for Ed's piece, there is zero recognition of this profound transformation of British politics, which is incredible when you think about it. A sociological analysis, let alone a class analysis is absent. While he wants to see a New Labour 2.0 that addresses the situation we're in, he cannot face the awful truth - for his politics - that having policies appropriate to contemporary issues means ditching Blairist politics. For instance, he talks a lot about the Third Way which supposedly tied together the policy agenda of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This Third Way was so called because it positioned itself between the two main political trends of the day: Thatcherite free market fundamentalism and its brutalities, and the social democratic state of nationalised industries, price controls and strong trade unions. A central theme was life politics, of allowing people the space to develop themselves and their identities as they see fit with the state working to support such processes of self-actualisation. It is pretty thin stuff, as was widely recognised by the left then. At its core however was an acceptance of markets. In his Third Way Anthony Giddens argued that we had to drop our opposition to and get "comfortable" with them. Seeing as markets are premised on exploitation, any left making peace with that is certainly no left worthy of the appellation, and helps explain why Blair took it up with alacrity as a post-facto justification of his platform. Subsequently, as the New Labour years went on, far from blazing a new trail the Third Way looked, and indeed was, little more than a variation of neoliberalism. For whatever positive reforms were made during this time, and there were some, market fundamentalism ruled the roost, meaning Blair not only helped break up the electoral coalition that put him in office but also the very basis of the Labour right responsible for his ascendency in the party.

Labour under Corbyn has broken with this. The party has become the political focus for millions of people precisely because Corbynism speaks to and expresses the interests of an ever growing constituency. The fundamentally irreconcilable problem with the Third Way or a New New Labour is not just that it lacks a contemporary class analysis, but that it works against the interests of our people. Giddens argued that the Third Way was supposed to empower, yet in its name the employment conditions of millions of workers were attacked and markets were introduced into more areas of public provision. The only "citizens" it empowered were the corporate ones spending huge sums lobbying the then government and providing seats on their boards for former ministers who did their bidding.

If Progress want to survive they will need a root and branch rethink. They need to ask why Jeremy Corbyn has confounded expectations time and again, why it is his ideas and not theirs that have mass support, and explain why the election results - from their point of view - threw up a confusing and counter intuitive pattern. If Progress want to be relevant, then it's their turn to get comfortable with a few things. They're going to have to accept that Corbyn and Corbynism isn't about to leave the Labour Party to them, that we've entered a new era of mass participation in politics, that class is back with a vengeance (not that it really went away) and that markets are something not to be celebrated but to be rolled back. It's time to get with the 21st century socialist programme, or they get the ignominy of the historical footnote. The choice is theirs.


Mark Liversedge said...

Mass support?

You know he lost the election?

My feeling is his success is rooted in the EU referendum result and his support will fade as it becomes clear he wants a brexit.

Phil said...

What else do you call nearly 13 million votes and a party of almost 600,000 members?

The problem with your take is it's lazy and elitist. Lazy because Labour continue to lead in the polls and it ignores the trends, and elitist because you assume voters are too thick to realise Labour is signed up for Brexit. It's hardly a secret you know.

Ken said...

Hi Phil,
I think I understand the argument about immaterial work, however, I can't map it onto any model of clsss structure. Even Poulantzas managed to outline how his notion of petit bourgeois fitted into the rest of the class system. Thus, a brief outline of what you consider the main class actors and their relative size; an evening's work I'm sure.

Phil said...

I'm thinking about setting up a Patreon for requests :)

Dialectician1 said...

So far so good. As a sociologist, you will know at the heart of the problem of Giddens' theory of self-actualisation is not only an absence of class but a reliance on his previous work on structuration (linking structure and agency). Giddens recognises the dangers of globalisation (neoliberalism) but puts faith in people's ability to use their agency (expressed in their market choices) to negotiate their way through a rapidly changing world. For him (and Blair) the old class structures were disintegrating and new agentic flexible identities and relationships were forming. This was seen as a truly 'pragmatic' model for fixing the woes of capitalism as they emerged (do what 'works', not what is ideologically pure). Unfortunately for Giddens the crash of 2008 'foregrounded' (a nice po-mo word) structure and the self-actualised individual looked on in horror as the markets collapsed. All the agency in the world will not negotiate away the underlying contradictions within capitalism.

The problem for New Labour, as you rightly point out, is a paucity in theory needed to replace their old 'third way' model. Anyone with half a brain can see that the class model of politics has returned with a vengeance. Identity politics (which runs nicely in parallel with the self-actualising individual in a neoliberal economy) is going through its death throes - but you wouldn't know it reading the Grauniad these days. The cat's out the bag: neoliberalism has failed. Your choice in the next election will be between a nuanced neoliberalism (Conserative) or regulated capitalism (Labour). Beyond that, you stuff on Negri offers an interesting future.

Steph said...

Phil, your apparent assumption that every Labour voter and every Corbyn supporter agrees with the party's stance on Brexit is unfounded. I wholeheartedly support Corbyn's socialism - and I will always vote for him - but I think it's obvious that Brexit will make it exceptionally difficult to deliver his anti-austerity agenda.

Brexit is a catastrophe for the UK and for the Labour Party. The wrath of furious Remainers who voted Labour in GE2017 to deny May a hard Brexit mandate may very well deny Corbyn the chance to become Prime Minister. If Corbyn does win the next election, it will be a poisoned chalice. The Tories and the popular press will scapegoat him for the severe economic decline that Brexit will inevitably create. I have no idea why so many Corbyn supporters can't see these threats staring us in the face. We need a second referendum on the final Brexit deal.

Rick said...

Class might be back but the unions aren't. At least, not yet.