Monday 11 December 2017

The Intellectual Collapse of the Labour Right

Social being conditions consciousness, so they say. What's going on in your life, for good or ill, will impact on your thinking and opinions about it. When people live out similar circumstances, their views tend to have a certain homogeneity on particular issues. Take our beloved ruling class, for instance. Wherever they sit on the political spectrum they have the not-at-all-surprising tendency to think British capitalism is fundamentally fine. That these views are entirely congruent with their being the beneficiaries of this set up is not coincidental, and is simultaneously the great unsaid and unsayable of British politics. The collective fear gripping these people of Jeremy Corbyn is an anxiety that some of them are set to lose out, and the Labour leader is opening a Pandora's Box of demands set on eroding their power and privilege further. Rational to worry, yes. But they cannot say this. Which is why you have Toby Young likening Momentum to Britain First, and assorted hyperbole about gulaging Tories.

We find this refracted inside the Labour Party as well. For example, we find moaning in The Sunday Times NEC hopeful Gurinder Singh Josan, who argues, totally disingenuously, "many members are only concerned with the question 'do they support Momentum?' This coupled with the fact the influx of new members is disproportionately white and middle class, has resulted in the influence of minority groups being diluted." There are a few things worth noting here. First, Labour is more a working class organisation than it ever was when Gurinder's Progress and Labour First chums were in charge. Then we were told to forget about the working class as times had a-changed. Our traditional conceptions were out of date so we had to target all those white-collared folks. Now the boot's on the other foot, cloth caps, whippets and "real concerns about immigration" are clung to like the most pathetic fetish. Second, as the majority of Labour's councillors are white and male, highlighting the odd gay or black councillor who finds themselves deselected for political reasons while insinuating, non-too-subtly, that Momentum are a bunch of homophobes and racists says more about Gurinder and chums than anything else. Third, if getting more women and minorities into politics regardless of politics is the game, we're still waiting for Progress to undertake an auto-critique for backing David Miliband over Diane Abbott in 2010.

Another example is Nick Cohen's most recent regurgitation. And the up chuck metaphor is spot on, because there's nothing here our Nick hasn't made a meal out of before. In this universe, we are expected to believe the doddery and dozy Communist Party of Britain is a lean, mean, liquidatin' machine, and Corbyn's Britain promises something out of 1930s Stalinism. He simultaneously and somewhat confusingly casts our would-be totalitarians as "hyper-liberal"(!), and attacks the young left for its humourlessness and suspicion of complexity. A more open and shut case of projection is seldom found.

And there was dear old Roy Hattersley's feeble bombardment last week. Get a clue, Roy, and make sure you've not loaded duds before firing. Published hours before Survation gave Labour an eight point lead, Roy argued the party was in its greatest ever danger. The hard left are steering it onto the rocks and horror of horrors, they plan on changing the party's rules. Like so many others who know everything and understand nothing, Roy observes Labour's modest poll leads and confidently claims Labour should be 20 points in the lead. As someone who twice went up against a Tory government presiding over mass unemployment and lost, he really should know better: politics is never simple.

What do all these adventures in right wing factionalising have in common? It's their intellectual vacuity, a studied refusal to look the real world in the face and learn from it. A dishonest argument here, a demonstrable untruth there, these are the Labourist iterations of the shades summoned by what passes for Tory thought. But where does this utter aversion to thinking and indifference to looking stupid come from? It's part historical, and part conjunctural.

As argued on many occasions on this blog, at its origin the Labour Party was (and remains) a proletarian party. Banish the images of the working class you find hanging around today's Progress Magazine editorials and look at the coalition of interests the Labour Representation Committee brought together: the massed battalions organised labour via the trade unions, and the professional middle class organised through socialist societies and interest groups. A disparate constituency on the one hand, but on the other a condensation of millions of people with one thing in common: the necessity of selling their labour in return for a wage or a salary. The sorts of tensions Lenin and co wrote about in Western Labour and Social Democratic policies which they put down to the super profits of imperialism shared out among labour aristocracies who, in their turn, kept the rest of the movement under their heel, are not required. While Labour and similar parties founded around the same time were proletarian, they reflected (rather than challenged) pre-existing divisions within the wider labour-selling class. It meant workers from the white collar trades and professions had a tendency to dominate from the beginning. Perversely, this domination of the more intellectual strata guaranteed Labour's intellectual poverty.

Professional intellectuals at the time of Labour's foundation were much more privileged than their equivalents today. Standing above the mass, they could - and did - participate in polite, bourgeois society up and down the land. They formed close relationships with business as the purveyors of personal services, and saw their role as improving the working class comrades they rubbed shoulders with in the movement. Ethical socialism, which has deep roots in British politics, has a close if understated relationship with one nation patricianism of classical Toryism - as Ed Miliband helped remind us in more recent times. Their eyes were then fixed on pragmatism, of seeking an improvement here and there, of hobnobbing and persuading the powers that be to see sense and temper their capricious natures. They were Labourism's establishment insiders, trying to manage the aspirations the party drew together without exploding the system.

This isn't to deny organised labour any agency. Throughout the 19th century, the arc of history bent toward the growing strength, self-organisation, and latterly influence of our movement. Despite severe setbacks and reversals along that road, by the time Labour was founded the habits of mind forged in the workshop of the world favoured pragmatic consideration. The betterment of the working class wasn't achieved through utopian scheming and grand plans, but came by mobilising people in and out of work around easily recognised and tangible demands such as wages, safety, the length of the working day, women at work, and so on. Our movement's outlook was conditioned by its practice, of the guerrilla struggle that took place daily on the factory floor. Converted to a politics, you can see where Labourism's and Social Democracy's preoccupation with slow, reforming change come from. Again, you don't need super profits from the colonies to explain the preference for gradualism, of getting elected and making things better through one Act of Parliament at a time. Compromise and negotiation between representatives of organised labour and the boss class maps directly onto the constitutional parlour games of the elected chamber.

Where does this leave the intellectuals? Here, at least where Labourism was concerned, there are narrow slivers of permitted activity. Take policy, for example. Anyone familiar with the output of the Fabian Society will know what I'm talking about. Its regular publications are entirely policy focused and are about what Labour should do when it's in power. There is nothing wrong with being interested in this, but it is stultifying and comes packaged with a whole lot of preconceptions. The first and most foremost is the essential neutrality of the state. i.e. Government is an apparatus to be wielded for whatever ends and ensures the smooth implementation of the desires of the policy makers. Likewise, the other permissible intellectual is the pundit. They write in the press in support for Labour, proselytise party policies, attack and condemn the Tories, and may occasionally produce books highlighting a particular inequity. All good, useful fodder, but it fades into the background buzz surrounding the party. What is missing in both cases is politics. That is the job of excavating, pulling apart, descrying, and closely monitoring how politics works, whose interests they work in, the constellations of people they pull in and spit out, and what this says about the character of the society we live in. This is theory with a purpose, theory as a critique of all that exists so society can be remade. Labourism is therefore simultaneously technical and moral without being fused into a coherent whole. Injustice comes in for episodic condemnation, and technical solutions are proposed for complex problems. Nowhere is the question asked why they keep cropping up, nowhere is there even a recognition that Labourism itself is a collective response to the systemic conflict at the heart of British capitalism. However, the twin poles of the technical and the moral blinds are and are not theoretical errors: they're the outlook conditioned by the lived realities of Labourist intellectuals, wedged in and borne along by the weight of the party's investment in the day-to-day battles of constitutional democracy. Anything that isn't immediately tangible and requires a bit of abstract thought, like neoliberalism as a set of economic policies, a technology of governmentality, and the practice of class rule, is dismissed and disparaged.

Take the intellectual justifications of Blairism, for example. Drawing on bastardised spatial theories of voting, and with the collapse of Major's Tories into infighting and sleaze, Blair and his team reasoned the only way to win was to compete for the key marginal seats the Tories held onto. Therefore it was necessary to triangulate, that is ditch the kinds of traditional Labourist policies they think would scare off the horses, and pose as a moderate centre party that offered little more than a more competent pair of hands. As for the core loyal support, well, there was nowhere else for them to go. This was justified in terms of electoral pragmatism and has been repeated ever since (even though the facts have changed). However, there was need for some sort of pseudo-philosophical puff to make Blairism look more than naked electoral opportunism, and so Anthony Giddens coughed up the Third Way: an anemic bundle of insights chaining together the death of class politics, the emergence of individuated "life politics", and a big hell yeah for markets. Reportedly Blair and Brown used to waste time with Bill Clinton holding third way seminars at the White House, not that they should have bothered: no one now takes it remotely seriously as a body of political thought. Nevertheless, what it demonstrated was the development of theory on-the-hoof, not to explain anything but to justify the direction travelled. And as per the theory-lite tradition of Labourism, Blair more or less took it off the peg.

And so the intellectual culture of Labour has never been peachy. Pretty much anything and everything interesting to have emerged from the British left for the last 40 years, save Corbynism, has happened outside its ranks. Things then are bad. But compounding the difficulty and bringing into sharp relief the paucity of right-wing Labourism is its collapse. As we have seen before, one of the consequences of Blair's tenure was to hollow out the party. As he pitched the party to the right and treated the organised labour movement as embarrassing relatives, so the myriad relationships between it and the party were put under strain. Labour, which was set up to aggregate the interests of working people did, under Blair and Brown, go about disaggregating them. Yes, all Labour governments have done this to a degree, but here it became systematic. The pursuit of market fundamentalism via privatisations and the introduction of markets into public services, the gutting of occupational pensions, the retention of Tory trade union laws save a sop on balloting, and the imposition of neoliberal governmentality across every sphere of governmental endeavour ate away at the bonds of solidarity that made the movement/party relationship possible. Blairism was a symptom of labour movement weakness, going on to become its catalyst. This is important here because in so doing Blairism started consuming itself. The old Labour right, which made the New Labour right possible, were similarly dispersed by the chill winds of market fundamentalism. By the time the 2010 general election came around, Labour was rotting from the inside. Meanwhile, thanks to Blairist contempt for the unions, the left had been returned and/or were strong across all the major unions and slowly, tentatively, began reasserting themselves during the reign of the blessed Ed while the right carried on decomposing. When Corbynism caught them on the hop, the right found their institutional power had massively declined. What they once knew was destroyed as hundreds of thousands of new members poured into the party, followed by millions of new voters at this year's election. As surely as night follows day, this organisational collapse and their sudden thrusting into a situation they never expected or dreamed possible has occasioned their intellectual implosion.

Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad. Except the madness (and badness) of the Labour right is symptomatic of their slowmo destruction. If there is a way for them to turn themselves around, they're showing scant sense of how to do so.


David Timoney said...

Good critique. I think it's also worth noting how opposition to Brexit has served as an intellectual distraction for the Labour right as much as a means of triangulating vis-a-vis the leadership, allowing them to avoid questioning the role of material concerns and democracy in the rise of Corbyn. I suspect the likes of Umunna are secretly quite pleased that May looks secure for a while yet and that "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed" is the order of the day.

Dialectician1 said...

A great blog. Thanks. The problem is that many of the technocrats/ manageralists/pragmatists, you describe, are still deeply embedded in CLCs and council chambers. And they continue to blight the landscape.

Jenny said...

" pseudo-philosophical puff to make Blairism look more than naked electoral opportunism, and so Anthony Giddens coughed up the Third Way: an anemic bundle of insights chaining together the death of class politics, the emergence of individuated "life politics", and a big hell yeah for markets"

absolutely - nailed it.

Blissex said...

I'll add three of my usual quotes here:

Lance Price, Diaries, 1999-10-19:

Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe.Philip didn’t say this, but I think TB either can’t make up his mind or wants to be both at the same time.

Peter Mandelson:

Tony Blair had warned that Labour could recover only if it reoccupied the centre ground of British politics and his close ally Lord Mandelson said that Labour needed once again to champion the aspirational classes.
Hunt said the Labour party needed to appeal to the “John Lewis community”, including those who aspired to shop there and at Waitrose, rather than sticking to appealing to its core vote.

Blissex said...

Plus this wonderful quote from The Man Himself when he was young:

Tony Blair:

But there is nothing more ridiculous than the notion that socialism is inexorably dying, or has been compulsorily retired on grounds of redundancy. Socialism, as its name suggests, is based on a belief in the notion of action through the community, in the idea that individuals do not stand alone, and that it is not merely morally right that we should think of ourselves in this way but that it is the most rational way to organise our lives. The world we face today makes a socialist approach all the more relevant: from new technology to the arms race, co-operation surely makes more sense than competition.
Post-war Britain has seen two big changes. First, and partly as a result of reforming Labour governments, there are many more healthy, wealthy and well-educated people than before. In addition, employment has switched from traditional manufacturing industries to a more white-collar, service-based economy. The inevitable result has been that class identity has fragmented. Only about a third of the population now regard themselves as ‘working-class’. Of course it is possible still to analyse Britain in terms of a strict Marxist definition of class: but it is not very helpful to our understanding of how the country thinks and votes. In fact, of that third, many are likely not to be ‘working’ at all: these are the unemployed, pensioners, single parents – in other words, the poor.
A party that restricts its appeal to the traditional working class will not win an election. That doesn’t entail a rejection of socialism’s traditional values: but it does mean that its appeal, and hence its policies, must address a much wider range of interests.

The trick for Labour is not to follow them and abandon the notion of government and collective provision: but to re-fashion it so that real power is exercised by people and not by institutions or bureaucracies. The fundamental error of Dr Owen (and, oddly, of David Steel since the election, though not before it) has been to surrender to Mrs Thatcher’s philosophy and say that power can only be devolved through the market. The 1990s will not see the continuing triumph of the market, but its failure.

Roy Hattersley:
Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see. ... A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape. ... The certain knowledge that the Conservative Party would be a worse government than Labour is not enough to sustain what used to be a party of principles. ... At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy

Blissex said...

«a big hell yeah for markets»

That is giving far too much credit to the mandelsonians, because they only supported rigged markets, markets turned into upward redistribution machines.

The signature policy of mandelsonianism was the forceful manipulation of the finance and housing markets to turn them into transmission belts for enormous amounts of upward redistribution to the financial elites and the property speculating "aspirational" classes.

Anonymous said...

Great critique, although the blanket dismissal of 'ethical Socialism' is unfortunate and gives in to the Blairites claim to carry it's mantle. I would say Corbyn stands in the Ethical Socialist tradition which is far more radical than is often claimed. See my piece from the 2016 leadership campaign

paulineHeathcote. said...

I enjoyed reading this Neil and although some of it was a bit above my head, I understood most of it and agreed with it. You obviously have mega, super intellectual capacity. However, I am sorry to say that most of the people we are trying to reach with a view to joining us i.e. THE WORKING CLASS PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTRY, after reading your brilliant piece of work would be no wiser as they would probably not understand a word of it.