Tuesday 16 October 2018

When Centrism Tanks

They call it the fish hook theory of politics. Imagine if you will a line. On the left is, well, the left. Travel in an easterly direction, going past the centre, at some point on the right the line bends and curves back to the point where the so-called far right hangs poised back above the centre. Self-indulgent nonsense by lefties taking jabs at their centrist rivals? Well, it would be if the evidence didn't bear out the observation. Starkly, in Brazil, not only has the centre collapsed it has fallen in behind the racist, authoritarian politics of Jair Bolsonaro instead of the centre left Workers' Party. However, it wouldn't do to suggest all centrist politics and politicians are predisposed to a moral collapse of this character. Even if they do have a not-at-all disturbing longing for a strong, liberal hero to come and sort everything out.

As we have seen more times than I care to mention, centrism is obsolete, out of touch, and can't get past the certainties of 20 years ago. In an age of crisis, the situation demands radicalism and fresh thinking, not tinkering around the edges and steady-as-she-goes. It's for this reason I read with interest Chuka Umunna's latest piece, declaring "the return" of progressive politics. What would be this new dawn? A new political party? A bold new manifesto fizzing with new ideas?

No. A think tank.

According to Chuka's piece, centrism believes in "reciprocity", the "balancing of power between capital, labour, and the consumer" (as if the last two are not one and the same), "rigorous competition" and "playing by the rules". They believe in the importance of where people live, "communitarian ideals", the value of work but, get this, life outside of work too. Stirring words to be sure: don't ever let anyone ever accuse centrism of vacuity.

Chuka moves on to address the collapse of the centre left, acknowledging the difficulties of the SPD, the Democratic Party in Italy, and the the shambles in the Netherlands. You could also add the virtual destruction of the Socialist Party in France, as well as Hillary Clinton's abysmal performance against Donald Trump. But it wouldn't do to rub it in, and Chuka's not about to belabour the point. He argues there is hope for centrists like himself because Justine Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. These are fab 'n' funky progressives who've moved with the times and done nice things, though quite how Macron's plan to "handle" asylum applications in Libya - well away from French shores - is in the same league of Trudeau's welcoming more refugees is something of a puzzle. Which is probably why Chuka doesn't bother to consider it.

Meanwhile, political debate in Labour is in a decrepit condition, framed between the left and Blairites, and metropolitan remainers and salt-of-the-earth Brexiteers when in fact it could be so much more. Chuka here does have a point. If perhaps the leadership and the membership didn't have to fight off constant bad faith attacks, mischief, disruption, and outright scabby behaviour then the level of political discussion might be a bit more substantive, nuanced and illuminating. As we saw before, the idea of the 'foundational economy' Chuka pushed for all of five minutes wasn't a bad one, but he needs to start thinking about what is happening to Britain, the changing nature of class, and what it means for politics. That is, of course, if he wants to live up to the radical mantle all centrist politicians covet.

Still, having done spade work sufficient for his own satisfaction he unveils the latest knight on a white charger. Or should that be a unicorn? That would be Progressive Centre UK. Billing itself as a "non-partisan, next generation ideas lab" it says, well, not a lot. I know centrist politics is thin, but surely if you were launching a self-styled super-relevant think tank into the political world you'd want more than Chuka's Indy article and a few photos of earnest discussions from a recent shindig in Montreal.

Like liberalism more generally, with which it overlaps, centrism is effectively dead, but doesn't know it yet. The social forces that traditionally animated this politics are defeated, deflated, and effectively squeezed out of relevance by polarisation. Without wider purchase, it turns inward and speaks only to itself, using wonky language, terms of reference, and revealed truths only they themselves find convincing. Unfixed and without much in the way of social ballast, launching new think tanks is about all centrism in the UK has left.


Tmb said...

Calling all Centre Rig...er, Centre Left er centrists everywhere from metropolitan middle class London!!! We need a new centrist revolution!!! Headed by such charismatic luminaries as Chuka Umunna, Tom Watson, Liz Kendall and er, we want a return to progressive politics, the one that's two steps from Toryism but with a nice middle class face and voice... Promising silky nothings, but the same old managerial class of smart suits, clever words and little of substance. No Thanks!!!

Chuka and his 'centrist' pals are a busted flush. They can concoct a hundred new think tanks, but I don't think it will make much difference. I can save them the bother. Few people are interested.

Boffy said...

The reality is that the centre has shifted, just as it shifted in the 1980's. It isn't that Corbyn represents some new radical or far left position. He simply represents a shift back of the political centre to where it was before Thatcher. The same is true of Sanders and the DSA in the US, who represent a shift back to where the centre was in the US prior to Reagan.

I don't find that at all surprising, because it fits precisely with what I have been saying now for the last ten years. It is based upon an underlying shift in economic and thereby social conditions that have been entirely predictable on the basis of the conjunctures of the long wave, that have only been strung out as a result of the 2008 financial crises and the response to it.

What I find fascinating is that the real distinction today between progressive and conservative politics is again being defined by the division between nationalism and internationalism. Its impossible today, as it has been for some time, to be progressive without being internationalist, and waging a determined struggle against nationalism in all its variants. Yet many of those forces that should be the vanguard of the left, and proponents of internationalism, the breaking down of borders between workers, and the forging of workers unity across borders, are again lining up behind reactionary nationalist demands to seal workers off behind those borders, in the vein hope of building nationalistic solutions within them.

Phil Collins is beating on an empty drum when he continually calls for some new centre party or movement, and no matter how much he claims that there are millions of voters left without a home, it will not make it true. They could have had that home, by joining or voting for the Liberals. They have deserted them instead.

But, the Left is again in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, by again allowing itself to be drawn in behind the reactionary nationalist agenda.

Speedy said...

But we have been here before - the inter-war period was similarly riven by turmoil within the European democracies and US. In the same way WW1 represented the industrialisation of war, this period embodied the first true globalisation of modern capitalism. Fully fledged globalisation abated during the Cold War and the division of the world into blocs, but returned after 1989.

The current situation is therefore the normal state of things, the polarisation of politics and the retreat of democracy entirely predictable, as is the rise of populism, which has deep routes in fascism through its tradition of scapegoating and simple solutions to complex problems. We have been here before!

My (rhetorical) question to you is, where is this leading. In the 1930s it led to war, and the result put the dampners on globalisation and created the illusion of stable democracy (and, incidentally, bankrolled social democracy). The West sold the myth that real democracy could co-exist with global capitalism.

War between the democratic powers - which led to the correction in the form of the Cold War - will not happen now. This time global capitalism will almost certainly prevail because the only proven mode of correction would be too costly (yes there will be territorial and proxy wars but not between the nuclear powers), you therefore have to ask yourself within this context how effective the social democratic route of JC et al will be - "the markets" will control governments, not governments markets.

You are right in saying centrism as an electoral force is "dead" - people will not vote for it because, rather than offering an illusion it actually represents the truth - but centrism as a political fact is the only game in town, it is the only politics available to any party, with politicians left to argue over whether they want to, in effect, be nasty or nice over social issues. Real bread and butter stuff - economics - is completely out of their hands. Oh yeah, they can nationalise this or that, but at the end of the day most societies will simply resemble each other. It used to be said the British voted Tory but wanted their governments to act socialist. Now they will vote radical but expect centrism.

Incidentally, Boffy's remark "its impossible today, as it has been for some time, to be progressive without being internationalist" is a good example of how out of touch the rank and file are, as much as the average Brexiter in their own way. Effective internationalism only really worked when there was someone paying for the Sandinistas' Kalashnikovs, just as Britain only really ruled the waves in the 18th Century.

Tmb said...

The Overton window has indeed shifted rightwards. When people call Corbyn hard left, they really mean left of centre, general bog standard left wing stuff. Centre right is seen as centre and hard right wing politics and economics are seen as sensible and acceptable. Some people may be gulled by this, but many are not.

My main problem with the term 'centrist' and 'central ground politics' or whatever other term is used, is that it is the same as the term 'liberal' in that it means nothing in practical terms, or whatever the bearer wishes it to mean. It is wishy washy, vague, hard to pin down and ultimately meaningless, which of course is why many politicians love it and nail their colours to the mast of centrism. I want policies, not vague froth. The politics of centrism are the politics of people who are too comfy, too smug, too set in their ways. It is a politics of essentially 'no change' but with a frosting of 'progress' on top, and to those wanting the same politics it is, and to those wanting progress, it is. But, as I see it, it is more managerial politics, some sound and some fury signifying very little.

Changing deckchairs on the Titanic comes to mind. I'd say, to sum up, the centrism of Chuka Umunna, Blair and others is just right wing politics in a velvet glove.

I prefer Corbyn because he is left wing, and honest about it.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn's intervention with the 'Vision 2020' thinktank/blog/whatever. Remarkably, the website still appears to be up: http://www.the2020vision.org.uk/

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

"Centre right is seen as centre and hard right wing politics and economics"; "seen as" by whom? By the media or by the public?

just wondering said...

Does anyone know if it's true that Umunna is going to be paid £65,000 for 12hours/month to chair this thinktank?

Tmb said...

The media, the political machine as a whole, and self-regarding clever important people everywhere. And some of the public, in my opinion.

Tmb said...

@just wondering

If he is going to be paid £65,000 to chair this thinktank, you can see why he's all in favour of it. Nice work, for some. I wonder who's funding this 'thinktank'?

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

"The media, the political machine as a whole, and self-regarding clever important people everywhere. And some of the public, in my opinion."

Yes, but how much of the public see it that way is what we don't know and have no reliable sources of information about.

Dipper said...

Centrism, as defined by Umunna and others has certain standard-issue features:
- an almost religious belief in the EU as our destiny, avoiding any discussion of the EU as an actual institution that makes actual decisions.
- a belief that people are motivated by short-term economic gain and have no other cogent beliefs
- a belief that economists are infallible (if they say things centrists like, otherwise they are maverick economists)
- a belief that GDP is the sole measure of economic performance.

so, not really "centrist", more a quasi-religous cult that believes they are the devine ones sent to deliver salvation to the dumb ignorant masses.