Wednesday 18 September 2019

Marxists for Liberalism

In his recent interview on Politics Theory Other about the long-term decline of Conservatives and Conservatism, Andy Beckett suggests incuriosity about Corbyn and Corbynism is a symptom of the establishment right and establishment left's disengagement from political reality. It's a point this blog has made plenty of times. Apart from the ridiculous “explanation” favoured by sundry right wingers that a quarter of a million Trots were waiting for their moment to swarm into the Labour Party as soon as Jeremy Corbyn gave them the green light. But the claim of incuriosity does not apply across the board. Gavin Shuker recently had a go explaining Change UK's failure, an endeavour that, euphemistically speaking, left a lot to be desired. And last year we had published Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, which claims to be a Marxist critique of Corbynism. For this reason alone it is worth considering.

It begins, as you might expect, with an introduction to Corbynism. As a movement it is comprised of a number of currents who broadly fit into two categories. There is a "trad left" of a renewed Bennism, which is one part "personalised anti-capitalism" (of which more later) and "Leninist central planning". This combines with an anti-imperialist thrust, which manifests mainly as "anti-Americanism" and anti-Zionism. This enters the mix with the "radical life politics" Momentum offers(?). Closely allied to this old left is the "techno-utopian" wing of the movement, a communistic youth insurgency interested in the libertarian possibilities of new technologies. This has informed Corbynism's policy agenda around (experimenting with) the basic income and strategies meeting the challenge of automation. Those who have a hard time fitting into these currents but have influence are the SWP via its Stand Up to Racism front (debatable) and other Trotskyist currents (even more debatable), an academic "old-school Cultural Studies soft left", the acid communist milieu, the "self-consciously intellectual" folks around New Socialist, Polanyian Lexiteers, and municipal-level Corbynism exemplified by Preston City Council. Each of these trends significantly differ, if not sit in tension with one another, but holding the project together is a left populism. Corbynism ties up a political collective united by a clear and discrete "us" versus an equally obvious "them". This, as per the work of Chantal Mouffe and her late partner, Ernesto Laclau, establishes a frontier where you and other political currents and political actors are on one side or the other. There is no middle ground for compromise. Therefore this assumes not a structural (Marxist) critique of class politics but a radical moralism, and why for so many supporters Jeremy Corbyn is incarnated as a morally exceptional figure who has consistently lived on the right side of history.

This, for Bolton and Pitts, is why Corbynism is deeply flawed. Contrary to traditional Marxist analysis where contradiction and antagonism are internal to capitalism and constitutive of its operation, this understanding is largely absent from Corbynism. As they put it,

For the Bennite and post-capitalist wings of Corbynism by contrast, here betraying again their shared roots in orthodox Marxism, contradiction and social conflict are grasped as the result of external constraints imposed upon a social force itself regarded as innately 'good' - whether it is the 'working class', the productive forces, or post-capitalist potentiality. (p.13)

This implies that everything would be hunky dory if certain barriers could be removed, and therefore those who prevent it - say nasty capitalists, awful Tories, treacherous Labour MPs - are morally deficient and outright betrayers of the common interest. The real sources of contradiction, the structural underpinnings of capitalism, are therefore invisiblised and left unaddressed, replaced by a narrative emphasising the machinations of evil doers. If you swap out the actors and rework the story, these logics are no different from the kinds of politics peddled by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. There are good people, and they are held back and hurt by the chicanery of self-interested people. This isn't good enough and throughout the book Bolton and Potts counterpose their Marxist alternative, whose superiority is demonstrated to their satisfaction by offering explanations for Corbynism's success and contemporary positioning. It all sounds jolly interesting then.

Sadly, no.

In the first place they locate Corbynism as a species of opposition to 'austerity populism' - their characterisation of the politics of Tory austerity. What Dave and Osborne did was frame their programme post-crash in explicitly populist terms. The good people here were the hard working grafters (or, in Osborne's parlance, the "strivers") whose livelihoods were put into jeopardy by Labour profligacy. The solution was first getting Gordon Brown out of office, and then undertaking a moral crusade aimed at national renewal. This crusade was their programme of cuts, coded as a country-wide effort of all pulling together and shouldering sacrifices for a better tomorrow. The gutting of the public sector and mass unemployment was regrettable, but it had a purifying quality. Indeed, it was especially framed as such for that section of the British electorate who happily and repeatedly vote for suffering, provided someone else endures it for them. Besides, a bit of hardship will do them some good - so goes the thinking. As Bolton and Pitts rightly observe, because it was framed in terms that appealed simultaneously to the gut and the memory/nostalgia of a nation under siege, it proved impervious to technocratic arguments against it. Ed Miliband, for instance, made precious little headway nor appreciably turned out voters hit by Tory policy who don't ordinarily vote. Therefore, had Corbynism emerged early it's unlikely it would have made much of a dent in the austerity edifice.

This argument forgets recent history. Ed Miliband didn't make a technocratic case against austerity, only against aspects of it. The overall "necessity" for hacking away at the state and letting markets and volunteers step in was mostly accepted. Labour had a programme of kinder, more thoughtful cutting - despite Ed's occasional indulging of populist rhetoric himself (remember producers vs the predators?) - it did not cut through, and actively avoided speaking to senses of grievance and alienation. The emotive content of Labour's pitch was left to the colourless One Nation move, exciting no one but the wonks, speech writers. and careerists. Though counterfactuals are ultimately pointless, when Corbynism emerged its critique of austerity politics was inseparable from gut reactions and a widely diffuse sense of unfairness. Where Ed was taking on the Tories under the inspiring banner of their cutting too far and too fast, Corbynism laid the state of affairs at the collective feet of the financial elite and their paid-for politicians. As we know, because of the glue this provided the 2017 Labour coalition the Tory attacks, were they doom mongering or technocratic, simply bounced off.

But why did this happen, what was it about the situation that made politics permissive to populism? We don't get a satisfactory answer, because Bolton and Potts locate the populist moment to the EU referendum and its aftermath, despite constructing a chapter around their notion of austerity populism that significantly pre-dated the Brexit vote. Nevertheless what was exceptional about the victorious leave campaign was how anti-EU populism was something of a convergence of the left and the right: the identification of a big bad the people can unite against (the (austerity-enabling) EU), a preponderance of frightening outsiders here courtesy of the open borders it enabled, and the fetishising of British symbolism from WWII to, infamously, the NHS. Therefore Farage's populism was prefaced by that piloted by Dave, which in turn laid the two-campist ground for Corbynism. A case of different characters and plot, but a similar narrative structure, style, and set of ruses.

What distinguished Corbynism from its predecessor populisms was the moral exceptionalism of Jeremy Corbyn himself. Despite a long career, he was virtually unknown to the wider public when he rose to prominence in 2015, and the years he spent in the political wilderness positioned as morally pure oppositionist uncontaminated by the rest of Westminster. For instance, his votes against the Labour whip on anti-war issues and against New Labour's attacks on the working class conferred the mantle of the anti-Blair, whereas The Master of course was not only close to business but actively sought their favour. Therefore Corbyn's opponents in the party were utterly confounded, not least because his politics were defined against the mess of compromise and meltism that epitomised theirs. The warnings Corbyn would be an electoral calamity and the rest failed to dissuade the members from supporting him and, of course, left the right disarmed when it came to explaining the unexpectedly strong 2017 general election showing. In other words, because Corbyn offered populism and populism was of the moment, it paid the Labour Party rich dividends.

As an explanation of the rise of Corbynism, this leaves a lot to be desired. For the authors to criticise Corbynism for eschewing Marxism, it's ironic they avoid applying it themselves. This is not a hair splitting doctrinal point. Their emphasis on the discursive strategies employed by Corbynism is ... a description of the discursive strategies employed by Corbynism! As such, it misses out a great deal. For instance, curious is the Marxist critique that skips the relationship between political crisis and class conflict, of the compositions and alliances of classes and class fractions articulated and condensed by parties and movements. There is no attempt to address the resonance, let alone explain why Dave's deficit determinism appealed to enough people to allow him to form two governments. Why UKIP's Faragist populism was able to galvanise supporters of a certain age and class background is passed over. Why they proved resistant to Corbynism while the bulk of the working age population found it more attractive than what the Tories were offering, with the workers essentially returning to the workers' party, this merits no attention let alone explanation. It's not as if arguments and discussions addressing these questions don't exist. Coming out in summer 2018, Corbynism: A Critical Approach is preceded by about a dozen books and hundreds of articles and blogs all over left and mainstream media. The materialist analysis is out there, and the failure to engage with it suggests active avoidance rather than plain ignorance. This leaves us with an analysis of the rise of Corbyn that is incomplete, underpowered, and more descriptive rather than explanatory.

Having defined Corbynism as a type of populism, Bolton and Pitts move on from treating its insurgent phase to its politics. And straight away, we find ourselves in populist territory again. They argue Corbynism rests on a naturalistic understanding of socialism. Simply put, the material basis for a socialist society readily exists and everything would be hunky dory if we could just remove capitalism. This implies, contrary to Marxism, that capitalism is exterior to the social rather than constitutive of it. Because capitalism it "outside", it means workers have to be coerced and conned to go along with it. To break workers from capital, workers have to be empowered, and this is by putting checks and barriers on capital and hemming it in. For instance, the authors argue the Bennite Alternative Economic Strategy involved tackling the role international finance played in the British economy, and the means for this is conferring the state more powers to enact capital controls and reinforce national borders. Therefore, central to this project is a certain sovereigntism, of privileging the nation state as the ultimate authority above capital, whether domestic or international. Hence it is necessarily hostile to the single market and the EU. As far as Bolton and Pitts are concerned, the contemporary Alternative Models of Ownership policy initiative is a reiteration of the AES, albeit with an accent on co-ops, workers' control and state investment banks than throwing up borders. However, the main problem with these sets of policies are the substantialist theory of value this operates with.

Using Preston City Council by way of a demonstration, its approach to local economic policy emphasises anchor institutions (of the public sector) and how their spending should be kept local. For Bolton and Pitts, the substantialism is based on an assumption money is a container rather than mediator of value. Therefore if we can gather all the money in one spot then we shall reap the benefits, while those over there miss out. For instance, when the council was outsourcing services to the Sercos and Sodexos of this world, their capitals creamed off the profits ensuring the local economy did not get the full benefit on the service spend. By contrast, if matters are taken in-house and local suppliers are favoured, the money stays local and big multinational capital loses out. Writ large to a national economy, this is a recipe for disengaging with the rest of the world and risking an impoverished national autarchy.

This is a daft set of arguments. Corbynism isn't treating money as a "thing" that can be saved up and held onto. That was the marker of Dave's Tories. Instead, like most bourgeois parties, councils and governments influenced by Keynes money here is understood as a flow. Preston is not "keeping" money, but is trying to increase the quantity circulating in their local economy, and for longer too. An in-sourced council catering service is usually unionised, so pay is better. This puts more money in workers' pockets, enhancing their spending power locally. And some of that will, in turn, end up in the pockets of local businesses thereby stimulating capital accumulation and, possibly, investment in more jobs, premises, and so on, allowing money to circulate again and doing the same. M-C-M' cycling through, expanding its circuit, but taking place mainly in one location (Preston) than surplus value heading south and profits taking wing to the Caymans. Yes, it's capitalism still, but our sages completely miss the point. This isn't about ultra correct critiques of political economy, but the movement for socialism making improvements now. Preston is referred to as the 'Preston Model' because it demonstrates the practicalities of the Corbyn programme, shows there are alternatives to the neoliberal way of doing things, actually provides a way forward for local government caught in the Tory austerity trap, and shows the party of the workers is much better at running capitalism than the party of the bosses. It is redistribution which, presumably, is something our Marxists favour even if it falls short of the abolition of class society.

Ah yes, class. It's weird how their Marxism avoids a class analysis for two thirds of the book before bringing it back to critique Corbynism's left populism. As we have seen, Bolton and Pitts classify Corbynism's socialism as naturalistic, as a spontaneous possibility that would magically happen if the productive forces could be set free from their capitalist fetters. Instead, not only is capitalism constitutive of the social, class is everywhere. It is a relation and an irreducible, inescapable feature of the system. It mediates between formally equal persons, and is neither a culture nor identity location but an organising principle powered by the antagonism between those who own the means of production, and those who own their labour power. Fair enough. In Corbynism, however, the two classes of capitalism are not structurally antagonistic and mediated with varying degrees of complexity in and out of work. Rather, it's just goodies and baddies again. For instance, drawing on the work of Ralph Miliband Bolton and Pitts criticise his work for typifying this. In his books and articles, he made the case for the capitalist character of the state residing in the bourgeois connections, upbringing and acculturation of its leading personnel. If a great broom can be swept through the civil service, the state can be wielded as an instrument for socialist change. This being the case, it's not that there are structural obstacles in the way of a transformational politics but rather leaders without the moral rectitude or courage to see through their convictions and carry out the requisite sackings. In other words, Corbynism substitutes moralism for a materialist appreciation of how the state is embedded in, dependent on, regulates, and finally reproduces capitalism. Bolton and Pitts then take aim at accelerationism, which they identify with Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams's Inventing the Future, and implicitly the politics of fully automated luxury communism. Rather than assuming a moralistic stance versus the capitalist class, this trend adopts an uncritical view of technological development and looks to the state as a means of pushing it further. Moar space, moar computers, moar robots, moar of everything accelerates the coming of the new society. Of course, it doesn't do this but that's by the by.

This is where things start getting really weird. If you're a self-described Marxist. What both these approaches to class share is treating it as occupation instead of a compulsion to work based on structural dispossession. In other words, workers have to work because we can only live by selling our labour power. We do not own property or capital that can provide an income for us. This is important, because they argue the Italian operaismo/post-Marxist tradition influencing the 'accelerationist' end of Corbynism mistakes the end of occupational categories with the end of class itself. This is abject nonsense. The rise of immaterial labour and shifts within exploitation and surplus extraction are changing configurations of class within capitalism. It poses questions about the balance between capital and labour, how class struggle operates in economies increasingly dependent on immaterial labour, the species of alienation it engenders, and what this means for politics. What it doesn't do is position the working class, immaterial or otherwise, outside of capitalism. A lack of familiarity with the works of Lazzarato, Negri, Tronti, and Dalla Costa perhaps or, again, a studied refusal to engage?

There's more in Corbynism: A Critical Approach I haven't touched on. As you can imagine, they extend two campism to Corbynism's approach to foreign policy, and come up with a "Marxist critique" virtually identical to liberalism. They go on to argue that, in fact, it is a species of conspiracism, which helps explain the anti-semitism stuff and the over-exuberance of keyboard Corbynism. They also argue criticisms of their previous work can be dismissed because they adopt conspiracist logics, of accusing them of capitulating to the appearance of phenomena instead of getting at the essence hiding within. How very handy.

The truth of the matter is all the faults of Matt Bolton's original essay are replicated in this book, with added arrogance, scholasticism, bad faith, and political paralysis. The success of Bolton and Pitts, if it can be described as such, is bringing together all the prejudices and banalities of liberalism and right wing Labourism, applying the thinnest veneer of Marxist Mr Sheen, and polishing it up into something that describes itself as a critical approach. It's critical alright, but an approach? That would be flattering this dismal effort. To be fair, the dismalism is front and centre from the very beginning. Bolton and Pitts describe themselves as initially supportive of the Corbyn project, and were involved in Momentum and such like. However, once disquiet set in they came to the conclusion that leftist politics should be about defending the gains of the left and "holding the centre" against what is much worse. And that "much worse" is implicitly, Corbynism itself. A pity then they are only able to convince themselves of this by distorting their object, refusing to analyse it properly, and ascribe positions to it and Corbynism's critical fellow travellers that they don't hold. No wonder bankrupt and bewildered centrist hacks love it. And that, my friend, tells you all you need to know.

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