Monday, 22 June 2020

Activism vs Labourism?

Since Keir Starmer's election, thousands of left-wingers have left the Labour Party. It was bound to happen, but that doesn't make it any less painful for those of us sticking it out. Nor does shouting at those who've cancelled the subs and torn up the cards do anything to remedy the situation. We need to think about why people are leaving. Now, this might seem like a ludicrous question to ask: the reasons are as different as one member is to another. Some think the election of Keir Starmer renders the party beyond the pale for the positions he's taken (or not taken) so far. For instance, putting out a statement after the far right ran amok in London weaker than Boris Johnson's was surely responsible for a few cancelled subs. Other reasons might conclude the left lost, we blew our chance and there's no way of winning the party over. Why bother when other matters need attending to?

This then is a question of disappointment and coping with setbacks, but it's also an attitude that is inconsistent across different areas of intervention. Think about street politics. Black Lives Matter mobilisations have proven successful in shifting public opinion about racism, and has forced a partial recognition of this country's rotten imperial legacy. But think about the recent history of street activism: it's often thankless, police hostility is an occupational hazard, and wins are few and far between. Yet most leftists who've recently left Labour wouldn't think about giving up on them. The same is true of community activism, which can be tedious, long-winded, not go anywhere, and the odds appear stacked against you. Or trade unionism with its labyrinthine bureaucracies, faction fights and more than its fair share of tedious meetings. Workplace organising allows a respite from this but that too is often exhausting and frequently fails. And yet activists carry on doing all these things, despite setbacks and knock-backs, even if your work has been and will continue to be undermined by people ostensibly on your side. Why is the Labour Party considered differently for a large number of comrades?

It's a matter of identity, or rather the dominant type of identity nearly all political activists subscribe to. In his 1996 book, The Search for Political Community, Paul Lichterman argues the turn to self-fulfilment in Western cultures has led to a more individuated understanding and practice of activist commitment. As he put it, "the culture of self-fulfilment has made possible in some settings a form of public-spirited political commitment that … [can be] practised in a personalised, self-expressive way ... some people’s individualism supports rather than sabotages their political commitments” (p.4). Therefore, while organisations and collectives can be the vehicles through which one does activism, everyone's politicisation is personal. Well yes, talk about obvious. How is that new? What differs from activism prior to the rise of what he terms 'personalism' is the individual self as the ultimate reference point: all we have is our bodies, the sense apparatus of our experience and is manipulated, positioned, determined, and inscribed upon by the ceaseless flow of social process. As such, the activist self is reflective and self-critical and values individual expression - it is the one tool each of us have for pressing our politics. For example, one reason why many new Labour members during the last five years found party structures stultifying and sclerotic is, a) because they are, and b) they are a product of a different culture pre-dating personalised politics. The cultures are more or less alien to one another.

If the individual is the vehicle of politics, it tends toward organising with the like-minded on a voluntary and less formalised basis. What holds collectives of activists together are affinities, not senses of mutual obligation in the traditional, communitarian sense. Therefore, traditionally Labourism might scrap over this or that committee, a selection, and who gets to run the board in canvassing sessions but rarely is the efficacy of what is getting done questioned. Personalism however extends its self-criticality over all areas of practice and questions the basis of why we do what we do.

This has a number of consequences when it comes to Labourist activism. The first is Labour is institutionally incapable of making an honest accounting of itself because the party is compromised. Not only is it a proletarian as opposed to a workers' party, and therefore the political home of waged and salaried strata in tension with each other, it has historically attracted the support of a section of the business class and, like all mainstream parties, an organisation of the state. Labourism, at best, represents the interests of all working people within the terms of British capitalism and the UK state. Reinforcing Labour's institutional conservatism is its electoralism, a predisposition to meeting and accepting the electorate as they are. Persuasion is limited to how bad the Tories are and how Labour can do a better job, not propagating ideas, radicalising and empowering voters into becoming political actors. Reflecting on the Labour Party is always a political act because it is inseparable from assessing or, if you're in an institutionally privileged position, denying the play of power dynamics. Just as a certain, recent effort at coming to terms has explicitly shown.

What Labourism tends toward is unthinking instrumentalism, technocracy, and "what works", which fits its conservative disposition perfectly. If Keir Starmer plays the game and gets the poll ratings, then we're heading in the right direction. Regardless of how dubious a position might be - going authoritarian on law and order, throwing tenants under a bus, unconvincingly waving the flag of St George - if it wins votes, it's good. Well, we know it's not good if Labour wants to hang on to its base. But this is largely invisible from an instrumental point of view because it's votes, not members, and certainly not the invisible assembly of classes and class fractions underpinning the party that matter.

If politics then is an expression of individual commitment and is bound up with identity, then there is a fundamental incompatibility between the dominant mode of activism and Labour business-as-usual. Leaving Labour therefore is entirely the appropriate response to a leadership not really interested in changing things, and will cooperate and compromise with forces fundamentally at odds with the constituencies we are from and, crucially, the values and beliefs core to our activist beings (and becomings). Sticking with a party whose leader is a knight of the realm and wants to get back to worshipping "success" and social mobility offends one's values, and runs the risk of being seen to condone such craven nonsense. Fair enough.

Perhaps though it's time for a bit of a transformation in left activism, one building on the cultural dominant of personalism and injecting some instrumentalism of our own. As compromised as Labour is, as much as it is part of the state system, Corbynism did enable the radicalisation of hundreds of thousands of people and has a long tail whose consequences will make themselves felt on politics, one way or another, for years to come. There are new opportunities for struggle opening up to move Labour more toward a movement as opposed to the straight electoral party model, a path that can empower and win power. Even if comrades who have left or are edging toward that door disagree (and chances are they do, otherwise leaving wouldn't be on the cards), then the relationship to the party can be thought differently. As Lichterman noted, the personal commitments of contemporary activism tends toward affinity groupings with others. When Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a leadership candidate and particularly during the 2015-17 period, hundreds of thousands moved into the party or became active supporters because of an alignment of politics. Corbyn is no longer leader, but the left is still present. To stay in the Labour Party now doesn't have to mean an endorsement of Keir Starmer's politics and other vapid nonsense, it means supporting the left and helping us keep the positions we've taken in the party - and could take in the immediate future. It doesn't even involve a a great deal of commitment if someone would prefer to get stuck in doing something else - a postal ballot here, an AGM or selection meeting there is hardly a time sink or, for most people, financially prohibitive.

Lichterman is right that activists tend toward others with similar values and orientations, but affinity isn't sufficient to consolidate a position over a long period. Our activist cultures need to integrate a sense of instrumentalism, an appreciation of organisation, and a pragmatics of struggle for us to realise the strengths of personalism and properly unlock the left's collective power. After all, the values might go to the cores of our being, but we need to ask an instrumental question of them too - what's the point if we don't take the business of socialist struggle seriously?

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13 comments:

Jimbo said...

Thousands of left-wingers have left the Labour party? That one must have passed me by, would you happen to have a source for that? TIA

Anonymous said...

MPs whining about having to be reselected by members. Just like it has always been the case for councillors. No big deal. Not a hardship. No jobs guaranteed for life. Not about the left or the right. Just about the real world.

Blissex said...

«Regardless of how dubious a position might be - going authoritarian on law and order, throwing tenants under a bus, unconvincingly waving the flag of St George - if it wins votes, it's good. Well, we know it's not good if Labour wants to hang on to its base. But this is largely invisible from an instrumental point of view because it's votes, not members, and certainly not the invisible assembly of classes and class fractions underpinning the party that matter.»

But also because the Labour party is not just a vehicle for content-free electoral success, but it is based on some values. Of all people it was R Hattersley who expressed this very well in 2001-06-24 in "The Guardian". my usual quote:

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/24/labour2001to2005.news
«It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. One by one, the policies which define our philosophy have been rejected by the Prime Minister. [...] In fact, success has emboldened the Prime Minister to move further to the Right. [...] 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. [...] Now that the Labour Party - at least according to its leader - bases its whole programme on an alien ideology, I, and thousands of like-minded party members, have to decide if our loyalty is to a name or to an idea. [...] 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. [...] Or, believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'├ętat which overthrew the legitimate philosophy.
»

Anonymous said...

Lefties have been trying to influence Liarbour from within for 100 years. What a waste.

Anonymous said...

What advice does Phil have for me, who now learns that his subs paid the salaries of senior party officials working diligently to prevent Corbyn becoming prime minister (not to mention all those disgusting personal comments about fellow members and MPs.)

Should I claim a refund of my subs which were used fraudulently by the Labour party to lose the election?

Blissex said...

«subs paid the salaries of senior party officials working diligently to prevent Corbyn becoming prime minister»

My strong guess is that those subs were one of the major reasons why the Mandelson Tendency entrysts and their allies and sponsors outside the party were so determined to get rid of Corbyn:

* During the New Labour takeover membership (and votes) fell drastically and New Labour (and later Progress etc.) became fairly poor and dependent on large donations from business and finance sponsors, something that was very welcome by committed thatcherites, as they deplore both contributions by "trot" members and by the trade unions.

* When the Labour wing of Labour got briefly back the party with Corbyn, the huge rise in membership subs not only financed it well, but made it independent of wealthy corporate and individual sponsorships, something that is politically unacceptable, as "who pays the piper calls the tunes".

«a refund of my subs which were used fraudulently by the Labour party to lose the election?»

Your subs can continue to make the party independent of wealthy sponsors, and even if the Mandelson Tendency entrysts are ideologically opposed to parties that are independent of wealthy sponsors, once they have independent funding they will probably be tempted to be more "uppity".

BTW my usual quote as to how the "third way" arose in the USA and later in the UK:

https://theintercept.com/2017/06/25/ralph-nader-the-democrats-are-unable-to-defend-the-u-s-from-the-most-vicious-republican-party-in-history/
«RALPH NADER: Do you want me to go through the history of the decline and decadence of the Democratic Party? I’m going to give you millstones around the Democratic Party neck that are milestones.
The first big one was in 1979. Tony Coelho, who was a congressman from California, and who ran the House Democratic Campaign treasure chest, convinced the Democrats that they should bid for corporate money, corporate PACs, that they could raise a lot of money.
Why leave it up to Republicans and simply rely on the dwindling labor union base for money, when you had a huge honeypot in the corporate area? And they did.
»

Anonymous said...

I agree if public sector workers/ civil servants were on record as saying the things, or taking the actions (at work) that the internal report documents, they would lose their jobs. The 'leaking' of that report (with named individuals) does not negate its contents, (that is what was said and the actions taken by a few Labour staff). Brushing things under the carpet seems to be the response. I hope I am wrong. Internal action should be taken regarding the conduct of these individuals. A statement should be made to this effect, without individual names being mentioned.

Anonymous said...

When Members of Parliament don't want Party Members to have any real influence then that tells you what they think of you.

George Carty said...

Blissex, I wouldn't trust Ralph Nader as it's highly likely that he's a Big Oil stooge:

* He made his name by campaigning against the Chevrolet Corvair, which was one of the most fuel-efficient American cars of its day,
* He later became an ardent opponent of nuclear power,
* The financial operations of his non-profit “public interest” agencies are kept secret, so he could easily be on the take from oil interests,
* He threw the 2000 US Presidential election to George W Bush by splitting the vote against him.

Note that he's the son of Lebanese immigrants to the US who owned a restaurant serving a largely Arab clientele, and he often recounted in his biographies how his political stances were inspired by the discussions he heard in that restaurant.

While Beirut was primarily known as the financial capital of the Arab world (until Lebanon was wracked by civil war, which ultimately resulted in Beirut losing that crown to Dubai), it doesn't take a bright spark to know the origin of most of the money deposited in Beirut banks.

Blissex said...

«When Members of Parliament don't want Party Members to have any real influence then that tells you what they think of you.»

if you remember One-Man-One-Vote was pushed for many years by the Mandelson Tendency clique, because they felt that would eliminate the influence of the "communist" trade unions on Labour, and that a decisive switch to thatcherism as New Labour would draw in a number of affluent, property owning, upper-middle class members (the sort who are also members of the National Trust, the WWF, the LibDems :->, ...) who would outnumber the existing "trot" members and guarantee a permanent majority to the Mandelson Tendency entrysts, while the trade unions and the "trots" would be excluded. The plan seemed to start working in 1997-2010 as the number of "trot" members and "communist" trade unions affiliates dropped precipitously.

When finally OMOV was enacted the thatcherites were hugely surprised by the several hundred thousands of "secret trots" who then became members and elected Corbyn to the leasership; they were outraged that these "secret trot" "entrysts" seemed to be 60% of members and had a sinister plot to take over "their" party.

Which reminds me of an old poem by "trot" B Brecht:

"After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
"

and therefore I propose here two much more "progressive" versions of OMOV:

* New Labour MPs elect the party members, each MP having one vote to confirm or reject the application of any new member.

* For leadership elections a literal application of OMOV, with that "One Man" who has the "One Vote" being Peter Mandelson.

:-)

Blissex said...

«if public sector workers/ civil servants were on record as saying the things, or taking the actions (at work) that the internal report documents, they would lose their jobs.»

Under the present type of government they would probably get commendations and promotions for their vigorous fight against "communist infiltration" of the civil service.

«Brushing things under the carpet seems to be the response. I hope I am wrong. Internal action should be taken regarding the conduct of these individuals.»

I would be reasonably sure that action will happen, and these "heroes" will be given promotions, opportunities, consultancies and will be taken care of by their sponsors for defending thatcherism from "communist infiltration" of New Labour.

Blissex said...

«* New Labour MPs elect the party members, each MP having one vote to confirm or reject the application of any new member.»

With mandatory reselection of party members every year, of course, because party members after all have no mandate from voters, which we have been told is always personal from voters to MPs.

Blissex said...

«Brushing things under the carpet seems to be the response. I hope I am wrong. Internal action should be taken regarding the conduct of these individuals.»

«I would be reasonably sure that action will happen, and these "heroes" will be given promotions, opportunities, consultancies and will be taken care of by their sponsors for defending thatcherism from "communist infiltration" of New Labour.»

The recent rewarding of the "brave whistleblowers" against "racism and antisemitim" plus large payments seems to have sadly confirmed my guess.