Saturday 15 May 2021

Tony Blair Understands Nothing

"This article is a master class in how to make a political argument." The Prince Across the Water has high praise for that rarest of occurrences: a pointed intervention from your friend and mine, Tony Blair. At over 3,000 words, his New Statesman piece had better be worth it. Spoiler alert: it was not. But what his object is, the fate of Labour and how it needs to change if it is to survive and thrive is something the left have to take seriously. The party remains the unavoidable political object at the heart of labour movement and class politics in this country. One can try wishing it away by founding new initiatives or narcissistically gloating at leftists who've decided to remain (or both), but the existence of the party has to be reckoned with. And for those of us staying in Labour our responsibility is to set out how it might be, the routes for getting there, and contesting efforts by the right to make the party a safe space for their careers. And this always, always means entering the field against whatever rubbish Tony Blair, his allies, and his lackeys are peddling.

Taking the first tentative steps into the article are sort of encouraging. Political realities have impinged on the Blairist imagination as he surveys the scene and finds social democratic parties wanting. The SPD in Germany is in deep trouble, in France and Italy the centre left have taken a hammering. Whatever you do though, don't ask Blair why these are the case, but do note their difficulties have little to do with the Big Statism charges he lays at Labour's door for its ills later in the piece. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. He argues only the United States under Joe Biden are bucking the trend. Though, Blair is quick to mention, this victory is against the grain only because the president's sensible sensiblism was able to win over the centre ground while Donald Trump did everything to repel it. A unique set of circumstances, then, that cannot be repeated elsewhere. Sounds a bit like a certain period in the late 1990s.

If this is happening, whence does hope lie? Back in Blair's day the great driver was the force of globalisation, which was reified and treated like a natural force by, well, his government. This integration of global production and culture was something no state could resist. Indeed, this was the period in which the global context divested states of their powers. Resistance to and questioning of the orthodoxy was not only pointless, it was damaging. Statecraft according to the New Labour playbook was concerned with creating the most benign environment possible for globalisation. In reality, this was everywhere and always interpreted as the interests of capital. Therefore following the Tory playbook, government should generate "opportunity" by either selling off what assets remained in the state's hands, and deliberately creating guaranteed markets in social security, the state bureaucracy, the NHS, and enforcing strong, neoliberalised rules around public sector procurement. Questioning this was a refusal to deal with reality, and would in fact undermine the well-meaning efforts of New Labour ministers to bring in the private sector and "generate wealth". Its vacuity was starkly demonstrated on many occasions, not least when MG Rover at Longbridge collapsed in 2005. With the sudden disappearance of 6,000 jobs overnight, all Blair's government were prepared to do were wring their hands and wax lyrical about supporting workers with training and reskilling packages. A bail out was far beyond the horizon of possibility, let alone thinking creatively about repurposing the plant and saving livelihoods. New Labour, for all its shiny smiles and slick comms was the political distillation of pessimism and passivity. Things could only get better until they didn't, and adversity was met with a shrug.

Fast forwarding to now, in Blair's mind globalisation is now replaced by technology as the new universalising force. As he puts it,
We are living through the most far-reaching upheaval since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution: a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery – everything, every sphere of work, leisure and life is subject to its transformative power. The question is how it is used: to control humanity or liberate it, to provide opportunities for those presently without opportunity, or to put even more power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of those already well off.
This is the challenge and one, Blair believes, progressive politics is well-positioned to do well out of. He says "It requires active government; a commitment to social justice and equality; an overhaul of public services, particularly health and education; measures to bring the marginalised into society’s mainstream; and a new 21st-century infrastructure." If only at some point in the last four years there was a political party who went to the electorate twice on such a prospectus. To succeed requires the "mentality of the change-makers". Quite. If centre left parties are to get themselves out of their current doldrums they have to start treating politics as something that is fundamentally changeable and seek to articulate the interests of those who've grown up in this age. Ironic that Blair's own record on globalisation is a how-not-to guide to the politics of dealing with this challenge in the 2020s.

Then we get to the nub. If we are living in a situation the left should be well disposed toward, why are the right making electoral hay? It's because, if you'll forgive this lapse into the Blairist style, approaching today's problems with yesterday's solutions. The target here, as ever, is the "big state", and is symptomatic of a deep nostalgia for "outdated mechanisms". The world is too complex for centralised organisations, and this includes businesses too whose habits of mind are obsolete for our "new economy". Warming to his theme, he attacks the left for rediscovering "1960s Marxist-inspired left policy" which is largely redundant. Why? Because, ultimately, they do not positively impact people's material wellbeing and could actually reduce social mobility and aspiration. In typical style, he does not bother supporting this assertion, presumably because going into it further would show this for the hollow claim it is. We are well used to Labour's right wingers lying about the content of the left's programme, so we shouldn't be surprised to learn Blair couldn't be bothered to acquaint himself with the recent policy work of the party he used to lead. Just alighting on one of these, the much abused Labour pledge around universal free broadband, it's bewildering how anyone acting in good faith could reject this "outdated" idea when its timeliness was and continues to be proved by the Coronavirus crisis. Then of course we have the small matter of Labour's programme as a whole, which broke with Labourism precisely because it advocated the extension of democracy to the point of production. An utter abomination to Blairist managerialism and the authoritarianism of the clapped out Starmerist project, but certainly not the centralised, managerial and undemocratic nationalisations of old.

But to be expected given how Blair frames technological change. The programme of the left recognises we live in a thing called a society, and what binds its members together are social relationships. Blairism acts as if the social is a series of components one simply slots together, and reacts rudely when it's reminded that this is not the case. For instance, Blair is at his most regressive when he notes
tackling climate change can only be accomplished through the application of science and technology. In particular, it will require a revolution in modes of transport and transport infrastructure to promote electrification and a switch from aviation to high-speed rail. Whether the railway system is publicly or privately owned has a fraction of the importance of the advent over the next decade of next-generation rail technology and the growth of electric, driverless vehicles, with all the secondary effects on jobs, insurance and mobility.
Primitivism disguised as science worship. Nothing to see here, just let technological change find a solution. A completely disempowering, miserable, and fatalist politics. But from his point of view, it makes some sense. This article is not for enthusing masses but is a letter to the "change makers" like him - senior politicians, managers, opinion columnists, and the more liberal-minded sections of capital. And so, divorced from any kind of mass politics, at the top of the tree things can appear as if they spontaneously happen, albeit with occasionally necessary course corrections from government. The realities of climate change, for example, shows the idiocy of treating it as a technical problem. Blair's class, for example, are responsible for emitting more Carbon Dioxide than the poorest 50% of the global population. Or how about 70% of historic emissions being the result of just 100 fossil fuels companies? Clearly, Blair has an interest in not talking about such things, so instead pretends the problem requires a technical fix and some nifty administration. The problem, as ever, is ownership. Or to use the old language, the capitalist relations of production.

The other problem the centre left has is how a new younger generation are not enthused by the progressive economics on offer. Without asking why that might be, he instead argues their aspirations have become sublimated into culture and identity issues. While Blair is right this constitutes a challenge, because he's blind to the fact we live in a society it's tacitly treated as if this "preoccupation" is a distraction from the task at hand. A replication of diversions-from-the-class-struggle discourse, albeit transplanted to the vapidity of an obsolsecent third way excursus on the 21st century. Small wonder Blair, like most of establishment political comment and the "specialists" working in political science, get themselves into a helpless muddle on this issue. So-called identity politics is prevalent not because class politics has gone away, it is the form class politics takes in there here and now. As a keen observer of trends, it cannot have escaped Blair's notice that the majority of jobs are based around providing a service, fostering relationships, caring for others, creating, managing, and/or imparting knowledge, socialising and educating people. Likewise, the new-fangled internet superhighway that his soul mate Al Gore used to get excited about has proliferated connections between people, creating new possibilities for thinking, feeling, and being relational. The corallary of this is what he used to call the progressive consensus: the growing dominance of socially liberal values. If work is "immaterial", reinforced by the experience of having to rub along with all kinds of people and draw on one's individual social capacities and competencies, if wider culture is simultaneously connective, collaborative, and fleeting, the virtues of the moment is acceptance, empathy, and liberal tolerance. Capitalism is in on the act too. Immaterial work is and will continue to be a strategic sector of capital accumulation. The production of relationships for profit therefore ensures class and social production are so closely interrelated that it makes no analytical sense to separate them out. The Tories and the likes of Blair don't grasp this, but their class instincts feel the sorts of identity claims welling up from below are potentially threatening, even while the circuits of capital draw sustenance from them for their simulacrum of life. And so for the Tories we have their War on Woke nonsense, which is an ultimately doomed attempt to bed down division and keep their beggar-they-neighbour politics viable for as long as possible. For Blair, his hostility is framed in terms of optics. The claims-makings of these wild young things apparently stand in for progressive politics as a whole. Not enough people are going to vote Labour if Black Lives Matter dump statues in the harbour, march in solidarity with the Palestinians, or protest against police violence.

The way out of the impasse for Blair is moderation. The public at large don't like racism and prejudice, but they don't like extreme responses to racism and prejudice. They don't like cherished institutions such as the police and the military getting "smeared", and they like leaders who voice their own opinion and aren't beholden to "pressure groups". This is all very well, Tony, but who are the public here? Ah yes, it's the hallowed centre ground that no longer exists. And doesn't Labour have, right now, a leader that has rigidly followed this playbook? Don't frighten the horses with policy, keep anything resembling class politics in the cupboard with the trade unions, declare fealty to our most beloved, blood-soaked institutions, and embrace low key, quiet patriotism. How's that going?

Well, Labour's problems can't be solved by swapping leaders, which will be news to the any-other-leader crowd who take their cue from The Master. As he puts its, to advance the party "needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do." We can guess what this would look like as we've been through Blairism before, and enough Labour MPs this last week have acted as if the party is the problem. Flying, as usual, in the face of the available evidence. His Blairness's recommended solution is an "urgent debate" of cultural issues that "needs to push back strongly against those who will try to shout down the debate". Given his own record, this undoubtedly means leaving the room open for a little bit of racism here, a little bit of scapegoating there. But Labour also needs to modernise its economic messaging. Having caricatured the Corbynist programme as big statism, when in fact, at least rhetorically, the last two manifestos were closer to Blair's preferred model of mixed ownership firms and light tough industrial activism on the state's part. And modernisation, as we've seen from 13 years of government, meant accepting the rules as they were, undermining Labour's political position in wider society, emptying out democracy for tedious managerial authoritarianism, and leaving the power of capital untouched.

One would never expect Tony Blair to offer useful advice to leftists, but he has rendered a service. As if we didn't know, his understanding of politics even in capital's terms is out of date, and his prescription, which involves building out of the centre ground is obsolete. Politics is polarised. The Tories have a solid phalanx of support and its opposition is spread between several parties and the politics of the street. Not only does the centre ground not exist, it was always a fiction. If this most floaty of empty concepts ever had a referrent it was during the period Blair himself presided over, a politics where widening layers of the population were alienated from the political process and mass participation (except against Blair) did not exist. The centre ground then was whatever the editorial offices of the press were writing. British politics has significantly moved on since then. From the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the facts of political life cannot be characterised as rising disinterest but increasing participation, with mass mobilisations from the left and, to a lesser extent, the right. A centre left establishment politics of the Blairist kind has to intersect with politics as it is, which means a politics that isn't tepid but is roiling with dynamism and activity. It can be done: as the SNP demonstrate, apart from independence what in their programme poses the status quo a threat? And arguably, the strong municipal victories for Labour in the North West and the strengthening of the Corbyn-lite Mark Drayford in Wales prove the truth of this as well.

But Blair has his blinkers on. Consumed by the myth created after the fact to explain his 1997 triumph, he inhabits it so thoroughly it is the blueprint for Labour for all times, a universal road map that ignores the new roads added to it in the last quarter century. Blair himself is a husk, a desiccated mummy whose rote phrasing betrays little curiosity about the world, a limited knowledge about how it works, and next to no understanding. Telling then as Labour rots from the head down that leading figures past and present fete him like an oracle. Blair emerges as a NuLab Nostradamus whose quatrains are vague enough to impress the dullards, but guarantees ruin for the party if it holds store in his prophecies.

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Anonymous said...

"If work is "immaterial", reinforced by the experience of having to rub along with all kinds of people and draw on one's individual social capacities and competencies, if wider culture is simultaneously connective, collaborative, and fleeting, the virtues of the moment is acceptance, empathy, and liberal tolerance... Immaterial work is and will continue to be a strategic sector of capital accumulation. The production of relationships for profit therefore ensures class and social production are so closely interrelated that it makes no analytical sense to separate them out."

What mystifying nonsense. Identity politics WAS a manifestation of the class struggle in its original American form (including the word 'woke' which was co-opted by the white bourgeoisie from the black community) because it had its roots in the structural racism of the USA which had a historical, economic basis.

But this is not the British context, where - just as it has come to be in the US - it has been co-opted to AVOID addressing the class struggle, a subject the Left is desperate to avoid because it doesn't like the British working class very much, a sentiment that is increasingly returned in spades.

Better, therefore to recreate the class struggle in cosmetic terms - identity politics - a manufactured conflict that sees a few statues fall but achieves nothing.

This is what Blair attacks. The Left necessarily breathes the air of rebellion - it requires it to exist. The prospect of government is, literally, poisonous.

Dialectician1 said...

"Blair himself is a husk, a desiccated mummy whose rote phrasing betrays little curiosity about the world, a limited knowledge about how it works, and next to no understanding".

I always thought Blair was an intellectual lightweight. Even in his days of pomp, when he drew on the work of the the sociologists Giddens and Beck or his favourite philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, his grasp of the writings of these theorists was perfunctory. He is really an old fashioned rhetorician (or in layman's terms, a conman) who, like all the other careerist public schoolboy politicians, learned his trade in the reified atmosphere of one of those hot-house elitist institutions that teach the classics, public debate and the art of persuasion and deceit.

But beneath Blair's Casandra-like warnings about the left, he is an unabashed snob. He doesn't understand, or want to understand the working class. He really finds them a bit uncouth and dirty, and worse still, prone to rebelliousness. He is as frightened of class politics as much as his Etonian successors and is clearly unnerved by the emerging political polarisation that has occurred since the 2008 crash.

Anonymous said...

This is not Blair. He is simply channelling the stuff which gets pumped out at Davos. Our own corrupt, reactionary and manipulative President Ramaphosa pursues essentially the same line. In fact, the collapse of social democracy can probably be attributed to its general endorsement of the feeble, subordinated guff which Blair is mouthing off. In other words, Blair is promising a cure for a disease of which he is one of the many vectors.

BCFG said...

“He really finds them a bit uncouth and dirty, and worse still, prone to rebelliousness. ”

Prone to what I call fake rebellion. Or populism as it is sometimes called.

For me the essence of populism, both left and right, is this fake rebellion, which is really a sort of counter rebellion, a pulling up of the drawbridge, which manifests itself as disobedience. But it is just the kind of disobedience the ruling classes can easily manipulate and use to their advantage. Blair did this as much as anyone.

Of course the ruling class fear of the lower orders is permanent but all in all, save for the odd resistance, e.g. to the ESL, the ruling class master has the lower order dogs exactly where he/she/gender+ wants them, i.e. just the right type of disobedience.

Twitter and Facebook are the holy sites of this fake disobedience and take it to new levels of depravity. Each fake rebel encouraging the other one, resulting in pretty much nothing, except amplified fake rebellion, fake rebellion as the dominant culture, all music to the ears of the populists and by extension the ruling classes.

We see this in the pandemic, for example people desperate to assert their human rights and get back to shopping for things they have no need of. Andy Burnham has attempted to lead a fake rebellion against lockdown, to the point where this slimy calculating opportunistic twat has finally positioned his slimy backside into pole for the Labour leadership. Though if David Milliband is back from his secondment in hell that may get scuppered. Maybe the obnoxious Burnham’s fake disobedience will unite the fake/deluded left and the right of the labour party more than Milliband could. Being totally obnoxious Burnham can at least be a better bet to win a British election contest than decent Corbyn. No one who was ever nice got in a high position at the court of Versailles after all, and Britain is akin to the court of Versailles. Backstabbing sociopaths were the lot of them.

Britain is built firmly on Western values, freedom, democracy, girls in schools, dumping toxic waste on the poorest, drowning migrants at sea, monopolising the worlds shipping lanes. Blacks cant farm etc etc.