Two of the best pieces written on the present state of the Left in British politics have appeared in the last month. The first is Hard Labour, published in Political Quarterly by Ben Jackson. The second is Despair Fatigue, published in The Baffler by David Graeber. The first is notionally sceptical of the Corbyn surge, while the latter is hopeful. But I would suggest that it is helpful to read them together as a way of diagnosing the ambivalence that currently courses through Leftwing party politics in Britain right now, and possibly in the United States and mainland Europe too.
Like many of us, Jackson is ethically sympathetic to what Corbyn stands for, but politically fearful. He points out, reasonably enough, the curiosity whereby much of the Left thinks historically and structurally when considering capitalism, class, the state and much besides, but lapses into a form of non-sociological wishful thinking when it comes to parliamentary democracy and leadership. This results in some curious contradictions between sociological diagnosis of neoliberal domination and bald assertions that it can be easily thrown off. For example, Jackson writes:
As the left rightly reminds us, we live in a consumer capitalist society with limited opportunities for political socialisation and participation. Most voters consequently view politics as an unwelcome intrusion into their lives and regard grand schemes for social improvement with scepticism. The reasons for this are complex, and may ultimately be susceptible to long-term social and cultural change. But no matter how much of an outward-facing social movement Jeremy Corbyn transforms the Labour party into, the basic problem of motivating public support for a social democratic agenda remains the same as it has been for three decades now: how to persuade voters concerned about their family’s living standards that greater collective provision will benefit them?
On this sort of issue, New Labour did at least have a sociological and historical version of events that undergirded its political strategy. That version of events (that can be traced, sometimes unfairly, back to the cultural studies vision of Marxism Today) stated that Thatcherism was not merely a successful electoral machine, but tapped into a broader cultural shift towards globalisation, entrepreneurial values and individualism, which could not be ignored.
We may now look back with distaste on Labour’s Gould-Mandelson marketing exercises of the mid-90s (or Giddens’s sociological authorisation of it) but they were at least founded on a political realism, from where power was then won. None of this is necessarily to endorse what Blair did or stood for, but simply to recognise that the blending of political sociology with political strategy did occur, and occurred successfully on its own terms. More recently, the ippr sought to refresh this type of project, but without palpable results for Labour.
It’s widely-known that Corbyn’s brand of leftwing politics is not primarily concerned with taking control of the state, rather it focuses on movement-building, hence elections may not be the main test of his political success. But on the other hand, a ruling party that does not fear losing power is a dangerous thing. As Jackson concludes:
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have not yet shown that they are thinking deeply enough about how a Labour party led from the hard left can overcome the obstacles to achieving their political goals. They owe those of us who do not want to live under a Conservative government until 2025—and all that implies for the welfare state and public services—a serious analysis of how a radical Labour party can draw on actually existing social forces. In the absence of such an analysis, it is hard not to worry that the Labour left is ultimately confecting a major setback for the cause of a more equal and democratic Britain.
By contrast, Graeber argues that what we are currently witnessing is some sort of ‘British Spring’, following a lengthy winter without any political alternatives to neoliberalism. The project begun by Thatcher (currently manifest in the nonsensical self-harm of austerity) is now so shorn of credibility, that alternative visions of the future have emerged almost as an inevitability. “When all is said and done”, he argues, “the Tory and New Labour visions aren’t really visions at all. True, in Thatcher’s time, and even to some degree in Tony Blair’s, the market reformers managed to pass themselves off as in some sense the real revolutionaries. But no one makes such a claim anymore.”
The rise of Corbyn is evidence that “despair fatigue” has set in. People cannot live without political visions. Eventually, hope has to return. Excitement surrounds the role of ideas and utopias that are in circulation today:
Genuinely radical ideas are being debated and proposed. Should the left be pursuing accelerationism, pushing the contradictions of capitalism forward with rapid growth and development, or should it aim toward a total shift of values and radical de-growth? Or should we be moving toward what Novara, the media initiative that emerged from the 2010 student movement, began cheerfully referring to as FALC—or Fully Automated Luxury Communism—encouraging technologies like 3-D printing to aim for a world of Star Trek–style replicators where everything is free? Should the central bank enact “quantitative easing for the people,” or a universal citizen’s income policy, or should we go the way of Modern Money Theory and universal jobs guarantees?
Graeber rightly points out the curiosity that the Bank of England is now doing more heterodox and critical thinking regarding the nature of money than any other wing of the state. And he’s right that something is clearly stirring (even the LSE has recently been debating the value of utopias). But it is hard to entirely escape the sense that this is less than threatening to the status quo. This is the ambivalence of the new radicalism: it prospers on twitter and amongst the politically active, but will the 15 million people who voted Conservative or UKIP ever even hear of it, other than when John McDonnell pulls out Mao’s Little Red Book in the House of Commons?
The risk of what Graeber is articulating is that it represents a political bipolar disorder, in which ideas such as ‘corbofuturism’ are the mania that springs out of total nihilism. What grip do they have on society, assuming that that category is still something the Left deems ontologically credible? It bears repeating that Marx himself was a resolutely anti-utopian thinker. What to the Left may be viewed as a ‘demand’ is sometimes difficult to distinguish from a ‘wish’. That said, the revival of both demands and wishes is plainly welcome, if it can be done in public terms, that elevate individuals out of their private self-recriminations.
The reason why utopian thinking has re-emerged at this moment is, as Graeber implies, partly because political and cultural sociology has got stuck in a pre-2008 time-warp. Waiting for the new historical ‘juncture’ to arrive, and act accordingly, is hard work, when elites across political and economic institutions are hell-bent on preserving the status quo and dominant media representations of it. Eventually, critique simply abandons the concern with ‘this’ socio-economic reality, and orients itself around a different one, that can be described outside of the ‘mainstream media’ thanks to various digital platforms.
New critical realism?
Yet the political fall-out from George Obsorne’s recent budget demonstrates the ways in which a broader, more traditional or ‘mainstream’ realism can still be the basis for critical, leftwing thought. It is telling that the limits of austerity have eventually been discovered in the tangible, visceral reality of disability. Osborne’s agenda has rebuffed many forms of opposition – from economists, public sector workers, students, the IMF – but eventually floundered on the reality of the human body and its inevitable yet varying limitations.
In the days following Iain Duncan-Smith’s resignation, Britain found itself in the unusual situation of experiencing a near-universal moral consensus: no resident of the United Kingdom should be reduced to a situation where they cannot wash or use the bathroom. (A notable exception to this unanimity was, at least by implication, the Chancellor of the Exchequer). While Europe and political self-interest played a role in the emergence of this consensus, the re-discovery of common humanity as a premise of good or acceptable policy-making was a demonstration of how reality can intrude into politics (even elite, highly mediated politics) quite unexpectedly. And lets also appreciate that frank, unambiguous opposition from the Labour Party was a precondition of this intrusion occurring; a Blairite fudge on this issue would have just prolonged the depressing sense that austerity was all there could ever be.
Given that the Department of Work & Pensions has been at the vortex of austerity-related social controversies since 2010, surely this is the type of historical-political development that needs to be seized by Corbyn and the Left as vigorously as possible. The nub of this issue is that policy-makers have been working without any concept of legitimate human need for much of the past 30 years. Each incapacity is viewed as surmountable, if only individuals can access sufficient desire or incentive. The one area of our state and society where need is recognised as an objective fact is in health policy, rendering the strains on the NHS a sociological inevitability. One question for Corbyn’s team is how might welfare and labour market policy be developed in ways that was more sympathetic to human needs and dependencies, without medicalising all of them. Basic Income may play a role here but cannot be the end of the matter.
Constructing viable policies in areas such as welfare reform is long and laborious work, so it is important not to understate the difficulty here. But it is also worth recognising that something finally snapped this month, and not only in the ‘despairing’ minds of radicals and activists as Graeber argues. It snapped in ways that took the government and ‘mainstream media’ completely by surprise, and pointed towards a hopeful and realistic populism, at least for a while.