Saturday, 19 August 2017

Keynes and Revolution

There was a time in autumn 1917 when Vladimir Illyich Lenin, firebrand of the revolution and scourge of reformism, let it be known that he favoured the peaceful formation of a social-democratic government. In the essay On Compromises Lenin called on his erstwhile enemies the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to form a government with Bolshevik support in order to shepherd the faltering February revolution through the gates of democracy. As Lenin prevaricated Hegel's World Spirit itself - in the form of St Petersburg's radicalised popular classes - swelled towards the gates of the Winter Palace. In a foxhole everyone, it seems, is a compromiser. As China Mieville puts it in his recent book on the October Revolution, "To be radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. 'To patiently explain.' How easy to forget people do not need or await permission to move." After preparing all their lives for the definitive revolution, when the irresistible moment came the Bolsheviks almost blinked.

Geoff Mann's strange book, In the Long Run We Are All Dead (2017), is subtitled Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution. Much of the book is not concerned with revolution of the kind Lenin was contemplating, but what Robespierre famously termed révolution sans révolution. The book is strange in two ways: first, it is a very leftist (self-confessedly Gramscian) intervention into the world of high political economy, placing Keynesianism not so much in a context but in a genealogical map. Thus, thinkers and political actors as diverse as Hegel and Robespierre are Keynesians. "The key is that the Keynesian critique is not only Keynes's critique, but a thematic and a set of concerns, that runs throughout the history of liberal capitalism since its first moments."(44) For the essence of Keynesianism is the impulse to rescue civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft) from the destructiveness of the market system - to save civilisation from its own internal contradictions whilst ultimately preserving it. These contradictions arise from the "sphere of self-interested particularity" in which "individual interest is unmoored from collective welfare." (46) Mann describes the Hegelian-Keynesian - or just Keynesian - intellectual project as one which sets out to remedy the modern world's ills by careful palliative work rather than overthrow. What is surprising is how little explicit effort Mann makes to shield himself from accusations of anachronism, and one wonders how seriously he expects the categorisation to be taken. Mann's defence, when it comes, is to argue no more than that putting thinkers in their proper "place" is a "holdover" from the age of "progress." (45) We can choose to accept this relative suspension of linearity or not at little cost to Mann's overriding preoccupation, which is really to affirm the existence of something that is not liberalism as conventionally understood and not radical socialism or conservatism, but some other thing related to all three but nevertheless distinct.

The second strange thing about Mann's book is the recurrence of the first person, as Mann repeatedly identifies his own attraction to Keynesianism even as he chides much of the left for falling into this very trap. At a certain level there is an honesty to this and a willingness to accept that there is no non-ideological, god's-eye-view perspective to be taken against ideology as such. But it also begs the question of how urgent Mann feels it is to unpick Keynesianism or to escape it when he repeatedly professes his own fondness for it. This is not so much a criticism as a question about aims and intentions. It is not clear if Mann believes that Keynesianism needs to be substituted with Marxism or if the two can coexist. Perhaps it is not his intention to be so proscriptive, but the scope of the explicitly political diagnosis feels betrayed by too little attention to a politics beyond Keynes. The book really comes into its own in the final pages, when he accuses the left of harbouring an "inability or unwillingness to follow through on the revolutionary promise." Aspects of this resonate with Mieville's argument that all too often the left believes it has to a great extent explained past failures by merely admitting them: 'Of course, mistakes were made.' Here Mann is arguing that in revolution we all too often turn back from the precipice, and even in our analyses after the fact the same gesture is repeated so that the true scope of the failure is never revealed to us. Yet Mann does not properly embrace revolution either. In the final lines of the book we find Mann talking up the "radical kernel at the heart of Keynesianism" and its refusal either to properly reject the present system or simply to celebrate it.

Anyone who has struggled through Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), will be relieved that Mann dispenses with much of the technical argument of High Keynesianism in favour of outlining its broad theoretical and political preoccupations. He identifies several. Firstly, Keynesianism situates itself within the concrete being (Sein) of "modern communities" - expressed through political economy - as opposed to an abstract vision of how those communities ought to be (Sollen).(230) Next, it assembles several key economic concepts and their inter-relations. For Keynes the central motivation of the investor was yield - return on investment - the expected future rate of which determined the level of investment and the level of liquidity (cash) preference in the economy at large. The key word here is expected: as capitalism is a forward-facing system in which investments are made with one eye trained on the future, the inherent "qualitative uncertainty" (234) of the future has a central role to play. If the rate of interest - the price of money, reflective of anticipated risk - increases relative to profits (or the "marginal efficiency of capital"), liquidity preference will rise and the rate of investment in enterprise decrease. Psychological preferences, Keynes argues, are such that a modern community will always consume slightly less than it earns - "effective demand" is the expected rate of this demand and if it is expected to fall then of course the environment for productive activity is perceived to contain greater uncertainty and therefore liquidity preference will rise.(246) "According to Keynes, investment decisions are determined by the difference, if any, between the return businesses can expect from investing in "productive activity" and the return they can expect from lending money (by purchasing corporate or government debt) relative to their desire to hold cash for speculative or precautionary reasons (their liquidity preference)."(247) Third, Keynes uses this theory - in which psychological uncertainty is so central - to elaborate an analysis of the great scourge of his day - unemployment - and its corrosive effect on capitalist civilisation. If the level of effective demand - that is, that based on future expectations and taking into account increasing uncertainty - in an economy falls, there will be involuntary unemployment - or a labour market that cannot reach a price floor and cannot clear. By adding such caveats to the "classical" theory of self-righting markets, Keynes - just like all "past" Keynesians - believed he was advancing a scientific corrective to a flawed theory. Finally, Keynes re-articulates the classical theory's separation of politics and economics. The system of liberal capitalism can be saved from the entrance of mass politics - that is to say, revolution - onto the stage of economics by technical and specialised correctives to a flawed theory that poorly reflects how the world truly is. Keynes believed in cheap but controlled access to credit - low interest rates to ensure productive investment remained inviting and to maintain business confidence - coupled with some government activity to shape the climate in which private investment decisions were made. The problem with Mann's assertion that such a corrective is "the principal objective of all varieties of Keynesianism" (257) is that there is no reason to think it is unique to Keynesianism. Mann implies that is is only when the separation of the political from the economic spheres which founds modern civilisation is placed under threat that Keynesianism appears. Yet this unstable separation of politics from economics is constantly under threat in the modern world. Since the capitalist state helps to produce capitalist markets and they in turn impact upon it, the line between them is crossed as a matter of course. As Mann puts it, "the tools of political economy as science are the principal means by which liberal government implements and maintains this separation [of politics from economics]; on the other, the separation is produced so as to make the expression "political economy" appear oxymoronic" because the economy is supposed to be by definition non-political. Keynesianism is, Mann argues, the project of legitimating the existing social order by careful construction of and maintenance of the separation. But could this not apply to any attempt to save liberal capitalism from itself and restore civilisation to its supposed "sanity"? What is missing here is the historical specificity of Keynesianism as it is widely understood: as one intellectual facet of a broader class compromise that developed out of the breakdown of liberal order in the first half of the Twentieth Century, one which could not have found the success it did in any other epoch.

The most succinct way of justifying this latter claim is through a brief digression into the internal tensions of formal structure. For many radicals, the capitalist "mode of production" (the name given to the vast, multi-tiered, interconnected structure of modern social formations) is distinguished by its epistemological and existential separation of politics from the economic. Under capitalism the state is theoretically and practically distinct from an autonomous sphere called the market; the practice of liberal, democratic or authoritarian politics distinct from commodity production and exchange, labour and capital. Fredric Jameson is fond of applying formal oppositions to his readings of culture. In particular the Greimasian semiotic rectangle is used to map the oppositions and negations in the formal structure of a text. My contention is that much the same process can be undertaken in relation to political economy. In the Greimasian semiotic rectangle of political economy, the opposition politics/economics is counter-posed to its negative opposition not-politics/not-economics.

Politics                                  Political economy                          Economics

State                                                          Market

Not-economics                           Abstract reason                          Not-politics

Between the opposition of politics and economics there is the apparent oxymoron of political economy itself. Here is where the separation is policed through a concrete science in the possession of specialists, experts and technocrats - Keynes's "universal class." On either side of this opposition stand the State (the realm proper to the non-economic, political type) and the Market (that of the non-political, economic type) respectively. Finally, the fourth logical position is that of the non-political, non-economic type or the sphere of detached, abstract reason occupied, in the Keynesian imaginary, by the Kantian Sollen (Ought) as opposed to the concrete Sein (Being). As is the case with Fredric Jameson's work in The Political Unconscious, this mapping of the formal structure of political economy merely highlights the internal tensions between the different points. Precisely because the structuring opposition politics/economics is never complete, we find that the state and the market are never finally separable either. Nor for that matter is abstract reason a mere shadowy projection of the real thought of political economy. The formal structure of political economy is rather an attempt to resolve what are ultimately antagonisms in the social situation of modernity, or more specifically an attempt to prevent the intrusion of mass politics into the realm of economic policy. Public choice theory, which in its most extreme iterations excoriates democratic politicians for indulging people's desire for welfare payments, is one of many non-Keynesian theoretical innovations which operate with these formal tensions. Political economy is always ultimately an attempt to regulate how the economic is politicized through its separation from formal politics.

The space of political economy is self-evidently contradictory, of course, tasked as it is with policing the politics/economy distinction, whilst, in the sheer fact of its existence, pointing to a deeper identity between the two separated terms. As Jameson again argues, difference must be based on the background of a prior identity. Both radical and heterodox critics of conventional political economy are wont to criticise the depoliticization of various aspects of public policy which pertain to the economy - a classic being the so-called "production of money", which takes place in both the private sector (among banks issuing loans and so forth) and the public sector (the central bank of a given economy or economies). Radicals will also often remind conventional economists that a good deal of what happens "in the market" relies not on the formal equalities of market exchange but on politically-constituted power. A further complication arises from the fact that most radicals and heterodox economists are themselves Keynesians or heavily-influenced by Keynes. An ambivalent relationship exists between this awkward critique of political economy and Keynesianism per se (which, like Marxism, is also a critique of political economy). After all, radicals do not entirely reject the Keynesian gesture of the critique of abstract reason or its preference for practical knowledge and science. The very status of abstract knowledge would, Marxists argue, not be possible without the evolution of the commodity form, the specific mode of abstract reification unique to capitalism. It is only possible for thought to attain such autonomy from practical life where the world itself has become abstract through the spread of the commodity form. This process of abstract specialisation and separation of branches of knowledge and disciplines depends on the spread of commodification itself: it is the source of capitalism's special intellectual strength, its infinite adaptability, and simultaneously the source of so much of the radical critique of it. Marxism endorses the separation of politics and the economic not as a bold innovation in the science of governance, but as a fundamental social fact of modernity. It is Marxism itself which, having entered into the most protracted and arcane political conflicts with the capitalist state, has done more than any other science to develop a theory of its "relative autonomy". Mann's book is both a player in this long tradition of self-reflexive critique in political economy and a victim of it.

Like so many books - both good and bad - which negotiate a vast pre-existing body of work in an unconventional way, the text comes fully into its own only at the end, when the theoretical position is fully drawn and the anticipated objections (however fleetingly) dealt with. In this space of relative autonomy from the weight of dead generations, it becomes clear this is a book about Marx-as-revolutionary and Keynes-as-reformer. Though Mann does not use the word reform and is careful to distinguish Keynes from the distinctive tradition of reformist social democracy, the two amount to something similar. If social democracy's intellectual telos is the conclusion that it is best not to throw out the baby of market-based exchange with the bath water of capitalist iniquity, then for Keynes this is both destination and point of departure. What is a journey for social democrats is self-evident for Keynes. For both Hegel and Keynes, Mann writes, "Freedom develops in the recognition of necessity's necessity."(386) Marx's "freedom from the realm of necessity" becomes, then, an enlightened embrace of the essential role necessity - that is, poverty - plays in disciplining and shaping civil society.

It is in this section on Marx and Keynes that Mann confesses that, in writing the book, he discovered the "reluctant, even repressed" Keynesian in himself.(387) Yet in the end the choice between Marx-the-revolutionary and Keynes-the-reformer is rarely made definitively by anyone outside of the most dogmatic sects. Movements of the radical left around the globe issue calls for both restoration of liberal institutions and the overthrow of the existing regime, often in the same breath. The choice - when it comes - is made for us, and it is only on the precipice that the question of whether our institutions, forms of organisation, modes of activism, and intellectual culture render us capable of assenting to the decision of world history.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Brexit and Blair

Tony Blair claims that a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would, in combination with Brexit, "floor" Britain. Blair's prognosis on Corbyn has hardly shifted since 2015 when he famously claimed that supporters of the left winger should "get a heart transplant." Blair has always said he wouldn't want to win on a Corbyn style platform because it would be "bad" for Britain. Brexit is hardly a factor, so why the coupling of the two now?

These fittingly vague assertions are, of course, embedded in Blair's personal ideology, one for which nationalisation and stronger unions are in and of themselves "bad" because they are not "modern." Blair has never seen fit to elaborate on what his conception of modernity denotes, but no doubt for him it means shiny glass buildings and serious men in sharp suits and board rooms. The sleek, slimline, ultimately anonymous corporate capitalism of 1990s fantasy. Trade unions and big government are a priori bad for such a vision.

If there is some substance buried deep within Blair's claims about Corbynism, it comes from the soft left discovery in the mid-1980s that a left government needs capitalism - especially financial capital - on side or it will be crushed. The conclusion of Blairism about the nature of capitalism was developed out of the soft left's belief that social-democratic reforms could indeed be won if the left built a broad hegemony across society, not challenging capital directly but winning it over.

The simple proposition - that the left needed financial markets to function properly under its watch, perhaps more than the right did because of the reflexive cultural and ideological preferences of capital itself - gave some basic rationality to the Blairite project. And behind it in turn was a long, imagined history of left governments who came triumphantly to power on a mandate to challenge vested interests, only to be squashed by the powers that be. There is something of the Wilson and Callahan and even Mitterrand years in this vision, but also at least as much of Chris Mullins' hard left Harry Perkins in the fictional A Very British Coup. It is ultimately an ideological synthesis, a thick texture of operative assumptions about how the world works - the Sitten of the soft left - that proscribes a priori an outwardly radical left government which sets itself up in direct opposition to the power of capital. That road, this wisdom says, can only end in ruin.

So it's faintly surprising that Blair should include Brexit as a factor in his assessment. Surely Corbynism is doomed or it's not - regardless of Brexit. But if we are to follow the implicit argument of those like Blair - and beyond - who are now saying Brexit will scupper Corbynism to its logical conclusion, then it seems clear there must be circumstances in which Corbynism could succeed. In which a parliamentary socialist government in direct conflict with capital - especially finance - is not crushed.

To understand how Brexit could do for Corbynism, as Blair says it will, we need to define the circumstances in which Corbynism would not fail. But first, what is Corbynism? In short, it is an attempt to rebuild the productive capacities of the British economy, against the power of finance, along broadly left-wing lines. That means a democratisation of industry, greater powers for workers, more redistribution of wealth, and humane immigration and defence policies. But in terms of raw economics, it means a huge increase in state activity in the private and public sphere, a massive injection of targeted investment in industry in the hope of boosting productivity, kick starting growth, and creating new, better and better-protected jobs. 

If finance capital broadly benefits from an economy where industrial productivity is low and liquidity preference is high, such an industrial strategy represents a classic Keynesian challenge to the power of finance. The ability of such a government to implement its programme depends not only on its ability to avoid what is known as an "investment strike" (when capital refuses to invest because of high taxes), but also to sidestep the massive institutional power of finance capital in particular. The classical Keynesian programme can only be implemented where there is space for an alliance between so-called productive capitalists and the labour force against the "rentier."

Yet even here things are not as simple as they seem. Finance cannot be easily isolated from the "real" economy - especially in a context where much industry has itself been financialised (operating in markets without need of banks, financing themselves through own capital and generating much of its profit through financial transactions rather than through production itself). Corbynism's success would depend on its ability to attract rather than repulse existing financial markets, offering them a range of buy-offs in the form of a growth in different types of sovereign debt instruments with varied yields. Next, it would need to incentivise private investment through access to cheap but controlled credit. The biggest risk would not come from movements against the pound directly, which the government could weather, but sabotage and corruption in the state. Capital can be coaxed into investment; it will be harder to get it to abide by the government's terms.

The risks also intensify over the medium term. Corbyn is promising a basically Keynesian investment strategy, but as the economist Michal Kalecki observed, economics is not merely a technical art but a matter of conflicting political interests. If a government pursues a full employment model, redistributing wealth to the people, capital will oppose it not simply because it is objectively either "good" or "bad" economics, but because full employment is a de facto threat to capitalist power. Capital broadly understands full employment as leading to higher wages as labour shortages increase and the power of organised capital grows. Full employment and an active industrial policy reduce people's reliance on credit and act as a disincentive to finance. Low interest rates mean less cost for investment and inflation erodes the overall value of debt - both bad for finance. This is why moves by a Labour government to rebuild the productive sector - even if they don't tamper directly with the power of finance - will still be challenged by the financial sector. Whether or not Corbynism can work through these challenges depends not on the technical limits of the art of economics, but on politics. Will people be willing to fight the power of capital in the name - as Corbyn says - of "the many not the few?"

So to Brexit. It is taken as gospel by some on the centre-left that hard Brexit makes a radical left economic programme harder to achieve, at least in the short-term. But this is only true if hard Brexit is taken to mean exit in conditions close to - or identical to - WTO terms - or the famous "no deal." If the government is saddled with a huge Brexit bill whilst the pound is weakening against the euro, the government's power to borrow for investment will be significantly curtailed. The yield on British sovereign debt (gilts) is already increasing because of concern about Brexit, making it more expensive for the government to borrow to finance public spending. This could actually combine with asset sell-offs as the pound weakens, meaning both public and private assets see their values fall simultaneously in the context of Brexit. Once again, however, the greatest risk to an embattled government of the left would not actually come from a weakening currency or from capital movements or the increasing cost of public expenditure. All of these are admittedly objective strains, but bearable ones for a properly sovereign government (with power over its own currency). The point, however, is that under capitalism a government's sovereignty is always contested - between democratic, popular sovereignty and the sovereignty of markets. There are forces within and beyond the state that would place enormous political pressure on the government to relent on its programme and implement spending cuts.

In other words, the logic of Blairism dictates that Brexit will only hasten the inevitable failure of Corbynism. However narrowly ideological, Blairism points to real difficulties - both political and economic - for a left government. 

As Richard Seymour has argued elsewhere, Labour would lean towards a softer Brexit than the Tories not only because of its ideological reflexes, but because a worse deal would make implementing the Corbynite programme harder. As Seymour correctly argues, this is not simply a technical matter - about what markets will allow governments to do in given conditions - but a political matter related to what capital will let social democracy get away with. But Seymour doesn't articulate something crucial: a softer Brexit will form a central plank on Labour's pitch to finance. If there is another election, if Labour wins, if Labour negotiates Brexit, if there is a successful deal struck with Europe, and if the government can then survive long enough to implement at least some of its radical programme, it will be to some extent because Labour has successfully placated the financial sector by promising it the minimum possible change to its current status - a status built on the regulatory "efficiencies" built into British finance's integration into the EU.

But that's a lot of ifs. After all, finance capital could buy into Tory plans for a low-tax Britain. Indeed, if finance alone dictated political outcomes, that would be its preference. The point is Labour has to combine its democratic mandate with enough continuity to please just enough of the financial sector. 

How can it do this? If Keynes is right, then government policy which lowers real (not just central bank) interest rates while boosting investment opportunities will encourage investment as entrepreneurial spirits are excited and expectations about the future are improved. Investment demand will increase and the government will be in a position to coordinate it. The government's activities have a multiplier effect: as investment and consumer confidence rise, opportunities for further expansion open up in a virtuous circle. If Kalecki is right we are in a more complex world in which the struggle is not simply between economic rationality and ideological darkness, but between competing political interests. In Kalecki's world the government will have to fight bitterly to implement its programme against the will of global capitalist finance.

The image, peddled by Britain's right-wing press, of a monstrous European bureaucracy bent on scuppering the Chances of the plucky Brits, is clearly driven by dark fantasy, and yet illusions about an "honourable deal" (as Syriza used to call it) are problematic too. Labour should not kid itself that goodwill and openness can get round the German imperative to protect the EU in its current form at all costs. The British government will have to foot a huge bill, and a Labour government, determined to cause the minimum institutional dislocation, will be pilloried by the right if it maintains either single market access or membership (and with it freedom of movement). The costs for a Labour government are the worst of all possible worlds and the compensation only the slim promise of maybe implementing their social-democratic programme in unfavourable economic circumstances.

A few things can be done while Labour is still in opposition in terms of readying people for the battle ahead. First, activists in the wider movements should make the case for keeping some form of freedom of movement from the EU. The more we argue that FoM is "over" because of Brexit, the harder arguments about immigration will become. Labour may need to maintain FoM in any event in order to maintain single market access. Labour should argue - more strongly than it is - that a good Brexit deal won't prioritise immigration, but jobs. That means a deal which secures the British government the right to provide state aid to ailing industries, and to undertake nationalisation and other forms of public ownership currently made very difficult by the European treaties. It should argue for our sovereign right to take democratic control in areas of high economic priority for the public. It should also argue that only a good deal can prevent the strangulation of the British economy and the government by the power of capital. 

Finally, a word on why Labour should - contra ardent remainers who want to turn the tables on Brexit altogether - embrace our exit from the EU. First, there is the issue of the referendum. The democratic vote to leave was made and there is little public support for a reversal. Another referendum would see another victory for leave. Any attempt to reverse the decision would entrench public disillusionment with politics. Second, there is the not insignificant matter of the EU itself. If the British left has taken a pragmatic path regarding the EU in recent history, it is not because we have been converted to that organisation's virtues but only because the alternative was worse. Isolationism and protectionism are the answers of the far right, not the left. In the referendum many leftists - myself included - opted for pragmatic opposition to neoliberalism inside the EU rather than the phantasm of "left exit." In an ideal world that would still be my choice. But since that option has been foreclosed we have, in my opinion, no choice but to opt for international arrangements which resemble much of what we had as members whilst softening the EU's most neoliberal impositions on national government through our exit deal. While we should keep the basic requirements of the single market (and FoM), we should demand the right for a new role for government and democracy in the economy. The left argument for sovereignty - that global capital and its institutions should not ride roughshod over democracy - will be central to our vision for Britain outside of the EU.

If Brexit is unavoidable, then it is crucial we on the left think about the country we want outside of the EU. We do not wish to reverse globalisation or integration because of the inevitable economic chaos that would ensue, but nor do we wish to give a cartelised, neoliberal bureaucracy carte blanche over what industrial policy can be in the twenty-first century. Our Brexit deal will begin a real renewal of popular sovereignty, allowing social-democratic governments the right to implement radical reforms in the name of the people. It will take decades to gradually unwind the institutional architecture that sustains the gross inequalities of a global financial muses capitalism. Nor do we have a straight substitution for it in the form of a return to the postwar nation-state system. A left government in the UK won't be able to rewrite the rules of the global financial order over night. The first thing that needs to be done is to implement urgent social-democratic reforms to the domestic, productive economy whilst placating finance and the EU. While we cannot undo globalisation, we can reshape our relationship with it on a more egalitarian and ultimately democratic basis. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hipster Armageddon in Hamburg?

During last week's meeting of the G20 in Hamburg massive, organised protests spilled over into relatively severe violence over night, as shops were smashed and looted, cop cars and domestic vehicles set on fire, and running clashes took place between the police and the protestors.

According to reports, these riots may have been fairly spontaneous, a reaction to the police's heavy-handed tactics and an expression of sheer frustration that peaceful protests were harried and snubbed. The more reflective media reactions - especially from liberal papers outside of Germany - has involved some questioning of Merkel's decision to host the G20 in the famously radical city. It was almost as if she was asking for a showdown, the Guardian said. But within Germany these riots have been met with bafflement, melancholy and rage. It's been a while since Germany saw political violence on anything like this scale (Blocupy's anti-ECB protests in Frankfurt a couple of years ago representing a distant second). Germany is supposed to be placid, largely comfortable with Merkel's neoliberal rule and the economic ruination  of the policies she represents. This was nothing as compared with Genoa or Seattle, but the toll on the city is evident and no doubt traumatic for residents. The morning after the clashes saw the same peppy mass clean up mobilisations that Boris Johnson - broom in hand - hijacked in London after the riots in 2011.

Like those riots, there is a convenient scapegoat: the narcissistic urban hipster and anarcho-poseurs of the so-called Black Bloc. One image in particular - of a black-clad, bearded anarchist-bro shooting a selfie amid the smouldering ruins of other people's stuff - went viral. Whether the photo is real or not is beside the point: it says more about the consumer of such images than it does about the supposed culprit. Rather like the "sick", "feral" youth who looted in Britain in 2011, it reproduces people's prejudices for their own enjoyment. It allows people to both dread and mock the nihilistic, self-absorbed youth for whom destruction of property is just an opportunity for self-promotion on social media.

The Black Bloc is a convenient scapegoat for all of this. They fit a useful archetype: that of the pompous, pseudo-intellectual dude-bro who will pontificate on the abolition of private property whilst having equally strong preferences about the micro-foam on his organic flat white. It is a myth, of course, but like all myths it has an element of truth to it. What needs pointing out is the absurdity of the belief that these young men's narcissism is what causes riots. 

A word then in the Black Bloc's defence: they don't generally come to riot. If you've had proper fascists bearing down on you - not your Milos or some other pale alt-lighters but proper NF thugs charging at you - and the Black Bloc are the only guys who manage to intervene between you and them, you'll be happy they exist. They're not exclusively - perhaps not even majority - white and male. They are not a group as such, but rather black bloc is a style and practice of protest. It is dedicated, believe it or not, to community outreach. Win friends in the communities. Encourage big turnouts. Make the fascists feel small. I've been to Black Bloc training sessions and seen for myself the mix - yes, of egotism at times, but also heroic self-sacrifice and dedication. I don't agree with their politics but I'm almost always glad they're around. They'll defend other protesters from the police and the far-right alike.

You can readily question the politics of the Black Bloc - encased as it is in layers of autonomista anti-statism and horizontalism, generally opposed to any form of conventional political activity and believing the best form of struggle is always direct action against the vastly superior force of the police. Moreover, its endorsement of violence against private property ignores the fact that some private property belongs to people who should be on their side. That smashing up ordinary people's cars doesn't help to build a broad movement to oppose capitalism. It just makes them look like noisy pricks. Whatever you think of the system of private property, smashing up someone's car is not how you abolish it.

But the riots of last week cannot be reduced to the Black Bloc and nor should even they be caricatured simply as narcissistic millennials. The increasing militarisation of protest has led to regular upsurges in violence, as protesters attempting anything more than a passive A-to-B singalong get hounded by legions of armed officers with water cannon. 

People who had endorsed black bloc tactics were central to planning and initiating the peaceful project to occupy Zuccotti Park in New York and turn it into a festival of direct democracy during the era of Occupy Wall Street. But Occupy was violently suppressed and shut down for the crime of trying to make unjustly-privatised space available for peaceful, political deliberation. The lesson is obvious and oft repeated: power cedes nothing without a demand.

There is likely to be a lot more ugliness before the world gets any better. This is neither to endorse the violence or even to argue for a view of it as particularly useful politically. Rather, it is simply to argue that where a militarised state defends a hollowed out democracy, the confrontations with those who want change will inevitably be ugly. The organisational question is how to channel that energy into lasting institutions and real gains.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Three ways to understand fascism: as tendency, formula and style

Both centrists and leftists have eyed the Trump administration with a sense of disgust and horror, turning en masse to the ultimate political insult. Are the new populists of the hard right fascists in different clothing? There are three ways of answering the question from the left, each with its own limitations.

By far the most influential strand of left intellectual theory of fascism comes from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt school, an analysis that took as its immediate subject not the German state that had spawned the Nazi regime but the postwar, consumer society of the USA. It may seem deeply incongruous that this - the land of plenty and the pursuit of happiness - was the place which they took as their model for the emergence of potentially fascist political tendencies. Yet what drove the Frankfurt school's analysis were not the abstract models and ideal types of conventional sociology, but a negative dialectic by which "heroic" bourgeois individualism gave way - in consumer society - to a bland, anonymous authoritarianism which was latent in capitalist societies and tended towards fascism. The latter was, therefore, a tendency inherent to late capitalist consumer societies in which questions of truth were subservient to questions of power. In such conditions people's latent authoritarianism had an ever-present potential to be converted into fascism.

Yet we can't avoid here questions of conventional political science - which are basically those of abstract definition. We have to define authoritarianism' relationship to fascism.. Is authoritarianism some kind of proto- or pre-fascism, a somehow incomplete expression of its ultimate object? We are also asked to group the various strands of fascism - from its Italian origins to Nazism - into a typology. How do we distinguish ultra-nationalism from fascism or account for those forms of ultra-nationalism that never fully became fascist nor understood themselves to be fascist, even as they allied themselves with the Axis powers?

These are substantial, weighty questions, even if they would be anathema to Adorno et al. But the point is not to reach for perfectly abstractly-defined types only to step back and shake one's head when those distinctions break down in practice - when, say, a populist right winger adopts some of the style but not the whole substance of fascism. Rather it is to look at the concrete - that is, real world - development of political tendencies in their contexts.

As Dylan Riley has argued, the fascism of the 1920s and 1930s was in its own way a response to the economic and social modernisation of two laggard European states - Germany and Italy. It echoed in an extremely perverted way the great processes of political modernisation of the nineteenth century - in particular, the French Revolution. Fascism, Riley argues, had a tendency to depict itself as the authoritarian-democratic alternative to modern liberalism. What caused the radicalisation of the political right in these circumstances was - besides the economic crash - the existence of a powerful communist movement and the successes of the Soviet Union.

So fascism is radically opposed to liberal democracy, but it is not simply a violent form of anti-democratic reaction to it. It is also a complex form of political response to the economic, social and political crises of capitalist liberal democracy. What's missing today from the new hard right is not some conceptual element - say, the central role of Jews as an enemy of the people - but enabling conditions for its radicalisation into fascism. For Riley, the absence of an economically threatened agrarian producing class, the absence of millions of demobilised soldiers, and the absence of a powerful communist movement all militate against the emergence of full-blown fascism.

In this way we move away from the potentially reductive reading of fascism as a "tendency" - that is, both a political tendency within liberal democratic politics and as a situation towards which liberalism tends under late capitalism (or the weird formulation of a tendency towards a tendency). Fascism can be seen not only as a tendency but as a specific political formula which arose in specific historical circumstances. Its exact reoccurrence - fascism qua fascism - has all the likelihood of lightning striking twice. But that does not mean there aren't plenty of echoes of it.

The most pressing issue for political theorists today is to identify the defining characteristics of recent hard right "populists" without falling back on cliche or the tired idea that populists are simply illiberal fantasists unable to compromise with stark reality. These are the populists - whose opposition of a pure people to a corrupt elite resonates with fascism but also with many non-fascist movements - who have had such extraordinary success in the last few years and to whom many in the liberal and radical left refer when they talk about fascist tendencies today.

Beyond the right-populists who have seized power in the USA there are innumerable shock troops of the hard and extreme right, groups formed in the incessant churn of social media and occasionally bleeding out into real life as boots on the ground. Navigating this sea of pop/culture authoritarianism and violent ultra-nationalism, it is easy to pick out the specific resonances with Nazism. And indeed it sometimes even openly declares itself as such - as when Richard Spencer's mob hailed Trump with Nazi salutes. 

There is then a third way of understanding fascism: that is, as a political style, one that can be adopted and adapted, fed into discourses that oscillate between other political styles. Spencer characterised the swastikas at his rally as expressions of "a spirit of ironic exuberance." Here fascism is less a properly articulated, coherent political position than a set of resonances that can be worn semi-ironically and retracted just as easily - as accidental overspill, a moment of blind acquiescence. 

None of this should blind us to the extreme danger of the present political moment, however. Ultra nationalism in its many guises is sailing to electoral victory where it can most easily highlight the failings of liberalism. Just like fascism, the hard right counterposes a pure democratic will of the people to liberal elites. While it lacks some of the racial- genocidal intensity of fascism and Nazism especially, it is feeding off a broken political system. The grave danger it presents can only be met with a similarly radical politics of the left: a promise of renewed democratic participation for all in the future direction of society.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The general election results show how a Labour majority is possible

There has been general relief and celebration on the left about Labour's general election result. Labour narrowed a twenty point gap to three and scored its best general election result in almost two decades. Against overwhelming odds, the left fought back against the rising tide of a reunified right and it paid dividends. But most importantly, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour has shown how the party can build a path to a majority government very soon.

All this comes with very serious caveats (which will be discussed below), but at last we have the tantalising prospect of a Labour majority. What does that prospect rest on?

Firstly, Labour has a large, young, enthusiastic base  - and demographically speaking it's set to expand. Almost thirteen million people turned out to vote for Labour. Not much lay between Labour and the Tories in vote share (only 2.5-3%). Huge turnout among the young indicates a positive showing for Labour in future.

Labour won some southern and southeastern seats outside of London and turned some - like Hasting for Amber Rudd - into tight marginals. The south of England was previously desolate terrain for Labour and it still looks challenging. But many more seats than anyone had predicted will be competitive come the next election. 

Equally important, Labour showed it can bring back UKIP voters from brink of Toryism with a populist economic message and prevent collapse in Wales. The vast majority of UKIP voters went blue last week, but Labour only needs a relatively small swing among these voters for a Tory collapse to become a real prospect. 

Slower is progress in Scotland - but when Labour looks likely to form a government, support in Scotland will grow (as it did in this campaign). The better Labour looks in England and Wales, the more distant the prospect of independence, the more Scottish voters will come back to Labour. Basically, Labour has to win the social-democratic, unionist vote back from the Tories and the SNP. Labour has to win several more seats north of the border - but far fewer than originally thought.

The basic lessons are twofold: maintain the high levels of turnout in urban, young, densely-populated areas and win over more cautious, conservative voters in less urban areas with an economic populist message. Corbyn has proved he is the candidate for both jobs. If an election takes place in the next twelve months, there's every reason to believe a radical-left Labour Party can win it. Let that sink in. Nothing like it will ever have happened before in western politics.

Now the caveats: the Tories would have scored a landslide this election if it hadn't been for the energetic campaign fought by literally tens of thousands of activists of the left. The right has consolidated within the Tory party. The deep strain of reaction in British politics is organised and angry. Their impending, crushing victory was only narrowly averted by our great efforts.The right could yet rally behind a nationalist Brexit and a hard-right, anti-immigrant platform supported by all the major tabloids and vicious Tory government intent on saving itself.

Labour could also fall back if Corbyn and the Labour leadership aren't able to pull forward on a radical platform. The manifesto was perfectly attuned to 2017 - but the party itself is full of weaknesses. The Parliamentary Labour Party is still very right wing and, at the same time, uncomfortable with any change to the status quo. Corbyn needs to be clear that Brexit is going ahead, that the plan to rebuild the country is independent of the Brexit negotiations, and that there is no room in the party for anti-migrant xenophobia.

The danger is great - but only because we have never been so close to victory. There are very few who doubt that a Labour majority government is now possible. The way to make it possible is to sustain the enthusiasm of the 2017 election campaign - channel it into anti-Trumpism, anti-racism, unity and solidarity against austerity, and campaigning for a clear Brexit programme which is good for workers of all backgrounds. 

In the next twelve months we can have a Labour government - and a social majority for a socialist manifesto. 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Doorstepping: Is it Really Worth It?

The Labour doorstep is a hallowed thing among Party activists and it's long been rumoured that Corbyn supporters don't bother with it. To be fair, it's often not an enthralling thing.

You meet somewhere in a huddle, get very briefly briefed, and led briskly around a few streets, gamely knocking on doors, and often unwarmly met (if at all) by suspicious residents. And normally the best you can expect is to have a nod and a "Yeah, I'm Labour, don't worry."

The worst aren't even the hostiles, who normally have means of shooing you off, on four legs and with bared teeth. That prize is reserved for a particular type of enthusiast who comes armed with enemy literature and rails against the sundry deceptions of the local Greens. Or at least that's the case in the Labour seat of Oxford East.

My doorstepping days only go back to the era of Milifandom and bacon sandwiches. Back then it was all about stopping Nigel Farage in Thanet. Now, in Oxford, the local MP is standing down. There's no candidate yet to replace him but it's safe to say the Lib Dems will gunning to unseat his successor. The Lib Dems almost snatched it off Labour in the weird days of Cleggmania and with their recent surge in Remain towns can count on a huge number of Labour waverers swapping sides. For the first time in my life I'm doorstepping where it officially, definitely Matters. Where getting out the Labour vote, and persuading reluctant voters, is the difference between having a Labour MP and not having one.

I almost didn't go. It's unseasonably cold and there have been blasts of icy rain all week. But it got to five, I shut up work, and traipsed off into the hostile climate.

Ten of us met at Cowley Road Tesco and buzzed diligently around Princes Street, receiving our orders from serious young men with clipboards (serious young men are a common sight in Oxford, but these have an additional sense of purpose). The best I had were a few startled students and shy nods. A man gave me a ten minute standing lecture on Herbert Morrison's "big mouth" - apparently still reverberating in this man's head all the way from the 1950s.

My final call as it reached seven o'clock was a tidy terrace near the start of Headington. A nice woman answered and looked relieved that I wasn't one of the local Labour councillors who she knows by name. "Didn't want to have to tell her..." she said, trailing off with a faint chuckle.

She continued more firmly: "I'm more or less Labour in the locals. I always vote. Never voted Tory before..."

My eyes obviously told a story.

She hesitated, "But I just like Theresa May."

I mock-fainted. "No, don't say that!"

"I just think she's done quite well with this whole in out thing."

She seemed curious about me. "You all know more than me, you do your research.  We just get it from the telly. What do you think?"

I thought about my answer and said, "Well, I think you can't trust her. She was Remain, now she's Brexit. She wasn't going to have an election, now there is one. I think she's very well protected by her rich friends."

She worked in a school, she said. And she knew Labour was for families and hospitals and schools. "But I'm leaning towards her just because I think she's doing well."

And then the dreaded moment happened. The question that haunts doorstepping veterans across the land. "And what do you think of that..." she paused, as if the name might upset me. "...Jeremy Corbyn?"

So I took a small breath and said carefully, "To be honest, from the bottom of my heart, I think he'd make a fantastic prime minister. He's unflappable. All the attacks he's been under, he's never once lost his cool. He's principled and his heart is in the right place. And he's spent his whole life fighting for us - for schools and hospitals. And all the things we need. He's never turned his back on anyone and he's never bowed to the pressure. I think he'd be great."

We spoke for a few more minutes and I asked her, when the day came, to bear us in mind. And I promised her that now there was an election, she might see a different side to him.

"Yeah, I'm going to look more closely. I know the cuts and everything. And I'm going to see."

And that was it. She was Tory when I arrived and still Tory when I left, if a little more open and certainly happy to have talked about it. That conversation won't be the end. She'll be thinking about it as she watches the news the next few weeks. It's up to everyone now to persuade her that we need an Oxford East Labour MP and - above all - we need a Labour government.

I waved goodbye to her and her daughter (who had crept curiously round the door but kept being pushed back inside). I genuinely hoped she would come round. There isn't much time.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Corbyn or Bust

Labour members must make an asset of their unconventional leader

As unlikely as it sounds, Labour members must finally make an asset of Jeremy Corbyn and they have no more than a few weeks to do it.

Not one member of the Labour Party, nor its MPs, nor anyone on the broader left or in the Labour-supporting public wanted an election right now. So for once, in a strange way, we're united. The polls point to a catastrophe for the left and Labour in particular. No doubt that's why we've got this election - despite everything Theresa May has said to the contrary. 

But another election is less than eight weeks away and the potential results are stomach churning. There is a grizzly effectiveness to the Tories' realpolitik. They've calculated that they won't be stronger at any other point in the electoral cycle, and have done what electoral logic demands. 

So we need to be equally calculating. Labour can't win a majority - under this or any other leader. Brexit has shifted the landscape - already deeply unfavourable to social democracy - towards the right. Scotland was already gone. In these conditions we need to urgently prioritise - identifying regions where we can win and concentrating our efforts there. The north of England, London, and Wales. 

Yet even in those places we face a massive challenge. Years of neglect have whittled down Labour's vote in the north. The breakup of Britain threatens Labour's identity as a national party. Even in left-leaning London, a low turnout and resurgent Lib Dems pose problems. 

Labour's message should prioritise unprecedented investment in the north. Jeremy Corbyn's promise to invest half a trillion pounds in new job-creating industries is a powerful message in a climate where -mercifully - the debt and deficit are less of a focus. Labour must also promise a more inclusive, more open society to win in the liberal big cities. Labour's message under Corbyn has been the tangible promise to "rebuild and transform Britain so that no one and no community is left behind." I'm still convinced this is a winning slogan - backed up by sound policies that are popular.

To gain ground, even to tread water, in this election, will take the entire progressive half of this country to accept Corbynism's key tenets - even if it still doubts the messenger.

But more than this, the whole of the left will have to unite around Corbyn in particular. This is a view which is anathema to many - both more liberal, pro-EU types and the anti-borders, extra-parliamentary left. 

Why is it worth supporting the apparently doomed project of Corbyn's leadership - even for those who do not think he has done well or feel betrayed over Brexit?

The simple answer is that the country is open to a radical break with the politics of the last five, ten, even thirty years. Liberals cannot win with the status quo. Radicals cannot win by backing out of electoral politics. Right now, Corbyn is the only hope for progressives to maintain a serious presence in British politics.

Corbyn offers the progressive sections of society something important: a way forward. He is not a conventional politician. He is a lifelong enemy of Westminster elites. He also has distinct political virtues: he is unflappable, cool under pressure and an uncompromised advocate of equality. When I vote for Jeremy Corbyn, I'll do so with the belief that he would make an excellent prime minister.

I want to see things from the Labour leadership too: clearer, more radical positions on the future of British society. An insurgent, passionate mood and a way of acting which defies the dull conventions of Westminster politics. The promise of a democratic transformation of our rigged political system, our unfair society, and our economy which generates inequality. More effective communication.

But these things can only be communicated by us - the Labour movement at large and everyone who opposes the rightward drift of British society. Consider it your duty to help that process.

If Corbyn goes through this election tarnished as a liability by even those who sympathise with his politics, then his politics will die with the election. I believe Corbyn could deliver the change he promises if he were elected. More importantly, I believe utterly in the politics that made him Labour leader. I want that politics to survive this election - and if Corbyn's leadership becomes just another sad side story in Britain's march to the right, it will further damage that politics.

So here's what we say on the doorstep and at work and at home and in pubs and on social media when people say they don't like Corbyn: he's a lifelong supporter of people like you and me. He's campaigned for things that benefited you and me his entire political life. He's not in it for power. He's in it for us.

The political symbolism of Corbyn being crushed will resonate far beyond June. It will affect discourse in this country for years. We need to stand up and say - for any strategic mistakes the inexperienced leadership has made - this guy is one of us. He represents the best side of this country. 

It's precisely because the left has to outlive Corbyn and establish itself as a powerful, organised and influential part of society - campaigning against racism, inequality, war, and the wasted lives created by an unjust system - that it's so important not only to vote Labour but to cheer Corbyn all the way.