Saturday, 19 December 2015

Podemos: Party and Movement

The thing about Podemos is whatever they do, they face intractable difficulties. Podemos, whether it likes it or not, now personifies the set of contradictions that haunt the radical left's wavering voice in Europe. That voice is split between party and movement, personality and plurality, elections and protest, 'mediatic' leadership and grassroots activism. In a surprising twist, it has turned out that the bottom layer - the activists - are everywhere far more radical, demanding and expectant than the party leaders. So much for the Leninist avant garde! Iglesias, Podemos' general secretary, has staked everything on winning elections - to promptly, and with Keatonesque pathos, lose them. 

Around the time Syriza was failing to deliver any of its non-negotiable election promises, party officials were wont to moan about the absent masses. If only the people were on the streets, they said, we'd be winning. Then, with the referendum, the people overwhelmed the party with the some of the largest street demonstrations in Greek history. Shell-shocked by the show of popular force, Syriza promptly threw in the towel. 

However much Podemos may want to distance themselves from Syriza's initial defiance, these are the hopes they carry. It was not Syriza's failure that started Podemos's slippage in the polls, but their embrace of that failure. Iglesias hastily congratulated Tsipras on his capitulation to Europe. A new willingness followed, on Podemos' part, to publicly embrace army and state officials. Iglesias is convinced that winning an election will, by dispelling the myth of ultra-leftism, also win Podemos a hearing with the masses. But the masses have been listening all along. The failure is not with the people, but with the organised left's inability to properly articulate, in electoral terms, its desires.

This is not entirely the fault of Podemos - after all, theirs is an electoral strategy in a context that systematically denies effective power to elected governments. Syriza was the crest of a new left wave that had oriented itself towards elections at a time when election victories meant very little. People understood how little Syriza's January victory would mean. This much is evident from Paul Mason's documentary #ThisIsACoup. People had few illusions about Syriza's ability to beat the European powers. What was really missing was a dynamic link - a dialectical understanding - between the Party and the People. 

This is where Podemos too is failing. Since the beginning of the year Podemos' grassroots - organised into "circulos" - have attempted to reassert themselves in the power structures of the increasingly conventional Party central organs. Iglesias has resisted. Why? The conventional answer - the signs of an emergent megalomania - is too easy. Iglesias has a strategy based on a clear-sighted analysis of the Spanish state (one that, at least rhetorically, tends to neglect the distinction between state and civil society). The "Podemos hypothesis", as Iglesias called it in the New Left Review, was that a popular intervention in the crooked Spanish political system had been made possible since 2011. 

Iglesias was clear that a "regime crisis", not a conventional, far-teaching Gramscian "organic crisis" was gripping Spain. This separation is more than a syntactical expedient, but rather informs the whole response of Podemos to the crisis. In Iglesias' reading, the regime crisis is purely discursive, ripe for intervention at the level of political symbols rather than raw disruptive power. Podemos speaks of restoration rather than transformation; it stages spectacular media set pieces, with the perhaps unanticipated result of a relative decline in street activism. 

Insofar as the crisis has seen a widespread disgust in conventional politics reach a crescendo, Iglesias is right to emphasise the potential uses of the media. But of course the media - at first curious and baffled by the Podemos representatives who showed up on their talk shows - are channelling an anti-Podemos backlash. Without a deepening of Podemos' relationship to the popular movements it surely faces burnout. 

The easy answer to the question of party or movement - "yes to both" - is running into the tangled web of state, civil society, and media. There is no model answer as to how to manage the balance between the party and the movements. Podemos' and Spain's grappling with this problem is bound to be compelling. Whether it can produce victories is an open question. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Radical Right and the Crisis in Europe

Throughout Europe the stakes could not be higher. In every corner of the continent - from its historic core to its long-suffering peripheries - underlying conflicts are resolving themselves into a full-blown political crisis.

What are the roots of this crisis? First, the European social model has withered beneath its leaders' feet. Second, the political consensus around integration has collapsed. To understand why this has happened, readers could do far worse than consult the ongoing debate between Germany's preeminent sociologists, Wolfgang Streeck and Jurgen Habermas. Here we only have space to simplify grossly: a kind of evolutionary institutional change has driven out once and for all the old idea of a social Europe, and its replacement - liberal, transnational, capital-favouring - has failed to produce a satisfactory social consensus which might compensate for the loss of the postwar settlement.

In terms of political forces, conventional wisdom has long held that there were clear winners and losers from this process: the old, nationalist left and right lost; the adaptable social and market liberals won. Yet as the social crisis impinges on high politics, that analysis is looking increasingly shallow.

First, social democracy - both in its traditional and in its Blairite forms - has been utterly eviscerated and defeated. In the early nineties the sociologist Michael Mann warned, "Unless socialists raise their eyes from the nation-state, they will have nothing to offer voters." Yet social democrats embraced a multi-national Europe and a transnational capitalism, and collapsed for precisely that reason. Secondly, the traditional centre-right is sharply divided between free market capitalism and national protectionism. This is true not only in eurosceptic Britain, but also - perhaps especially - in countries like Greece and Spain, which entered the European Monetary Union only to crash and burn after 2010.

Finally, the rise of the new radical right, which began in Europe's core countries of the Netherlands, Austria and France, has spread like wildfire into those peripheral states which staked most on EU accession and have often suffered most because of it. The speed of the radical right's electoral gains are unlike anything seen in Europe since the rise of fascism and the authoritarian right in the 1930s: Hungary is dominated by both a hard right and an extreme right party; Poland has elected a party of pronounced right-wing and authoritarian tendencies; Golden Dawn has consistently increased its vote share in Greece; the Front National is perhaps the second party in France after recent regional elections. The list of European municipalities with far-right, xenophobic governments goes on and on - from Austria to Denmark to Britain. Germany, the beating heart of Europe's bad conscience about fascism, has even seen the rise of a nationalist, anti-Islamic group, Pegida. Their stock in trade is anti-Islamic violence. Little can be said of its causes here, save that its pan-European character must originate in pan-European problems, most likely the demands for an enclosure of national sovereignty in the face of a system that has taken to punishing any display of autonomous decision taking by member states. The mechanisms of integration, the social dispensation, the interaction between national democracy and transnational regulation have all broken down. The breadth of these radical-right victories is unprecedented since the Second World War. The danger is not to be underestimated.

All traditional political forces in Europe have ignored this crisis, preferring to side with the rising right and blame our problems on incoming migrants and refugees. Only the radial left has shown any understanding of this crisis. Yet even on the left the strategy for fighting back has been pathetically weak. Some on what remains of the radical end of social democracy have understood that the crisis is not a result of refugees but of the breakdown of a social and political order that shows little evidence of producing anything new. Yet the response is dismal. "We must learn to speak the language of ordinary people again," we are told. It is not how politicians speak, but rather what they represent that is being rejected: an unresponsive, distant, detached elite. In short, the entire political system. 

Walter Benjamin wrote that behind every fascism is a failed revolution, but this is not quite true. Behind every fascism is a failed politics. The far right is offering Europeans a bleak, but so far the only, solution to the political and social void left by global disorder, economic turbulence, and the end of the postwar era.

In this sense, the collapse of the left and the rise of the right are indeed connected. But we massively underestimate the scale of the problem if we assume a direct cause. This is about more than the left's own, internal failure. The success of the Front National in working class regions in France is proof positive of the end of old school social democracy and the absence of any progressive alternative. Yet defeating the right will involve far more than a change of tone or an appeal to people's better nature made through the old political channels, as it is precisely these old political channels - republicanism, democracy, social welfarism, federal or intergovernmental Europeanism - which have ceased to function.

The best evidence of this can be found in the careers of Europe's recent radical-left parties. Phenomenal success in Southern Europe - in Greece, Spain, and lately Portugal - has been followed by equally impressive retreat. This is because those parties have pursued electoral strategies which demand reforms from political systems incapable of permitting them. Even in Britain the assumption among Corbynistas is that the state will allow them to enact reforms if Labour is elected on a serious but modest platform. It doesn't enter anyone's head that the national state may currently be incapable of implementing their reforms. It is not that the nation state will not enact social democratic reforms, but that in the era of global capitalism it cannot. The various levels of official democracy - from the number of votes cast to the power of government itself - have crumpled in on themselves.

The great challenge will be to root radical movements deep in society, far beyond the state and its dependence on global finance. This could take a generation, certainly far more than an electoral victory alone. An intense degree of social mobilisation will be necessary for even the slightest social reforms to be implemented today. The weakness of Syriza, Podemos and Left Block is their lack of deep roots in organised social movements and their reluctance to call on those movements once in power. They have sought to gain legitimacy in the eyes of political systems which themselves lack any legitimacy in the eyes of voters. 

This may seem unrealistic, but it is a safer bet than the fantasies of so-called moderate social democrats. They now advocate tacking hard to the right, accepting anti-immigrant xenophobia, and proposing only the mildest curbs on the freedom of capital. The results will be the same as they have been across Europe: failure to win an audience on immigration; failure to regulate capital; collapse in the polls. France, the political heart of Europe, provides the best evidence of this doomed-to-fail moderation: Francois Hollande offered to soften austerity, yet under him it has only got worse. After five short years in power, the Socialist Party faces total wipeout. Its support has collapsed as the Front National's has risen. 

These pleas for moderation fail because they ignore the deep crisis of democracy across Europe. So far that crisis has fuelled the rise of the far right. Only the radical left can rebuild democracy from the grassroots up.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

How to Be a Conservative Intellectual, or: The Truth in Roger Scruton

The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton is an engaging character. His public appearances reveal a likeable patrician charm. He is also very much a product of the academic age, as comfortable debating theology with Terry Eagleton as he is discussing moral degeneracy on right-wing cable news. 

Scruton is an avid, if polemical, reader and critic of the left. His great enemy is the perceived divisiveness and "ressentiment" of social and cultural "egalitarians", whose projects wreak havoc on the traditional values of the home. His book 'How to Be a Conservative' is structured as a series of short inquiries into the truth in various ideas - capitalism, socialism, environmentalism - which preoccupy the modern world but are, in his eyes, loaded with misconceptions. In his Socratic wisdom, a kernel of truth is excavated from each idea's accumulated follies. Not so much a rejection of the enlightenment, but a turning of its tools against itself. 

The very mannered, English climax is a defence of conservatism, defined by its love of the sacred things it finds in a flawed world. "Conservatism is the philosophy of attachment. We are attached to the things we love, and wish to protect them against decay. But we know that they cannot last forever." This pessimism, found throughout Anglo-Saxon philosophy, is pitched particularly high in its conservative politics. There is a hard-to-define accord between the scepticism of Anglo-Saxon philosophy and its rigidly conservative high politics. Conservative thinkers as varied as Burke, Michael Oakeshott and John Gray have built whole political philosophies out of this scepticism, attaching a deep moral pessimism to its epistemological tenets. 

Naturally this pessimism extends to the "deep psychology of the human person", which conservatism takes as its basis. The question of human nature, though, is not whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about it, but whether to elevate its obvious limitations into an ethical imperative not to engage in collective political action, as collectivism implies surrender to irrational impulses. It is not uncommon for conservatives to invoke the name of Immanuel Kant in this connection, though Scruton prefers Hegel when it comes to it. "The process whereby human beings acquire their freedom also builds their attachments," he says approvingly. We are limited in our loyalties - restricted to our immediate 'oikos' - and so political ambition should be similarly modest. 

Although Scruton may like Hegel, he owes more to David Hume. It was Hume who, while valuing reason, felt that "custom" was the "great guide of human life." Scruton also values reason, but feels most people are incapable of being guided by it most of the time. In Hume's case, scepticism regarding abstract rationality led to the conservative political conclusion that good sense was guided by experience and history. Against rationalists and utilitarians, the conservatives would argue that existing arrangements might be good or useful precisely because they had endured great lengths of historical time. Hume, satisfied with the utility of great institutions, was then put off by the conflictual stuff of party or "factional" politics. Tradition, custom, sentiment, and the build-up of good institutions could keep the civil balance. Democracy was, even at this early stage, an "enthusiastic" extravagance.

Scruton's adaptation of his various sources is endearingly personal, based as it is in the first person: "Common-law justice spoke to me of a community built from below, through the guarantee offered by the courts to all who came before them with clean hands. The vision stayed with me thereafter as a narrative of home." This feeling for individual rootedness makes no bones about its rejection of universalism."To be conservative ... is to prefer the familiar to the unknown," Oakeshott wrote. Political localism follows, as in Scruton's vision of how "we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies and hierarchies", from the (state-run?) libraries to the inevitable cricket clubs. The equally civic, communitarian hierarchy of the madrasas does not get a look in. Oakeshott's opposition of universitas (enterprise association) to societas (civil association), the goal-oriented and the organic, quietly plays itself out across Scruton's book. Home - the oikos - is developed from below, spontaneously and organically, without an organising principle. Scruton finds in English common law the accumulated outcome of this spontaneous activity. As with all true conservatives, the best sort of society just happens to be Scruton's own. 

It is on these grounds of civic localism and community bonding that Scruton rejects the great contract theories of modern philosophy, insisting that some pre-political ur-we underwrite the social contract if it is to succeed: "Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance - in something like the way people identify themselves with a family - the politics will not emerge." Here he criticises multiculturalism on the grounds that it negates the majority culture in deference to that of the minority. "Political order, in short requires cultural unity, something that politics itself can never provide." There are multiple ironies here. Scruton cites Mill's phrase the "tyranny of the majority" whilst neglecting the fact that those most threatened by majorities are precisely the immigrants who, he alleges, refuse to adapt to "our ways". How could there be any defence of the majority culture from minority interests without broad state-backed coercion? His defence of some imagined, static majority culture would contradict his conservative love of the organic and the spontaneous results of civil association. In other words, civil association is great as long as it is his kind of civil association. 

Multiculturalism does not mandate the erasure of majority cultures but rather seeks the interaction of multiple cultures and, through that interaction, their mutual enrichment. How on Earth to define British majority culture without its historical minorities - from the Scots, to the Celts, to West Indian communities? Scruton rejects fascistic concepts of national purity; yet his forcible defence of a single, unified British identity would obliterate all that he loves in British culture.

Scruton's oikophilia throws up other problems as he elaborates on the content of the enlightened values we get from Western civilisation. The central problem is in his concept of cultural possession. What is western culture really and who is the "we" laying claim to it? He says, "It is not arbitrary cultural imperialism that leads us to value Greek philosophy and literature, the Hebrew Bible, Roman law, and the medieval epics and romances." No indeed, it is not. For western culture, insofar as such a thing has some internal unity, is decidedly mongrel. It is defined by cross-pollination of sub-cultures, each of which, in the bigger picture, belongs to a minority. He goes on: "[The classics] are ours, in just the way that the legal order and the political institutions are ours: they form part of what made us, and convey the message that it is right to be what we are." What would it mean, in effect, for Britain or even modern Greece to claim ownership of Classical Hellenic literature? More disturbingly, what would it mean for modern Germany to declare the Jewish Torah "ours", part of "our" heritage, proof of who "we" are? Who is this "we" Scruton seeks to construct (for it is, despite his claim to the contrary, plainly a political construction), and what are the implications for those who are not or are no longer part of this "we"?

In Scruton's telling, the culture of the enlightenment is a shared inheritance: "This kaleidoscopic culture [of Europe] is still one thing, with a set of inviolable principles at its core" - a fixed thing, guaranteed in law, to which new arrivals must submit. Until actual European law is less alienating for those under it, we must remain agnostic about Europe's cultural unity (unless of course its unity consists in the shared barbarism of fascism and imperialism). 

Scruton recycles Isiah Berlin's distinction between positive and negative freedom in his opposition of  "freedom rights", which veto what one can do to another or take from them, to "claim rights," which demand actions be made by others or possessions relinquished by them. These "freedom rights" - the right to be left alone - are expressed in the type of laws which permit a free market. Conservatives, Scruton tells us, are in a position to favour the free market because markets are spontaneous achievements of uncoordinated action (no ink is spilled on the often violent making of markets by states). So freedom rights (which have a Bushian cadence, somewhat in the lyrical vein of "freedom fries") are the legal expression of an organic, accumulated order. This is not quite the market of simple, rational self-interest, of Homo oeconomicus, but that of Friedrich Hayek's "catallaxy": a spontaneous order of mutually interacting and self-adjusting markets; an gift from one generation to the next.

Among Scruton's freedom rights - those we preserve intact simply by minding our own business - is the apparently uncomplicated issue of going where one pleases, "my right to move freely from place to place." Except Scruton is ready to revoke such a right where it intrudes on the "cultural unity" of whatever territory a stranger wanders into. Scruton would, it seems, claim freedom of movement for his own, apparently benign purposes, whilst revoking it for others. In reality there are no such things as rights which do not make some kind of claim on others, and in practice any system of rights will require balancing the claims of different groups.

Scruton's straw men are omnipresent "egalitarians" who base their theory of justice on minority claims made against a supposedly privileged majority. He sees in their desire for redistribution a "zero-sum fallacy" in which the gains of the privileged are perceived as thefts from the disadvantaged which must be legislated against. Marxism, he argues, is the philosophical apex of this ressentiment, a political economy centred on the notion of "surplus value", the wealth stolen from workers by capitalists. The pursuit of equality is the abiding goal; the centralised, bureaucratic state the supposed mechanism for achieving it.

Yet, as analysed by Marxism, capitalism is more than a vast engine for generating inequalities. As Marx acknowledged capitalism is a great leveller of ancient social rank, in which "all that is solid melts into air." Surplus value is not simply the transfer of the value produced by the working masses to the possession of the owning class. Instead surplus value provides the key structural pivot in explaining how capitalism as a social system is reproduced without collapsing on itself. By reinvesting part of the accumulated capital in improvements and new techniques, the cycle of capital can proceed on an expanded basis. Some amount of this reinvested capital finds its way into society in the form of greater wages given over for consumption. Marx's theory of capital is not really about inequality but about the social and legal nature of ownership, power and control - it concerns questions of who exercises power in society. Despite the economic form, then, Marxism is a political theory of justice and democracy. It is as sharply critical of the state as the overarching coordinator of the power of capital as it is of the market. Socialism is not about redistribution via the state but about democratising both the market and the state. Today the state and the market elude popular controls - and nowhere do these two combine more systematically than in the European Union, which is rightly criticised by Scruton and other conservatives.

In a neat twist to all this, Hayekian conservatism's grand prize has been the neoliberal turn of international institutions since the 1980s. Despite conservative protests to the contrary, no market-oriented order in the world more closely resembles Hayek's daydreams of a constitutional order safely elevated above the whims of public choice, than the hated European Union. With the smallest bureaucracy in the world and practically no internal democratic initiative, the European Union presides over a coagulation of markets sapped of political life. That conservatives do not like the result hardly effaces the similarity.

The larger point is this: Scruton's political philosophy results in the erasure of politics proper from public life. His hatred of the state is not fully a hatred - after all, he would have it police sexuality and migrant populations. It is not the big state he dislikes but its intrusion on those like him - the famous "we" of his political imagination. Scruton celebrates Classical Greece but is quite uncomfortable with the agonism - the struggle or contest of ideas - characteristic of its democracy. The "we" he constructs results in a conformity every bit as dull as the Communism he despises. It is hard to escape the feeling he doesn't really like democracy because it involves people noisily disagreeing with his prejudices. In his utopia, the raw stuff of politics - disagreement, dissent, dissensus - is abolished in the name of good manners. To this suffocating primness a sharp retort is necessary: true politics depends on collective struggle.



Saturday, 5 December 2015

Hilary, Tony and the "Family Row"

Tony Benn once said that arguments within the Labour Party were really "family rows." In the last week various accusations have been made about Tony Benn's son Hilary and the precise familial response his intervention in the Syria debate would have provoked in the old man. The likely answer is virtually none. Yet the elder Benn's remark, and indeed his attitude to Labour and reformist "rows" more generally, belong to an increasingly distant time. 

But that is, for the moment, beside the point. Hilary Benn's speech in the Commons in favour of air strikes in Syria - pointedly delivered to his Party's benches - was, however much you may disagree with it, in a very real Labour tradition. I disagree profoundly, for what it's worth, with his definition of internationalism and the uses he makes of it. Internationalism has a chequered history, its allegiance and its meaning shifting sides, at one time the preserve of "cosmopolitan" traders and artisans, later the watchword of otherwise national working class movements in the Second International, recently the intellectual blackmail of global capital against the nationalised welfare state. If it is to mean anything for socialists today, internationalism must be an argument for international peace and solidarity. 

Hilary Benn described internationalism as a moral commitment - "to never walk by on the other side" in the face of suffering. But to characterise an international bombing campaign in a primarily civilian area as an act of compassion is a gross distortion. To compare the campaign in Syria with the Red Brigades in Spain and the struggle against Nazism in Europe betrays the legacies of the many thousands of resistance fighters and the millions of innocent victims in those struggles. Of course, in the circumstances, the defence of the Spanish Republic from Fascism and later the fight against Hitler in Europe were the only right response. Syria is very different and to try to shrug off those historical differences is a form of emotional blackmail.

However, Benn's speech was not a betrayal of his father any more than it was a betrayal of the Labour Party. Labour has always been a militarist party. This is one fact about it that puts off many on the left. Its notion of internationalism has always been bound up with the right of the British state to pursue apparently noble ends via military means. It sees liberation where many see just the disastrous consequences of western militarism. Labour reformism can at times be peaceable but it clearly has a militarist and pro-imperialist aspect.

Tony Benn, who was a lifelong Labour member and an MP for most of his life after 1950 could not but have been aware, and even comfortable with, this militarism. He was a firebrand, fiercely anti-war, and yet devoted to Labour. He did not support Labour's imperial adventurism - especially under Tony Blair - but nor did he ever quit. Benn understood that Parties are complicated beasts, and that Labour contained multitudes. Moreover its deep commitment to the enduring ideology of reformism meant it could weather these storms. Benn may have been right that Labour could weather his own stormy protests. But it could not move structurally or permanently to the left. 

Hilary and Tony Benn were, by all accounts, very close. Tony Benn was surrounded his whole political life with colleagues - comrades - with whom he profoundly disagreed. He would not have been "ashamed" of his son any more than of colleagues he rebelled against in the past. The expectation that this would be the case tells us something about where Labour stands today.

There is nothing historically surprising about the differences that currently exist within the Labour Party. What is telling is how uncontainable these differences have become in the twilight of social democracy and the ideology of reformism. When this fight within the Labour Party is over, the Labour Party may no longer be recognisable as its old, reformist self, one way or the other.