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Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria

26 Aug

The murder of an anti-fascist protestor (and the less-noted deaths of two National Guardsmen) at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has gripped the United States and many observers elsewhere. It has revived claims about the rise of a “fascist” threat in the West. This is simply hysterical, and symbolises the US left’s incapacity for reasoned political analysis, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

The most striking aspect of the left’s hysteria over Charlottesville is its failure to understand that it won the US culture wars, not the right. By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009, suggesting that campaigners for equal rights now find themselves kicking at a largely open door. The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”, while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.

The rise of the “alt-right” does not signify some grave reversal of this trend, requiring massive societal mobilisation to counter it, but a rather sad, ineffectual backlash from the side that has already lost. The fact that the “Unite the Right” rally managed to draw only 500 protestors from across the entire US (population: 323 million) speaks volumes. A “free speech rally” in Boston a few days later drew only about 100 attendees, whereas the counter-protestors numbered around 40,000, with smaller counter-protests in many other US cities. The situation is identical in Britain, where far-right rallies typically draw crowds of one or two dozen, dwarfed by “antifa” counter-protestors (and the police). Trump’s mealy-mouthed, inconsistent criticisms of “both sides” are profoundly out of step with wider social attitudes, reflected in his total isolation even amongst Republican leaders and military chiefs.

The left is hardly alone in profoundly misreading this situation – the Western media have also responded with a flame-fanning hysteria as part of its relentless campaign against Trump.

But the left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.

Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven “privilege” of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks “implicitly” in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on “privileged” groups – notably “cisgender” white men – and a politics of “calling out” prejudicial behaviour. That “whiteness” masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor “white” category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of “wokeness”, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.

The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace “whiteness” not as a spur for shame and “wokeness”, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming “black lives matter” and “white lives matter” at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the “alt-right” are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting “dank memes” from their parents’ basements.

That these losers are now depicted as a serious threat to democracy reflects a twofold deficit on the identitarian left. The first is its failure to bring much of the American working classes with it. The loudest practitioners of identity politics are (privileged) students on university campuses, not fast food or factory workers. The left’s growing divorce from material considerations, and the self-flagellation demanded from millions of impoverished whites, has left most people baffled or cold. Attempts to build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of material interests have often faced outright hostility from identitarians. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was derided for its “race problem”, while Bernie Sanders’ attempts to mobilise the “99 percent” met denunciations for his (mostly mythical) misogynistic “Bernie Bros” and for neglecting black people. Tellingly, the identitarian left preferred Hillary Clinton’s cynically assembled “rainbow coalition”.

This led to a second failure: the lumping of anyone who did not embrace this agenda into a unified “basket of deplorables” motivated exclusively by vile prejudice. Viewed through the prism of identity, the rainbow coalition’s failure to win power could only be understood as a “racist whitelash”, signifying the existence of a terrible counter-force, prompting widespread denunciation of “white people” and truly hysterical claims that a fascist regime was now in power. In reality, as we explained at the time, there is no way that a “whitelash” could explain Trump’s election, and the administration’s subsequent disarray and disintegration – the only legislation Trump has signed being additional sanctions on Russia, which he had opposed prior to his election – signify gross ineptitude, not an authoritarian regime – still less a fascist one. In this fevered atmosphere it is easy to see how 500 losers are hysterically misinterpreted as representing a much bigger force in American society.

A hysterical campaign against “fascism” is not only a major distraction, it will only compound the left’s problems. All the objective evidence shows that there is actually no need to persuade the vast majority of Americans of liberal principles of equality. They already agree. When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agree with you, you are kicking at an open door, and that suggests you are in the wrong house.

The real question is how the left can win over a majority to a programme of radical social, political and economic change that addresses both economic disparities and the gross inequalities suffered by minorities. Both are required because they interact, producing vast disparities in household income, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates among ethnic groups. But this cannot be tackled by setting identity groups against one another, turning the struggle for equality into a zero-sum game. Telling white citizens that unless they practice self-flagellating “wokeness” they are “fascists” is no way to persuade people that the left is capable of solving both their economic grievances and advancing the rights of minorities simultaneously. Already, large numbers of Americans feel they have no dog in this fight: only 10 percent of them support the alt-right but 41 percent have “no opinion”. The identitarian left has not only failed to win over the so-called “white working class”, but even a plurality of black Americans disagree with tearing down Confederate statues, the main flashpoint at Charlottesville. A phoney war against “fascists” – especially one that depicts “ordinary people” as “white supremacists by default”, as one CNN editorial put it – will likely alienate many people already perturbed by the authoritarianism and illiberalism of a group increasingly being dubbed the “alt-left”. The Democratic Socialists of America are rightly trying (yet again) to rally people around a shared agenda of economic change and social justice, but despite making major concessions to identitarianism, even they face internal challenges from an influx of young agitators steeped in identity politics.

Moreover, history shows that anti-fascist campaigns only hobble the left and empower the state, because they urge the expansion of authoritarian powers that are inevitably deployed against progressives and minorities. In the mid-1930s, supported by anti-fascist campaigners, Congress convened a Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. After World War II, under Senator McCarthy, this committee turned its sights on the left. Similarly, under pressure from anti-fascists, Britain adopted the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, which was subsequently used more frequently against the left than the right, including Sinn Fein marches in the 1970s and striking miners in the 1980s. Today, American leftists urge tighter restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, asking both government and employers to intervene. There is already evidence that growing regulation is targeting progressives and minorities, and over 250,000 people have petitioned the government to declare “antifa” a “domestic terrorist group”. Germany, meanwhile, has just shut down and raided popular leftist website IndyMedia for “sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country”.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call, alright. But not in the way the American left thinks.

 

Lee Jones

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General Election 2017: Corbynmania in Perspective

28 Jun

A year ago, following the EU referendum, many commentators were convinced that the Brexit vote had ushered in a generation of Tory hegemony, and the left would be permanently confined to the margins. Earlier this month, the Labour Party sharply improved its electoral performance with its most left-wing leader ever, and its most radical manifesto since 1983. Hailed by adoring Glastonbury crowds, Jeremy Corbyn himself has gone from zero to hero in a matter of weeks. Most of those commentators seem to have forgotten their earlier predictions in their haste to celebrate a Corbyn “victory”. But their gushing enthusiasm is no more measured than their earlier gloom.

A proper reckoning with the election result needs to start from the position that the EU referendum was never a hard-right victory in the first place. It then needs to be remembered that Corbyn still lost the election. Labour won only 262 seats, on 40% of the vote, to the Tories’ 317 seats, on 42.3%. Despite her manifest weaknesses, Theresa May won more votes than any prime minister since 1992. Corbyn’s “victory” amounts to averting catastrophe and making the Labour Party look like a serious contender for power again. A sober analysis of how this was achieved tells a less heroic story than the myth now developing around Corbyn.

A combination of different factors, with strong regional variation, helped the Labour Party electorally. Moreover, underlying Corbyn’s electoral success are elements of a political approach from Labour that is depressingly familiar and unattractive.

How Corbyn survived

Crucially, the Conservatives ran a totally dismal campaign. Theresa May was exposed as a robotic technocrat, shrill and inconsistent. She failed to persuade anyone but Tory and former UKIP voters that the election was solely about Brexit and her leadership, allowing Corbyn to reframe the election as being about socio-economic issues, where the Tories are weak.

Conversely, Corbyn had an excellent campaign from the outset – partly, it seems, by accident. In retrospect he appears to have ridden a tidal wave of support, but this is rather misleading. Whereas the Tories took the fight into apparently vulnerable Labour seats, Corbyn waged a defensive campaign in the Labour heartlands. Many rightly speculated that his remarkably large rallies in such areas were largely intended to shore up his position in the face of an apparently inevitably post-election leadership challenge. Instead, these events, widely covered on TV and social media, seemed to inspire people that something different was in the air. The “ground war” had a similar defensive quality, with Labour HQ instructing activists to shore up incumbents, rather than going on the attack. It was only as the polls shifted that grassroots campaigners, on their own initiative, shifted to proactive campaigning in neighbouring marginals.

Corbyn’s team was able to quickly assemble a remarkably popular manifesto. Despite two years of relentless infighting and plots, party wonks had somehow managed to find time to work up and cost specific policies. This was a real game-changer. Many had previously been frustrated with Corbyn’s apparent inability to translate fine-sounding words into concrete proposals; the sudden production of a costed manifesto gave him a serious edge over the visionless, warmed-over One Nation Toryism offered by Theresa May, in an uncosted manifesto that contained an electorally-deadly “dementia tax”. The Corbyn team’s leak of the draft manifesto was also a masterstroke. It confirmed the policies as widely popular, bouncing the party’s general executive into approving it.

The popularity of Labour’s policies was expressed in the remarkable cross-class support the party attained. This also reflects in part Corbyn’s appeal to the populist mood, where he had the advantage of being a lifelong outsider – a position burnished by attacks over his previous positions and associations. By comparison, Theresa May looked every inch the elite technocrat that she is.

Labour won a plurality of votes among all workers, with only retirees backing the Tories. Much has been written since the election suggesting that Labour under Corbyn has essentially become a middle-class party. Although Labour’s support has certainly become more middle-class over recent decades, there is no sign of any big shift under Corbyn specifically. If we look at how people in particular social grades voted, compared with 2015, Labour and the Tories both gained more support across all categories, but Labour still did a little better with less well-off voters. (NB this data measures occupational grade, not social class.)

AB C1 C2 DE
Labour 35 (+9) 41 (+12) 39 (+11) 46 (+12)
Conservative 44 (+4) 41 (+7) 44 (+12) 34 (+9)

Table 1: Proportion of voters within each social grade won by Labour and the Conservatives respectively

Nonetheless, what’s striking is obviously the rather weak association between class and voting behaviour – especially when compared to age. Corbyn managed to boost substantially the Labour vote among under-45s – not merely among the very young (see Fig. 1). Early boasts from the NUS president of a record 72% turnout among 18-24s turned out to be self-congratulatory and baseless nonsense, but turnout did return to early-1990s levels (see Fig. 2). This is crucial insofar as there is now a yawning generational gap in voting patterns (see Fig. 3). After a decade of disengagement under New Labour, the EU referendum seems to have kick-started politics again for the youngest generation.

Fig. 1: Turnout by age group

Fig. 2: Conservative-Labour gap by age

Also crucial was Labour’s stance on Brexit, where a triangulating fudge actually became an electoral asset. In pro-Leave constituencies, Corbyn’s insistence on respecting the EU referendum result was decisive. As Paul Mason, who campaigned in several pro-Leave areas, reports, this was needed merely to gain a hearing for Labour on the doorstep. This helped to pull back 20-30% of UKIP’s vote for Labour and held off the Tory advance in the North and Wales. Had Labour run on an anti-Brexit ticket, the Tory capture of Mansfield would have been replicated far more widely.

In some pro-Remain constituencies, however, particularly in the metropolitan areas, Labour candidates expressly pledged to oppose Brexit. This arguably helped attract votes from hardline Remainers and, coupled with substantial tactical voting, explains the significant swing from the Greens and LibDems to Labour. This is why Labour was able to hold constituencies like Bermondsey.

Finally, the terrorist attacks during the election campaign probably had some effect. The Manchester bombing had surprisingly little impact at first. As the person who facilitated the movement of Libyan radicals back and forth to the UK, Theresa May has escaped with staggeringly little accountability. However, nor were the Tories able to smear Corbyn as “weak on security”. Instead, Labour adroitly made an issue of police cuts, while the Tories had little to offer but irrelevant and draconian measures like internet regulation. There was virtually no real discussion of the causes of Islamist terrorism (reversing police cuts won’t solve the problem either), but Labour came out of these horrific events with a reinforced case against austerity.

The left has not yet closed the void

The electoral advance for the Labour Party is significant, but at this stage it would be unwise to put too much hope in it for a revival of mass politics.

In the first place, despite its vastly increased membership thanks to Corbyn, the Labour Party itself is still poorly suited as a vehicle for a new popular movement. Surprisingly little has been written on the Labour “ground war” but it does not seem that the party sought to harness its expanded membership as foot soldiers, and even the pro-Corbyn Momentum faction seemed to play a surprisingly weak role. This reflects the Labour party’s attenuated internal democracy, which has made it resistant to, reluctant to engage with, and even suspicious of, the groundswell generated by Corbyn.

The party machinery, and its parliamentary wing, stayed remarkably disciplined during the campaign, particularly given the previous two years of backbiting. Thanks to the result, Corbyn’s enemies are now forced to smile to his face. But they are still in position. Most party hacks, unelected and elected alike, remain opposed to even the mild social democratic programme that Corbyn stands for. Many campaigned by distancing themselves from him, to save their own skins. Their loyalty is paper thin; they are not true believers but rank opportunists who still believe, in their heart of hearts, in centrist, Blairite policies. It remains to be seen whether Corbyn has the political authority and will to restructure and democratize the party, as he often declares he wants to. His previous treatment of Momentum – cutting them off at the knees after an onslaught from his treacherous deputy, Tom Watson – suggests a reluctance to take the tough decisions needed.

More important, the party and its base remain deeply divided, socially and politically, most importantly over Brexit. The long-term decline of the trade union movement has resulted in Labour’s support being more evenly split between its traditional, deprived, working-class heartlands and the relatively prosperous, liberal, metropolitan middle classes. Its disarray over Brexit expresses this divide. The election did not bridge the divide with a coherent new compromise; it did not even paper over the cracks, because different parliamentary candidates were campaigning on completely different platforms. If Labour was suddenly thrust into power it would struggle to offer anything more coherent than the Tories on the major task facing the country, and rifts would rapidly re-emerge.

A leading force in this division would be the leftists currently celebrating Corbynmania but who spent the last year sneering at Brexit voters as knuckle-dragging racists. They have not suddenly changed their minds about this. They prefer a fairytale version of the general election as some kind of heroic, progressive fight-back against dark forces that never actually existed. Their support for the EU, and their derision for voters, expresses the long-term retreat of the political class away from the people and into the state, and this is yet to be reversed. Corbyn’s ability to engage with the public is admirable, but it is not widely shared. Comparing the reaction to the Grenfell Tower disaster with that towards the Brexit vote, indicates that leftist elites prefer the poor when they appear as vulnerable clients of the welfare state, rather than bolshie political actors in their own right.

Finally, despite Corbyn’s dumping of Blairite fiscal policy, both Corbyn’s manifesto and his campaign drew on New Labour techniques and themes. The party’s balancing act on Brexit and immigration was a careful piece of political triangulation, characteristic of the Blair era. During the campaign, Corbyn was quick to respond to the massacres in Manchester and London by calling for more police on the streets, a classic Blairite move to exploit fear and institutionalise insecurity. Blair may have gone, but the Labour Party both in its approach to police security and its wider approach to social security remains very much a party focused on the politics of safety rather than the politics of self-government.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: Brexit’s Democratic Dividend

27 Jun

One irony of Britain’s general election result is that the Labour Party’s electoral advance demonstrates just how wrong the left has been about British politics since last year’s EU referendum.

Most of the British left was horrified by the Leave vote, seeing it as a permanent victory for UKIP, the Tory right and racism. Left-wing commentators claimed no longer to recognize their own country and openly compared the atmosphere to the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s. We pointed out at the time that this reaction was absurd and an excuse for the left’s failure to represent working class interests. The Eurosceptic right had not suggested anything on a par with the Nazis, and in any case it had nothing to offer politically. Sure enough the Tory right and UKIP promptly imploded after the referendum. A year later the general election has produced a weakened Conservative government, stripped of its majority, and a resurgent Labour Party under a left-wing leader. UKIP has all but disappeared electorally while a record 52 MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds have been elected, including an increase in the number of Muslim MPs from eight to 13. The new parliament also contains a new record of 45 out LGBT MPs. Not only is post-referendum Britain not anything remotely like Weimar Germany, but as we hoped the referendum vote has had some positive effects for democracy in Britain.

As we argued last summer, the referendum saw a significant protest vote against the political void that had opened up between the governing class and the population. This void stands where the political process of representing ordinary people’s interests used to be. It is a void that is embodied above all in the distant and unaccountable form of government that is the European Union.  The shock of the referendum result was that this political void could no longer be ignored, but instead had to be addressed.

When the two major parties returned to the ballot box this year, they had significantly realigned their priorities. With both formally backing Brexit, debate focused on other issues. And both parties looked to the past for inspiration. The Conservative manifesto stuck to their sound finances mantra but otherwise shifted their tone markedly by trying (ineffectually) to evoke the postwar one-nation Toryism. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally buried Blairite fiscal policy and returned to Old Labour’s higher taxes to finance higher spending on public services.

In this contest between antiquated political platforms, it turned out that the Labour Party was in the stronger position. The electorate once again showed that it could not be taken for granted politically. While Brexit remains popular and May got the most support, the electorate denied the prime minister her anticipated overall majority and instead strengthened Labour’s position.

Meanwhile in Scotland the electorate delivered a bloody nose to the dominant Scottish National Party (SNP) by significantly boosting the unionist parties. It transpires that many Scots voted to Remain not out of such fanatical attachment to the EU that they now crave a second independence referendum just to stay in it – but rather because they feared the UK’s breakup. The remarkable revival of Tory fortunes in Scotland reflects their solid unionist credentials and staunch anti-SNP position. Again contrary to predictions, the fallout of the referendum has therefore strengthened the Union with Scotland.

A proper accounting for the effects of last year’s Leave vote would, therefore, find no place for the triumph of the far right. Rather it would include the killing off of austerity as government policy, the strengthening of the Union and a strengthening of parliament’s influence.  In all these ways democracy has been boosted by last year’s Leave vote. The sharp increase in turnout in the recent general election, especially among a generation turned off politics by New Labour, speaks to the return of politics after a long winter of depoliticized technocracy. The electorate has shown it can no longer be taken for granted and the shaken political elite has been forced to try to reconnect with the voters.

Peter Ramsay

General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

France’s anti-system election

21 Apr

This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).

 

On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall.[1] The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.

This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.

The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas.[2] Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.

There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist.[3] However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.[4]

The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin[5], Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).

Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.

This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year.  Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.

If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France.  Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.

Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.

A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.

Chris Bickerton

[1] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.

[2] Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.

[3] Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)

[4] ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.

[5] For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.

Give them British citizenship!

4 Mar

The British government is not treating EU citizens resident in the UK as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, it is the EU that is treating those citizens, and British citizens resident in Europe, in this way. Theresa May has already sought a deal allowing EU citizens resident in the UK to remain here following Brexit, if EU governments will do the same for British citizens in their countries. EU leaders have refused to make any agreement until Article 50 has been invoked and its secretive negotiation process has begun.

The UK government should respond to this with a very public message that it is committed to the rights of those who live here. It should unilaterally declare that EU citizens have a right to remain in the UK after Brexit, and urge European governments to reciprocate. Indeed the British government should go further. It should make a point of inviting those EU citizens to become British citizens, and reduce the significant barriers to them doing so that exist at the moment.

The Prime Minister is not wrong to insist that she must put the interests of British citizens first. And EU governments may refuse to reciprocate. In Greece those governments have demonstrated that their attitude to European citizens can be almost as vicious as their treatment of African and Asian migrants. But the significant costs that might be caused by EU intransigence on the rights of British citizens abroad will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits to all British citizens.  We would be citizens of a state that has the confidence both to insist on its accountability to its own people (its democratic political sovereignty) and its openness to others (its internationalism). Such a state would earn worldwide respect from many millions of ambitious, talented and public-spirited individuals who are crying out for a break with the stale politics of the past. That would be an asset beyond price.

Opinion poll evidence suggests that there is overwhelming popular support in Britain for allowing EU citizens to remain in the UK after Brexit. A huge opportunity exists here for Theresa May really to lead the world. There is, of course, no evidence that she has either the political imagination or courage to take the opportunity – her long tenure as Home Secretary suggests the opposite. Only those committed to an internationalist politics of sovereignty are likely to be willing.

Peter Ramsay

 

 

 

 

 

PostRefRacism: How Big a Problem is it Really?

3 Aug

PostRefRacism, a Twitter account set up to document post-referendum racist incidents, has just released a report on post-referendum racism in Britain. Compiled with input from similar groups, Worrying Signs and iStreetWatch, and endorsed by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), the report garnered widespread media attention in the past week, as did police data revealing a 20% spike in reported ‘hate crime’ after the referendum, with a total 6,000 incidents.

PostRefRacism’s report is potentially useful in breaking down this alarming headline figure, given its exclusive focus on racism. It identifies 636 individual reports of ‘racist and xenophobic hate crime’ – less than 11% of the total ‘hate crime’ figure released by police – of which 88% involved verbal abuse or ‘propaganda’. Of course, Twitter usage is hardly universal. But PostRefRacism worked very hard to reach this figure. With its 10,000 followers, it received nearly 99,000 tweets from 25 June to 4 July. However, 80% of these were generic expressions of concern, with only 20% reporting actual incidents, boiling down to only 636 separate cases – 25% of which were hearsay, and none of which have been verified.

The report’s most troubling claim is that 51% of these incidents ‘referred specifically to the referendum’, while 14% affected children, 12% were Islamophobic, and 4% were ‘other’. However, 51% of the 636 incidents fit into none of these categories. That is, at most 159 cases (51% of 51%) ‘referred specifically to the referendum’. Assuming they were all perpetrated by individual ‘leave’ voters, that leaves 17,410,583 Leavers who did not abuse anyone, despite a third saying they were primarily motivated to restore immigration controls – not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, there are about 853,000 Poles living in Britain, but PostRefRacism recorded only 54 incidents where Poles were the reported victims (0.00006%).

Clearly, there is the possibility of under-reporting, and even one incident is one too many. Verbal abuse can be desperately upsetting for victims, and we should stand in full solidarity with them. But in a country as populous and diverse as Britain, do these figures really demonstrate widespread racist intolerance?

We must also ask what the phrase ‘referred specifically to the referendum’ actually means. Sometimes there is a clear (albeit obtuse) link: someone saying ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out’. But more often, reports seem to involve generic phrases like ‘go home’ (74 stories), ‘leave’ (80 stories) and ‘fuck off’ (45 stories). Reprehensible as such comments are, it’s unclear why we should attribute them ‘specifically to the referendum’. Racist bigots have been telling non-white people to ‘go home’ for decades – it is a standard, despicable trope. The IRR’s own digest, which provides substantive detail of each case, involves many such outbursts – most of which cannot plausibly be linked to the referendum. The ethnic breakdown of reported victims – only 21% of whom are identified as Europeans – also suggests continuity with long-established patterns of racism against non-whites. The geographic pattern of incidents also fails to correlate with the ‘leave’ vote, with 44% originating in London.

The data thus boil down to a statistical uptick in an underlying current of low-level racist activity. As James Aber has argued here on TCM, a tiny, hard-core minority of racist individuals, who existed prior to the referendum, apparently felt emboldened to be more abusive following the result. Alarmist reports that made it appear that their attitudes were widely shared may even have emboldened them further. But such upticks are not new; far larger surges invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The smaller uptick in Britain does not necessarily indicate any longer-term realignment. Polls on voting intentions do not suggest any shift towards right-wing parties. There is no surge for UKIP, still less for the British National Party – who, let us not forget, garnered just 1,667 votes in the 2015 general election. Conversely, there is overwhelming public support – 84% – for the residency rights of EU nationals already living in Britain. No doubt, racism must continue to be challenged – but, as Philip Cunliffe argues on TCM, we do not need the EU to do this.

This analysis is necessary not to dismiss the experience of racism but to understand it and shape appropriate responses. As Stathis Kouvelakis warns British leftists, embracing this discourse of widespread working-class racism is seriously detrimental to any progressive agenda, particularly if one believes it is historically embedded into the English character, as some now argue. It destroys the notion that the vast majority of the population are capable of acting as agents of progressive social, political and economic change. It fuels instead either liberal insistence on containing and suppressing mass sentiment, Labour-rightists’ pandering to anti-immigration attitudes, or right-wing populist efforts to exacerbate and exploit ethnic divisions.

Rather than aiding the enemy, leftists ought to be challenging these slanders against the white working classes and asking why, as Kouvelakis puts it, class struggle is being distorted into anti-immigration sentiment that, in its nastiest form, shades into racism. As we have argued, simply decrying racism merely evades this fundamental question. The answer is obvious enough. Following the crushing defeat of organised labour in the 1980s, the political class has practised 30 years of neoliberalism, resulting in flat-lining wages and living standards, followed by eight years of austerity in which real wages have fallen at the same rate as those in crisis-struck Greece. Social security, housing and decent work are all dwindling. Politicians of all stripes absolutely insist ‘there is no alternative’ to this shrinking pie – yet then admit millions of new mouths to share it. In this context, it can surprise no-one that a defence of living standards takes the form of resistance to immigration. Indeed, the hegemony of TINA makes anti-immigration sentiment a structural feature of political life. It is this hegemony that the left must challenge.

Lee Jones

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