December 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
I’ve held off writing anything about the election for fear of falling into fatalism, phraseology or the original sin, which many on Twitter seem to be committing, of deciding “Labour can only save itself by implementing my ideas”. But also because the outcome, at least on the left’s part, is a moving target. A lot of qualitative research is still needed into why Labour lost particular seats and thus seats in aggregate (the metric of overall national vote swing hides innumerable, likely crucial details). What’s emerged in the meantime is a welter of doorstep anecdote, readings of the tea leaves of previous opinion polls, and some mobilisation of more or less valuable pre-existing theories based on only partial evidence. The leap to strategy based on ‘what we got wrong’ assumes – only semi-rightly – that the tools to shape social form according to our will are ready to hand. But reorientation will probably involve first steps of putting those tools in place. I’m hazarding here a few thoughts based on others’ readings and the experience of the election.
1. The election campaign proved that polarisation and the collapse of a consensus for austerity is real. The bleeding away of civil society under austerity, and the rage and pain whose articulation dates back to the first student occupations in 2010, was the stuff of Labour’s campaign, but more so of the current of activism that gave it what ground game it had. The centrist reality principle was forced into ever more baroque and deranged forms from week to week. Millions of people wanted a better, easier life – the margins of freedom that social democracy promises, like an unreliable relative, to provide through the retooling of inequality – and were excited to be offered it. That this promise wasn’t the right one, or made in the right way, is true enough, but becomes the centrist media’s one size fits all explanation. (The right wing press doesn’t even bother to come up with reasons beyond the glory of Brexit as volk.) Meanwhile, that the Tory offer consisted of nothing, hardly even the scraps of pseudo-populist culture warring Johnson has cajoled himself into acting out, denies the centrist claim that a politics of mild adjustment to an existing reality will carry all before it. Toryism’s current form, like Trumpism, is dedicated to preserving the current unbearable reality – even sharpening its existing cruelty through the increased targeting of the most vulnerable – under the guise of transformation. Capitalist realism persists even as its favoured vehicle – the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” technocratic middle classes – disappear as political agents. Austerity won’t cease to act as a source of political discontent, even if the polis itself denies its alternatives.
2. The rush to diagnose that ‘Labour lost because of losing x number of votes to y party’, is, as Tom Gann points out, premature and limited. The two related questions that underlie it are more serious, namely: what is Labour’s electoral constituency now?, and what is its political or social constituency now? The two aren’t identical. The former would be those who can be organised, wooed and bullied into voting for Labour in general and local elections (its electoral coalition, traditionally “between Bethnal Green and Bolsover”); the latter its social power base, the ‘hegemonic bloc’ that was the labour movement, its institutions, culture and lifeworld – trade unions, dissenting chapels, workingmens’ clubs, miners’ institutes, etc. The former, from what’s been gleaned from marginal results and doorstep talk, has been split at the edges in two directions. In leave-voting marginals, votes bled to the Tories or non-voting, while in remain-leaning marginals, feckless EU flag fetishists split anti-Tory votes. (Most of the losses, especially the most bitter ones like Kensington and Durham North West, were slim.) The conclusion of the dimmest productivists that Labour would have at least mitigated the voting collapse in the quote-unquote heartlands by sticking to a pro-Leave stance is only partially true, but more fatally gets the equation of electoral and social power the wrong way round. It reproduces the thinking of New Labour, which wanted the electoral coalition, somehow cohered through signalling and the small panaceas of Sure Start and increased NHS funding tied to “market Stalinism”, without the social base, whose destruction by Thatcherism it was only too happy to further. But you can’t – as some in the movement have, quite rightly, since its early days – turn from the the electoral base back to the social base as something more fundamental. Corbynism’s premise was that the Labour Party, as an electoral vehicle, could give leverage to a heterogeneous set of extraparliamentary groups (housing & anti-war activists, environmentalists, anti-racists, left accelerationists, prison abolitionists etc). The loss of that electoral advantage, and the loss of credibility for the left within the party, obviates that one. (This is one of the reasons why the argument for electoral reform and proportional representation, which would And whilst you can – and should – argue that the latter absolutely needs to be engaged with to get to the former, the left is also against the clock of climate change. The demographic speculations are grim: the votes apparently lost in provincial seats were those of older and better-off whites – petit-bourgeois and former members of the labour aristocracy, the beneficiaries of the welfare state, cheap property prices and full employment taking their ball home when the younger generation want to play. The notion that such class fragments can be ‘won over’ with certain policy fixes is deeply uncertain, particularly when the usual proposals depend on their supposed ‘native patriotism’, as if they wouldn’t get their fix straight from the Brexit Party spigot. If neither Weird Electoral Fixes nor long marches through the social institutions are the one supposed answer – and the immediate rush to seal away one absolute strategy, as if politics didn’t take place in the midst of contingency, should be suspect to begin with – then the question becomes what Labour should do with its decade or more in the wilderness.
3. One of the major underlying problems, which Aditya acknowledges briefly, is the class recomposition in the wake of neoliberalism that forms the real context to the failures of formerly social democratic parties throughout the global north. The most pertinent parts of the process, as I see them, are the breakup of industrial forms of work and the growth of an internally fractured class of precarious and underemployed service workers, students, proletarianised former white collar workers, a rump of unionised public sector workers, and “lumpen” informal labourers and the unemployed; and the destruction of a particular lifeworld of the labour movement. The well-known problems facing the atomised and particularised swathes of those with no means of living other than selling their labour – the current inability of the bureaucratised unions to reach and represent the interests of many sections of this class, the lack of any clear alternative organisational form (the new social movements having a still deeply unclear power and extent of social contestation) – fall again into these two registers, social and electoral. The class is not at present a class-for-itself, and it remains unclear how strong the sense is of itself as a class-in-itself. Electoral math, meanwhile, translates them into the fictional for-itself of an electoral coalition, with only a very partial affinity to the concept of class as for-itself. We can ask a reasonable question about whether an electoral coalition composed of the enormous swathes working poor ground down by austerity (like the NHS nurse described in this great and questionable piece by Dan Evans), downwardly mobile professionals, 18-24 year olds and the black and brown urban groups Labour has long taken for granted, is viable and can beat out the array of billionaires, paedophiles, retired colonels, skinheads and traditionalists the Tories can rely on. But we’d then be obliged to ask in turn, given the collapse of Corbynism’s electoralist premise, whether they could constitute a social power base – a class-for-itself – that can make effective use of the party. This is a far dicier question, and one which Corbynism was in effect an answer to, after the failure of Occupy: we’re back to 2014.
4. Except not quite. The left is in a far better position within the Labour party than it was then. Outside, it’s harder to tell – a lot of the wider left’s energy has been spent defending Corbynism within the party. In retrospect, Corbynism’s theory of the party as a ‘movement of movements’, which was dependent on the party as electoral vector, was an attempt to reconcile the electoral and social constituencies and forms of power. It was to solve the issue of scaleability that the occupations posed, never precisely congealing into ‘institutions’. This could even have happened, had Brexit not intervened, forcing the party back onto the electoral track – and, more fatally, shearing apart the social or everyday life and political imagination. The left in Labour and Labour in the left will have to look back seriously at that equation. I suggested in a piece for New Socialist back in February that the destruction of the labour movement’s lifeworld, which finds itself inscribed into the landscape in big box warehouses and retail parks and the shit jobs people do in them, that the traditions of black power, feminism and left environmentalism had far more thoroughly worked on creating resources of political imagination for alternative forms of life than persist within Labour – this being also one of the implications of Mark Fisher’s late turn back to the 60s in the emphasis on “consciousness raising” in the acid communism essay. The least arcane of these examples would be the survival programs of the Panthers, which create a future link between social reproduction, party organisation and the contestation of institutionalised social death. Giving the support of the Labour party’s apparatus to existing struggles around housing, pay, racialised policing and ecology would be bare minimum of an interface between necessary survival work, the production of new social forms appropriate to atomised labour and what remains of the ‘programmatist’ party form.
5. For these reasons, the unacknowledged crux of the election is race, famously “the modality in which class is lived“. He’s deleted his account for the moment but Joshua Clover did a thread I partially agree with, the gist being that the result, leaning towards affective revanchism of Leave, its ideological cluster of white supremacy, murderous resentment and scarcity thinking, should be seen not as a final verdict on the beliefs of what remains of the Labour base but the option parliamentarianism returns after the collapse of programmatism. This underestimates the spatial contradictions of British development since the end of empire, with swathes of the Labour base distributed in provincial and exurban nodes of non-production (Lisa Nandy’s dreaded ‘towns’) – it isn’t just John Harris who meets racist white retirees in Bolsover or wherever. The question of whether and how the left can contest such widespread and conspicuously unacknowledged racism in the face of a nexus of racialised policy and a media dedicated, at its worst, to outright culture war, is immensely difficult. But the practical relation between the electoral and the social has to proceed from the rejection of any concession to the actually existing fascism of Yarl’s Wood and UKIP. The Commune will only be made by all, if it ever is. The alternative is unthinkable.