Monday, 27 June 2011

Arbitration

Two men on their own blogs are talking to each other; they are arguing with one another about the same thing.  One is on the ground floor and the other is at the top, looking down.  The one appears to have just entered the building; the other has been there for a long time.  One seems fresh, the other somewhat stale; they appear to come from the same country; though their talk is in different dialects.  We listen carefully, or try to, trying to understand what it is all about.

Dan Hind in an excellent post, which includes a first rate summary of the Conservative’s current strategy, suggests a way to break up the coalition.  His piece is concerned with tactics.  How to inflict immediate wreckage on a political programme that is opportunistically using a crisis to protect the privileges of the financial sector, to “insulate” it as he says, from a public which is to suffer an enormous loss of wealth, while its protection, an increasingly fragile Welfare State, is dismantled; its parts sold off to corporate business. The piece has few illusions about the nature of party politicians, although it is too generous to Vince Cable, which a later post partly acknowledges, and makes a clear distinction between the opportunists and the evangelists in the Liberal Democrats; the true believers in Free Market fundamentalism.  His strategy is to target the secularists; who may just leave the coalition if they see a chance of saving their seats in the next general election. 

He begins his article with a number of assumptions, on which the rest of the argument depends; clearly acknowledging they could be wrong; and thus assuring us of his seriousness – no wilful fantasies here.  Already he is helping us to break down a complex whole, allowing discussion at different levels – even if we disagree with the premises the arguments may still be right (or the other way around, of course).  In the process, and employing the terminology he uses in another post, he helps us to separate out the structure from the milieu, the individuals from the institutions to which they belong; in which they function.  He isolates these individuals, and makes them a target for a political attack; while also suggesting the wider political strategies needed to transform the institutions that condition them.

His immediate aim is bring down the coalition, by popular pressure targeted at about 40 Liberal Democrats.  It is as simple as that: take out enough bricks to bring the building down.  He has no expectation that the demolition gang will come from inside Parliament; that they will bring the house down on themselves; or from the mainstream parties, in a party political game we follow on ITV and Radio 4.  It must come from us: the man in Borough Market, the woman in Cooke’s of Hoxton Street, traditional pie and mash.

He wants to use the unpopularity of the political class and the current economic order to create a movement that will transform parliamentary politics.  The fight is now, June 27th 2011, against the actions of the present government, but it is also a beginning; the means to effect a democratic revolution of Westminster, and beyond into the town halls and corporate offices.  His strategy is a simple one, though it will need much organising: make a small number of highly visible MPs more responsive to popular pressure.  If successful such a strategy will create its own momentum, helping create alliances across the radical and progressive culture.  He wants to roll a rock down a snow-covered hill; he wants to see how big it will become…

This is not the usual clichés of mass action outside parliament.  Although we also need the clichés - we need mass action, we do, we need it now!  All too often, though, such pronouncements have no content behind them.  In their place he offers us a sparkling insight: create a movement that in the short term is dedicated to re-electing a small group of career politicians if they bring the government down.  

They need to be persuaded that an early election, fought on a sensible platform, offers them their best chance of survival. Those campaigning to stop the re-structuring of the NHS, and who have Liberal MPs, could do worse than write to them and set out the conditions on which they will be successfully re-elected.

If Liberal MPs break with the Coalition and accept this alternative platform they will then be given the backing of the Anti-Cuts Movement. They will become, in effect, delegates of a program, rather than representatives of a party. Others can contest the election on the same Alternative Platform – greens, socialists, and so on, though priority will be given to sitting MPs who accept it. The aim is not a change of personnel so much as a transformation of program.

So this is not about personality, much less leadership. The MPs that sign up to a program that secures the interests of the majority need to know they have the backing of a substantial and energetic movement. The more people that write to their (Liberal) MPs, the more likely it is that these MPs will see an early election as a way to save their skins.

This seems right to me, and curiously echoes my own recent criticisms of Michael Albert of ZNet; and his views on a new left organisation.  I suggested a movement should be formed around a limited number of political demands, which, by being both concrete in its detail and politically extremely broad, would appeal to large sections of the population – from Christian evangelicals to Marxist Leninists.  Such a movement, by its very existence, and its ongoing campaigns, creating alliances, and thus organisations and a climate of progressive opinion, would, in the long term, by seeking a few limited changes to the political process, undermine the governing classes; by making the technical changes necessary to enable greater democracy, and creating organised groups that could take advantage of it.  Hind’s conclusion is worth quoting:

The British public need to be offered a plan for economic rehabilitation that makes some kind of sense and that offers the prospect of gainful employment and reasonable living conditions for the majority who have to live here… We need to shift the economy away from private consumption and financial engineering towards investment in industry and the efficient provision of public goods. But the readjustment can only be made on the basis of a more equitable division of resources.

Only employee-owned and managed enterprises, backed by an accountable system of credit, will be able to compete in global markets and secure the conditions for both an improved balance of trade and higher productivity growth. To put it another way, Britain’s economic malaise can only be cured by a social transformation.

Richard Seymour at the top of the building cannot see the action down below.  He listens to Hind’s words, but he catches only a few phrases – he is too high up to understand them properly.  Safe with the senior management team he reduces these interesting ideas to the stale round of party politics; of a peculiarly British kind – the disaffected “hard” left of the Labour Party.  Just the approach in which Hind is not interested: he wants to use the weak and unprincipled Liberal MPs as a mechanism for raising up a popular movement; a novel and interesting approach.

So it is not surprising that Seymour begins with a discussion of the Labour Party, that moribund organisation.  It reveals, rather sadly, the illusions of a particular kind of left wing thought; with its implications of a radicalism just below the surface, kept down by the party elite.  It has not realised that the defeat of the Labour left in the 1980s was the end of the Labour Party as a radical force in British society.  This was the decade when the party became respectable, a fully paid up member of the ruling establishment; a position entrenched by Blair and Brown – they “insulated” the parliamentary elite from popular pressure from the wider movement.  The Labour Party has to go, though you would not recognise it from his analysis.

…this has significant consequences for the conduct of the labour movement's resistance to austerity. If the trade union leadership subordinates its actions to the objective of getting 'their' party in government, then that most certainly entails an attempt to keep the lid on militancy.

The illusions are generous indeed!   Historically the trade unions, with a few exceptions, usually concentrated into quite precise time periods, have been the most conservative parts of the progressive left.  They are too respectable to be radical; and have been so almost from their inception.  David Marquand sums it up well:

The labour movement was a product of ‘us’ against ‘them’, but it existed to protect ‘us’ against the injustices perpetrated by ‘them’, not to enable ‘us’ to join ‘them’, and still less replace  ‘them’ by ‘us’.  In theory it was committed to huge changes – common ownership of the means of production; a socialist commonwealth – far more radical than anything ever contemplated by a Liberal coalition.  In practice, as it showed again and again in government, its instincts were cautious, even conservative, to a fault.  (The Progressive Dilemma, From Lloyd George to Kinnock)

These illusions become simple confusion as he misses the main thrust of Hind’s argument – directed to the public space in Parliament Square.  Concentrating on what he perceives his Hind’s naivety about Vince Cable he believes he is advocating the saving of the Liberal Democrats; to maintain a kind of progressive buffer inside the House of Commons.  He has read the title but not understood the post.  The Liberal Party is a metaphor: for the progressive platform of the Asquith government; and the progressive community it represented.  Updated, of course, and far to its left, with a century of influences behind it: Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky come to mind.

Seymour has been so long inside the building he cannot conceive of a world outside it.  The idea that you bolster a few MPs now in order to create the mechanisms to remove them later is too distant a country to contemplate; a foreign land too far away from the portals of Parliament; the only place where serious politics can be made.  Any tactical discussion about our politicians has to be framed within the borders of our conventional parties.  Of course, he doesn’t admit this, like those well fed Labour MPs returning to their terrace houses in the Welsh valleys, to show they have not lost their roots; although everyone knows they sleep in the posh hotel down the road. 

Dan fears that if the Liberals are wiped out, there will be some horrible stalemate, in which the Tories and Labour compete over an ever diminishing space in the middle ground, prosecuting the same basic neoliberal policies while the balance shifts periodically between social liberalism and authoritarianism. But if enough Liberal MPs can be tempted to break from the Orange Book freaks, then Liberalism can be reconstituted along '1908' lines, and electoral competitive pressures could still force the major parties to adopt beneficial reforms.

I don’t believe Hind believes this at all.  He simply assumes a bunch of non-ideological MPs would prefer to keep their titles and their pay packets, and he hopes to use this self-interest to engender a populist programme, where they are forced to act as delegates for the electoral majority.  The aim to wreck this government; exposing both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party to an immediate election, where they will be forced to respond to public pressure; forcing them to solve the present crisis with at least minimally progressive and socially just programmes.  The situational logic will demand it:

Labour must be forced into government in an early election, preferably this year, and preferably in coalition, before it has a chance to re-organize itself on neoliberal and technocratic lines as an alternative to the Coalition.

He wants to do what the Conservatives are doing: using the crisis in the financial sector to empower his own constituency; those “special interests”; otherwise known as the general public.  But this is only his immediate goal, the tactics of the moment; for he has a longer term strategy: to use such a movement to create a broad progressive alliance; where politics will be taken out of Downing Street and the boardrooms of our national companies.  

Lenin’s Tomb.  One wonders where that lives these days.  Somewhere in Wall Street, inside the Bank of England, or higher perhaps, scanning the territory…

It’s high up, we know that, high enough for him to commune with Antonio Gramsci; who, he believes, can explain this May’s elections - the loss of liberal democrat support and the rise of the SNP in Scotland.  The explanation, a fissure between class and party, may be correct, but the analysis is far too abstract, and is nothing like the insightful and detailed commentary of Ross McKibbin and Neal Ascherson in the LRB.  It is also, like his previous summary of Hind’s position, far too focussed on narrow party politics; those incessant manoeuvrings elevated into historic events, which sometimes can be epochal, but more often are not.  An odd stance indeed for a self-proclaimed Marxist.  Moreover, what Gramsci purportedly explains happened forty years ago, and its history is far more complex and nuanced than such a general formulation; which relies too much on class based assumptions; and is too instrumental in its approach to politics, those connections it makes between the constituency and the actions of its party. 

social classes become detached from their traditional parties [this] occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses…

This ignores the extent to which political parties are secular churches, instilling blind faith into its members.  Like the rise of secularism in the 19th century it can take decades for that faith to lapse; its decline not tied to particular events or ideological shifts in the ruling elite; though these will contribute to the general trend.  Much of this work of disintegration will take place outside the party halls altogether: the late 20th century’s demolition of the heavy industries surely the most important factor in the surrender of the Labour Party to the Thatcherites in its ranks.

What we are seeing today is the result of the restructuring of the economy that took place in the 1970s, and the strains it caused on a political system that had not come to terms with the social changes that exploded in the 1960s.  One strategy has been historic: electoral reform, creating an unknown future in both Scotland and Wales.  The other is to remove the activists from the party conference and the public from the back rooms of the state.

Parliamentarians, as we have come to know, are effectively insulated from popular pressure by the institutions they work in. The ancient caricature of politicians chasing every vote, greasily promising all things to all people, vacillating to appease a mercurial popular will, doesn't even raise a smirk these days. Political careerism in this era means, above all, clinging doggedly to unpopular orthodoxy ('principle') and representing it as the only game in town ('realism').

I think this is right.  But he doesn’t analyse it.  It is accepted as a fait accompli.  Once again he has missed the main argument: a movement must be created to break down these institutional walls.  Such an attitude reflects an all too familiar fatalism – that nothing we can do with these Liberal Democrats easily segues into there is nothing that can be done, full stop.  Radical Marxists cannot say this of course.  Instead we hear of the need for revolutionary action; a “militant political alliance” that will frighten Capital.  Propping up the Liberals may make this political vanguard harder to achieve, so the reasoning goes.  Smash them up, or let them destroy themselves, this is the way to help our cause.  Worse is better.  Deepen the crisis and it will collapse under its own contradictions.  Hey!  I’m talking like my grandfather.  How oddly comforting!  All or nothing.  How often have we heard this before?  Only a few minutes ago in fact; a few paragraphs back in this post:

In theory… far more radical than anything ever contemplated by a Liberal coalition.  In practice… its instincts were cautious, even conservative, to a fault.

The radical rhetoric of the labour movement camouflaged an innate conservatism.  I think we can go further.  Its conservative instincts demanded such rhetoric; it ensured that radical change would not happen.  All or nothing, was the cry of its activists.  Since all is unlikely to occur nothing is almost guaranteed.   We see this in Richard Seymour’s formulation: so vague and content less.  It is that old problem: revolution, the heroin of the intellectuals.  One is always surprised how bad the addiction is; though the reason should be obvious: with little detail we can all inject ourselves with syringes full of our own fantasies.  We never have to leave our book lined cells.  Bliss!

It also reveals something else; and is much to the credit of Dan Hind.  Most people, I would hazard a guess, and certainly the majority of intellectuals, think in binary terms – us against them.  Thus for Seymour there is a simple choice: submit to the current political parties or be part of

…a fundamental… self-perpetuating realignment of leftist, labour and oppositional forces.

This is much too narrow.  We want people who share our values.  They will not necessarily be on our political side.  Many find this counter intuitive.  For them politics has to be us against them, that opposed to this… and all the usual dichotomies.  Hind is far more radical; much more interesting.  He wants both to work with and undermine the existing establishment; and at the same time.  Not this or that, but that and this!  Not only are Hind’s ideas more radical they are achievable too.  Transcending these simple oppositions he reminds me of Rosa Luxemburg.

The remedy which Trotsky and Lenin have found, the elimination of democracy as such, is worse than the disease it is supposed to cure: for it stops up the very living source from which alone can come the correction of all the innate shortcomings of social institutions. That source is the active, untrammelled, energetic political life of the broadest masses of the people.  (Quoted in Jacqueline Rose’s review of The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg)

In the review Jacqueline Rose highlights her creative nature; the clarity with which she recognised that revolutions could not be controlled, how its outcome could destroy her dreams.  It was a risk she was prepared to take – freedom above all else.

Richard Seymour comes from a different tradition, though on the surface it appears the same; thus his final worries about the mass action leading to a strengthening of the Conservative Party.  The vanguard must be in charge; even at the cost of democracy, one would guess: for politics is about winning; it is not a creative act in itself.  Thus his final peroration against Hind’s idea: the worse – the better.  His old master, of course.

Andrei Sakharov’s motto is wiser and more profound: “the better – the better.”  Sakharov knew the costs of such dogmatism, as did Rosa Luxembourg thus her attacks on the Russian Revolution; her pamphlet later suppressed by Lenin, despite the fulsome praise of some of its aspects. 

We must get rid of this old conservatism, that orthodoxy and ancien régime of left wing thinking.   We must get rid of these dreams of October 1917; that terrible month when freedom and socialism died; executed by Lenin and Leon Trotsky.  We must create a new tradition, a new left, where Marx is de-sanctified; and where radical values are fused with practical action.  Dan Hind in his reply to Richard Seymour suggests the beginnings of such a way…

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