I liked Hilary Wainwright’s Red Pepper article on Jeremy Corbyn enough to revive this blog. Wainwright is one of many on the left who have paid their £3 to vote for Corbyn, not as a “knight in shining armour”, but because he is
one of a modest band of Labour MPs, building on the tradition of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, who don’t ask to see your party card before joining struggles and debates beyond the walls of Westminster.
Unlike Wainwright, I remain a (somewhat grumpy and disaffected) member of the Labour party. However, I think Wainwright’s analysis of the current political situation has a lot going for it.
The strongest part of her analysis comes when she describes how voting for Corbyn shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to turn the Labour party into “a genuinely socialist party”, but as a response to economic and political changes that have made Labour’s style of social democracy untenable:
The economic and political conditions for social democracy no longer exist. The prevarications of both Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham are indications of this. Their goals are social democratic but the world of a mixed economy, where the profits of a productive capitalist sector could be taxed and redistributed to provide universal welfare, social security and a public infrastructure for the benefit of all, no longer exists.
Instead, we live in a world dominated by a “financialised global capitalism”, in which “social democracy as we have known it is visibly too weak to be an effective champion of social justice.” Hence the declines experienced by European social democratic parties ranging from Pasok in Greece to the German SPD, French Socialists and British Labour party. All these parties depended, during the post-war era, on a Keynesian economic consensus based on
productive capital, the aspiration of full employment, decent wages and social security (hence a strong market for the goods produced), taxable profits and a nationally regulated currency and trade.
All this has been replaced, Wainwright argues, by a neoliberal order in which “making profits out of producing things” has been supplanted by “making money out of money.” In that world, the old tools of parliamentary social democracy are of limited effect:
The levers of national governmental power have either become useless in the face of global financial flows (for example, to tax corporations or combat tax avoidance) or, in the case of the EU, international treaties block state intervention in the market or use debt to prevent radical governments from using the powers they could have (as with Greece).
The only politics that is possible in the face of this is one that “seeks to mobilise all possible sources of counter-power.” Simply aiming to form an elected national government “is simply not sufficient” – though gaining such power can certainly play an importance role in “the full realisation of people’s transformative capacities.”
This then leads Wainwright on to the section of her essay that resonated most strongly with me:
What I would stress is the need to abandon purisms and single perspective politics – whether pure anarchism, pure parliamentarism, pure syndicalism or any one-track approach – and instead to urge a hybrid and experimental politics where collaboration is the guiding method.
I find that my own political views are a shifting mixture of perspectives ranging from quasi-anarchism to social democracy to (whisper it) elements of so-called “Blue Labour” thinking – often reflecting the tension between what I’d ideally like to see happen versus the need and chance to make things a bit better right now, even if this falls a long way short of the ideal or even comes with some distasteful accretions. (This is why I continue to maintain that, had the Labour leadership election offered a candidate from the Labour centre or even the Labour right who I believed could win an election, I’d have voted for them over Corbyn).
Hence, for Wainwright, the politics that is needed in a post-Keynesian, post-social democratic world is “less about demands on government, more about grassroots transformation”:
Hence a movement as much about popular education and self-education as about winning elections; that is less about faction fights and more about welcoming diversity and creating space for reflection and debate, treating practice as experimental action from which to learn; an organisation, then, that is less of a central hierarchy and vanguard, more a platform connecting and supporting and interconnecting struggles.
Hence her support for Corbyn, who she sees as “a good kind of leader … for this kind of plural and non-hierarchical organisation.” This is not about rallying behind a “charismatic leader”, but about supporting someone with a track record of “weaving a web of networks”, who can see that “something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.” She concludes:
We are supporting someone who has no desire to be the leader but is willing to offer his energies and legitimacy as an MP as a resource for a movement that can self-consciously create a truly transformative politics, inside and outside the Labour Party and based on principles of self‑governing democracy.
I wonder whether Corbyn, if he becomes Labour leader, will be able to live up to these expectations – given the nature of that role, coupled with the civil war likely to erupt in the party from day one of his leadership. My own reasons for voting for Corbyn are less well-formed and less hopeful: more an angry kick aimed at a defeated and intellectually bankrupt party, in the hope that at least some of the resulting destruction proves to be of the creative variety. However, Wainwright’s article is a reminder that a “best-case scenario” for a Corbyn leadership is, as Seamus McCauley puts it, an escape from the “consensus” and “status quo bias” into which British politics has slipped. In Wainwright’s words:
an opportunity to get out of a political trap into a space for debate and new radical thinking.
All that said: I wonder whether Labour will even allow Wainwright to vote…