Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Jon Cruddas and 'Blue Marxism'

What does misinterpretation mean, particularly in hard-to-follow arguments about the complex and often counter-intuitive ways social dynamics work? Often, it can be an honest mistake, of not approaching a position with sufficient nuance or not having a complete picture about the theoretical project of which it is part. It can be a result of one's own assumptions, that because term x has a certain value attached to it in your thinking you interpret its deployment by an opponent in similar terms, thereby (unconsciously) distorting the position of the other. See humanist approaches to anti-humanism, for instance. Or you're trying to distort it wilfully to either avoid its ramifications, or to pigeon hole it as a stratagem for discrediting it. What kind of misinterpretation is on show in Jon Cruddas's recent attempts to rescue Marxism from new ideas and fresh thinking is something for the reader to decide, but shot through with error it most certainly is.

The target of his critique of what he calls the "postcapitalist left", both in his Fabian piece and his longer New Statesman essay is the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; fellas, as regulars know, who have a warm reception in this corner of the internet. And this critique has to carry a lot of polemical weight. Jon's Marxism (or "blue" Marxism thanks to his being one of the brains of the blue Labour "movement"), rhetorically emphasises class struggle at the point of production, talks about the need for a politics of consumption to deal with pesky things like "superstructural relations", and wants to "strike compromises" with the forces of capitalism that constrain our freedoms and aspirations. Leaving aside the peculiarities of a Marxism seeking compromises with capitalism rather than working towards superseding it, I am left wondering how much homework Jon's done on 20th century European Marxism. Leninism in its official communist and Trotskyist variants was never alone in emphasising the importance of workplace action. The Italian autonomism that deeply influenced and arguably made Negri is a different workerist tradition, for instance. Speaking of Antonios, I'm sure Jon has heard of the other one - Gramsci - though his remarks demanding a Marxist analysis and politics of culture suggests not. And if you reject the theoretical advances drawn from the experience of class struggles since the late 1960s, which is what Hardt and Negri (and their important poststructural precursors and forebears, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) do, the Marxism you have left has cut itself off from nourishment and innovation. Perhaps calling it 'blue Marxism' is more apposite for another reason, because in Jon's hands it is cold, inert, dead.

Needless to say, the pen portrait Jon (and Frederick Harry Pitts - remember him?) draw of Hardt and Negri is something I don't recognise. Rather than trade quotes, which is dull, it's necessary to break their polemic down into a number of claims they make about the new leftism. These are that the working class is obsolete and "a new urban, networked and educated youth" is the basis for leftist politics, that it is mired in technological determinism ("the implication remains that we must adapt our politics to match the march of the machines, rather than vice versa"), it's theoretical underpinnings are derived from Marx's jottings that ended up published as The Grundrisse, and particularly, the fragment on machines, and that the new leftism is teleological: all history was bound to lead us to this point, and will serve up communism in the future. This points to their conclusion, that "orienting a programme for the left around errant theoretical derivations from disputed repackagings of Marx’s work and empirical speculations of a future that may or may not come to pass is unwise and potentially dangerous." Grab yourself a bunker, it all sounds quite terrifying.

There is plenty to say on technological determinism, The Grundrisse and the teleology in the future, so for the remainder of this post I'll be concentrating on the claims made about class.

Of course, Hardt and Negri, nor Novara Media, nor anyone is saying the working class is obsolete. Instead, what is obvious is it has changed. There are many approaches to this, but the one underpinning the new leftism are the conclusions drawn by Italian autonomism from the battles of the late 60s and 70s, and popularised by the authors of the Empire trilogy. The direct involvement of the state in capitalist production meant it was then, as now, the primary vehicle for realising bourgeois interests in the class struggle. The golden age of the post-war period saw real prosperity, but also saw the state working hand in glove with employers to discipline, pacify and manage rising working class militancy. Additionally, the state provided essential support to meet capital's functional necessities in other areas. After the war and with the memory of depression in the air, the state started employing increasing numbers of workers directly concerned entirely with the maintenance of, well, capitalism. There were workers engaged in production for individual capitalists, and there were workers involved in reproduction for the collective capitalist. The latter just weren't the growing numbers of civil servants managing the expansion of state agencies, but those also involved in health care, in education, and in social services. Mainstream economics often talks about automatic stabilisers that kick in when the economy goes south. These institutions can be thought of as social stabilisers, as organisations that are part of the state who not only fix the bodies and souls broken by work, but play significant roles in constituting the social relationships and competencies capital, that businesses and so-called entrepreneurs, are dependent on.

According to mainstream economics, these roles aren't productive because they don't yield value and, therefore, profits. But taking a more expansive view reproductive work is productive, it's socially productive because it provides the social infrastructure for our society. Capital, after all, is much more than a sum invested: it is a social relationship. This reproductive labour then is immaterial labour. Whether caring for the elderly, teaching a class of kids, or reviewing planning permission documents, you are building social relationships, producing subjectivities and identities, generating knowledge, and managing abstract processes. No advanced society can operate without a large proportion of working age people doing this work. Think of your idealised 1950s nuclear family. Would the man be able to leave the house and work a full day with his clothes washed, meals cooked, children cared for, house cleaned, and sexual and emotional needs sorted if it wasn't for his wife? The unpaid, unglamorous, unrecognised labour done in the home by generations of women, the familial and social infrastructure they provide, is the microcosm of what reproductive labour, formal and informal, does for capital.

From the late 1970s on, particularly in Britain and the US and later followed elsewhere, immaterial labour was increasingly privatised. Sometimes it was a case of literal privatisation with public services put out to tender from providers who offered the taxpayer the best "value for money". But there was a shifting focus in capitalism itself. The confluence of consumerism and the invention of the teenager in the middle of the century, coincident with, feeding off, and spurring on rising individualism, and the cultural consequences of movements fighting for women's liberation, anti-racism and gay rights forced capitalism to adapt. On the one hand, immaterial labour mushroomed in business to sell identities, to track fashions, to market mundane products. Along with them came an expansive range of service industries around the maintenance of the body, of providing lifestyle services, of flattering consumers and selling experiences. Meanwhile increasing social complexity and the need for businesses and government to engage in ever more elaborate planning found their solutions in fast developing information technology. The growth in computer usage, the coming of the internet and its unexpected, unanticipated spin offs (like social media) created new growth industries, and new avenues for more immaterial labour, this time around the production of information and data. While not immediately in the business of producing social relationships, this is work made possible by new forms of collaborative working and social cooperation thanks to networks. For millions of people, the work day begins with the inbox.

For Hardt and Negri, the archetypal worker of late 20th and early 21st century capitalism is the socialised worker. Immaterial labour not only transforms what we do, and how we do it, but it transforms us, too. Far from any section of the working class being obsolete, almost all of us engage in the immaterial labour of social production in our lives outside of work. Not just in terms of the time we put into family responsibilities and tending friendships, but connecting to and spending time with the network, or the social commons. Regardless of what we do, few are the number who do not have a supercomputer sitting in their handbags or pockets, and are active in some way on our digitally-mediated commons. This has a number of consequences, one of which is the nice irony that as our division of labour grows more complex, the basic characteristics of the socialised and networked worker grows more universal.

This is the working class of the new leftism, a becoming of a new unity through variegated multiplicity. It encompasses hip, young gunslingers podcasting from shipping containers somewhere in London. But it also takes in retail workers, couriers, engineers, traffic wardens, brickies, car workers, hospitality, and warehouse workers. Their work and the networks that bound their days might be intangible, but as a mass, the socialised workers of immaterial labour certainly are not. Please, tell me, what is "unwise and potentially dangerous" about orienting your political programme to the experiences and emerging interests of a large and growing majority of the population - unless your politics is uninterested in and afraid of organising them politically in the first place?

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa - One Kiss

Got something in the works on Jon Cruddas's polemic against the new left, but it won't see the light of day, um, tonight. Here then is a top summery tune for your consideration.

Monday, 21 May 2018

There's the Decency, Kenneth

I'm glad Ken Livingstone has decided to quit the Labour Party because I agree with his resignation statement. He writes "The ongoing issues around my suspension from the Labour Party have become a distraction from the key political issue of our time – which is to replace a Tory government overseeing falling living standards and spiralling poverty ... However any further disciplinary action against me may drag on for months or even years, distracting attention from Jeremy’s policies." Yes, his repeated remarks were a distraction from what the Labour Party is trying to achieve. And you know who's to blame for that? The former Labour Mayor of London, one Ken Livingstone.

Is Ken anti-semitic? I don't believe he is, but it's easy to see why others might have drawn this conclusion. When you have, on the record, compared Jews to Nazis, made out Hitler was some sort of Zionist "before he went mad", and stubbornly, repeatedly talked up collaboration between the Third Reich and the Zionist movement, and carried on once it became a major political scandal, you do start to wonder. Normal behaviour is to try and get out of the hole you're in, not calling in the earth movers.

The problem with Ken and, unfortunately, many politicians and activists is he thought he was bigger than the party. And in Ken's case, when you've been a prominent figure on the left for almost four decades, and won an election as against the full weight of the New Labour machine at the peak of Blair's imperial majesty, you can understand why. But, unfortunately, there is a culture on the left of a certain radical narcissism. This is characterised chiefly by the adoption of provocative position-taking, behaviour that is shrill, shouty-shouty, self-aggrandising and downright annoying, and a studied refusal to ever put the collective interest of the politics, party or movement one is ostensibly committed to before their ever-so-important selves. Ken fits this like a glove, but there are others. Our "friends" Tony Greenstein and Jackie Walker, for whom bringing Labour into disrepute is a price worth paying as long as they can carry on acting like overgrown children. Gerry Downing of Socialist Fight thought it was fine and dandy to rhetorically support Islamic State, and write about a transnational "Jewish bourgeoisie" exerting a malign influence on world politics, slap bang in the middle of an anti-semitism row. That "Dr ACActivism" fool who dashed onto the stage this year's Eurovision to shout a muffled "For the Nazis of the UK media, we demand freedom" is another example. And there are our old favourites: George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan, though the less said about them the better.

There isn't anything particularly radical about radical narcissism, and it's no different from what we can find on the right. There's nothing necessarily political about it either. In a world in which we are exhorted to be responsible for our actions, to pull up our bootstraps and be masters of our own fates without assistance or support from others, it is we - individuals, ourselves - who are the supreme authority and arbiters of efficacy. Discipline, optics, persuasion, none of these thing matter. The individual is everything. The movement, the politics, nothing.

By removing himself from politics and putting the party first Ken has done the decent thing. Ironically, by resigning his Labour membership he became a better Labour and Jeremy Corbyn supporter and left behind him his hitherto primary loyalty: the Ken Livingstone Party. But now life after politics beckons he should spend his time repairing his reputation, and avoid the temptation of the broadcast studio and the inevitable questions about Hitler and Jews.

NB Image courtesy of Jewdas.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

On the Lewisham East Shenanigans

It's going to be a match made in heaven. No, not the Royal wedding, but the solemn and holy contract made between Lewisham East Labour Party and their new Prospective Parliamentary Candidate, Janet Daby. Winning 288 votes to Sakina Sheikh's 135 and Claudia Webbe's 35, Janet's win is convincing. Not even a united left or a second preference deal struck beforehand would have been able to see her off. Yet, thinking about it, did the left actually lose? Well, no. Apparently not. Forget the backslapping and what have you from the usual suspects online and consider that Janet voted for Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership contests, which is more than, ahem, some Corbyn supporters can say. It would be a real stretch to describe her as a right wing figure, unless wanting to keep Britain in the single market post-Brexit invalidates one's left credentials. Instead, consider it like this: how screwed must Labour First and Progress be when they're forced to endorse a candidate with impeccable pro-Corbyn credentials. This is not a loss for the left, and more an underlining of the right's weakness.

The selection did threaten to descend into farce, however, when Unite stumped up evidence of Sakina's alleged involvement with Take Back the City, a campaign group who stood candidates for last year's London Assembly elections. Immediately she was suspended and within minutes put back on the selection shortlist. What a farce. Not at all coincidentally, Unite had endorsed Claudia for the seat and so sat on this information, which was not disclosed to the NEC's shortlisting panel, before springing it at the last possible moment.

Unfortunately, Unite have form for what you might call bureaucratic bulldozering. As the largest affiliate to Labour, the role the union has played in clearing out Labour First's administrative power base in the West Midlands, and its bastions of power inside and around the leader's office, Unite has a certain weight, and it's not averse to using this to get its way. Having got the union's fingers burned in the particularly clumsy intervention in Falkirk a million years ago (remember that?), its seems the Unite's respect for subtlety has not grown alongside its clout. Replacing politics with administrative activism, to give it a euphemism, is the wrong approach to take. Corbynism will not succeed if it's merely an exercise in replacing a right wing bureaucracy with a left wing one. But quite apart from what Corbynism and the Labour Party might become, it's embarrassing and makes Labour look like some tin pot outfit as opposed to a party serious about government.

More worryingly, there's an element of recklessness here. The right in Unite got a right old clobbering after Gerard Coyne's failed run for general secretary. And rightly so. He ran a disgraceful campaign. Readers who have followed the saga since will note Coyne and his band of ne'er-do-wells have petitioned to overturn Len McCluskey's victory by going on about process and procedure, not that they ever bothered his campaign while the election was on. I digress. But just ask yourselves this. If you're going to be in and out of court over the next year against an opponent seeking to rubbish you and the structures of your union and for whom bureaucratic abuses is part of his case, is it smart politics to be seen publicly, in the full glare of the anti-Corbyn and, yes, anti-Unite media, to be pulling off egregious dirty tricks and attempted stitch ups?

No. Let Lewisham East be the end. The new politics can never be victorious if they rely on the old ways.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Royal Wedding and Indifference

It's nice that a young couple have met, fallen in love, and are due to formalise their commitment to one another. For them, their family and their friends it will (hopefully) be a wonderful day, something they'll live to fondly remember. And as it's wall-to-wall telly and press, you might have heard something about it. Ah yes, the royal wedding, the taxpayer funded jamboree of bowing and scraping we are officially celebrating this weekend. Yes, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to find that this wee corner of the internet finds the spectacle not just cringe-inducing, but thanks to Windsor Council's cleansing of the streets of the homeless, and the money thrown at it while we "can't afford" to safely clad tower blocks, the absurd pomp of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding will be as tawdry as it is tacky.

That's not how millions of people will see it. For a great many, Royal occasions offer something uncomplicated and pure. The monarch and her progeny did not seek their station in life, it was thrust upon them by accidents of birth. The institution embodies duty and service in which the Queen is a repository, an empty vessel if you will, into which hopes, meaning and narratives are poured. For those ill at ease with what Britain has become, the sheer longevity of the monarchy gives them something unchanging to hang on to. Less a tug of the forelock and more of a grip, this is ably assisted by the eternity of the Queen herself. But not just the Queen, the royal family has something for everyone. In the retired Prince Philip and, to a lesser extent, Charles, we find two fossils who embody the backward-looking anxieties of the nation. The Queen's consort with his hilarious racist quips, and the heir with his meddling in matters political - they're just telling it as it is, innit? Just like all the loudmouths out there, albeit in plummier, more refined tones. And with the younger Royals, we see modern Britain poking through. "Wills" and Kate are inoffensive and pleasant and considering their backgrounds, feudal-old money and nouveau riche, come across as surprisingly normal and relatable. Likewise, Harry has grown to occupy the same wholesome, do-gooding space after a shaky start (booze, partying, Third Reich cosplay). And with Meghan, we start to see the family's first rank resemble multicultural Britain - a woman who is divorced, is foreign, and horrifyingly for the Daily Mail brigade, mixed race.

No doubt things have changed for the Windsors, and for the better. Irony of ironies, the troublesome princess who did the institution a favour by dying in a Parisian tunnel 20-odd years ago went one step further. How Diana settled into her role as the once-future queen by being touchy-feely and hanging out with the slighted and blighted of the earth ended up providing the template for how to be the British sovereign for the 21st century - roles the Cambridges and Harry have avidly taken to, at least if you swallow everything broadcast and written about them. And so the institution appears stronger now than it has been for last 30 years.

Yet there might be something interesting a-stirring. And this is the widespread indifference, occasionally acknowledged by establishment outlets, to the wedding. How to explain? Yes, Harry isn't ever going to become King. Despite the big deal that is being made, in terms of Royal events this is distinctly second order. Matters aren't helped by the FA Cup Final, but also for the indifferent it is very easy to escape the hype around the wedding - easier than Wills 'n' Kate, the jubilees, the Queen Mother's funeral, and the suffocating, maudlin miasma that hung over Britain in the aftermath of Diana's demise.

Indifference is a latent menace in their heralded celebrity/PR strategy. The Royals have always been celebrities, have always got spoken about in the gossip columns, but unlike their parents the press have proven much more hands off with the princes. Harry's occasional misadventures were an irregular fixture, but neither of them sustained full scale character assassination as per other members of the family firm. The problem is how long can this carry on, especially if anyone in our couple of, well, power couples indulge an indiscretion or end up in a scrape. Ideally, for the institution's survival, they have to keep their noses super clean, especially when Charles inherits the throne and starts putting people's backs up. Diana-like beatification has to attend to the princes and their families in contrast to a monarch who, according to watchers, is set upon a larger political role. And why should we be surprised? He was born to rule, after all. The difficulty here for what comes after is if, under Charles, they take the inoffensive path and only make headlines for opening the Invictus Games, etc. Without gossip swirling about then, in the medium to long-term their standing could suffer from a lack of interest. I mean, just look at the tedium of the stories about Meghan's family, the will-he/won't-he speculation about whether Dad would give her away, and so on. Even the most avid royalist would find this mind dribbling banality insulting. Likewise, new royal babies or two, the first day of nursery and school are not the stuff by which a mass public warms to their future King. The young royals run the risk of popping up in the popular consciousness as shiny, expensive baubles and little else. On the one hand this might not matter, monarchic succession isn't democratic, but the institution needs popular support to continue, otherwise more people might start asking what's the point.

Put away your fantasies involving Madame Guillotine and storming Buckingham Palace. The danger for the British monarchy is its coming to an end with a shrug.

Monday, 14 May 2018

Suspend Labour Friends of Israel

This, from Emily Thornberry, is a powerful statement.
“We condemn unreservedly the Israeli government for their brutal, lethal and utterly unjustified actions on the Gaza border, and our thoughts are with all those Palestinians in Gaza whose loved ones have been killed or injured as a result.

“These actions are made all the worse because they come not as the result of a disproportionate over-reaction to one day’s protests, but as the culmination of six weeks of an apparently systemic and deliberate policy of killing and maiming unarmed protestors and bystanders who pose no threat to the forces at the Gaza border, many of them shot in the back, many of them shot hundreds of metres from the border, and many of them children.

“Throughout that six-week period, the UN’s Secretary General has been calling for an independent investigation into these incidents, one that should urgently determine whether international law has been broken, and hold the Netanyahu government to account for their actions. The UK should lead calls for the UN Security Council to order such an investigation today.

“These incidents must also be the catalyst for urgent and concerted international pressure on the Netanyahu government to lift the blockade on Gaza, and end Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. No longer can Netanyahu act as a law unto himself, under the protection of the Trump administration, whose decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem today has further inflamed the situation.

“In the meantime, we urge the Israeli forces serving on the Gaza border to show some long-overdue responsibility to their fellow human beings, and stop this vicious and utterly avoidable slaughter of peaceful protesters demanding the right to return to their homes.”
 This, from Labour Friends of Israel, is disgusting:
Tragic events on the Gazan border; all civilian deaths are regrettable. Hamas must accept responsibility for these events. Their successful attempt to hijack peaceful protest as cover to attack Israeli border communities must be condemned by all who seek peace in the Middle East.
What a despicable bout of victim-blaming. Taking its line straight from the spin put out by Tel Aviv, it lays responsibility at the hands of Hamas and not the people giving the orders and firing the guns. Was it Hamas, for example, that shot Palestinian journalists from the Israeli side of the fence while they covered the protests of recent weeks? Is it Hamas who invited Israeli army snipers to take potshots at passersbys walking hundreds of feet away from the so-called IDF's positions? Was it Hamas who shot hundreds of fleeing demonstrators in the back? Our LFI "comrades" know full well this isn't the case, but are nevertheless happy to go along with the Netanyahu line. As far as they're concerned, Palestinians aren't full, conscious proper human beings like you and me. They are dangerous automatons manipulated by Hamas and Iran, and so meeting stones and burning tires with automatic weapons fire, armoured personnel carriers, and white phosphorous is no biggie.

Let us be clear, this is not routine behaviour, even when a democratic state - a term that should be used advisedly in Israel's case - is an occupying power and locked into a low intensity but long-running conflict. For all of its stupid brutalities, the British army did not routinely massacre dozens of protesters in Northern Ireland. Even now, despite the crimes committed by India in Kashmir, including soldiers firing on civilians, nothing there in recent times approaches the deaths Israel have inflicted today and over the course of the last month. Funnily enough, they are exceeded only by the death factory Syria has become under Assad, and the Britain-backed bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, both of which are full blooded and exceedingly bloody conflicts.

Clearly, Netanyahu and his gang, officers of the IDF and the soldiers pulling the triggers are committing appalling crimes and deserve to be tried. For their part, in soft soaping this criminal action LFI are beyond the pale and bring the Labour Party into disrepute. Their denial of basic humanity to today's victims, their slandering of the dozens dead, and the alibiing of a massacre calls for the immediate suspension of the organisation and its office holders.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Enemies to the Left

At the end of this month, the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the RMT, will be debating at a special conference whether to affiliate to the Labour Party. Readers who've been around the block will remember the union was expelled in 2004 for backing candidates that offered left challenges to Blair's programme of war, cuts, and privatisation. Fast forward 14 years and the situation in the Labour Party has completely changed. Those who ruled the roost are a cranky and, as far as party membership are concerned, reviled and despised rump. The left are now in charge and with every passing day its hold on the party gets stronger as old, establishment MPs quit the field and what remains of the Blairist activist base huddle for warmth around Progress editorials. What better time is there to reaffiliate?

Well no, it's a rubbish time for the RMT to return to the Labour Party. At least according to the Socialist Party. That's right. Even though Labour is led by the left, possesses a membership larger than all the other parties combined, saw its vote surge by nine percentage points at the 2017 general election, has spurred on a politicisation of large numbers of young people ("the youth" in SP parlance) and welcomed the Fire Brigades Union back into the fold, the RMT shouldn't affiliate. Of course, my very erstwhile comrades have an interest to declare. Should they apply for affiliation, the SP's miserable Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition loses its single trade union affiliate. It goes from being dead in the water to Davy Jones's locker quicker than you can say "Ted Grant was right". Obviously, the SP can't admit openly that their reasoning is determined by the preservation of their marginal influence, but let's see what they do have to say.

The anonymous article in 24th April's edition of The Socialist reprints a piece from the SP's London Underground bulletin, The Red Line. In all likelihood authored by someone from the industrial department as opposed to a rail worker, it pays lip service to reaffiliation but that it should be declined on the terms offered. The main issue exercising the SP is the RMT's political independence. This means the freedom to fund certain Labour MPs and endorsing struggles within the Labour Party, such as Jeremy Corbyn's two leadership campaigns, while reserving the right to stand council candidates in cuts-happy local authorities. And how effective has the exercising of this right proven? In the SP's report of TUSC's local election results, punters are supposed to be wowed that TUSC came bottom of the poll and failed to get even a tenth of the Labour vote in Waltham Forest, pleased at getting 14% in Kirklees after two years of anti-cuts NHS work, and the return of a SP councillor in Southampton who stands as an independent instead of TUSC or Socialist Alternative. Not getting elected on your party label counts as success in SP world. Yes, it's easy to take the piss out of self-serving analyses of electoral performance, but this is the metric you choose to be judged by when you pursue votes. The SP are at pains to explain that they targeted cutting councils and councillors who didn't support Corbyn, but by being inside of the selection process the RMT could have made a difference by encouraging its own members to put themselves forward and getting selected in their stead. Indeed, hundreds of former SP members have done just this and traded their party cards in for Labour membership. Exercising "independence" via TUSC has achieved nothing but humiliation and disillusion for the activists involved.

The SP then goes on to ask what collective rights would the RMT obtain. It argues Labour Party structures are largely unchanged since the days of Tony Blair, and we are treated to a litany of bureaucratic practices. Unions only have a small role on the National Policy Forum, they have 50% of conference delegates, union branches have little input into council candidate selection, and therefore the RMT should steer clear. This, of course, means ignoring how Labour isn't the finished article, it is a site of struggle. Just because the SP has a hard time thinking about changes to political circumstances doesn't mean circumstances don't change. Within the last 18 months in the West Midlands, for example, the backbone of Labour First and the old union right of Unite's WestMids office and the regional party apparatus has collapsed, leaving nothing but bones, dust and the impotent squealing of your Ian Austins and John Spellars. The party regional board, once hand-picked by full-time officials, is elected and has strong left representation. Nationally, I'm sure it hasn't even escaped the SP's notice that Labour has a left wing general secretary and right wing officialdom at Southside and in London have resigned their jobs rather than carry on. There is also Labour's democracy review the RMT (and anyone else) can contribute to, and the likelihood mandatory reselection will be in front of conference. I don't know in what universe the Labour Party structures haven't changed, but it certainly isn't this one.

There are some legitimate sectional concerns RMT members might have. In a very heavily slanted report on an affiliation debate (which does very little to confer the flavour or set out the contending positions), it notes RMT members in Scotland would have issues with Labour considering what has happened there since 2014. True, Scottish Labour does have serious problems and despite its leadership being won from the left, plenty of scabby dregs remain. A job of work has to be done, and the transformation of Scottish Labour into something that can articulate 21st century class politics would be massively helped by the affiliation of and participation in the party by the most militant trade union in the land. And what does the RMT gain? Another means of exerting pressure on the behaviour of Labour MSPs and councillors, just as other unions do - see last year's victorious Birmingham bin dispute, for instance.

The sad fact is even if these excuses, because that's what they are, for not affiliating didn't exist the SP would invent some others. What they want is to be allowed entry into the Labour Party on their terms. Even when they were pushing their Campaign for a New Workers' Party, the only model for a new party they would countenance was a federal affair in which they had full freedom to do as they please. It's almost as if they cannot conceive any other immediate future for their organisation than re-enacting its Militant days, despite being out on their tod for nearly 30 years. A parasite without a host, independent life has been a cruel and bruising affair and only hugging a parent organism can deliver the sustenance the SP craves.

That Karl Marx was a perceptive fellow, and in The Manifesto he noted that communists have no interests separate from or opposed to wage earners as a whole. Quite. Except here we have a Trotskyist outfit, a latter day communist organisation ever keen to advertise its formal adherence to Marxist ideas but studiously unwilling to apply them to their practice. Class struggle is the reality of British politics, and uniting the strength of the labour movement with the millions of people newly won to the left Labour Party would be a major milestone in the rebuilding of socialist politics. And yet we find the Socialist Party, a small group doing everything it can to earn its 'sectarians on the fringes of the labour movement' epithet by obstructing this process of recomposition. And for what? To keep a pointless electoral coalition unknown to most RMT members, let alone members of the public on life support? To flatter the self-importance of the terminally dull SP exec and its general secretary of 54 years? To validate its ridiculous perspective that Labour was lost to the working class and could never be claimed for socialist politics? Whatever, the reasoning doesn't matter. The SP are standing in the way and deserve to be given short shrift by RMT members and the rest of the labour movement. Old Kerensky, the unlamented moderate head of the provisional government of revolutionary Russia was wrong. There are enemies to the left.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Wellred Films: Mass Trespass

A great short film from the comrades at Wellred. More info here from the Morning Star's interview with Alan Story.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

On the Centrist Fetishising of Talent

The PLP loses one of the persistent grumblers and stirrers, and in all likelihood will be replaced by someone from the left. How then, how can Heidi Alexander's resignation be described as a "fresh blow against Jeremy Corbyn"? Well, in all honesty it can't. Unless something goes catastrophically wrong during the coming Lewisham East by-election (are we going to see core group hostile theatrics immediately before polling day?), Corbyn and the left are going to be strengthened. We get what we want and, well, Heidi gets what she wants too. Win-win, as the management gurus put it.

This post isn't going to crow (much) over her departure to Sadiq Khan's office, but I am interested in a common theme that greeted her resignation, and those of sundry others. This is the notion of "talent". Or, to be more accurate, its fetishisation. Now, I don't know a great deal about Heidi beyond her political persona. She was an enthusiastic participant in the coup that never was, chaired Labour's successful mayoral campaign in London, and is reportedly relaxed about NHS marketisation, even to the point of employing a private health lobbyist. Of course, none of this is ideological. Simply a case of "what works".

This is all fine and dandy, but do the skills that got her from jobbing around a MP's office back in the day to a plum seat to a City Hall berth evidence exceptional talent? Not really. Public speaking, giving good presentation, project management, organising skills, networking, and awareness of current affairs are very handy abilities to have, but they're not exactly scarce. Millions of people have them and, as the job market continues to shift in the direction of immaterial labour, more and more are acquiring them. What Heidi possesses then is not "talent", but something else: social and cultural capital.

We've discussed this before in the peculiar and seemingly effortless segue George Osborne made from front rank Tory politics to Evening Standard editor with less journalistic experience than your average Parish Council newsletter writer. What mattered the most, what Evgeny Lebedev purchased him for, were his connections in the establishment and, crucially, influence over whatever happens to the flailing and failing Conservative Party in the coming years. That wasn't all, though. Osborne is a true believer. While claiming to eschew dogma and embracing "common sense", he genuinely believes the policies he pursued were the best for all concerned. Yes, doing so meant ignoring facts, suppressing critical reports, and telling outright porkies. His cracked ideas came with a barrage balloon full of bad faith and, entirely coincidentally, the policies these informed reasserted the economic distribution no Tory ever objects to: the movement of wealth from the mass to the minority.

Heidi is a different kettle of fish, but the same logics benefiting Osborne are the ones that have conferred her the London transport gig. She has connections, pull, and weight in the Labour Party, in the wider wonk community, and she has a certain media profile - including good relationships with sympathetic journalists. She knows how to be responsible for big projects and understands the political sensitivities surrounding a potentially controversial portfolio better than a business person or a career civil servant. Her politics are also pretty identical to those of her boss, and as a close ally they're likely to be close on most if not all issues. It isn't the skills that are decisive then, it's the social and cultural capital. This is the field of politics, and she has the dispositions and feels for the game most appropriate to it.

In his approach to unravelling the social, Pierre Bourdieu noted all fields have a property to them, an 'illusio'. Participants in a field have to subscribe to that which imbues their activities with worthy meaning, though often it is meaningless and transparently ideological to those viewing from the outside in. The Tories and their shamanic incantation of GDP figures and numbers in employment, the pretence of passion for customer service when getting a retail job, being a fearless defender of the truth for journos, sticking to insipid managerialism to catch the swing voters, you get the picture. The illusio is a consensual hallucination everyone must accept to be taken seriously by others as a valid and serious participant, and as such what was illusory takes material form as it is embedded in and kowtowed to in the course of the everyday social life of the field.

This brings us back to talent and its fetishisation. For those who cry about the departure of "talent" from the PLP, its invocation is an injunction for mourning. In the absence of any other prized political quality - charisma, popularity, originality, intellect - all that's left is the spinning of commonplace skills, because it's rude and undermines the field of politics (and any other field, for that matter) to talk about someone's elevation in terms of cronyism. It also has the, again coincidentally, handy by-product of not having to engage with the politics. An invocation of talent is an avoidance strategy. Because, to be sure, the old Labour establishment are defeated and don't know how to come back, and the last thing they want to confront is their abysmal refusal to take stock of their predicament in public view.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Understanding the Local Election Logjam

About a year ago, I was invited to write on the local elections and what they meant for the General Election. My argument was things were looking bad because the council results were pretty bad. This wasn't what said august publication wanted to publish so it never appeared, which is just as well as I got it completely wrong. Having learned my lesson I kept my counsel this year, but my gut feeling was right. There was no disaster, nor was there anything resembling a breakthrough. Instead, what we got was some modest(ish) progress in seats won, some spectacular vote tallies and big swings - particularly in London - but no lasting damage on the Tories.

Yet for those paid to carp and crow, and others who like to advertise their deficit of political nous for free, Thursday was a complete disaster. Extrapolating the results nationwide - a foolhardy affair when different dynamics are in play in local elections - neither the Tories nor Labour would have enough seats to govern alone, and so the Liberal Democrats and the SNP come into coalition play. I'm sure you've seen/heard the mantra: "eight years into a Tory government and all we can manage are a handful of seats. With [insert centrist messiah here] at the helm Labour would be 20 points ahead and on course to beat Theresa May."

Let us utter a truth that seldom troubles political punditry. Unless local elections occur in the lead up to a bigger contest, like 2017's, large numbers of voters who trudge to the polls to elect a council don't always have national politics in mind. On Thursday, Labour was defending just shy of 2,300 seats compared to the Conservatives' 1,365. The former gained 77 and the latter lost 33, a loss somewhat cushioned by the collapse of UKIP's vote and the return of their voters to the Tory fold. Labour also went into the contest with 74 councils, and came out with the control of ... 74 councils. The Tories were defending 49 and lost three. In many areas Labour went into battle with the baggage of incumbency. Haringey of homelessness-is-a-price-worth-paying gentrification fame lost seven seats, in Derby Labour lost three seats and saw the council slide into no overall control, and Nuneaton and Bedworth were also lost. Yet these were made up elsewhere by gaining Tower Hamlets, Plymouth and Kirklees.

However, if we take the incumbency argument and generalise it to explain the depression of Labour's vote, that also means ignoring the not-bad results for the Tories. They did, after all, only drop three councils. Apart from a couple of special circumstances, like Barnet (though Labour's vote went up) and Pendle, their vote more or less held firm. Are they immune to localised weariness? No. Likewise, while I agree with Lewis that Labour doesn't have a compelling local council story to tell (once they get into office, too many Labour Council Leaders forget they're politicians and suddenly start acting like managers and accountants), neither do the Tories.

What to explain stasis? Yes, it might have something to do with our old friend polarisation. In case you've been reading nothing but mainstream comment since last year, the stark polarisation of the electorate around Labour and the Conservatives is an unavoidable fact of political life. It's confirmed time after time by polling and appears pretty resilient. Windrush, Tory in-fighting, and incompetence hasn't had an appreciable effect on Tory numbers. Likewise, the anti-semitism idiocies, Corbyn's refusal to kowtow to established conventions on war, the most vicious media assault ever unleashed on a British political leader, etc. haven't done anything to Labour either. The occasionally noted new features of politics, such as the fall out from Brexit, socially liberal vs illiberal values, the sharp age split between younger and in work vs the older and retired are symptomatic of movements and change in the guts of our society. Effectively, there are two political mainstreams.

A consequence of this is the big swings we used to see in "normal politics", of the party of government getting punished at second order elections, of poll shares taking a tumble when a party did something egregiously stupid or wrong, they're all gone. I like a good irony, and that political stability means electoral volatility while crisis begets stasis, if not paralysis, is one to savour. But that's what we have. British politics is logjammed for the foreseeable and voting goes back to being more of a turnout game, a la the 1950 and 1951 general elections. Unfortunately for the Tories, with years in government yet to go and a voter base in long-term decline, the deadlock has a much greater chance of breaking in Labour's favour.