Thursday, 4 February 2016

Rereading Nicos Poulantzas

I've recently been reading Nicos Poulantzas's, State, Power, Socialism. Partly because the bright orange of the Verso Classics edition has glowered at me from the shelf for the best part of a decade, partly because I want something a little bit heavyweight to blog about (previous extended postings Lukacs, JS Mill, and Gramsci were well-received), partly as an exercise in self-clarification, and lastly because Poulantzas's work deserves wider circulation among present day socialists.

My thinking and political priorities have undergone something of a change since this blog started almost a decade ago. Then I was an unorthodox Marxist and self-regarding revolutionary socialist hanging around in an equally self-regarding orthodox Marxist outfit. And now? Good question. I still think capitalism needs superceding, that Marx provided the method and most of the basic concepts to understand it, and that the collective action of working people organised as the labour movement have something to do with transforming what we've got into something better. Beyond that, I know the revolutionary road to socialism is a non-starter. The greatest contribution the far left in the advanced countries have furnished socialist thought is to underline that argument by their spirited and persistent irrelevance. And yet the polemics of Rosa Luxemburg against the parliamentary road to socialism retain their force as history has confirmed and reconfirmed her position time and again.

It has seemed to me that a third way might be possible, but one premised on the difficult task of building up the labour movement in an era where its base is under pressure and somehow managing and transforming the state to strengthen our collective strength seemed about the best wbet. This wasn't to be a long march through the institutions, but rather using our political clout to strengthen our political hand. It is about building up a constituency whose interests go beyond dull conformity and hidden exploitation, and in so doing change the system as that collective itself changes. An impossible task perhaps, but one that could lead to very real material benefits for our people where and when such a project meets success.

This kind of project was pursued by the Eurocommunist tendencies in several continental communist and socialist parties in the 70s and 80s, without much in the way of success. Nicos Poulantzas, before his life was cut cruelly short by mental health problems, was influential in rethinking the Marxist approach to the state and couching Eurocommunism in Marxist terms. Having made his name during the 70s as a disciple of Louis Althusser via a series of innovative analyses of the state (including a bad tempered exchange in New Left Review with Ralph Miliband), State, Power, Socialism is a culmination of his thought and also, sadly, his epitaph. Nevertheless, what Poulantzas tried to do was recast the Marxist approach to the state as something struggled over by competing groups of capital, as a manager of the interests of capital-in-general, and as a phenomenon constituted by the relations of production and therefore an object and site of class struggle. The resulting argument is full of insight and foresight, of relationships still yet to be fully analysed and explored, and of the problems and opportunities this more "open" view of the capitalist state presents the labour movement. Striking something of a gloomy note, Poulantzas recognised that a constant and persistent effort of building up one's forces, capturing and transforming the state, while checking the tendencies eroding the solidarity socialism depended on was a big ask, and one far from the conceited guarantees of the revolutionary road.

Poulantazas however was to suffer a double indignity. Those who you would think might be interested in a serious intervention around the problems of socialist strategy in the advanced countries - the far left - remained largely wedded to the road map scribbled down by old Trotters. And beyond a small group interested in sociological issues around the role of the state in society, academic radicalism went voguing with post-structuralism down any blind alley it could find. The question of linking the micro-levels power operates at with wider scale processes, such as the operation of class and capitalism, were filed under 'do not bother'.

With a new spirit of radicalism in the air and a generation of activists looking afresh at what Marxism and radical social theory has to say about power, capital, and the state, a rereading of Poulantzas is timely and, I hope for those who follow this series, proves useful.

Just a note on reading State, Power, Socialism itself. Considering Poulantzas came from the Althusserian school, whose Marxism was noted for excessive technical verbiage and tortured writing, Poulantzas is as clear as the complex object of his study allows him to be. If you are familiar with basic Marxist concepts and terminology, anyone giving the book a stab shouldn't find it difficult provided one is willing to think along with it. The second relates to a point made by Mike: that Poulantzas lacked a theory of money, and therefore an appreciation of how deeply that state was constituted and traversed by class relationships. This meant, by implication, the Poulantzas offered a more radicalised version of the traditional social democratic view of the state as an institution independent of and existing above class relationships. I don't think this is the case, but I can understand why it's made. Much of the confusion around seemingly contradictory statements made by Marx in Capital can be put down to the use of abstraction as an analytical tool. As Marx planned but never wrote additional volumes of Capital on the political economy of the working class, the global economy, and the state, I take State, Power, Socialism as a contribution to filling the gap left by the absence of the last volume. As such, to tease out some of the relationships that require understanding and verifying on the basis of further research, abstracting from matters of political economy beyond general comments to bring out the specificity of the capitalist state-in-general for analytical purposes is a tried and tested method.

The format will be very similar to the previous extended discussions, looking in-depth at arguments, utilising contemporary political examples to highlight the points made, and evaluating them in light of subsequent debates and developments. As they appear the posts will be listed below.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

On Dave's EU Membership "Deal"

History remembers the last time a Tory prime minister went to Europe and came back waving a piece of paper, but the hungry beast to be appeased now is a coterie of backbench MP's, a hapless and hopeless crew blinded by stupidity and consumed by petty-minded hobby horses.

Yes, it's the obligatory EU-renegotiation blog post, seeing as Dave has unveiled a draft deal looking to be the climax of his 2015-16 European tour. And, as absolutely nobody foresaw, the thin gruel he's come home with is getting talked up as an overgenerous banquet. So the headline grabbers are the minor changes for in-work social security for EU workers, a reduction in the level of child benefit, an exemption of the UK from ever-closer political integration (which no one was forcing on us anyway), and a recognition that Parliaments can club together to change EU rules. The way Dave and his cheerleaders carry on, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole show isn't already run by the Council of Ministers, but I digress.

As someone who thinks the EU is necessary, but is in sore need of democratic reform and restructuring, this isn't a "good deal". I don't think anyone in the labour movement should be in the business of cheering on cuts to social security eligibility, regardless of where the recipients are from. And we should be wary of lending this snake oil salesman any form of political credibility, which I'm glad to see Alan Johnson avoids doing in his comment on Dave's "achievements". As this was always a package of negotiations driven by the crisis ripping up the Tory party's guts as opposed any kind of dysfunctions in Britain's EU membership. It's a deal struck to ameliorate Dave's awkward squad, nothing else.

Supposing it's all over bar the shouting, what does Dave's deal mean for politics over the next six months? Despite stressing how much he wants the British people to take a considered view and have plenty of time to mull over the arguments, the received Westminster wisdom is for a June referendum. Dave might be venal, but he's not stupid. Dragging out the Scottish independence vote allowed the Yes camp time to build up a genuinely popular movement, and one that still imperils the continued existence of the union. Dave knows a relatively short campaign leaves the fractious Leave outfit ill-placed to whip up populist Europhobia of the kind UKIP were once adept at tapping into. He also wants to minimise the damage to the Tories. In the main, as an alliance of the big fractions of British business, there are fundamental contradictions between those for whom European markets are an opportunity, and those for which it is a threat. Like the various families of Labour, if it wasn't for our electoral system and its steep barrier of entry, then perhaps the Tories would have fragmented long ago. As it stands, Dave has to avoid that eventuality from coming to pass - going early is his best chance of avoiding that fate.

The Europhobic right, however, are unlikely to be mollified by either the sham renegotiation or the short referendum campaign. They are right it changes nothing, and from their standpoint Dave is putting a false prospectus to the country. A referendum premised on endorsing a big lie means it's unlikely they will accept the result if, one hopes, it doesn't go their way. For them, they're being set up and cheated of the full and frank contest they want. If Dave is hoping to treat the running sore that is the Tory party's obsession with Europe once and for all, someone is set to be disappointed.

There's also the small matter of this May's elections in Scotland, Wales, London, and some English councils. Nicola Sturgeon has already made her views clear on the subject, especially as the SNP's campaign is best served by putting distance between themselves and her pro-EU opponents. While it's not going to have much of an affect on the return wind of the nationalist hurricane north of the border, party positioning on the EU could affect elections ostensibly fought on local/regional matters. Clarity on the part of the LibDems, Labour, and UKIP might light their chances whereas open intra-party warfare among the Tories might make them look foolish.

Leaving aside the reverberations for politics, once again the EU talks demonstrate Dave's exceptional luck. While the draft letter doesn't amount to a great deal in the grand scheme of things, to have 27 other states acquiesce either demonstrates a deftness of touch not shown in domestic politics, or a stunningly fortuitous alignment of the stars. I'm inclined to go for the latter, especially as the EU have much bigger fish to fry - the refugee crisis for one, and the now loud, now quiet stagnation and crisis in the Eurozone. Letting the UK take away a few trifles is a price worth paying for keeping the beleaguered project together. However, back home where he faces his toughest test, Dave's charmed life could be about to hit the buffers.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Terry Wogan and the Celebrity System

"We'll never see their like again" is a refrain common to the passing of major league celebrities. With David Bowie this was because of his profound influence on pop music and performance, an impact that is probably impossible for anyone to repeat ever. And then there is Terry Wogan who, I would suggest, is of a similar type of celebrity.

What? As beloved Terry Wogan is, how can he as a Radio 2 presenter, former talk show host, and longtime commentator on Europe's silly song contest be considered to have much in common with our culture-defining legend? Yes, and it comes down to the political economy of celebrity.

Anyone with a passing similarity with the sidebar of shame knows there's a gradation in the level of celebrity. At the very top are the A-listers of hot pop and film stars, and genuine legends who have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. Their stardom is usually international in scope - to have made it big in America is more or less a prerequisite. The next level down are national celebrities of import. These can be actors, warblers, presenters, comedians, etc. In this way of grading matters, here is where you'd probably locate Wogan's celebrity. The next rung down are your soap stars, DJs, and various species of presenter and talk show host. And then at the bottom are your Z-list'ers of reality TV stars (amateur and "professional"), talent show contest hopefuls, paparazzi fodder, glamour models, and so on. This is hardly scientific, of course, but if you can think about celebrity as a broad field in which people jostle for media attention and exposure, you could certainly make a plausible stab of segmenting it in this way.

Approaching celebrity as a field has its advantages, but an emphasis on mapping out contemporary positions might ignore the specific routes taken to fame by those at the top of the tree, and miss how celebrity once worked differs from its operation today. And this is where the substantive similarities between Wogan on the one hand, and Bowie on the other start to show up.

One does not have to be a paid up aficionado of postmodern social theory to accept that what it did get right was the tendency to cultural splintering and fragmentation that started in the 1960s, and accelerated in the 80s and 90s. The consequences of which are much disputed and need not detain us here (though more here). Yet over the same period there was a strong counter-tendency to homogenisation and uniformity. This didn't express itself 1984-style, but rather the mass media as was had a narrower range while commanding audiences unheard of these days. When Wogan presented Wogan, at one point 20 million people were regularly rocking up to watch. This wasn't because the past was a foreign country (though it is), it simply reflected a lack of choice. At the time of Wogan's peak we had four terrestrial channels and a small offering on satellite. Go back even further, and TV viewers had fewer options. This meant, culturally speaking, that millions of people had common viewing habits to such an extent that these shared media reference points worked as social glue. It was then, and to a degree remains now, a common currency.

Celebrity-wise, it meant stars who made it under these conditions became a huge deal. There were a plethora of bands and singers when the rocket blew up under Bowie's career, but vast audiences on radio and TV for his work throughout the 70s conferred legendary status upon him. Consistent exposure, which was matched by only a few of his contemporaries, embedded him as an A-list fixture of the star system. And Wogan was exactly the same. A regular on BBC radio since the 60s, and a familiar television face from the 70s, Wogan attained the status of feted national treasure by ubiquity and familiarity. Whereas Bowie's fame (initially) courted notoriety, Wogan's was a gentle, if wry conformity. He wasn't someone you'd meet down the pub or in the queue at the checkout, but his was a presence, and therefore a passing, felt just as keenly by millions of people.

Terry Wogan was a survivor of the old celebrity system as it worked here in Britain. We won't see his like again not simply because he was a one-off. There are plenty of quick-witted Irish men who've made a home at the BBC, after all. No, the way it works now, that fragmentation I talked about, materially rules out the re-emergence of someone who would grow into Wogan's standing. There will always be loved and fondly remembered celebrities for as long as there are celebrities, but to have that reach and deeply held connection between a person and the thoughts and feelings of tens of millions? That time has passed.

Five Most Popular Posts in January

The five most popular posts last month were ...

1. Top 100 Independent Tweeting Bloggers 2016
2. Jeremy Corbyn, Women, and the Shadow Cabinet
3. Is the Labour Party Middle Class?
4. A Note on Laura Kuenssberg and the BBC
5. Simon Danczuk and Narcissism

I can't say I'm shocked that the annual countdown of independent bloggers clinched the top spot, but I am very pleased to not that last month was the busiest ever traffic-wise. 67,000 page views is hardly premiere league stuff, but at over 2,000 a day that will do me nicely thank you very much. Of course, one can never have too big an audience ...

Propelling the blog to dizzying heights were some ruminations on a couple of minor media scandals, if they can be called that, the demographic composition of the 'new politics', ans a reflection on one man's out-sized ego.

Posts deserving a second chance? Hmmm. Let's go for the Labour Party coup fantasy, because some people persist in believing in constitutional phantoms, and a farewell to Ellen Meiksins Wood, one of the finest Marxist minds of recent years.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Local Council By-Elections January 2016

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/-  Dec

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There was only one Independent clash
**** Others this month consisted of Christian People's Alliance (12), and All-People's Party (38)

Overall, 11,567 votes were cast over nine local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Three council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with December's results, see here.

January is always a quiet month, and so it proved here. Two seats in total changed hands, with an Independent taking one off Labour and Labour gaining another at the expense of UKIP. Regular watchers of this monthly round up will also note this is the first time since Jeremy became leader that Labour has won the local by-election popular vote tally. Not that it means a great deal, seeing as the seats were tilted slightly in our party's favour. That said, it remains an annoyance that despite being the largest party by a country mile, the Tories on the whole manage to dig deep and contest nearly every seat that comes up. Getting out-organised by a hedge funds and tumbleweed outfit, it's embarrassing.

As the number of contests were low, there's not a great deal that can be said. Except, again noting in defiance of the polls, the LibDems again out-polling UKIP. This trend stretches all the way back to just after the election, so something is going on here. And in the three-quarters year since, the consistency of the result cannot be put down to geographical quirks. If people are used to voting LibDem again, then their standing in the coming locals might come as a surprise to those glued to the polls.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Labour's Prospects in the Local Elections

Is it too early to write about this? Seeing as everyone is talking about how this year's contest is a test for Jeremy, I'd like to briefly visit three push-me-pull-you factors that could have an impact.

Local elections, local politics
In the equivalent elections in 2012, we were just coming off the back of Osborne's celebrated omnishambles budget. Try as the Tories might, even they couldn't talk down the huge gains Labour made that year. However, that was something of an abnormality. Local council contests usually turn out the hardest of hardcore voters, and in the main they vote on the basis of local issues. The other parties will try their damnedest to make this set of elections a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn, but it's quite possible the Oldham effect could kick in. Voters zoned out the anti-Jeremy bile and gave Labour a thumping result. The lesson drawn by many a Local Campaign Forum might be, with Corbers plumbing the polls, that hiding him under a bushel and going all out on pot holes and unfair council cuts might capture a higher than projected vote share. It could work.

Local politics, local records
There is a big but of Sir Mix-A-Lot proportions that could blunt this strategy. Labour isn't entering this round of contests "fresh". We're defending from a position of town hall strength whose defence involves records of four years in local government. On the whole, I think Labour councils have done a good job playing their hand when the Tories always has the best cards. Others might not think that way and punish our local government people at the polls for misdemeanors, perceived money wasting, and not having the bins emptied on time. It's a dilemma. Hide Jeremy and one's record comes into sharp focus. Don't hide Jeremy, and we'll be gambling on what the polls are telling us.

Think global, act local
Well, not quite global. Our opponents and enemies are going to put the boot in to Jeremy anyway. Whether he goes on the literature or not, he's a factor. But as these are second order elections, another bloc of voters might come into play. Recall 2013 and 2014, UKIP did very well in local contests. Now, many of those administrations aren't up on this occasion but there is an uneven spread of anti-politics voters. As the press ramp up their attacks, no doubt aided by the likes of "friends" who'll say anything to get in the papers, there is a possibility they could be drawn to vote Labour as the anti-Westminster choice. Or, rather, voting Labour as a means of keeping Jeremy in situ to annoy the political establishment. So talking Jeremy up might not have the deleterious effects some folks are worried about.

Whatever happens in May, there will be folks from all wings of politics scrabbling around for easy answers to understand what happens. I'm afraid there won't be any. Complexity is the order of the day.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Pet Shop Boys - Inner Sanctum

Well knock me down with a pointy hat and a Welsh male choir, the Pet Shop Boys have done it again by releasing a confounding but brilliant dance track. It's not very 'Pet-Shop-Boysy', is it? Not that their first two decades were dud by any means, but if the new single, Inner Sanctum is representative of the forthcoming album, it's going to be a must-listen for any dance fan. What I love about this are the clear 90s trance influences. One moment you can hear Age of Love's Age of Love working its way through, and then it starts tugging at Cafe del Mar. As a trance head, how can I not love such a beastie? It looks like we have a strong early entry in the top 10 of 2016 ...

Monday, 25 January 2016

Is the Labour Party Middle Class?

The key to "professional" success in the land of comment is to never let the facts get in the way of a good narrative. If hard numbers and social realities are inconvenient, one can safely shove them aside in the assured knowledge they won't come back to haunt the writer. Especially if one is a star columnist in a newspaper with broadly the same politics. On this occasion, it's Janan Ganesh writing in the FT about Jeremy Corbyn, class, and UKIP. And yes, it's rubbish. Here, Janan had given his own spin to the political meme doing the rounds - that the Labour Party has got taken over by the middle class.

As it happens, there are numbers - not consulted in Janan's piece - that bear out this analysis, but only to a degree. Published by The Graun last week, the party has attracted disproportionate numbers of home-owning inner city yuppie/hipster-types. They account for something like four per cent of the general population, while they're a mahoosive 11.2% of our party's membership. 10% of members are in "prestige positions", as against nine per cent of the population. Meanwhile, rural workers and the less well-off are underrepresented. So for one, talk of a middle class take over is somewhat overstated. It's an issue, certainly, but represents a little over one-in-five members and, anecdotally, appears to be geographically concentrated in the big cities. My own sunny Stoke constituency party remains as working class as it was back before the membership surge, for example. And while we're at it, show me a party that is more demographically balanced than the Labour Party. Many low paid workers in the Tories, do you think? Are numbers of students in the LibDems proportionate? Is UKIP rammed with working class supporters?

Ah, well yes, if you follow the narrative. Apparently, it is white working class voters who are most susceptible to UKIP's dubious charms. Locally here in North Staffordshire, the purples have given us most grief in solidly working class districts that were at one time Labour-loyal. Silverdale in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Abbey Hulton and Bentilee - the last two former bases of the late and unlamented BNP - have returned kipper councillors, or came within a whisker of doing so. Yet the studies looking at UKIP support tell another story. Prior to last May, the British Election Survey found working class voters were only a little more likely to support UKIP. Of more significance was the disproportionate support of middle class professionals and small business people. As anyone with a dim awareness of radical right and fascist parties in Western Europe will tell you, such a composition is par the course for parties of UKIP's character. And, yes, the same was true of the BNP's core support as well. Of course, what the NRS measure of social class used to bolster these kinds of analyses neglect to mention is that the 'E' class at the bottom of the scale - itinerant workers, the unemployed, etc. - have traditionally been the fodder of reactionary movements, as even Marx noted in his day. Lumping in the lumpens, who are also present in disproportionate numbers, lends the radical right a working class appearance when, in fact, it's the middling, small business, and declassed elements who predominate.

This isn't to say Labour should be chillaxed about such things. Neglecting UKIP in the context of a Tory campaign characterised by nationalist fear-mongering was fatal for Labour, and the jury remains out on whether sufficient numbers of working class voters can be won back by Jeremy's leadership. But Janan should beware smugging his way through the situation Labour finds itself in. In the first place, he betrays no understanding of different gradations and substantive experience of class. The idea working class jobs are confined to manual occupations is complete nonsense. Changing technology, the deskilling of occupations, the rise of part-time working, and the spread of temporary and zero hour contracts has effectively proletarianised what were traditionally regarded as middle class occupations. This 'new working class', if you like, is inchoate, disorganised, and largely atomised. But it's big and it's growing, and sooner or later the multiple frustrations it faces will find political expression. I hope it will be by recruiting millions of these people to the labour movement. Yet there is a chance the Tories could exploit their insecurities and ride them back into Downing Street. Or anti-politics and "apathy" could rule the day. Or Jeremy Corbyn's message about equality and life chances could cut its way through. It's possible.

The second problem for Janan is his revisionism. He argues that New Labour was no middle class take over of the party (though the demographic composition of the PLP accelerated in this direction during the Blair years). He says "by hardening its line on crime and defence, by cloaking it unsqueamishly in the British flag, by taking school standards and welfare abuse seriously, Tony Blair returned a party captured by the whims of the Brahmin left to actual working people." That's funny, because at the time (what a wonderful thing memory is), all of these moves were justified by the need to pitch to the middle ground, which has always been code for nice middle class people in nice middle class marginals. The other problem with Janan's assertion is whatever one thinks of Blair's strategy and policies, a number of previously Labour-loyal working class voters started flirting with then voting for alternatives. Labour got wiped out in Scotland in 2015, but the ruin dates back much earlier. The BNP and UKIP grew strongly under St Tony too. The political consequences of tough talk on immigration and of repeating scrounger narratives was to prepare the ground for right wing parties with simple populist "policies" we could never hope to compete with.

The truth of the matter is Labour has never been a working class party, as such. It was founded to represent the interests of people who have to sell their labour power for a living in the British political system. It's a proletarian party, which is a key difference. That category is vast, ranging from well-remunerated professionals with qualifications spilling out of their hats to "traditional" workers to the low paid and the destitute. It is now as it was then an alliance between different categories of occupation, and the party's strength lies in these links it has to these organised interests of the vast majority of working people, blue collar and white collar. Sure, Jeremy's leadership presents the party with a series of tough challenges, but if his leadership continue to hammer home issues that can speak to our people, it's not without opportunities either.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Poulantzas on Studying the State

Be afraid. There is a strong possibility State, Power, Socialism by Nicos Poulantzas is going to get the Lukacs/Mill/Gramsci blogging treatment. Consider yourselves warned. In the mean time, here's one of Poulantzas's notes on studying the state.
... [capitalist] relations constitute the initial scaffolding of the state's institutional materiality and of the relative separation from the economy that stamps its framework as an apparatus: they are the only possible starting point for analysis of the state's relationship with classes and class struggle. Changes in the state themselves refer above all to the struggles of social classes. These constitute the framework of modification in the role and economic activities of the state, each of which has particular effects upon the state.
- Nicos Poulantzas 1980, p.53