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Turn On, Tune In, Help Out

Paul Walsh

Corbynism: A Critical Approach, by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Emerald Publishing, 368 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-1787543720

“Surely to goodness we can take this Tony Benn tribute act and wallop it for six!” cried Boris Johnson in his 2018 Conservative Party conference speech ‑ with one eye on a future Tory leadership election. And perhaps the Tories can, because in Corbynism: A Critical Approach Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts accuse the Corbyn project of several immanent flaws, among them a “truncated” critique of capitalism, chronic disrespect for a threatened liberal order, and the canonisation of Corbyn himself as a moral saviour ‑ a martyrdom that, for them, serves to disable any sober analysis.

Quite a critique then, and different from other books on the same topic. Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2016) was sympathetic to radicalism, but pessimistic about Corbyn’s chances, predicting that “Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism”. Alex Nunns’s The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power (also first published in 2016), was a more positive account, covering the battles fought sculpting an alternative to Blairism into solid form. In their book, Bolton and Pitts intend to put Corbynism to “proper scrutiny”. And so, as the Labour Party attempts to ride out the approaching Brexit day of reckoning – with several MPs quitting the party in February, allegedly because of Corbyn’s stance on Brexit and antisemitism – their critique might have something to tell us. So how do they begin?

First the authors chart their own path in and out of the movement. Both active in the Labour Party, in 2015 they eagerly supported Corybn’s ascension to leadership, one of them even helping to set up a local Momentum group. However, the Momentum meetings soon became “sectarian power struggles”, constituency party meetings consisted of “shell-shocked centrists and little more”, and online engagement wasn’t matched by street activism. Corbyn’s perceived lack of commitment to Remain during the EU referendum, the partisan mud-slinging of 2016’s “chicken coup” (where the parliamentary party staged a revolt against the Corbyn leadership), and residues of orthodox Marxist-inspired thinking have led the authors toward what some might call a heretical critique; one grounded in liberalism and their own “subterranean” understanding of Marx. Their book might best be described then as a journey from faith to heresy; a journey, like many renegade accounts, with disappointment at its roots.

But there’s much to commend. The authors provide a useful typology of Corbynism’s component parts, so I’ll summarise. The core leadership of Corbyn and John McDonnell is flanked by former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne, head of Unite union Len McCluskey and adviser Andrew Murray, this “trad left” buoyed by Momentum, which operates as a “battleground” for older “competing factions” and a home for younger activists seeking something new. Then a group comprising journalist Paul Mason, Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani, and theorists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams comes next, influenced by the neo-Marxist Toni Negri and technologically infused ideas of post-capitalism and accelerationism. Less important, though noisy, are Trotsky-inspired groups including the Socialist Workers Party and Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Finally, there’s a libertarian fringe containing groups like Plan C, as well as a cultural studies-based cluster near to Jeremy Gilbert and the late Mark Fisher. “Acid Communism” is one idea from this wing, an attempt to link the sixties counterculture to a politics of feeling to address the generalised anxiety and alienation of what Herbert Marcuse once called the “One-Dimensional Society”; a project in which aspects of the ’60s not entirely co-opted by the neoliberal counter-revolution are rebooted for today. Turn on, tune in ... and help out, you might say.

As well as introducing the shock troops, the authors look back at the battle. That is, a Corbynite analysis of what’s going on could only emerge at the end of what they rightly call “austerity populism”. Until the Brexit vote, chancellor George Osborne and prime minister David Cameron dominated the airwaves with their framing of the previous Labour government’s fiscal extravagance, of a country “living beyond its means” which required austerity in response. But the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union changed everything. The Leave campaign combined a cognitive revolt against austerity with a narrative of “taking back control” from the EU, from Johnny Foreigner, and from global financiers ‑ a message that appealed across class and party lines. In terms of psychology, the campaign also unearthed a lack of direction in people’s lives, a feeling of what do I exist for? echoed in Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s comment that “there are some things that matter more than money”. It was as if Farage, by some miracle, had concept-mined the English psyche and extracted a dream guaranteed to fire up an electorate sick of zombie politics and more-than-efficient markets; indeed, with the help of Cambridge Analytica’s spy-ops, perhaps he had. And so the Brexit campaign saw conventional economic explanations for what’s going on pushed to the periphery; space opened up for dissent, and long-forgotten debates on economic policy zoomed back into the present. 

The genealogy that Bolton and Pitts provide also explains the economic ideas at play. Corbynite economic policy harks back to Labour MP Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy (AES), presented to the Labour party cabinet in 1976, but drawing on ideas first floated in Labour’s Programme for Britain 1972. The main aim of the AES was to wrest control from international finance and a British capitalist class reluctant to invest. Critics called it a “siege economy” as it proposed measures to limit capital: the imposition of capital controls, a wages and prices policy, public ownership of banks, compulsory planning agreements, and exiting the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU); in responding to his critics, Benn answered that the UK was effectively under siege from international finance already. Elements of the AES formed part of Labour’s 1983 election manifesto, but after that election defeat – with blame attributed to the manifesto, the so-called “longest suicide note in history” – policies of state-led public enterprise or workers’ control were cryogenically frozen in the Thatcherite permafrost.

Brexit provided the much-needed thaw, and resistance from the Labour right the heat, to bring these ideas back to life and one idea in particular: democratise the economy. Labour’s “Alternative Models of Ownership” report proposes cooperatives and locally-led ownership to solve long-term problems of productivity and lack of investment. John McDonnell's Labour conference speech on September 24th, 2018 laid out further economic democratisation plans by drawing on the IPPR report “Prosperity and Justice”: companies with over 250 workers would be required to staff one-third of their corporate boards with workers, something common in Europe; firms with over 250 staff would also be required to divert one per cent of profits into an Inclusive Ownership Fund, a dividend-paying fund managed by employees themselves.

Despite the proposed benefits of these policies, the authors accuse Corbynism of a “truncated” analysis of capitalism, and a simplistic one. They point out that Corbyn himself believes that socialism is natural and capitalism artificial, quoting an interview with The Sunday People where he said: “It’s an obvious way of living. You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else”; something similar to GA Cohen’s notion of socialism as a group camping trip, with each person playing their part. “Somebody fishes, somebody else prepares the food, and another person cooks it.”

But the nub of their critique rests on value. For them, Corbynite economics rests on an orthodox Labour theory of value ‑ and therefore of value as something literally inside goods to be sold. Inspired by the work of Michael Heinrich and other thinkers of the Neue Marx-Lektüre or “new reading” of Marx – an attempt by German scholars to free Marx’s thinking from dogmatism – Bolton and Pitts explain that within our system of capitalism, commodities only acquire value through consumption; that is, value is “socially validated” only when exchanged for money. This means that the process of production before the moment of sale, before the good is “socially validated”, doesn’t matter; value is not embodied in concrete labour (the physical work used to produce the good) but abstract labour mediated by exchange. As Pitts has written elsewhere:

An artwork hanging in a gallery, price tag intact. A car fresh off the production line standing on a factory floor. An unperformed song played by a band in their practice space. What these have in common is that they have no value.

Further, the authors quote the late theorist Moishe Postone, who in an interview said that “the corollary of socialism in one country is really nationalism in one country”. The conclusion to be drawn here is that because labour is now mediated on a global scale – meaning steel workers in Port Talbot are part of a chain linking them to steel workers in Shanghai – not only are Corbyn’s economic policies “doomed to failure”, they are not even “commensurate to the problems they purport to solve”.

Unfortunately, Bolton and Pitts’s sharpest arguments are interspersed with the weaknesses commonly associated with the Corbyn-critique genre. The authors attack Corbynism for a “personalised” critique of capitalism but indulge in a fair bit of personalisation themselves. And the use of scare quotes detracts from their better arguments ‑ you can hear the distant sound of knives being sharpened with the repeated hobbyhorse of “dialogue”: Corbyn’s “dialogue” with Sinn Féin and the IRA; his “reliance on ‘dialogue’ as his go-to get-out clause from grappling with the complexity of world affairs”; his “commitment to ‘dialogue’ thus comes from two sides of the same mouth”. And while it is not hard to admit that appearing on certain platforms has given Corbyn’s political enemies ammunition, it is surely wise to place the supposed links to Hamas, the accusations of antisemitism and the constant charge of him being unpatriotic in the larger context of opposition to a potential pro-Palestine prime minister and, even more dangerous to military interests, one who is pro-peace. In a career as long as Corbyn’s the accusations made so far don’t add up to much ‑ certainly not to anyone who lived through the sleaze of the John Major years ‑ and even the IHRA definitions on antisemitism, over which much argumentative capital was made, were eventually adopted in full. As Jeremy Gilbert wrote in a recent piece for Open Democracy:

Corbyn could convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s Vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party; or at least to commit to a policy agenda approved by Merrill Lynch.

However, the weakest point in this book’s critique is its somewhat paradoxical grounding in militant liberalism. Michael Walzer’s 2017 Dissent article “The Historical Task of the Left in the Present Period” is solicited and his call for a “vital centre” to defend social democracy invoked because we live in a time, according to the authors, in which both left and right “luxuriate in the flames licking at the sides of liberal society”.

Such drama is fine as far as it goes. But this is the same Michael Walzer who in a Dissent article from 2002 asked “Can There Be a Decent Left?” ‑ a piece in which he seemed to luxuriate in the militarism of the Afghanistan invasion himself. Just one of a flurry of think-pieces back then calling for a hawkish liberalism, a rally to the flag, and the need to defend liberal values at home or abroad by any means necessary, this was something new: a liberalism shorn of its scruples, flying triumphant across an ideological landscape in which the radical left had been vanquished, a liberalism-with-bombs with righteousness as its shield. Surely not.

Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December of last year not only because of the success of the war but also because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghanis greeted that success. (my italics)

Sadly yes. The late historian Tony Judt had his own greeting for “that success”. In a scathing piece for the LRB he called liberals who rolled over to the dark side ‘Bush’s Useful Idiots’, bemoaning the fact that “[i]n today’s America, neo-conservatives generate brutish policies for which liberals provide the ethical fig-leaf. There really is no other difference between them.”

The other side of the pond was no better. War apologists gathered to the Harry’s Place blog to denounce anyone who disagreed with their anti-Muslim, pro-war McCarthyism as “quislings and traitors”; many signatories to the “Euston Manifesto” (the movement’s declaration of principles) held similar positions, such as Observer columnist Nick Cohen, who saw Islamo-fascism under a new pebble every week. In seeking a “reconciliation with liberalism” the authors fail to contend with liberalism's contradictions themselves. With which exact form of liberalism do they mean to reconcile? A liberal order of supranational organisations? A Habermasian public sphere? Liberal cosmopolitanism? Human rights law (which has never seen fit to stretch to notions of economic justice)? Or liberalism-with-bombs interventionism, running from the Bush era to Obama’s presidency through to now? Naturally, the rule of law is preferable to rule by the mob, but where their liberalism remains opaque, their critique lacks a foundation.

Therefore, the authors score a hit with Corbynism’s “truncated” view of capitalism but ground their critique in a truncated view of liberalism themselves, giving rise to two problems. First, there’s a discrepancy between theorising capitalism as a system of “impersonal domination” (as their mentor Michael Heinrich describes it), a system all-powerful over workers and capitalists alike ‑ and the book’s prognosis of “a crumbling political, legal, and global order”. Because a “capital thriving, liberalism dying” story fails to theorise the interconnections between any liberal order and capitalism; that the two are mutually enabling, and mutually constitutive. As Quinn Slobodian’s book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism shows, the problem for the early neoliberals who created the global legal-economic framework to emerge after World War I was the following: how to create a post-imperial order to transpose the protection of the market beyond the scale of the nation state. Their solution was “the encasement of the market in a spirit of militant globalism”, an “ongoing settlement” which would “deepen the power of competition to shape and direct human life”. The attempt, and the success of that attempt to forge neoliberal capitalism shows how liberalism and capitalism interlink; that liberalism itself is multi-dimensional, contradictory, and demanding of similar care in interrogation. Second, the idea of a liberal, pluralistic society implies – as liberal theorists like to tell us – that when dissent exists in a large enough dose, it works: things change, and the ship of pluralism is righted. Yet clearly it doesn’t work this way. If dissent worked the invasion of Iraq would have been avoided, we wouldn’t have witnessed the rule of international law shredded at Guantánamo, and we might have a different financial system to the unreformed Mammon encasing the world today. Unlimited power, wealth and influence condense into a moral oligopoly impervious to dissent, process or reason.

Overall, the authors’ intention to “take Corbynism seriously” brings the Corbyn project down to earth, which is a laudable aim. Labour’s economic policies might yet amount to a state-led “socialism from above”. Worker representation on company boards, or “co-determination” can simply involve workers or union reps waving through damaging executive plans without a whisper. Likewise, the story of UK state investment in co-ops in the seventies and eighties isn’t pretty: both the Scottish Daily News and Kirkby Manufacturing cooperatives received massive state loans but went under; and City Limits, the magazine funded by the left-wing Greater London Council “seethed with victimhood, resentment, factionalism, incompetence and silliness” according to former journalist Deborah Orr.

In the end, this book misses its mark by not seeing the target. The aim of any left project worth its name is not to be found in raising the costs of being a capitalist and lowering the costs of being a worker. The aim of any left project worth its name is human emancipation; therefore, perhaps the real strength of Corbynism might be its ability to incubate a new culture rather than a new form of economics. And this isn’t news to the authors, as Frederick Harry Pitts himself wrote in a 2015 journal article on the creative industries’ role in validating capitalism, that they enact what Marx calls “work of combustion” that makes value possible.

However, there are two questions the Corbyn project might want to ask itself. First, how will it “do” disappointment? No party or institution will emerge from the circles of Brexit hell unscathed ‑ Labour’s policy of “constructive ambiguity” in many ways mirrors the government’s policy of destructive misdirection in the public mind. What will happen, for instance, when Labour members, overwhelmingly in favour of a second vote, realise this will not be delivered? Second, what comes after Corbynism? The authors are right to plead for “an open Marx freed from orthodoxy”, a broader conversation on theory and more self-reflection; but as their book implies, if the left wants to enact any long-term vision, it will have to think through the limits of Corbynism, and beyond them. Therefore, even though there’s a struggle with Brexit today, there has never been more need for a movement against the inequities of capitalism tomorrow. And perhaps one thing above all should drive the left’s fractious cornucopia, a maxim from Dutch council communist Anton Pannekoek: “Capitalism cannot be annihilated by a change in the commanding persons; but only by the abolition of commanding.”

1/4/2019

Paul Walsh is a teacher and writer. Find him on Twitter: @josipa74

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