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The terrain on which the left should contest? August 29, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I like Paul Mason and I tend to agree with much that he writes in this piece here on the Corbyn leadership issue, particularly on why Corbyn is in a vastly better position than Michael Foot was, and how the 2010s are not the 1980s. That said I would raise a question mark over two points. First he writes that:

By contrast, today neoliberal capitalism is busted, discredited and on life support. The whey-faced remnants of “old Toryism” may have crowded around the cabinet table, but their free-market philosophy has come apart. The fact that people are flooding into a left-led Labour party, not out of it, is evidence of a search for answers among broad sections of the population.

I’m not sure that’s as self-evident a proposition as it may seem to him from where he is positioned in the UK. Yet that is surprising in itself. The government of the UK is a Tory majority government currently riding high in the polls and likely to win the next election (and always was either with or without a Corbyn leadership, ‘dissident’ BLP MPs take note). The broad tropes of neo-liberalism remain in effect, the parties that supported them whether enthusiastically or unenthusiastically likewise. In our own state Fianna Fáil are likely to head the next government. That’s no breach with neo-liberalism. Germany, Spain, etc. The United States. The governments in all those states may or may not buy into unfettered neo-liberalism but they are broadly what once was termed ‘centre-right’ to right. Those opposing them appear more fragmented. And that’s because, well, they are.

Now this may all change. We’ll see. But I would be cautious about the potential for transformational change at this juncture and for quite some time to come. I’d even be cautious about the idea that populations have abandoned their willing or unwilling attachment to the nostrums of the centre right and right. Again, we’ll see. I hope Corbyn and others can shape out a space that was once ‘traditional’ Labour, left social democrat and pushing leftwards again. That is key. But the possibilities even in that context are limited. Britain didn’t opt in the 1940s or 50s or 60s to go left again. Why it would do that in the 2010s or 20s is not entirely clear to me.

The second point I think needs teasing out further is as follows:

The next most obvious difference is the absence of what we used to call the “industrial struggle”. It has been invigorating to see the Deliveroo drivers on wildcat strike, together with migrant hotel cleaners, train guards and junior doctors all in a single summer. But the leftism we carried with us into the Winter Gardens in 1980 had its origins in the syndicalism of ordinary workers in the 1970s. To the shop stewards I met in the years between Benn’s 1980 speech and the miners’ strike, Labour politics were a sideshow.
The unions had achieved control of many workplaces and – it seemed – could go on calling the shots. In the year Benn made his electrifying speech, the steelworkers’ union had just won a double-digit pay rise in an all-out strike. To the wider left, of shop stewards, feminists, black community activists, a group such as Militant – which had moulded its entire practice, and even its clothing to conform with the dreariness of internal Labour life – seemed irrelevant. Its claimed membership of 2,300 in 1981 – out of 348,000 – sounds about right.


Today, work is much less central to the left project, and for a variety of reasons. It is precarious, hard to organise. Also, the things the left wants to achieve have become more social, less industrial. There is, on the left, an implicit understanding of political philosopher Toni Negri’s claim: that the “factory” is now the whole of society, and the subject of change is everybody – especially the networked youth.

And yet that’s to ignore one major point about working lives. Most people still work in workplaces. The imbalances of power relationships persist in most of those workplaces. They have, indeed, hardly changed and in some marked instances worsened. Moreover this is the focus of peoples lives to a continuing extent. This is where people troop off of a morning and return of an evening. They spend most of their conscious hours there. That experience has not changed for the vast majority of people even if forms of work have for some.

The idea the left is withdrawing whether actually or just conceptually from engagement on that terrain concerns me deeply. Even the simple reality of unions organising, however well or poorly, is crucial in workplaces. Because unions, even the compromised vehicles that they often are, are a secondary focus of power and even on the most banal level necessary for those in workplaces to have in their corner, before we even reach the broader socio-political and economic goals that we seek.

He mentions the following,

I do not recall many of the miners and engineers who fought for Tony Benn as deputy leader in 1981 being existentially devastated when he narrowly lost. They knew this was just a warm-up for the decisive battle, which would happen in barricaded pit villages four years later. This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it.

But the decisive battles are both the larger struggles and the smaller ones. It cannot be either or. The day to day grind of organising and pushing back in work places has to continue if only to offer the hint of an alternative to workers. After all, there’s a flip side to the idea that the workplace is less important. What has replaced it? It would seem to me an atomisation has replaced it. The domestic space – for obvious reasons – isn’t a substitute. Too many distractions. The hope that people will attend meetings, become active? That seems to me to be near enough utopian having been involved at the hard end of that myself across the last couple of decades.

And what of those who are in workplaces? Recently I was talking to someone whose partner works for a utility (not water). They’re at the domestic end of it, checking up on installations inn peoples houses. But they’re not employed by the utility directly but by a subcontractor. The work is tough, various detritus has to be moved in order to gain access to the installations. The targets set by the utility are near enough impossible to reach and the sub-contractor has terminated the contracts of a number of employees who made this point. Those working for the sub-contractor are non-unionised (and the sub-contractor is a wing of a non-Irish based company).

Add in precarious rental situations and low incomes and what we have is a perfect storm. People whose lives are constrained by lack of money, insecurity and jobs which demand too much of them.

There’s a decisive battle to be played out right there. And a left that isn’t in there attempting to improve the situation of those workers while simultaneously attempting to shift matters leftward on a broader level isn’t much of a left at all in my view.

That said he makes some very persuasive points in the piece – not least on the rule of law. Though this works both ways. I’ve often felt that the left underestimates the attachment of the working class to state and societal structures, and if anything that attachment is now even more deeply embedded. That may have unpredictable consequences.

Still, one last thought. Isn’t all this enormously anglocentric? There’s not a word about allies in Europe. How can there be? They’re being shut out. No word of Syriza, as was, or Podemos, or other alternatives or whatever. The English story, whatever about the British story, appears to be one which is curling around itself. Where it goes next is – naturally, for those of us on this island of considerable significance. But it may be of little consequence for Europe or further afield.

Strange times.


1. Gewerkschaftler - August 29, 2016

Spot on on the need not to abandon work place organising just because the organisation of work under capital has changed. My trades union continues to put a lot of effort into this with some success – it’s hard – especially when you’re fighting libertarian tyrants like Jeff Bezos – it could be better, but it’s essential if we are to retain the idea and practice of union organising, and the assertion of human values over the abstract value of capital.

I quite like Mason – certainly his central point that neo-liberalism can be seen to have failed and offers us opportunities that didn’t exist between say 1980 and 2007, but I think as someone who has worked in the media so long he has a one-sided view of the nature of work for many people. He also IMO has an overly optimistic view of the potential for technical development under capitalism – again typical for people who don’t work in technical or scientific areas.


WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

This problem of people in the media is one I think is shared across the potlicial spectrum. It’s a tendency to map that experience on to everything. Even today most people in private and public sector work places work relatively ordinary hours and have relatively ordinary conditions. But the media which is 24/7, often deeply hostile to unions, short term contracts etc, is quite particular (though not atypical of a growing number, albeit still a minority of workplaces) and i think this distorts the perspective. Otherwise how to explain how a very very level headed person like Mason can sort of trip away from organisation in workplace unless he doesn’t quite get that workplaces haven’t changed in the main as much as he thinks.


WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

Btw +1 on your last point in particular. And just to add I like Mason a lot. His thoughts are very interesting.


Michael Carley - August 29, 2016

an overly optimistic view of the potential for technical development under capitalism – again typical for people who don’t work in technical or scientific areas.

Exactly that: a lot of people who come from an arts or humanities background and think the internet started in 1994 (not Mason, in fairness to him) have a starry-eyed view of the possibilities of the technology, often because they don’t know enough history, and oddly underestimate how much damage those technologies can do, for the same reason.

Part of the problem is language: the word `technology’ gets used to mean `latest flashing whistling thing from Apple’ and people forget that pencils, truncheons, and bicycles are technology too.


2. sonofstan - August 29, 2016

” Isn’t all this enormously anglocentric? There’s not a word about allies in Europe”

TBF that’s odd for Mason who is usually much more aware of the life beyond Dover than most of his colleagues


WorldbyStorm - August 29, 2016

You’re very right. I worry about this being an unintended consequence of Brexit in the UK, a narrowing of horizons. And how could it not be given the sheer weight of impacts and changes that Brexit will lead to? Far from socialism in one country, it’ll be a case of fighting reaction on steroids in one country.


3. Gewerkschaftler - August 29, 2016

Anglocentric – absolutely. That events in LB are ‘curling around themselves’ puts it well.

Brexit and the Leninoid delusions about it being some sort of opportunity for the working class is a political ingrowing toenail. At best it will lead to a painful lameness, as worst fascoid septicemia.

Liked by 1 person

4. oliverbohs - August 29, 2016

Who speaks of Podemos now? Actually, can recall certain columnists (apart from Mason, he isn’t the worst in fairness) creaming their jeans coming up to the second Spanish election giving the full Wolfie Smith. Know to avoid them now and their hollow BS, now we know that Podemos’ star was on the wane days, weeks before that election.
Posts like this always welcome


5. Alibaba - August 29, 2016

What’s not to like about Paul Mason and his suggestion about the terrain on which the Left should contest? Let’s take it for granted that he has been right and penetrating on many observations. He is forthright in expressing challenging views. Much welcomed from a left perspective.

But here comes my note of concern and warning: Mason’s support for Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to put Owen Smith back into the shadow cabinet is troublesome. Moreover, he has championed the notion of a coalition consisting of Labour, Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems and others in the belief that such a government would kick away Tories and UKIP along with their policies. That’s a recipe for on-going austerity. Bizarre indeed.


WorldbyStorm - August 30, 2016

The Liberal Democrats! It is odd.


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