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That ‘centre’ ground… July 25, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Excellent piece by Steve Richards on the last British election in Prospect (unfortunately mostly behind a paywall).
He writes that LP MPs were convinced Corbyn was leading them to destruction and asks ‘why’ did they hold that view?

Because lazy assumptions about some fixed ‘centre ground’ defined by timeless ideological co-ordinates warped all of their assessments. Brought upon the nervy expediency of the New Labour sera most LP MPs like virtually the entire media commentariat – assumed that any pitch to the votes a few millimetres to the left of Tony Blaire would lead to electoral slaughter. This view extended to senior BBC broadcasters who reflected on air (wrongly) the Ed Miliband had lost in 2015 because he was too left-wing. They implied, insofar as they could within the rules of impartiality, that by moving further left, Corbyn’s LP was doomed.

In fairness Corbyn’s parliamentary persona wasn’t – prior to the election – fabulous. It was alright, but not great. Speaking to solid left wingers to the left of the BLP across the last year there was some hope but also frustration at the inability to get the message out. He certainly has been revitalised by the election (and in fairness to him continual sniping from those nominally in his own party didn’t help either).

But I think Richards point is well made. It’s breathtaking to read the comments beneath the piece which as lazily as the dynamics that Richards points to equate Corbyn’s LP and its policies with supposed excesses of socialism. One has to wonder if they’ve read the actual manifesto – but that trope of the 1970s and the Winter of Discontent are clearly hard to dislodge, and fascinatingly any shift leftwards is regarded as delivering the UK to same rather than say to more mainstream European social democracy or whatever. It’s remarkable the hegemonic grip that has on parts of the UK political narrative.

But the out workings of that, particularly austerity and the mania for deficit reduction now as Richards notes ‘looks more like a crankish obsession’. He notes that in 2015 Miliband was lambasted for not mentioning the deficit. In 2017 no one mentioned it.

One of the most interesting points though is the following:

The keenest advocates of the ‘centre ground’ seem to lack all curiosity about the world before the 1990s or indeed about anywhere beyond the UK and the US. The world, as they know it, began with BIll Clinton’s victory in 1992. They admire that as paving the way for Blair’s win and are entirely untroubled by the Clinton administration’s failure to bequeath a positive legacy.

And he notes that even the slightest bit of curiosity would show that their belief in the middle was disprovable by then quite recent electoral history. Thatcher didn’t win from the centre. Anything but.

Again, thinking of the comments – the idea that state or part state ownership is per se a bad thing would be risible on the continent. Railways, etc are owned either in part by the state or municipally or what have you – and the supposed constraints of the EU on public ownership are actually much less rigid than is usually portrayed in such discussions in the UK. Yet this just isn’t mentioned in the UK discourse (and we get some of that here too). In a way this speaks of the insularity of the UK, but it also shows how distorting its position is and its history. Privatising the railways was essential to the Thatcher project, not in the sense that it mattered hugely materially but as a tokenistic aspect. As were other privatizations great and small. It didn’t matter if the returns (such as they were) were minimal or non-existent. They had to happen because they were their own justification.

It’s very difficult these days not to view the UK as an anomalous state in Europe – its politics, its approaches, profoundly different and strikingly self-obsessed. And this spills over both right and left. And on to this island too. Worse luck for us.

Finally he makes an excellent point, at least in relation to the BLP.

Another lazy and wrong assumption is that the left is not bothered by winning.

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Comments»

1. Michael Carley - July 25, 2017

“any shift leftwards is regarded as delivering the UK to same rather than say to more mainstream European social democracy”

I think you’re bang on the money here and it would make you wonder why the people whose principal concern is staying in the EU (a legitimate position) and who denounce Corbyn as a Brexiter, seem mostly to also hold the view that Labour is too left-wing, i.e. to European social-democratic.

On the railways, it was Major who privatised them: even Thatcher wouldn’t go that far.

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Chessyr - July 25, 2017

Its sad indeed that those who think SWP and Militant are the far-left, not to mention Milliband! and hence Corbyn too, its them that have eclipsed the socialist and even communist heritage of the party! But then Corbyn is mainly supported by a majority of only a facet, a part of the socialist-left too, Stalinist, SWP, Stop the War, Militant remnants and others. A limited bunch.

Both left and right of the party seem to be slipping into conspiracy theorising of the far-right and both together are too soft in the fight against fascism and the boldness to express their socialist side more, but in such a way that its more inclusive and stronger too. For socialists exist also within the EU and surely working with them inside of the EU is better. The communist view on the EU too, this is not always the same, and the leave is only one reaction to an underlying, at times valid criticism as well. Corbyn is a lexiteer and they are different from brexiteer and fudging the two is too simplistic.

Lexit criticism need not take the right-wing exit either and parts of their criticisms (divested of the right-wing conspiracy theory propaganda) would be stronger in than out and that can be reasonably made a case for, thus not driving away and pushing to extremes on one side. The right of the party also need less of the Birchite anti-commie and need to be inclusive of socialist and communist heritage of the party more, less third positionist or soft on capitalism, as well, and Blair shouldn’t be trumpeting the remain cause, driving people to the far-right within the so called far-left bits who think remain is a Blairite plot. Far-right conspiracy theorising can be seen on both sides of the party. That’s sad.

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2. FergusD - July 25, 2017

“The winter of discontent”, is seen as a failure of “socialism”, but it wasn’t. It was the result of a retreat by the BLP in the face of economic difficulties within the capitalist economy. Sadly a recurring theme for social democracy. Such retreats always end in defeat.

Unfortunately this could repeat itself again with a Corbyn-led or vaguely leftish BLP government, possibly in a few years time. The ongoing depression in the capitalist economy plus the fall-out from Brexit won’t be pretty. I am kind of obsessed about this now, as there seems so little in-depth discussion of the economics on the left, most seem to buy into the neo-keynesian under-consumptionist ideas, which I don’t think explain the economic situation or provide any answer.

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GW - July 25, 2017

Absolutely with you there Fergus.

There’s very little concrete modelling of what a vaguely leftish government in a developed capitalist should or can do. Capitalism has changed significantly since that short period in which a kind of classical Keynesianism worked. As you correctly note, a Corbyn government would come into power in the context of a long recession compounded by Brexit-related damage.

Leninists get out of having to do any work at all on this front by treating everything that happens in the capitalist economy before ‘the rupture’ as irrelevant, or at best as transitional.

Other leftists get out of thinking of the environment likely to be caused by Brexit by labelling the resulting difficulties as problems for (‘British’) capital, as if the first people to be hit won’t be the working class.

My fear is that the first non-neolib government in a European country for a long time will come to power in the least propitious circumstances for making a successful go of it.

But perhaps there’s a plan out there. I’d be genuinely interested to know what it might be.

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Pasionario - July 25, 2017

“My fear is that the first non-neolib government in a European country for a long time will come to power in the least propitious circumstances for making a successful go of it.”

Yes, that is exactly it.

The core of the economic problem has to be finance, which hoovers up resources from everywhere else and then combusts spectacularly on a regular basis.

So then the question is: how does a left-wing government tame the beast? “Nationalise the banks”? Well, yes, but then what? After all, we did nationalize banks during the crisis but what difference has that made? And the French Socialists also nationalized a swathe of banks in the early 1980s, which again did precious little to alter the overall neoliberal direction of policy. It led to a lot of corruption too.

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GW - July 26, 2017

But were the banks nationalised? The liabilities certainly were, and continue to be implicitly – banking after the last acute state of the current financial crisis is a licence to print money with no risk attached. But banks didn’t come under public control.

The Chinese do this rather more successfully – in capitalist terms – with command-financing through a handful of large banks, all of which are controlled by the CPI. That of course comes with huge dollops of corruption.

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GW - July 26, 2017

CPI -> CPC

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FergusD - July 26, 2017

It isn’t just a problem of “finance” in my view, a problem that could be dealt with by reforms. The growth of the financial sector is a long term development of capitalism (although particularly so in the UK due to its history of imperialism). I would support the view of Michael Roberts and others that since the 1970s there has been a “classical” Marxist crisis of a declining rate of profit. Hence the flight to finance, even seen with companies such as Apple (now really a finance company), there are always profits in the future! Rate of profit is not the same as “profits” though. This is compounded by all sorts of issues, many related, political and economic e.g. the relative decline of US hegemony, the rise of China etc.

It would be a mistake, IMHO, to focus on finance, and miss the big picture.

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GW - July 26, 2017

Absolutely right that the flight into finance has been motivated by a decline of reasonably expected C-M-C profits. But this has been accompanied by a degree of financial complexity and globalisation and level of extraction of financial rents that has never before occurred in capitalism.

So direct rent extraction – housing, car & student loans, pension fund fees, all kinds of middle men and brokerage etc. etc. are becoming more central in the continuance of capital accumulation by the 1%.

Because rent extraction is a more naked form of exploitation than the extraction of surplus value through C-M-C, it demands an increasingly authoritarian state. See the convergence of the Chinese state and the ‘liberal’ democracies in terms of policing, surveillance, restriction of effective protest etc.

Also this rent extraction is often based on the state working with and for rentier lobbyists – see for example Ireland’s recent attempted water privatisation.

So financialisation is both a symptom and part of the disease. Some Marxists are still imaginatively stuck in the high point of industrial capitalism between 1850 and 1970.

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FergusD - July 26, 2017

GW Marxist economists like Tony Norfield seem to appreciate the role and extent of financialisation today.

On a personal note I have experience of what I call the “bottom feeders” in modern UK capitalism. They are linked inextricably to more “regular” capitalism, in my case private rail companies using Victorian laws and arcane regulations around tickets to extract rent from passengers, even though they have paid the correct fare. With the connivance of the courts, who also earn from it – it is all a revenue stream. The UK seems to have become the paramount renter economy. If Trumpdoes do a trade deal with the UK, it will be done in minutes because the UK make so little that is useful!

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GW - July 26, 2017

Sorry – I forgot that the Syriza government started its life as genuinely anti-neolib. Amazing what a difference a couple of years makes.

At least the Brits aren’t part of the Eurozone. But they aren’t that even before Brexit.

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GW - July 26, 2017

If a Labour government was seeking to raise money by borrowing the these are the groups that would determine the interest rates. In 2014 28% of British government debt was from overseas.

The cost of imports will continue to rise if Sterling continues to fall.

It could of course print and spend – this would also presumably have an effect on the value of Sterling and the costs of imports.

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