Back to the Future: How The Corbyn Movement Rejected the End of History

22.06.17 / In: Comment / Tags:

By Peter Kennedy / @kennedy121

It turns out the End of History wasn’t quite as terminal as we were led to believe. Last week’s general election was a stark deviation from capitalism’s triumphalist post-Cold War script. Until very recently, any hope in a meaningful alternative to corporate welfare, crushing austerity, rampant individualism and obscene inequality was waved away as juvenile fantasy.

The best we could hope for was to reign in capitalism and smooth over the rough edges where possible. We were told this whilst watching the slow motion death of the planet as global warming threatened the continued existence of the human species.

In this context the general election provided the first major salvo in the battle against the politics of decrepit hospitals, collapsing wages, underfed school children, corporate bailouts, rampant homelessness and mean spirited individualism. Each of these developments and more have gone hand in hand with the rise of a billionaire class creaming off the fruits of a collective society.

 

Prior to the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters were maligned as either naive fantasists or dangerous radicals, unadjusted to the political and economic realities of the twenty-first century. As it turns out, the real fantasists were those who believed the status quo could continue unabated, without risking the very social and ecological fabric we all rely upon for our existence.

That creeping immiseration of vast swathes of British society would lead to a counter-movement of some kind was never in doubt. The key question was whether such a movement would be progressive or reactionary in its nature.

In the coalition which has coalesced around Jeremy Corbyn, we now have a progressive counter-movement.

 

A majority of the electorate voted against the Conservative’s programme of despair. The out-moded electoral system Britain’s democracy strains under sadly does not have the capacity to represent this anti-Tory majority in the way it should. However, whilst the election result did not translate into the seats required to form a government, its outcome provides a clarion call to an alternative. The electorate have stuck two fingers up to the status quo. Now we must ask ourselves, where do we go from here?

 

Escaping the Civilisational Cul de Sac

The grand irony of the reaction to the Corbyn movement amongst the media, political elite and within the Labour Party itself is how the whole venture has been derided as utopian. Yet those who support, or merely acquiesce to, free market capitalism maintain the naive belief that such a political economic system and society itself are anything but mutually exclusive. As Jeremy Smith of Prime Economics argues,

The utopian politico-economic system and ideology, under constant and conscious construction by its “priesthood”, under which the interests of society are to be subordinated to the interests of actors in financial markets and the dominance of finance capital, minimally regulated and flowing unfettered across frontiers. Under this system, the role and remit of the state and public sphere, beyond protection and furtherance of those interests and that dominance, are to be reduced to their practical minimum.

Neoliberalism’s ultimate purpose, and its finality, is that of transformation to a single global economy and society governed and disciplined by finance capital.

In his book ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?’ Mark Fisher argued how within our current capitalist framework there is no space in culture and politics to conceive of alternatives to the status quo. The book contends that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism has successfully presented itself as the only plausible political economic system, a situation Fisher argues was ironically compounded by the 2008 financial crash. In effect, the future had been cancelled.

 

Yet with several decades lived experience of its effects, people are becoming increasingly aware that the political and media establishment have sold them a pup. Holding together an electoral coalition in support of a society governed and disciplined by finance capital was always going to become untenable.

Labour’s promise to take major utilities into public control was not particularly economically radical per se. It did however challenge the core assumption the market is the most efficient means by which to allocate society’s resources. This assumption is increasingly limited to its chief ideologues, including inside the Labour Party and its European sister parties. Such parties have played a major role in disseminating the failed ideology amongst those on which it has had the most deleterious effects. It is perhaps the upper echelons of the Labour Party which have been amongst the most effective salesmen and women of the neoliberal orthodoxy, given the party’s greater reach into working class communities.

 

It is for this very reason that Labour, like its European equivalents, had hitherto hemorrhaged support amongst its traditional voter base. This includes shedding five million votes since 1997 and contesting two general elections under the banner of New Labour and New Labour Lite, in which it was barely able to scrape 30% of the national vote share.

 

Topping 40% of the vote in last week’s election is coterminous with Labour’s official disavowal of a failed political economic system. Instead of offering steady stewardship of national decline, the party’s manifesto promised to reverse the country’s fortunes. This was especially attractive to the young, who have borne much of the brunt of welfare cuts and the ideological shift away from funding essential services such as Higher Education via general taxation.

That 40% of the population voted for a Labour Party led by an avowed socialist, on a policy platform antagonistic to the core tenets of the status quo signals that Fisher was perhaps too hasty in his claim. The future was only on ice after all.

 

 

The Corbyn Coalition

To understand what is possible in the redrawn political landscape, it’s important to understand what Corbyn and the movement behind him represents. It would be far too simplistic to claim the electoral support he garnered was merely a coalition of the fed up. No doubt, people’s exacerbation with a failed system was a large factor in Corbyn’s support, but Ed Miliband also provided a critique of untrammelled neoliberalism during his leadership. What has been different this time is the fact Corbyn himself is the personal embodiment of an alternative, almost a reminder of and from history.

Corbyn cut his teeth in an era where ideological battles were being fought nationally and globally. Whilst capitalism may have emerged from the Cold War triumphant, anti-imperialist campaigns against Western dominance were a lived reminder of how entire power structures and systems could be brought tumbling down, often at rapid pace.  

 

In Jeremy Corbyn and his personal and political career we see an entire tradition of struggle against injustice and inequality at home and abroad. Corbyn’s authentic radicalism was able to garner the support of those who previously did not feel the Labour Party had the capacity or will to take on a bankrupt ideology. Those on the sharp end of Tory cruelty believed Corbyn when he told them he had come to fight their cause, purely by dint of the fact he had a three decade record of doing exactly that on behalf of those suffering injustice.

 

Corbyn’s personal authenticity goes against the grain of a generation of slick politicians who put spin and sound bites before principle. Almost every section of the electorate has grown fed up with the political establishment’s attempts to manipulate, control and keep people in their boxes. Even those who dislike everything Corbyn believes in tend to have a grudging respect for his lack of resort to political triangulation.

Around the loose Corbyn project an interesting proto-coalition has begun to coalesce. This includes Northern ‘leave’ supporters in working class areas and metropolitan remainers. With a massive upswing in the youth turnout, from 40% in 2015 to 72% this time out, a number of traditional Tory heartlands are imperilled by the existence of universities in their midsts.

 

Post-election data has also uncovered the secret to Labour’s success this time round.

‘…the party picked up votes from all other parties in similar numbers, and fared similarly among different demographics. This lack of a pattern to their gains along clear political or demographic dividing lines may be the clearest sing yet of a “Corbyn factor”, whereby people of all stripes simply became more likely to vote Labour as the campaign wore on, won over by a campaign and leader that seemed to be gaining momentum while their opponents stumbled.” The Financial Times

Election data also shows class no longer factors in the same way it used to, with class support for both Labour and the Conservatives being far more fluid today than in the past.

 

UKIP’s collapse in most cases was to the advantage of the Conservatives, but not uniformly so. Many UKIP voters have deep concerns over the future of public services and are distrustful of UK foreign policy and military interventions.

These factors offer a real opportunity for Labour to continue to build a diverse coalition which draws support from across ethnicities, the class spectrum, large metropolitan areas, Northern heartlands and young voters. Labour has the potential to hold these seemingly disparate groups together around anti-austerity, massive public infrastructure spending and a less interventionist foreign policy stance. This in contrast to a Conservative party relying ever more on elderly voters and ex-UKIP supporters, which even in the wake of the latter’s collapse, did not allow for a Tory majority.

In this context and under an authentic leader who disavows the cynical politics of spin, the party has a chance to win back the people’s trust. What the leadership and wider party now do with that trust is critical.  

 

Let’s Make Him Do It

Following his election in 1932 Franklin D. Roosevelt is said to have met with Sidney Hillman and other socialist union leaders who he had worked with prior to his election. Hillman and allies came to the meeting with plans they wished the new president to enact, to which he replied, ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.’

The left of the Labour Party must ensure the lesson of the election campaign, that people are seeking a real alternative, is heard inside the party and out. It is unlikely Corbyn’s supporters will again enjoy such a precipitous climate in which to push a radical programme. Such a programme will only come from the party’s membership, supported and publicly promoted by the leadership.

 

Three key threats facing British society in coming decades are rising inequality, the automation of work and the global disaster that is global warming. With the right response from the left, these threats can be transformed into opportunities to create a more humane and liveable society.

The UK has some of the highest rates of income inequality in the industrialised world, impacting myriad socio-economic outcomes including health, education, social mobility, economic growth and levels of crime. Over the previous two decades, the cumulative UK growth rate has been six to nine percentage points lower than it would have been had income disparities not widened to the extent at which they have.

If the Labour leadership is serious about reducing inequality, this will not only involve redistributive policies through the tax system, but addressing Britain’s anti-union culture and championing the social benefits of collective bargaining agreements. Greater empowerment of trade unions and increased collective bargaining would not only improve the likelihood of greater economic inequality, but also help prepare for a future of great technological change.

 

Even with greater worker rights and protections, the future of work looks set to involve less workers and, ergo, less income via wages. If we are to make the most of automation trade unions and other progressive social forces, including the Labour Party, need to develop an economic transition which maximises the positive potentials of technological revolution. Such a transition will rely on numerous economic tools, including a Universal Basic Income.

In response to the publication of a report by the Fabian Society last year, John McDonnell claimed he can win the argument for introducing a Universal Basic Income. If he is right, it will be a major coup in shifting Labour’s thinking on the economy and overcoming one of the key challenges facing social democratic parties across Europe — the end of work as we know it.

The transition to a highly automated economy, less wasteful of human creativity and natural resources can reinforce the development of a low carbon economy vital to avoiding climate catastrophe. Yet it remains to be seen whether the Labour Party and trade unions are ready to accept the full ramifications of such a transition. With the greater support Corbyn’s leadership team now commands within the party, the breathing space which now exists should be used to further develop the party’s approach to UBI.

The threat of climate change poses an especially great challenge to the Labour Party, given its historic commitment to growth at all costs.

 

As a social democratic party committed to raising prosperity via infinite GDP growth Labour has, at best, an ambiguous relationship with environmental concerns. Whilst Corbyn pledges increased investment to stimulate growth, it is unclear how this will be reconciled with the urgent need to de-carbonise the economy. Universal Basic Income and re-skilling for those working in environmentally destructive industries offers one route out, but sustaining politically acceptable levels of growth will be difficult during the transition to a zero carbon economy.

Yet the British public, especially young people newly invigorated by politics, are increasingly aware of global warming. Britons are more likely to agree the climate is changing than at any time in recent years, with nearly nine in ten people saying climate change is happening and 84% saying the change is somewhat or entirely down to human activity. Two-thirds now say they are concerned by global warming.

Crucially for social democratic parties everywhere, a 2013 Unicef poll found that two-thirds of young people were worried about how climate change will affect other children and families in developing countries and that only 1% said they knew nothing about climate change.

With public backing for renewable energy standing at 81%, Corbyn and his supporters have public opinion onside when making the case for the scale of transition required to union leaders and members. Considering the existential nature of the threat to humanity posed by global warming, it is incumbent upon the party leadership to make the case for concerted action to reverse its likely effects.

 

A policy platform aimed at tackling the triple threat of inequality, automation and climate change will come under attack from the usual quarters as soon as it is proposed. Yet, considering the yearning for a real alternative amongst large sections of the population, Labour’s only choice is to be bold if it is to avoid slipping back into political irrelevance. We have to keep the pressure on the party leadership and make them do it.

 

Conclusions

Only the most churlish Corbyn critic and apologist for the political economic orthodoxy would claim the Tories’ dire electoral performance was down to Theresa May’s personal failings alone. A rejuvenated Labour Party base has been galvanised by the opportunity to take a new message to the public, one which has the ability to tackle Britain’s myriad challenges. These challenges and the support for an alternative shown by a large proportion of the electorate provide incredible opportunities for the creation of a better society.

The collapse of outmoded political and economic models and the intellectual exhaustion of their proponents in all major parties opens the door for a new generation to reshape the British political economy. This will be achieved through policies which are more humane, environmentally friendly and prepared for the massive technological changes we are likely to witness in coming years. As the general election result hints, the radical restructuring of the economy is more likely to appeal to the public than ever before.

Corbyn’s supporters now need to shift focus from fighting off attacks from inside and outside the party and gently guide the leadership toward a credible, yet unashamedly radical platform. This will be creative and proactive, rather than simply a critique of what the party is ‘against’. We have to ‘make him do it’, in the same manner in which the US labour movement had to pressure president Roosevelt into making their platform his own.

Get it right and Labour can arrest the slide into the sort of irrelevance experienced by its European sister parties. Hope in something better than our present malaise isn’t a naive pipe-dream, but a social, ecological and psychological necessity.

If we squander the opportunity the electorate has entrusted us with, both Labour and Britain face very bleak futures indeed. Grasp it with both hands and we can prove to the world the future hadn’t been cancelled after all.

© 2017 Open Labour