Anti-austerity, racism and the politics of anti-imperialism

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David Wearing wrote a really great piece in the Newstatesman the other day about Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-imperialism. It’s worth talking about.

The cutting edge of Corbyn’s success as leader of the Labour Party – his election as leader, his victory over Owen Smith, and the historic advance of the Labour vote in the last election – is his opposition to austerity and support for an economic strategy that defends the living standards of the majority. Certainly, his well-known opposition to the Iraq War was a contributing factor, but Ed Milband also opposed the war. Corbyn’s Labour Party has rightly focussed on living standards and it’s for this reason he’s succeeding.

But I think it would be a mistake to view Corbyn’s economic policy as entirely unrelated to his anti-imperialism. In fact, I think the two are intimately connected. As Wearing very deftly points out, the British Labour Party has historically been quite happy to hitch its wagon to the interests of first British then US-led imperialism. This is worth quoting by way of example:

The relative economic stability required for the creation of the welfare state depended in part on various forms of imperial exploitation. In Malaya, commodity exports were the source of foreign exchange earnings that were crucial for the UK, given its precarious balance of payments, and Attlee’s government began a vicious counter-insurgency war to maintain British rule.

When Iran tried to wrest control of its oil from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (the precursor to BP), the Attlee government moved swiftly to retaliate. Nationalising key industries as part of a programme aimed at raising living standards was permissible only in Britain, not Tehran. Devastating sanctions were imposed on Iranian oil exports in the expectation that they would undermine the government and potentially lead to its overthrow. After the 1953 coup, backed by Attlee’s successor, Winston Churchill, and the US, the Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s helped sustain the Shah’s dictatorial regime.

Marx had always argued that the rapid growth and concentration of an industrial working class in the advanced economies meant they would be the first to undergo social revolution.  Having experienced the jingoism of the First World War, many – though certainly not all – leftists of the early twentieth century reached the opposite conclusion, largely for the reasons Wearing outlines: despite their economic development, the political bloc formed between a privileged (on a world-scale) ‘labour aristocracy’ and the imperialists would militate against the development of a revolutionary perspective. The imperial plunder of half the world was a way of stabilising the domestic economy and buying the support of the British working class. For all their economic development, the heartlands of imperialism would be political backwaters.

It seems to me that this analysis is basically correct (Ralph Miliband’s book provides a very good discussion). The British Labour Party and broader labour movement has no short supply of people who will gladly and enthusiastically shill for US foreign policy interests. The spectacle of Labour MPs calling for the bombing of one side of the war in Syria only then, months later, to advocate bombing the other side – whatever the exigencies of the US State Department – is a case in point. That Hilary Benn was able to make his much-acclaimed “fighting fascism in Syria” speech under the farcical auspices of “internationalism” is a testament to the level of debate on these issues in the UK (side note: I got the impression the speech had been “acclaimed” in the British media long before it had ever been written).

The political counterpoint of this unedifying history of support for the imperial subjugation of people abroad – provided the people at home were kept happy! – is jingoism, chauvinism, and out-and-out racism. Today, witness the ongoing attempts to racialize the working class with the epithet “white”, recent comments such as Graham Jones and Gloria de Piero’s which portray the British (“white”) working class and working class politics as irredeemably reactionary (for Jones and de Piero this is A Good Thing), and organisations such as Blue Labour. I’d argue, too, that Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion’s recent remarks are evidence of a tendency to see such things as sexual violence against women through the distorting lens of racial categories – a tendency which has its roots in privileging one section of (white, British) workers over another (“foreigners”).

All this has long-term political consequences. It sounds like a strange thing to say, given the aggression in the Middle East and intensified attempts to undermine democracy in Latin America, but US-led imperialism is on the wane*. The US economy is in relative decline. In order to maintain its position as the global superpower, it more and more depends on (expensive!) military force rather than economic influence. If the stability of your economy depended on the imperial exploitation of the rest of the world, then a decreasing capacity to carry out this exploitation will have side-effects at home. For capital, the choice between maintaining the living standards of the domestic population or maintaining profits is an easy one; the workers at home are going to have to take the hit.

One might think this the time for the former labour movement propagandists for empire to step up to the plate, break their former alliances, and bring down thunder and fury on a ruling class attempting to make ordinary people pay for a crisis they didn’t create. No such luck, I’m afraid. A degree of chauvinism isn’t just a political oddity of the British left; it’s a political weakness. The crucial point, I think, is that it makes those sections of the left – which had previously dominated the Labour Party – unable to mount a serious defence of living standards. When you come from a political tradition that has been quite happy to acquiesce to forms of nationalism, jingoism, chauvinism, or even racism all in the service of imperial adventures abroad, it’s far easier to pick a fight with one section of the workers at home (immigrant labour, or the non-white bits of the working class, like Pakistani men), then it is with capital. It’s the line of least resistance.

If, alternatively, you come from a political tradition which has actively and vocally opposed Britain’s imperial exploits, then it seems to me you are much less likely to make concessions to the racism that justified and continues to justify them. You are also far more likely to advance solutions to the economic crisis which do require a direct confrontation with capital. Enter Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst I’m not saying that his anti-imperialism is the reason Labour advanced by ten points in the polls in June, I am saying that it’s this anti-imperialism that has made him the best advocate for anti-austerity politics on the left. Corbyn’s ascendancy is thus a feature and product not only of economic crisis, but the corresponding weakened and weary state of imperialism.

It’s often said by his enemies and supporters alike that Corbyn represents a return to the politics of old Labour. This simply isn’t true. Paradoxically, the thing that has branded him an advocate for “old” Labour ideas – his support for the welfare state and public investment in infrastructure – has been enabled by his break with one of “old” Labour’s distinguishing features – the alliance between imperialism and the British labour movement. As Wearing points out, the post-war advance of living standards relied on this alliance. What makes Corbyn historically distinctive is that he is part of a political tradition on the left that would end it.


*Edit: As a friend has pointed out, wane is perhaps too strong a term. I don’t mean to say that imperialism’s enthusiasm for foreign adventures has waned. If anything, its economic decline has led to a redoubled viciousness.


Nuance trolling, or: why it’s okay to tell political stories

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So here’s a thing: I’m going to call it “nuance trolling”. It’s when bland political centrists say “the radical left just reduce complex issues to buzzwords; words like ‘austerity’, ‘neoliberal’, and ‘centrist’ are simplistic; we need nuance”. It really boils my piss.

Because actually some things are fundamentally quite simple. Take ‘austerity’. The underlying dynamic is simple; it’s about transferring incomes from labour to capital. But understanding this basic, underlying, core dynamic of what austerity is doesn’t deny the overlying complexity. You can say ‘austerity is fundamentally about transferring incomes from labour to capital’ and that can describe quite accurately the “big picture”; it’s a broad brush-strokes kind of statement. That doesn’t mean you can’t fill in the details with smaller brush strokes – with a finer-grained level of detail. The point is, an issue can simultaneously be quite simple at the same time as it’s infinitely complicated.

Let’s go back to the picture analogy –

I’m looking at a painting. I could describe it at the finest level of molecular detail – how the balance of chemical tinctures produces the different colours – let’s say the shades of yellow – comprising the picture. That would be a really “complex” description of the painting. At the same time, I can say “that’s a picture of some sunflowers”. The point is, “that’s a picture of some sunflowers” reduces the molecular complexity of the painting to a very simple statement – a statement that is nonetheless true. Complexity and simplicity can – and often do – co-exist.

And think how difficult it would be to learn anything if they didn’t. We need a framework – a “big picture” – to structure our understanding of the details. In fact, educational theorists have a name for it: it’s called a ‘scaffold’. A scaffold is a core idea or set of ideas we flesh out – that we nuance and consequently come to understand better – in the course of our learning. Without a set of core concepts, new information is just so much static. Scaffolds provide a way of organising that new information.

Narrative is another way of thinking about the same thing. Narratives allow us to make sense out of a constellation of facts – assigning weight and importance to some and backgrounding others. For that reason, political narratives are important. Going back to ‘austerity’ – it’s “a fact” that in 2007/8 the budget deficit increased. The Tory narrative is that the reason the deficit increased is because the Labour Party spent beyond its means. Metaphor is central to the story. The metaphor underlying the austerity narrative is that the British economy is somehow like a household budget.

This is, of course, nonsense. The narrative isn’t a very good one. The most intelligent reactionaries almost never lie; they just tell a good yarn – a story that backgrounds the most important facts whilst foregrounding the trivial. This particular story about a household gratuitously spending beyond its means doesn’t really explain what’s going on in the world and that’s because it’s not designed to. It’s meant to act as ideological cover for (wait for it)… “transferring incomes from labour to capital”. A better story is that when the financial crisis hit, banks stopped lending, businesses stopped investing, the economy stopped growing, and the tax-take declined, which punched a hole in the public finances. The budget deficit is the effect of the crisis, not its cause. This is quite a simplistic narrative – a “broad brush strokes” picture that we could render in much greater detail and complexity – but one that I think is fundamentally right (or at least more right than the – frankly stupid – household budget metaphor).

So narratives are important because they act as heuristics for making sense of the world around us. This should be reflected in our own political education. Recently, I’ve been involved in a lot of conversations about political education on the Labour left; there’s lots of talk about educating our members about what’s in the manifesto so that they know the policies inside out and are able to advocate for them on the doorstep.

Absolutely this is something we need to do, but we also need to go further. We need to give our members – and the wider public! – a narrative for understanding these policies; what’s the story we’re telling about the state of the country? What differentiates the left in the party from the right is that we actually have a coherent narrative for what happened to the global economy in 2007 that is significantly different from the Conservative’s. That’s why the centrist nuance troll is so keen to dismiss myopically what the left has to say as over-simplification. Bereft of an overarching understanding, all they have are the details, (I think that’s reflected in the criticism that the 2015 manifesto was a “shopping list” of policies lacking a coherent vision to pull it together).

So, yes, things are complicated, but they can be simultaneously very simple. Part of the art of politics is being able to condense complex social and economic processes into a straightforward, easily-understood core narrative. Give me nuance, but give me simplicity too. After all, it’s no use being able to describe the molecular composition of paint if you can’t also tell me I’m looking at a picture of some sunflowers.

Post-truth politics and the echo-chamber

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I wear thick-rimmed glasses, own an assortment of Apple products, eat avocado on toast, and read The Guardian (and bitch about how much I hate reading The Guardian), so about 8 months ago I went to see Stewart Lee in London. As you might expect, he made A Joke and people laughed. And then he said, “you’re not laughing, you’re just agreeing really hard”. And then everyone laughed even harder.

They laughed even harder because he was right. We were all agreeing really hard – a little maniacally, in fact. It was just after Brexit and Trump and Christmas and we were all a bit tired and hungover and the joke had been about all that stuff. This was, apparently, the “echo-chamber” everyone talks about – a seemingly obvious manifestation of the culture wars that have – apparently – raised the political temperature of the Western (northern-hemispherical) world. Everyone in that room found the joke funny because we all subscribed to a common set of values and beliefs. We all got it; we all ‘got’ each other.

I’m sceptical about this “echo-chamber” idea. The argument goes that our online networks ossify what we already believe. We share news stories, comment pieces, tweets, statuses, and memes that reinforce our view of the world and the view of everyone else in that particular echo-chamber. We more and more come to inhabit cultural parallel universes, hermetically sealed off from those who think differently to us.

But when has it ever been the case that media of any kind wasn’t self-reinforcing? In effect, the echo-chamber critique is implicitly a liberal critique of media pluralism. I say a ‘liberal critique’ because fundamentally it goes something like this: “in the good old days we had a selection of newspapers that were held in high regard. The ‘facts’ reported by these journalists formed the horizons of political debate; we believed what they said and it was within the universe of these ‘facts’ that everyone – right and left – situated their arguments. Now that common ground has gone, public debate becomes impossible”.

This is a liberal critique because it takes for granted such a thing as a public sphere in which debates about key issues of the day are staged and “rational” informed decisions reached – a space that exists free from the distorting influence of political and economic power. But in our society, power and economic interests are not extrinsic to the development of a sphere of journalistic debate and discussion, but its basic precondition. The primary purpose of the newspaper is not to equip its readership with “the facts” (whatever they are), but to make money for the people who own the newspapers; and to ensure that the owners continue to make money by supporting whichever political programmes will guarantee this. The critique of the “echo-chamber”, then, is a tacit defence of the hegemony of one group of people and their corresponding set of (mostly right-wing) political views.

The concept of “post-truth politics” is also relevant, here – the idea that Trump and Brexit on the right, and Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders on the left, represent the contemporary triumph of emotion and feeling over rational discussion of “the facts”. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, in the era of post-truth, ‘truthiness’ apparently matters more than the truth. I think there’s something in the claim that political rhetoric has changed – it had to in order to respond to the seismic shifts in political and economic processes – but politicians and journalists – mainstream or otherwise – have always lied or, more often, reported the truth in a manner that suited the interests they represent.

Post-truth politics is on some level an awakening to this arrangement; it represents a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions which supply us with “the facts”. What pundits call “post-truth” or the “echo-chamber” is the breakdown of their political hegemony. These terms privilege that hegemonic perspective as somehow being able to claim a greater veracity – an obviously tautologous claim given that the truth proffered by these “highly regarded” journalists is precisely what is at issue.  Our post-truth condition is described as a disregard for truth, but actually the opposite is the case; the turn towards alternative news sources – towards the echo-chamber – is the product of feeling defrauded by the journalists and politicians of the political mainstream. They have been called liars. They reply with the playground quip, ‘no, you are’.

It’s no surprise that these concepts have developed in times of acute economic crises and stagnation. The collapse of the centre isn’t only a political phenomenon, but – more decisively – an economic one; now the carnival of worldwide economic boom is over, there is no material basis for the ‘Third Way’ politics of the late nineties and noughties. Choices over who pays for the precipitous decline in growth – capital or labour – need to be made. Still, however, the religious zeal of the centrists causes them to cling to the old nostrums of triangulation and arcane political geometries. Indeed, it is often these politicians and journalists who denounce most loudly their opponents as purveyors of a post-truth sensibility, as populists speaking only to their respective echo-chambers.

Meanwhile, the online culture wars have developed in concert with a very real material polarisation; the closed social media networks are the political and cultural expression of these economic processes.  It’s Marx’s class war – not online culture wars – that is the real source of conflict, here. Indeed, just as it’s no coincidence that the post-truth echo-chamber is seen as a defining feature of the contemporary political landscape by the centrist commentariat, it’s no accident that both concepts have become a stick used to beat the left, or left-leaning liberals; “if only you could get out of your echo-chamber, you would see that ordinary, blue-collar, white working class people don’t’ agree with you” (it’s a blog for another day, but echo-chamber accusations often go hand in hand with the racialisation of the working class and the hand-wringing of the “legitimate concerns over immigration” brigade).

Actually, if our social media networks reflect and augment our political identities offline then it stands to reason that the polarisation of online debate – the creation of online political parallel universes – is a function of offline processes. In this context, social media networks are more properly thought of as spaces outside the protest, meeting, or rally to organise political currents. Perhaps the notion of an echo-chamber is instructive, here – echoes, after all, begin with one voice which is amplified and repeated in the chamber. From this perspective, social networks can be seen as the staging ground for a kind of meme-Leninism – as ways of “getting the line out” and organising a political base (I can feel the actual Leninists I know all raise a collective eyebrow. Yes, it’s a sloppy-probably-wrong metaphor, but one, I think, that invites thought…). The groups, organisations, and personalities with “big [social media] platforms” play a decisive role in this process.

All this isn’t to deny the particularities of the political moment. I’m not trying to say that there’s nothing new going on here. I think the echo-chamber is a real phenomenon, but its distinguishing feature is not that it’s a closed network, but rather that it facilitates an accelerated mode of organisation and mobilisation of the people comprising it. Yes, the online polarisation of social networks – the sense in which they are shut off from one another – is aggravated by this acceleration, but the political questions raised by the crises and stagnation – alongside their irreconcilable answers – are the substance and motor of the separation. On the left, our conclusions shouldn’t be to lament the development of two rival online camps – to claw at our chests, pull at our hair, and shout “why can’t we all just get along!” – it should be to aim for the victory of our camp over the politics of austerity, racism, imperialism and reaction, both on- and offline, in the streets and the corridors of power. That requires organisation, which is exactly what the echo-chamber affords.