From Corbynism: A Critical Approach, by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton, loc 3122
It is the Corbyn movement’s reliance on this kind of hyper-moralised Schmittian identitarian politics of ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ which explains why the Corbyn movement appears at its strongest when it comes under attack from internal or external foes, real or imagined, while dwindling into passivity in their absence. If socialism is a reflexive response to the natural, unchanging, essential desires of ontologically ‘good’ people, an innate ‘goodness’ which is embodied in or anchored around the person of Corbyn himself, then calling into question the character of Corbyn in any way casts doubt upon the movement’s own position as the prefiguration of the society to come, a society in which all contradiction and difference will be dissolved in the name of humanity’s unified moral nature. The need to continually defend Corbyn’s moral status from those ‘enemies’ who would ‘smear’ it acts as the negative force binding the movement together, preventing its internal contradictions from rising to the surface.
The obvious retort is to point out that it’s precisely the tendency of all mass movements to react in this way that makes the friend/enemy distinction so apt. It’s possible that Corbynism might be an unusually pronounced example of it, though it’s far from clear to me that they’ve established that. However what seems implausible is that it’s somehow unique in these characteristics, as a movement which mobilises the passions of hundreds of thousands of people.
There’s a profound scepticism running through Corbynism: A Critical Approach concerning the people and its role within Corbynism. Their concern is that a prevailing sense of socialism as natural, what people do when left to their own devices, constructs them as “inherently moral and naturally good beings, and ‘the people’ as a whole a unified, self-sufficient, organic community” (loc 3030). Drawing on G.M. Tamás, they link this to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s construct of the people “as a closed and undivided moral and cultural entity, wholly separate and opposed to the ‘society’ that surrounds and degrades it” (loc 3045). If I understand them correctly, the concern of the authors is that such a people, or rather the movement possessed by a sense of acting on behalf of such a lofty construction, lacks the capacity to question itself or doubt its purposes. In its political enthusiasm to liberate the people, it may open up much else which it lacks the capacity to even recognise, let alone to put back in the box.
This is such an interesting argument from Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton, loc 2987. I think it’s slightly hyperbolic, understating individualised domination within the corporation and overstating individualised domination by the state, but it’s an important case which needs to be answered, particularly concerning the economic pressures which corporations and states would still be subject to post-UBI:
the unified sociotechnical state of accelerationist dreams may not be the harbinger of universal freedom. In such a scenario, where the state becomes the wage payer by means of a basic income, the whole of an individual’s existence, political, social and economic, is now directly dependent on their relation to a technocratic state responsible for both the production and distribution of the means of subsistence. The recourse to collective bargaining and formalised class struggle for better pay and conditions notionally possible between employees and employers is here prematurely liquidated and replaced by a direct relationship of domination between individual and state. And, moreover, as demonstrated in Labour’s recent announcement that a basic income pilot will feature in the next manifesto, these totalising solitions tend to stand in for any more targeted response to the complex challenges confronting the contemporary welfare state. The basic income is a convenient stopgap to fill Labour’s lack of any real alternative to the impasses of the Universal Credit and the crisis of social reproduction it conceals. In these abstractly utopian schemas, the contradictory and crisis-ridden workings of capitalist society are –falsely − presumed to be resolved. Yet its abstract social forms are not abolished but merely made the responsibility of the accelerationist state, whose sole priority is to ensure that automated production keeps up with the spiralling demands of the law of value, whatever the human cost.
In the last week, I’ve been reading Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton. It’s a thought provoking critique of the Labour leadership and the movement which has emerged around it. One which I’m reading because I wanted to be forced to think about things I believe, which the shrill condemnation of right wing media pundits is unable to provoke. It’s done that and I’m glad I read the book for that reason. But the tone of it has frustrated me and I think it is symptomatic of a tendency for critique to be performed in an antagonistic way: the identification of error and the unveiling of the deeper reality which those errors conceal.
There’s a machismo latent within performance of this sort that can be avoided but often isn’t. In this case, it collapses questions of strategy and morality into ontology. What should we do? What would be right to do? The authors are Labour activists who presumably share concerns with Corbynism, even if there are vast differences about goals and methods. But even though strategy is repeatedly invoked, ends are rarely discussed because the performance of critique constantly brings the discussion back to the deeper reality of capitalism which the authors (plausibly) say that Corbynism fails to grasp.
I’m not sure how clearly I’m expressing this but what I’m trying to suggest is that the performance of critique too often precludes dialogue about what we should do. Its apparent worldliness is belied by a style of engagement which constantly slices into abstraction, away from the world. It frustrates me even as I feel I have no alternative but to read it because there are things found in texts like this which I can’t find anywhere else.
In their Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton offer this account of the change that has taken place within the British left, as transformative projects and political power came to displace the concerns of horizontals. From loc 2491-2507:
a politically ambivalent ‘left’ populism whose contemporary origins are to be found in the post-Occupy trajectory of a politics based on the rhetorical division between the ‘99%’ and the ‘1%,’ the ‘people’ and the ‘elite.’ In his appeal to ‘the people,’ Corbyn is a man of his time. For the idea of the people is now as pervasive on the left as the idea of class once was. Its omnipresence owes to a surge in left populism in the wake of the 2008 crisis, the roots of which could be seen first in the Occupy movement, and then, in a more mature political form, the struggles against austerity in southern Europe. With Corbynism the UK caught in short-form what swept Europe post-crisis. It shows how, pinning their hopes upon a succession of popular subjects, of late the left has wended a strange trajectory. Post-crisis, horizontalism sought to ‘change the world without taking power’.
Then things started getting serious. Shrugging off disdain for the state, winning elections and wielding power became the aim. This is reflected in the new vogue for big thinking on the UK left. There has been a rediscovery of the concept of populist hegemony and how to build it. Dreams abound of seizing state power to implement postcapitalism or so-called ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’. The radical left accommodation of statist solutions would have been unthinkable as tents sprung up outside St Pauls in 2011. In some ways, it shows the adulthood of the Occupy generation, and a welcome and possibly transformative spirit of compromise with the world as it is. In others, it is not entirely without illusions, as these compromises lapse into complicity with that world. A reflex against Occupy’s failure, the new verticalism still bears its foreshortened class critique. Against the ‘elite’, the ‘people’ stands in as the alibi for a state politics that lacks a social basis.
This Current Affairs piece makes a similar point, though frame it as an issue of hope:
I remember during Occupy Wall Street, everything felt so hopeless. People literally could not conceive of any kind of meaningful change, out of desperation they just planted themselves in the middle of the financial district and tried to hang on as long as possible. Now we have clear goals in sight: cancel student debt, free college for all, free child care, single-payer healthcare, no more wars, net-zero emissions. There are people committed to making them happen. And by God, I feel like they’re going to do it. Conservatives are out of ideas. They know they can’t win a debate with the left—just look how Bernie bowled over the FOX hosts. The socialists are on the march, and we’re gonna win.
The trope of ‘taking back control’ has become ever more prominent within political life, explicitly in the case of the Brexit movement but implicitly in a whole range of other movements from Trumpism to Corbynism. In their thought provoking, if at times unpersuasive, critique of Corbynism (Corbynism: A Critical Approach) Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that the promise Labour have made to take back control over capitalism is fundamentally illusory. From loc 2441:
The inevitable failure of such a model in an irreversibly global society just sets up yet another narrative of betrayal, one greatly intensified by the faith in Corbyn’s personal integrity and the self-regard of the broader movement as being the ‘community of the good.’ This is in common with all such demands for the taking back of control in a world where we are all out of control.
Leaving aside the question of whether such a promise has been made, as opposed to a more nuanced message being reduced by Pitts and Bolton to fit the argument of homology between populist right and populist left which they were inclined to make, it raises an obvious question: if control is impossible then what should we do? Their argument as far as I can see is to preserve the forces of liberal multinationalism as a means to mitigate the excesses of global capitalism. Or at least that’s the only positive case I’ve seen 2/3 of the way into the book and it remains a bit weak. But where I think they are making an important point is their concern about where a perceived betrayal of the promise of control, might lead. From loc 2445:
This is particularly risky if the institutional structures of liberal capitalism –the impersonal laws and rights which ameliorate, however unsatisfactorily, the inherent conflicts and contradictions of a system of ‘social labour’ –are conflated with that self-same system of socially mediated labour, and thus recklessly cast aside in the name of ‘taking back’ an elusive and impossible ‘control.’
This concern that Corbynism is harassing energies which, in the event of its failure, might not be contained within a left project, immediately made me think back to this gloomy Richard Seymour piece about the betray narratives taking shape on the British right. I find it easy to imagine how a narrative of betrayal could emerge among a renewed left, not directed at the leadership of a failed Corbyn project but rather at the ‘establishment’ which has destroyed it in order to serve their narrow interests. How might this entangle with the myth of national betrayal currently emerging on the right? It is admittedly one in which Corbyn himself is frequently cited, as Seymour makes clear, but the main thrust is again with the ‘establishment’. Where could this lead? Après moi le déluge.
Does Corbynism have a future beyond Jeremy Corbyn? In their Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue strongly that it does not because the figure of Corbyn is essential to sustaining the Corbyn coalition. From loc 1882:
there can be no Corbynism without Corbyn, or, at least, not without rendering the project incapable of containing its internal contradictions. Corbyn is not only a vehicle for a set of ideas quite apart from his own, but their alibi –giving cover for political positions even the adherents of which would otherwise recoil from, but which guarantee in the short term the construction of a relatively successful electoral coalition.
But surely this is true of any political coalition? To rely on an imaginary element to sustain a sense of collective identity between millions of people with divergent viewpoints and interests could easily be framed as part of what a coalition is. What matters is the efficacy or otherwise of that imaginary in holding together that coalition through the inevitable compromises and disappointments which mark the parliamentary road to power.
Their account is thought provoking in its analysis of the particular discursive work which the figure of Corbyn himself enacts, even if they setup their argument in a circular way which trades off the aforementioned constitutive function i.e. as long as the coalition holds together they assume their argument must be correct.
But I can’t see how one infers from this that Corbynism must necessarily fragment without Corbyn, unless we are talking about his overnight disappearance in an unchanged political context. Not least of all because the management of those internal contradictions becomes a radically different challenge once power is assumed.