We lost because we weren’t big enough
Where now for Anglo-American socialism?
In the UK, the book-length post-mortems of the Corbyn moment are starting to be trailed. My own analysis was published online in January. In the US, the analytical dissection of the Bernie Sanders movement is well under way.
No doubt everyone who was even tangentially involved in the Corbyn and Sanders projects has their own account of what went wrong; and why it wouldn’t have gone wrong, if only they had been listened to. My account of Corbynism was certainly relentless in this regard.
But at moments like these, it’s important not to blame events that are shaped by broad forces on details of history. Of course, it matters if the people running a campaign are good at their jobs. Of course, it matters if a candidate is charismatic, and has the ‘common touch’. Of course, no historical outcome is ever entirely pre-determined. Of course, to a certain extent, anything could happen, and anything could have.
But the profound similarities between the trajectories of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, and the similar situations that their failure has given rise to, suggest that something broader is going on.
For example, many of us on the UK Left were frustrated by Corbyn’s inability to match Sanders’ rhetoric. It seems likely that the establishment had to stop Sanders before he got the Democratic nomination rather than after, because if he’d got it, it would have been too late: he would have won. But stop him they did, just as they stopped Corbyn. Which suggests that whatever tactical mistakes their teams did or didn’t make, there were bigger things going on that made their tasks almost impossible.
On either side of the Atlantic, a remarkably similar situation now faces the democratic left. In each case, between 2015 and 2020, a mass movement was mobilised behind the leadership of a previously obscure politician who had been a young adult in the 1960s. In each case, the core of the movement was made up of disillusioned millennial graduates. Both movements met with apparently terminal defeat between December 2019 and April 2020.
The forces ranged against these movements were almost identical: an entrenched centrist political class on the one hand, an upsurge of Right-wing nativism on the other.
This combination of forces ultimately made it impossible for either movement to build a broad enough coalition to win. In each context, the politics of race and class are central to the dynamics of the situation. And for both the British and American Lefts, a bizarre and unrepresentative electoral system only makes their task much more difficult at every stage.
In the UK, Dawn Butler, a Black, female Left-leaning Labour MP – was recently stopped and questioned by the London Metropolitan Police. While the police have claimed this incident was entirely the result of human error, the fact is that being randomly stopped and questioned by police is a daily fact of life for Black Londoners. Butler herself certainly didn’t believe that the episode was an innocent random mistake.
Twenty-fours hours later, Labour leader Keir Starmer had yet to comment on the incident, to the astonishment of members on the party’s Left. Rightly or wrongly, this was widely interpreted as a snub to the Corbynite wing of the party, and to Black voters and party members. This followed on from the treatment of another Corbynite Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, just weeks earlier: fired from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with her constituent, the actress Maxine Peake, that contained one line of anti-Israel propaganda. It also followed Starmer’s clumsy attempts to row back from an apparent public dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement a few weeks earlier.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the first Black woman was nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate. But this was not perceived as any kind of victory by Left-wing Democrats: instead, the selection of Kamala Harris was understood as a final defeat for the Bernie Sanders movement. Like Joe Biden, Harris is not seen as being on the Left of the party or of American public opinion. She was associated with a highly punitive judiciary regime during her tenure as Attorney General for California, and generally advocates for a policy agenda that is continuous with the Clintons and Obama.
This all follows directly from the Democratic platform committee having rejected the signature policy of the pro-Sanders movement – ‘medicare for all’ just a couple of weeks earlier – despite Biden’s promise to include Sanders and some of his advisers in developing his programme for this November’s election. For those of us in the UK, this all feels very familiar.
Firstly, the established professional political class, and the interests that it represents (primarily, finance capital and Big Tech) have successfully defended their institutional privileges against a democratic assault.
They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).
Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.
His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.
The Biden Plan
Trump didn’t win in 2016 because of any significant surge in support for White supremacy or the Republicans, but because millions of Democrat-leaning voters would not vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s these people that Biden must excite.
At the same time, if he is to overcome Trump’s resources and his own limitations, he will need money from the financial and business interests that traditionally bankroll Democratic campaigns. Harris’ nomination is as much about securing their support as enthusing Black and women voters. Presumably this will free Biden somewhat to woo those older, white, mainly working-class voters who were attracted to Trump by his economic populism but often expressed enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.
We don’t know if the campaign will feel much need to appeal to the young urban Left that was Sanders’ core base. In many places, that constituency faces exactly the same problem as its British counterpart: it tends to be concentrated in urban areas in ‘blue’ states where there is little doubt about the electoral outcome, however they vote. Much like the UK system, the electoral college discounts everyone except swing voters in swing states. But the presence of both urban and rural areas in most states means that in those which do swing, the enthusiasm of young urban voters is as important as anyone’s in influencing national outcomes.
Biden himself, in his rare moments of lucidity, sometimes gives the impression of being a figure that we really haven’t seen before in either country: a fully paid-up member of the neoliberal political class who actually realises that the historical moment has changed, demanding a radical divergence from the policy norms of the past quarter-century (Macron, perhaps, could also be characterised in these terms). There’s no reason why a cynical and pragmatic politician couldn’t draw that conclusion for themselves without any ideological conversion, and it’s a remarkable testimony to the power of ideology that so few seem to have done so, in the face of the obvious historical reality on either side of the Atlantic.
As if to illustrate that power, the one minute’s speaking time accorded to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez at the Democratic National Convention this year – compared with the 4+ minutes accorded to Republican former Governor of Ohio, John Kasich – suggests that the party establishment itself is still stuck in exactly the same mindset that lost them the 2016 election: chasing the ‘moderate Republican’ vote that so dramatically failed to materialise in that year.
It’s hard to say how real this constituency is. A significant tendency of recent American Left commentary has been to assume that it isn’t. From this perspective, the ritual evocation of a ‘moderate Republican’ constituency can best be understood as an expression of class solidarity amongst members of the professional and managerial elite. To say ‘moderate Republicans’ exist and declare them natural allies is, in effect, to argue for a unity and ideological coherence among members of the suburban upper-middle class that would transcend mere partisan identification. But it was always doomed to fail as an electoral strategy.
But while there was little evidence of this constituency coming out to vote for Clinton in 2016, recent research by Matt Karp suggests that affluent suburban ex-Republicans have in fact swarmed into the Democratic selectorate in key districts over the past four years, playing a decisive role in denying the nomination to Sanders. Solidarity works, it would seem. Karp’s important article also demonstrates the extent to which the hostility of Democratic party officials to the Sanders movements played a key role in blocking the possibility of his nomination campaign achieving its goals. Once again, the parallels between the UK and US situations is more than striking. One of the most contentious issues inside the Labour Party this year has been a leaked internal report demonstrating the extent to which powerful networks of party officials were actively hostile to any prospect of a Labour victory under Corbyn in 2017. Not that this should have come as any surprise. Anyone who had been active in the Labour Party for any length of time prior to 2015 knew that the Right-wing of the party was deeply embedded in its bureaucratic structures and power-networks, while remaining ruthlessly contemptuous of any kind of socialist politics, and any idea of respect for party democracy.
This all leaves socialists in a difficult position, as lots of anguished commentary has acknowledged. The strategic question is: how best, and how far, can the Left leverage its limited but significant popularity and organisational capacity, in order to put genuine pressure on a Biden presidency (and the congressional Democrats)? By loyally campaigning for him, or refusing to do so? By contesting primaries or running independent socialist candidates? By organising in communities and workplaces only? By returning to the dream of an American Labor Party? It’s hard to see any of the answers being proffered as definitive. If anything, radicals need to organise in ways that keep all of these options open.
Despite the gulf between the radical Left and Kamala Harris, it’s notable that the convergence of pressure from Black Lives Matter and the expectations of a self-consciously cosmopolitan professional class created a situation in which Biden had to nominate a woman of colour. The Labour leadership is subject to very similar pressures, but the professional class in the UK has different priorities, having little sustained interest in the problem of anti-Black racism. Starmer’s treatment of Butler and Long-Bailey has led to charges of seeming to recognise a ‘hierarchy of racisms’: prioritising zero-tolerance for antisemitism (which appears to include much criticism of Israel) over any serious political critique of anti-Black (or anti-Traveller) racism.
This understanding of the situation is contested. Starmer’s supporters insist he was wise to avoid commenting on Dawn Butler’s case and alienating socially authoritarian older voters; while Long-Bailey breached the party’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on antisemitism. Few on the Left are convinced. Starmer’s apparent reluctance to endorse Black Lives Matter earlier this summer lingers.
I don’t think Starmer is a racist, or entirely indifferent to the institutionalised anti-Black racism in the UK. But there seems little doubt that his statements on all of these issues are being calibrated according to a specific political strategy, responding to the specific issues raised by Labour’s defeat in December. That strategy seems, understandably enough, to be focussed on winning back the two key sets of voters Labour lost between 2017 and 2019.
I’ve already mentioned the first such constituency: middle-class centrists, who were put off Labour by relentless portrayal of Corbyn as somehow contravening cosmopolitan liberal values, with his supposed tacit endorsements for Brexit and for antisemitism. These are mostly middle class, middle-aged ‘generation X’ voters who, since the 1990s, have largely been protected from most of the things that other sets of voters have become very angry about. They haven’t suffered the sense of cultural displacement and political disempowerment experienced by older voters everywhere, and by all age groups in the post-industrial regions. They haven’t experienced the frustration and permanent economic insecurity that has become the norm for so many millennials. Consequently, they don’t understand why the golden age of Blairism ever had to end, and they blame everyone except Blair and themselves for the fact that it did.
For them, the 2008 crisis and its aftermath was largely something that happened to other people: primarily because historically low interest rates ensured that the majority of them who are homeowners never experienced much interruption in their perpetual capacity to consume. In the US, their equivalent cohort are highly likely to have voted in Democratic primaries, and highly unlikely to have voted for Bernie Sanders.
Back in the UK, Corbyn and his supporters always made these people uncomfortable, with their old-fashioned language of ‘socialism’ and apparent insistence that things weren’t going great for many people. So these middle-aged voters have been only too happy to be told that the reason the Corbynites irritated them wasn’t because the things they said were true, but because they were racists and xenophobes.
Starmer already has huge credibility with this cohort, being, in effect, their ideal image of a professional politician, and being closely associated with Labour’s most aggressively pro-Remain wing . But to retain their support, he must signal strongly that he endorses the narrative according to which Corbyn’s Labour was institutionally antisemitic: which became the key story this constituency used to justify to themselves their alienation from Corbyn and his supporters.
But while the loss of these centrist votes was numerically significant in December 2019, it didn’t decide the result. The UK, it can never be forgotten, has an absurdly unrepresentative electoral system. First-past-the-post, combined with the fact that younger, non-White and more highly educated voters all tend to be more concentrated in urban centres, results in a situation whereby a tiny number of swing voters in marginal constituencies determine every election. Those voters are disproportionately suburban and middle-aged. There are very clear parallels with the US electoral college.
There is a widespread assumption among party members that Starmer calibrates every single public statement, intervention and policy announcement entirely to pander to the perceived prejudices of this group. This may or may not be true. What is true is that his head of policy, Claire Ainsley, published a book a couple of years ago called The New Working Class. Despite its title, this really isn’t an attempt at a sociological analysis of the identity or class composition of contemporary workers. It is a precise and careful analysis of recent data on social attitudes, particularly as that data appears to tell us something about the opinions, prejudices and preferences of low-income voters, and specifically with reference to what policies a political party might offer that would directly reflect those preferences and prejudices.
The book makes an honest and serious argument that by offering such policies, a party would actually be helping to restore trust in democracy, by giving the people what they actually want. Of course, at no point does the book address the question of why people – especially older people with little education and a high level of trust in the print media – might want what they want. It’s not that kind of book.
In fact this is very close to the justifications given by early New Labour ideologues for their reliance on focus-groups and opinion polls to make policy. This was notably the attitude of Blair’s strategist Philip Gould, himself an acolyte of Bill Clinton’s strategy team. But in the 1990s, the voters that Labour were chasing were quite different: they were southern, aspirational, and upwardly-mobile (although ironically they belonged to more-or-less the same generation as many of the northern voters that Starmer is chasing now). Ainsley’s method may be entirely New Labour, but her conclusions are decidedly ‘Blue Labour’: arguing for a policy agenda that is partially redistributive, but also authoritarian and socially-conservative, taking an entirely instrumental attitude to education and a relatively punitive approach to welfare.
If these are to be the major coordinates of the Starmer project, then he and his advisors can hardly be blamed. This is, after all, the most rational response to the realities of Labour’s electoral situation. Any such course is likely to provoke a mass defection of the younger voters and supporters who flocked to Corbyn’s Labour after 2015 (as well as a significant portion of Ainsley’s ‘new working class: those ‘emerging service workers’ that Ainsley and her sources all identify as having very different attitudes to the rest of that putative social grouping).
Unfortunately, under First Past the Post, this hardly matters at all: most of those voters live in urban constituencies where Labour already enjoys enormous majorities. At least, that is very likely to be the calculation made by Starmer and his team. Whether that assumption survives the next couple of years – which are very likely to see significant increases in support for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amidst growing panic about climate change amongst the younger middle classes – we will have to see. The fact that Scotland is already a lost cause for Labour, and will probably leave the UK within the foreseeable future, doesn’t seem to figure in Starmer’s calculations one way or another.
The problem with such an approach, even if it proves to be electorally viable, is that it will not address any of the fundamental social problems facing the country or the world. Let’s take the problem exemplified by Dawn Butler’s harassment by the police.
What possible solution can be imagined to institutionalised racism that would avoid challenging the prejudices and assumptions of both of these key constituencies to whom Starmer is apparently orienting his project? The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement is to highlight a precise set of issues that both the liberal ideology of the ‘centrist dads’ and the social conservatism of Ainsley’s ‘new working class’ simply cannot allow themselves even to perceive clearly: never mind propose realistic solutions to them.
It’s worth considering these two ideologies and the different ways in which they cannot admit to any serious analysis of structural racism. It’s also worth noting that the two exist in quite different institutional spaces, although between them, the institutions in question cover almost the entirety of the mainstream media, both in the US and in the UK.
On the one hand, the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism to which middle-class centrist voters remain so attached is still the default common-sense of the managerial class in both countries, including senior managers of public institutions, large and medium-sized businesses, and most broadcast media professionals. On the other hand, all evidence suggests that the world-view of older voters with low-education is heavily shaped by the power of the tabloid press and its ideological allies online in the UK; by the media constellation organised around Fox News in the US. On either side of the Atlantic, both of these sets of institutions, and the ideologies that they propagate, remain major obstacles for any project that would seek to actually address the fundamental social questions raised by the fight against structural racism (or against rampant economic inequality, or against climate catastrophe). Let’s think about the limits of liberal anti-racism first.
An Age of Progress?
Anglo-American liberalism likes to tell itself a story. According to that story, the years since the 1950s have encompassed a great era of progress. Despite the inconvenient intercession of events like the Iraq war, or conservative attempts to suppress LGBTQ equality, the past few decades are generally seen in a positive light: a steady march from the darkness of post-war social conformity, into the light of a diverse and tolerant twenty-first century culture.
None of this is simply untrue. Many people now inhabit societies that tolerate a diversity of lifestyles, beliefs, identities and customs that has no historic precedent in the history of human civilisation. For some of us, opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfilment have expanded almost beyond the most utopian dreams of earlier generations. But these opportunities have not been widely shared. In fact they have been denied to growing numbers of the poorest people, with ever-more appalling flagrancy, as the institutions of post-war social-democracy have retreated.
That is why the greatest uprising against racial injustice of recent times has come just three and a half years after the first Black President of the USA left office. The same history that made possible the emergence and consolidation of a Black middle class, that made a Black head of state seem possible in America, did nothing to weaken the tendency for municipal police forces to treat Black communities like subjugated people under military occupation. In fact that history only made the situation worse.
Several things are simultaneously true. Today, if you have a degree and a professional salary, then your chances of being held back because of your gender, your sexual orientation or the colour of your skin have never been lower. That doesn’t mean you won’t be held back at all, or that you won’t continue to suffer indignity and harassment in many quarters. At the same time, if you don’t enjoy those economic advantages, then the freedoms apparently granted to you by this brave new liberal world are of very little use: and this is more true every year, as inequality intensifies, as real wages stagnate, as the power of unions and local urban communities continues its 40-year decline.
The twentieth-century labour movement and the institutions of the welfare state were notoriously racist and misogynistic, at their worst. But they also afforded a degree of basic economic protection for the poorest workers that has been systematically stripped away since the 1970s. For poor white workers, especially straight men, the decline in the value accorded to their cultural status as straight white men has coincided with a decline in their economic and political power. In some, this provokes intense resentment of an increasingly cosmopolitan political elite that drives support for a far-Right agenda.
The Nationalist Right
It’s these resentments that push so many voters – alienated from the culture of the cosmopolitan elite – into the arms of the nationalist Right. In the UK as in the US, the second most powerful section of the mass media after the neoliberal technocrats who still control the BBC and other major broadcasters – is committed to a clear ideology of authoritarian nationalism. In fact this has been the case since the early 1970s, and throughout that time has posed a major strategic dilemma that the labour movement and its allies has simply failed to address. It’s crucial to note here that the real core of support for that nationalist Right in both countries is not ‘the white working class’: it is, in fact, as it has always been, the classic ‘petit-bourgeoisie’: affluent, ageing property-owners, employers in long-established economic sectors, landlords and senior private-sector managers. But when it is confined to that social base, the nationalist Right never gets anywhere and never causes problems for anybody. The problems arise when they manage to recruit enough of the working class to their cause to leave any potential progressive or socialist coalition too weak to succeed. The mechanisms by which they achieve this are not hard to identify.
In the UK, notably, an influential section of the English press remains committed to an extremely Right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist/imperialist politics. This isn’t a new situation, and has obtained to some degree for as long as there has been a British popular press. But this tendency was at its weakest in the 40s, 50s and 60s when the Sun (launched in 1964) was Labour, the Daily Mirror the most popular paper in the world and even the communist Daily Worker enjoyed mass circulation. It’s no accident that this was Labour’s period of greatest political success. Similarly in the US, the extent and reach of the Right-wing media ecology has never been greater than it is today, and nor has the willingness of Right-wing spokespeople to disseminate narratives without the slightest connection to objective reality.
Nationalist authoritarianism has always played a powerful role in popular politics. Philosophers from Plato to Hobbes to Freud, not to mention many contemporary theorists of ‘populism’, have seen the desire of crowds to follow leaders while excluding foreigners as direct expressions of the most basic psychic impulses informing all social life. Indeed, at a philosophical level, one of the key objectives of radical, democratic and socialist theory has always been to show that this is not the only basis upon which social life can be organised: that people in large numbers can also express tendencies towards solidarity, egalitarianism and a genuine love of shared freedom.
Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.
In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.
a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall
This isn’t to say, by any means, that the majority of Leavers have ever been out-and-out racists or xenophobes. I think the very idea that most people either are or are not actually ‘racist’ is itself based on a very simplistic understanding of human personality. Racism might be better thought of as a potentiality which is latent in almost everyone (and not only White people) that can be activated or not – under specific circumstances. Some of the most insightful commentary I read on the experience of the 2019 election reflected on the sense expressed by many ‘traditional’ Labour voters that Corbyn was, in a vague but definite sense, more concerned than he should be with the rights of refugees and Muslims. Few of these voters would have endorsed explicitly racist perspectives or policies.
It might be helpful here to visualise a kind of continuum of opinion. At one end of the scale would be pure proletarian internationalism, opposed to all border controls, understanding with full ‘class consciousness’ that, as Marx & Engels put it ‘the workers have no country’. At the other end would be out-and-out fascism. Very few of Labour’s lost leave-voters would endorse perspectives anywhere near the fascist pole of this continuum. Most of them, as I’ve suggested, could well be persuaded to endorse a range of perspectives along it, depending on how regularly they were exposed to them and how persuasively they were put. But, encouraged by the press, receiving very little everyday encouragement to endorse any other interpretation of their situation, they were too far from Corbyn’s principled internationalism to feel comfortable with it.
This analysis would seem to apply even more clearly to those (relatively few, but strategically crucial) voters in key US battleground states who swung between voting for Obama and Trump: any categorisation of such voters as simply racist or non-racist obviously misses something. This suggests that what is at stake is not merely a fight between racism and its opponents, but a struggle to build ‘assemblages’ – constellations of institutions, ideas, networks and communities – within which the capacity for the latent potential for racism to be expressed can be minimised, while the latent capacity for working class solidarity (conceived in the most universal terms possible) can be expressed.
The long-term decline of trade unionism is a significant factor here, because unions have been historically central to the construction of such assemblages. Although, historically, unions have themselves often been guilty of practicing and promoting racism and xenophobia, they have also been an institutional vehicle through which explicitly anti-racist ideology and practices of solidarity have been disseminated from far Left organisations to much wider sections of the working class.
The absence of any such countervailing force in many communities today means that the nationalist conservatism of the Right-wing media meets with little everyday resistance. In the UK, the decline of print media and the rise of online media ecologies has some impact on this situation, but relatively little, because established media institutions often have an overwhelming capacity to use new media to reinforce their existing positions of authority. For example, the Daily Mail’s is one of the most visited websites in the world. In both countries, the networks of mutual reinforcement between alt-Right YouTubers and mainstream nationalist conservatism make it very difficult for alternative outlooks to gain significant purchase in many cultural contexts.
The Marxist Left – in both the US and the UK – is not wrong to claim that the key issue at stake here is the one that has preoccupied socialist strategists since the 19th century: the question of ‘class-consciousness’. How is it possible to overcome the workings of conservative nationalist ideology, to inculcate in workers (by hand or by brain, on minimum wages or six-figure salaries) a sense of their shared collective interests, directing their attention to the true enemy of progress: the billionaires and their agents among the political and managerial elite? But their approach to this issue has been, at times, unhelpfully simplistic.
In both countries, for example, key sections of that Left have been too quick to understand Right-wing populism merely as a form of latent class consciousness, that could be easily inflected in a progressive direction by the offer of a radical programme. It’s been argued fairly persuasively that this was a key weakness of the Sanders campaign, informed as it was by the assumption that simply promising a radical economic programme would be enough to win voters away from partisan and cultural identifications. I’ve made much the same criticism of the ways that a certain section of the UK and US Lefts interpreted the vote for Brexit; they were far too optimistic about how easily the desires and emotional investments informing that vote could be channelled in radical directions. And it would be very convenient for me – a professional expert on Marxist and post-Marxist theories of ideology – to claim that the naive economism of the traditional Marxist Left was partly to blame for our failure. Maybe this was true in some cases.
Certain sections of the Corbyn and Sanders movements – including some very influential figures – have been closely allied to what I call ‘the orthodox Left’. Unlike what I’ve called, by way of contrast, ‘the radical Left’, they tend to be dismissive of most political or cultural theory outside the narrow canon of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and their most dogmatic followers. This approach tends to ignore most of the past century of theory and analysis in the Marxist and post-Marxist traditions, all of which has wrestled time and again with the question of how to overcome the obstacles presented by racism, nationalism and liberalism, and how to understand the complex psychosocial forces of nationalism they are often able to tap.
The orthodox left instead often assumes that simply pointing out to people, in blunt terms, the reality of their socio-economic situation will be enough to cut through the mental chains in which ideology binds them. By contrast, the radical Left tends to place a greater emphasis on deploying different languages and approaches to bring together heterogeneous social coalitions.
All of this may be true to a certain extent, but I don’t think it really works as a criticism of the Sanders or Corbyn campaigns. The same body of theory that would tell us that simply promising people better material conditions won’t necessarily win them over, would also tell us that the work of winning them over is long, arduous, and probably impossible in the context of a short-term electoral campaign. Under the circumstances, the campaigns probably did as much as could be expected.
I do think it’s true that much of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns were wildly over-optimistic at certain times. Partly because they misinterpreted all hostility to Hilary Clinton and most support for Brexit in 2016 as expressions of this latent class-consciousness, many people involved radically over-estimated the strength of their position between 2016 and 2020, treating the first significant uptick of socialist politics since the 1980s as if it were something more like a pre-revolutionary situation than the first stirring of a long and uncertain recovery.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this partly derives from a perspective typical of Marxist-Leninism, which is good at analysing very long-term trends and very short-term crises, but bad at the kind of mid-range analysis that effective political strategy requires. One reason the ‘radical Left’ in the UK has been slightly less despondent about the political situation this year than the orthodox Left, is that fewer of us thought we were on the verge of a new socialist dawn in 2019.
We didn’t win because we weren’t big enough. That doesn’t mean we never will be.
If the weak analysis of the orthodox Left had one deleterious consequence, in both the UK and US contexts, it was that it engendered too much optimism about how easy it would be to win key electoral contexts without having built up a clear social majority for their programmes. In the UK this led the orthdox wing of Corbynism to dismiss calls for a broad-based coalition of ‘progressive parties’, in the belief that winning a parliamentary majority with the required 42-3% of the vote, with no significant allies anywhere in the rest of civil society, apart from the unions, would be an adequate foundation upon which to build a radical reforming government. In the US, it led to the complacent assumption that the Democratic primary field would remain so divided that Sanders could win merely because his 20% base of support was more solid than anyone else’s. In each case, a certain fantasy of winning without actually winning – gaming a broken electoral system in the name of social democracy – overtook the need to broaden and diversify the political coalition under construction. Ultimately, this was a symptom of people underestimating their enemies, and mistaking an early stage of political recovery for an almost pre-revolutionary situation.
And this, ultimately, for me, was the real lesson of both campaigns. I was in the UK for the election in 2019 and then I was working in the US from January to March 2020, so I got a reasonable chance to absorb some of the political atmosphere and talk to people involved – and not involved at all – in the Sanders campaign.
In both cases, the sense I got of why we were losing was one that isn’t quite captured by any of this analysis. Instead, I had the impression that uncommitted voters simply didn’t believe that the socialist movement was big enough – yet – to fulfil its objectives in either case. People didn’t believe that a Corbyn government would be able to deliver its programme. They were almost certainly right. The City of London, the BBC, the Murdoch press, the Right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party… all would have conspired to ensure that it failed, and the movement that we had built just wasn’t big enough to take them on. In the US, the belief of Democratic voters that Bernie couldn’t beat Trump may have been psephologically misinformed, but it may have also expressed a deeper intuition that this movement of precarious urban millennials was not going to be any match for the combined might of Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
We didn’t win because we weren’t big enough. That doesn’t mean we never will be.
Where does this leave us?
All of this leaves the Left in a difficult, but not hopeless position. The successful campaigns to de-legitimise Sanders and Corbyn have made it clear that the centrist establishment in both countries is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to retain control of their party machines, and more broadly to retain their positions as the only legitimate alternative to extreme nationalist governments. At the same time, Trump’s current position in the opinion polls suggests that winning back some of his working class support to a progressive programme might ultimately be an easier task than winning over the liberals. On the other hand, however, the sheer difficulty of reaching and winning working class voters was illustrated by, ultimately, the complete failure of the Sanders campaign to mobilise significant working class support during the Democratic primaries or the Labour Party to defend its traditional ‘red wall’ of post-industrial constituencies in the Midlands and North of England (a more or less precise socio-economic analogue of the American ‘rust belt’).
By contrast, the very fickleness of middle-class voters between the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections is partly an illustration of the fact that they are much easier for various political forces (including, but not limited to, the Left) to reach. They are far more likely to read Guardian op eds or to have friends and contacts among the social networks of urban graduates that are now central to the political Left in both countries. They are also far more likely to express direct concern about long-term structural issues such as climate change. There’s clearly no chance of winning over the actual political elite in either country, but there may well be considerable scope for weakening their base among the broader professional classes with appropriate sustained propaganda.
Unfortunately, the unfolding political consequences of the pandemic are likely to make the task of driving a wedge between uncommitted middle-class voters and the liberal technocratic elite more difficult, at least in the short term. That elite had lost control of the political agenda almost everywhere by 2015, unable or unwilling either to restore the pre-2008 growth model or to organise some new and sustainable social settlement. This ultimately undermined the only claim to political or moral legitimacy that they ever really had: their claim to managerial ‘competence’. But in recent months, the former TV personalities who now lead both the UK and the US have lowered the bar for governmental competence beneath anything we have seen in the era of mass media and mass suffrage. The consequences have been predictable and terrifying, and they may well create a window within which neoliberal technocrats can recover some of the authority and popular consent that they had lost.
This is partly because Trump, Johnson et al. are indeed just very bad at governing. But it’s also because the populist Right now find themselves faced with an almost insurmountable paradox. Boris Johnson and his government, for example, always intended to depart from the austerity orthodoxy of the past decade; but they never intended to do so on anything like the scale now required to address the pandemic and its consequences. In fact, it is genuinely challenging for them to mount any such response without inadvertently strengthening the very institutions and communities that the Right has spent decades deliberately weakening: workers, trade unions, local government, public services. You can only go so far to raise aggregate demand and encourage economic growth without benefiting workers or empowering local government.
In a January 2020 essay for openDemocracy, I argued that the nationalist Right in England had managed to win the struggle for hegemonic authority, finally filling the vacuum that had been created once the neoliberal technocrats lost all legitimacy. Pointing to the heavy use of social media, and a general commitment to governing by data, characterising the politics of figures like Johnson and Trump and some of their key advisors, I suggested the term ‘platform nationalism’ for this emergent formation, riffing off Richard Seymour’s recent, and extraordinarily prescient coinage: ‘disaster nationalism’ (itself a reference to Naomi Klein’s idea of ‘disaster capitalism’). ‘Disaster nationalist’ politics actively thrives in the chaos of a society in permanent crisis, deploying nationalist tropes and feelings in a haphazard mixture to win support for its general aim: to prevent any coherent challenge to capitalist power from emerging. Platform nationalism deploys the vast communicative capabilities of social media and digital platforms to further this end.
The Bozo Right
This is a mode of politics that places a very high value on the type of data-management skills - that Silicon Valley trades in, while explicitly denigrating the more established forms of managerial expertise associated with the technocratic political class. The continuum of data-management skills that is so valued ranges from actual coding and network analysis, to the simple skill of social-media posting: which is Trump’s one real political talent. This aligns the platform nationalists both with populist anti-expert sentiment, and with the libertarian-oligarchic wing of Silicon Valley (Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and other icons of the alt-Right). It also encourages the kind of performative anti-rationalism that constitutes the public persona of figures like Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro. It’s no wonder that Musk’s public pronouncements often seem embarrassingly similar in tone to those of Trump et al. These are the iconic figures of the new Bozo Right.
At the same time, however, the mainstream of corporate Big Tech (Apple, Microsoft etc.) remains culturally and institutionally tied to the established neoliberal political class: above all, to the Democratic Party establishment. And it’s this which is likely to keep causing headaches for the Left. One thing is clear. Whoever ends up losing most, the undoubted winners of the pandemic will be the single socio-economic group who had already emerged as the most powerful on the planet in recent years: the platform monopolists of Silicon Valley . This potentially strengthens the platform nationalists, but above all it will probably empower their long-term vassals and loyal servants: the Clintons, the Obamas, their allies and their legatees.
What Can We Do?
This might seem like an analysis that leaves only despair for the Left as its conclusion; but that isn’t my intention at all. Despite the obstacles to progress on the Left, there are numerous causes for cautious optimism.
Despite the electoral setbacks of 2019/20, the organised Left is larger and more dynamic in both the UK and the US than it has been at any point since the catastrophic defeats of the 1980s. Just 5 years ago it would not have been remotely plausible to make such a claim. There was never any realistic chance that the socialist Left would be able to move from that historically low ebb, to the point of forming what would have been the most radical governments in well over half a century, in the space of less than half a decade.
This doesn’t mean that the electoral adventures of the Sanders and Corbyn movements were a waste of time, or that we really had any choice except to pursue the historic opportunity that they offered us to a natural conclusion. They provided an opportunity to mobilise hundreds of thousands of younger activists who had never been mobilised before, to remake connections between electoral politics and movement activism that had been broken since the early 90s, and to detoxify the concept of socialism with a huge section of the US electorate: an enormous historical achievement.
At the same time, the broader social and political conditions are such that, even during the pandemic, millions of people are experiencing something more than just alienation and disempowerment. They are experiencing the lived contradiction between the obvious power of both governments and people to act collectively in a highly-networked world, and the complete failure of neoliberal capitalism to deliver on its promises of prosperity and autonomy for citizens. It’s highly unlikely that the BLM uprising of summer 2020 will be the last major mobilisation to emerge from these conditions.
Building Our Forces
The progress and outcomes of the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns makes one thing very clear. On both sides of the Atlantic, Left media are stronger and more vibrant than they have been for decades: otherwise, neither movement would have got as far as it did. But they are nowhere near as strong or extensive as we need them to be. The situation in the US is considerably better than it is in England and Wales where the Left press was more or less annihilated in the 1990s and 2000s, leaving very little for the new generation of millennial media activists to start building on in the 2010s (in Scotland, radical media are stronger; but are mostly, understandably, oriented away from the rest of the UK, towards a project of national independence).
There’s little to say about this situation except that we need to keep on with the work of building progressive media, and of cultivating a sense of solidarity between different outlets and political tendencies. It’s a trite cliché, I know, but too-often, even on the radical Left, media outlets are more preoccupied with competing with each other for an existing audience than with helping to support and expand the overall ecology of progressive and radical media. This is appropriate behaviour only for political formations that are simply much stronger than ours currently are.
As I’ve already suggested, but many others have expressed more eloquently than me, building support and political consciousness amongst workers is obviously crucial to the task of weakening support for the nationalist Right. Writers like Day & Uetricht and Jane McAlevey have made profound and persuasive observations as to how this could be achieved in the US context. In the UK, the landscape is again somewhat different because of one, often-overlooked fact about the British economy: we continue to enjoy relatively high levels of union density: 23% as of 2018, as opposed to 10% in the US. In the UK, I think that pressuring unions to take a more active role in countering Right-wing propaganda is an obvious task for the Left for the foreseeable future, and is more likely to deliver results than trying to undertake this task simply through self-resourced community organising. Of course, those undertaking that thankless task need and deserve all our support.
At the same time, one implication of this analysis is the urgency of developing propaganda, alternative media and political education resources aimed not only at working class citizens and young graduates, but at the middle-aged, middle-class voters. Beyond authoring and sharing endless Guardian op-eds, I don’t have an immediate solution to suggest. It’s notable that my own generation of middle-aged Leftists – especially academics – is far more strongly and routinely represented by US Left media outlets such as Democracy Now and The Majority Report than by any equivalents in the UK. It’s also notable that this didn’t prevent the American ‘professional and managerial class’ from closing ranks against Bernie Sander as effectively as they did against Corbyn in the UK. Evidently this is an issue meriting much wider discussion.
The Party Problem
An obvious issue facing the Left in both contexts is how to orient itself towards the major electoral vehicle: the Democratic Party and the Labour Party respectively. On one level there’s a fundamental difference between the two situations. The UK simply doesn’t have a two-party system, even though Labour continually behaves as if it does, while the Conservative Party retains an overwhelming institutional advantage over all other UK parties, even though the Labour Party has spent the past 100 years pretending that it didn’t. One only has to compare the outcomes of general elections since the 1980s to see how much relatively stronger the Conservative Party is than the Republicans. As I’ve argued many times before, as have many other members of the crucial British lobby group Compass – the only sane response to this situation is for Labour to seek some kind of accommodation with other parties to the Left of the Conservatives, and for the organised Left to seek a leading role in the process of coalition-building, rather than obstructing it, or leaving it to the centrists to control.
Exactly what this means in practice is entirely a function of local conditions. There are localities where Labour has never won a competitive election and where supporting some other non-Conservative party is an entirely rational decision. There are some where the Labour representative is so Right-wing that a serious argument could be made for voting against them in favour of almost any alternative (as a loyal party member, and in respect of party rules, I personally, naturally, would never advocate such a vote. But other rational minds might well take a different view…). There are many places where contesting internal Labour elections to try to win control for the Left remains an entirely sensible course of action. What is very likely going to be needed over the next few years is some way of coordinating such efforts, to try to push Labour into full support for a serious response to the climate crisis; much as UKIP and the Brexit Party pushed the Tories into the full embrace of Eurosceptic English nationalism.
In the US, the dilemma for socialists is, as it has always been, not how to accommodate to the reality of a multi-party system; it’s whether to try to create one. Should socialists organise independently to win elections locally, or should they continue the uphill struggle of winning primaries and positions in the Democratic Party? After the disappointments of this year, it’s easy to see why anyone would opt for the latter course. But given the steady growth of the congressional progressive caucus, which is currently larger, more diverse and more impressive than at any time in my adult life, abandoning the Democratic Party as a site of struggle altogether would also seem perverse. Recent commentary from the Jacobin stable has tried to address this dilemma by distinguishing progressivist coalition-building from a more militant ‘class-struggle’ strategy, that would nonetheless not seek to build any kind of third party as such for the foreseeable future. This analysis is useful, but it’s not clear that these two approaches can or should be clearly differentiated from each other at a fundamental strategic level: they might just as well be understood as different bundles of tactics to be deployed under distinct local and historical circumstances.
It seems clear, in fact, that in each case what’s needed is a level of strategic sophistication capable of adapting to local circumstances, and the opportunities that they do or don’t present. Which doesn’t entirely answer the question of how the organised Left in either country should relate to the party leaderships. Yet another parallel between the US and UK situations is that the ‘leadership’ (in the US case, this really just means the presidential nomination) has been won by a figure associated widely with the Right of the party, but promising to honour the demands made by the Left. So far, in both cases, there is absolutely no reason currently to expect that promise to be honoured.
This isn’t a new dilemma for the political Left, but it is arguably a new one for the Left that has only emerged since 2015.
To what extent is it possible to continue to build our movements, to raise class consciousness, to radicalise diverse constituencies, above all to weaken the power of the technocratic elite, without directly attacking the leaderships of our own parties? Could we deploy the organisational infrastructures built up to campaign for Corbyn and for Sanders, to build and broaden support for a transformative socialist programme, without directly going to war with the liberal wing of the ruling class and its subordinate elites? I’m not sure. In the UK case, there’s no obvious reason why Momentum, the organisation set up to support Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, couldn’t continue to campaign inside and outside of the party with the aim of shifting public opinion to the Left, without expecting Starmer to adopt every position that we would endorse, before the public were won over. In particular, there’s no obvious reason why the liberal centrists around either Starmer or Biden should object if Leftists want to campaign on the ground to win working-class voters away from authoritarian nationalism.
In theory. In the UK case, the question is whether Starmer himself could or would find a way to encourage such a process. Since the 1980s, the Labour Right has regarded the public and relentless humiliation of the Left as its primary modus operandi; the principal means by which it signals to the ruling class, the wider public and the Right-wing press that it is fit to govern the country. That attitude is clearly mirrored in the approach of senior Democrats like Nancy Pelosi (although their tone has rarely been quite as sadistically punitive towards the Left). But these were political habits formed in the 1980s, during a period of sustained and disastrous defeat for the working class and the socialist Left all over the world. Even on their own terms, does this strategy still make sense at a moment when, whatever humiliations we may have endured this year, the Left is clearly on the rise?
losing your job to some Leftie is often a more immediate threat than the re-election of an extreme Right-wing government
Unfortunately, it does make sense to the extent that what motivates a great deal of antipathy to the Left on the part of the Democratic and Labour establishments, from local municipal councils in the UK to the very top of the Democratic National Committee, is the simple and correct perception that the rise of the new Left poses a direct threat to the jobs and sinecures of countless centrist officials and representatives. The vast majority of these roles are not dependent upon national electoral success. You can carry on being a Labour councillor in West London, a Democratic official in Philadelphia, or a full-time opinion writer for the Guardian or the New York Times, whoever happens to be in government. In fact, losing your job to some Leftie is often a more immediate threat to that position than is the re-election of an extreme Right-wing government. This is why it remains an urgent political task to drive a wedge between this layer of the political class and their immediate social base: other suburban professionals who don’t happen to benefit directly from permanently excluding the Left from office. This is, let me stress again, only one task among many. The persistent idea that such a strategy precludes the possibility of also building working-class solidarity and militancy is one of the most problematic and self-limiting assertions of the sectarian Left, in both the US and the UK.
The Coming Challenge to the Green New Deal
There are many challenges before us, and there is no single mode of analysis or overarching strategy that is likely to be able to resolve all of them. My primary aim here is merely to point out to fellow Leftists the key strategic factors that we have to take account of at the present moment in time.
We were beaten in the electoral contest: demonstrating, if it needed to be demonstrated, that we are still not strong enough to lead a winning social coalition, and that we obviously need to extend our range of allies and collaborators, as well as committed members. We are growing, and the factors leading to our growth since 2015 have in no way been mitigated by the pandemic.
Those same conditions have created considerable confusion for the platform nationalists of the populist Right, although, again, the conditions that gave rise to their emergence are only continuing and intensifying. The technocratic elite who have governed us since the 1990s remain weak and rudderless, but the pandemic has offered them an opportunity to recover their legitimacy, if only in the very short term, and their entrenchment in key institutional positions remains an obstacle that we have not been able to overcome. At the same time, we know that their palliative technocratic solutions will solve none of the problems currently facing us. What we don’t know is who will benefit from the eventual backlash, if they get the chance to try them out again. Anthony Barnett has made a persuasive case that it could be forces for democracy, and for the ‘humanisation’ of global culture.
Under these conditions, and despite all of the strategic uncertainty that besets our current situation, there is one prediction that I’m willing to make. Probably the single biggest strategic challenge that will face us once the pandemic is ‘over’, is this. Middle class voters are likely to be more anxious than ever about the failures of the global political class to tackle climate change, and frustrated by the gap between inaction over that issue and the evident ability of governments to completely re-order social life in an emergency that the pandemic experience has demonstrated. If figures like Starmer and Biden continue to pursue a 1990s strategy of only appealing to swing voters, then that frustration will only intensify. Support for radical political measures to address the climate crisis is likely to grow amongst those who feel that they still have enough of a material stake in civilisation to be worried by its imminent collapse. But, at the same time, the number of people who feel that any political objective beyond immediate job-creation is irrelevant to them will also have grown exponentially, as the consequences of the largest recession in the history of global capitalism hit home. It is very likely that the forces of the authoritarian Right will seek to offer material concessions to working-class voters in return for their assistance in blocking middle-class demands for drastic reductions in carbon emissions.
We already have a programmatic solution to this dilemma: the Green New Deal is an idea that, presented and understood correctly, promises to address both sets of demands simultaneously. But the platform nationalists of the bozo Right will use every means at their disposal to convince voters with relatively little education and income that the Green New Deal poses a threat to them, and will not deliver the prosperity they crave. They will almost certainly appeal to nationalist and racist sentiments, trying to convince White working-class voters that the Green New Deal would only benefit immigrants, public-sector workers and People of Colour. This is likely to be the most pressing political dilemma that we will face, before another electoral cycle has completed, in both the UK and the US. The attempt by the populist Right to associate the Green New Deal project with a middle-class and cosmopolitan culture, that they will portray as inimical to the values and interests of the White post-industrial working-class, will present us with a significant ideological and organisational challenge. Building a social and political coalition, a political and cultural assemblage, that can successfully meet it, will almost certainly become the overriding priority for the Left by 2024: on both sides of the Atlantic.
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