Corbyn, Labour, and the path forward for the Left

After languishing in the polls, down 24%, suffering tremendous amounts of negative press, even from supposedly left-wing outlets, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party pulled off an improbable (moral) victory on June 8, garnering 40% of the vote, Labour’s highest vote share since the late, great Clement Attlee in 1945. How did Corbyn defy the odds? The short answer is: by being Corbyn. Corbyn is a straight talker, an anti-establishment politician who doesn’t mince words and who is happy to break taboos and overturn conventional wisdom. He sticks to his principles, rather than swaying in the wind of political expediency. His style matches his substance.

And substantive, Corbyn and Labour have provided a forthright program of social democracy that tackles the real issues which affect the lives of the working class and poor and afflict all of British society with a sense of anxiety. The Labour manifesto also supports broader steps towards worker ownership and the democratization of the British economy – see this Jacobin article for more. Corbyn called for fully funding the British healthcare system, social care, and social housing; enacting a living wage; re-nationalizing the horrifically run railway system, the energy sector, and the Royal Mail (which, despite its name, has been in private hands for years now); making universities tuition-free; and taking steps to combat global warming, homelessness, and economic inequality. Corbyn and Labour resonated most with the youth, but Labour’s program had something for everyone in society, from university students to pensioners.

The youth vote surged in response, and overall turnout was up, because when people feel they have something to vote for, they – surprise, surprise! – actually vote. Labour defied the odds because people chose the politics of hope. They refused to believe that an unjust and unequal status quo that condemns millions to lives of quiet misery is the best that we can get. And now, as the Tories consort with the homophobic, creationist, climate-denying, terrorist-sympathizing DUP, Labour is on the doorstep of power.

There are obvious lessons here for the American Left, lessons that I hardly need to spell out. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are essentially peas in a pod. Momentum and Bernie’s “political revolution” (as institutionalized in Our Revolution and other groups which are trying to democratize the Democratic Party) are nearly perfect parallels. As a persuasive ideology, Blairism is dead in the UK, just as Clintonism is effectively dead in the US. If the Democrats had run Bernie in 2016, if neoliberals hadn’t demonized his approach to politics and antagonized the many millions of Americans who desperately want genuine left-wing populism, and if the American mainstream media had actually done their job and covered Sanders properly, Bernie and the Democrats would have won. Likewise, if neoliberals and the soft left within the Labour Party hadn’t spent so much time tearing Corbyn down and challenging his approach and leadership, and if the UK mainstream media hadn’t been pretty much uniformly hostile to Corbyn and the renaissance of genuine leftism, Labour might have won outright on June 8.

In the UK, Corbyn and the politics he represents are in the ascendant. In the US, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, and the politics they represent are still struggling to escape the dead weight of Clintonite neoliberalism. But what Labour’s incredible showing clearly demonstrates is that in 2018 and 2020, the Democrats would be wise to promote left-wing populism and genuinely left-wing candidates. Bernie and Jeremy represent the path forward for the Left, on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Socialism and hope

Revolutions (and all kinds of transformative change) rely on rising expectations. “Realism” and the kind of depressive thinking which lowers expectations and dashes cold water on any embers of imagination and resistance still smoldering in the mind are self-fulfilling. Most recently, the vicious cycle associated with the self-fulfilling nature of pessimism dampened the prospects for political and economic change during the period from roughly 1968 to 2015 (although you could make the case that it goes even further back, to the point after the high tide of New Deal reforms had been reached and the waters were beginning to recede), and it’s a vicious cycle that has the potential to rear its ugly head again during the Trump administration.

In 2008, there was a brief moment of hope that things could be different. Obama commandeered and flagrantly misused this desire and belief in something new, enlisting it in his neoliberal, corporatist drive to save Wall Street from the enraged hoi polloi. But Obama was right to champion hope, even if his politics continued to feed the hopelessness that Trump and his minions gleefully feed on.

The truth, as the redoubtable Erich Fromm recognized, is that hope is essential to life. Hope is what makes us fully human, human in our aspirations for a better world and dignity for all. Hope nourishes the soul and fires the imagination. Hope – tempered and self-consciously defiant – is the only remedy to the politics of hopelessness and despair. As such, any socialist must temper their justified and necessary cynicism towards the world’s corruption with hope and faith in their fellow human beings and the possibility – even if it appears improbable, more remote than the furthest star – of redeeming our world.

Socialism, robots, and AI

For a long time, technologists have written paeans to the wonders of artificial intelligence and automation. And AI and the automation it would allow do indeed offer the possibility of emancipating us all from drudgery and dreary jobs. But under capitalists’ control, while people still think in capitalist ways, they represent an enormous danger. So there’s two sides to AI: immense promise and tremendous peril.

There’s a difference between labor and work. Labor is anything dreary and unpleasant that has to be done (or is perceived to be necessary – even if it’s not) under current conditions of economic organization and technological development. Labor is forced upon the laborer; no one leaps at the chance to do labor. Work, on the other hand, is self-chosen, non-alienated, enjoyable, creative activity – not what we normally mean by the word work. Although it may require intense concentration and dedication, there’s an element of play and freedom to work. Labor is firmly within the grey, joyless realm of necessity. Work is inherently meaningful, because it’s autonomously chosen and represents an unforced instance of self-expression. Labor is only meaningful because the laborer has to find some psychic way of justifying the meaninglessness and alienation she undergoes on a daily basis.

What one version of socialism would do is eliminate labor almost completely. Work would remain. The elimination of labor will require a large degree of automation, but there will still need to be people who do some work: they will monitor and tweak the machines and robots responsible for economic production/distribution and environmental management. Automation is central to this form of socialism.

Another form of socialism is disturbed by the way that capitalism has caused people to become so alienated from the basic processes that sustain life. Large-scale, centralized economic programs and systems of automation are much less desirable if you think automation is part of the problem, not part of the solution, but this form of socialism would also automate the most unpleasant and time-consuming forms of labor. This version of socialism, while trying to make labor less meaningless and unpleasant and eliminating some varieties of labor, would argue that work and certain, reasonably tolerable forms of labor should be pretty much universal, that everyone should equally participate in the labor that makes society possible. This version of socialism is the kind that favors decentralization, local production, local consumption, small-scale farming, and other initiatives to change the way people live and work.

Both versions of socialism (and they are broad simplifications) require some considerable degree of automation, particularly if that automation cuts carbon dioxide emissions. But the danger under capitalism is that automation becomes an excuse for capitalists to throw workers out of jobs and leave the unemployment problem to be solved by governments that won’t lift a finger to help the workers because those governments are controlled by capitalists and in thrall to the ideology of austerity. The way technology develops, which technologies are chosen for widespread use, who owns those technologies, who benefits from technological improvements, who bears the costs of technological development, and which values are programmed into AI/robots…all of these things depend ultimately on who controls the technology.

And under capitalism, this is the same old capitalists who control everything else. Silicon Valley tech firms may be superficially different from Wall Street banks, but they don’t care about ordinary people either. It’s entirely possible to imagine a future where automation has continued, causing massive unemployment and displacement, while none of the political and economic changes necessary to make automation into a blessing and not a curse have taken place. There’s a good reason why so many movies these days feature techno-dystopias. In short: beware of geeks bearing gifts.

 

A socialist take on the French election

Liberals around the world are unabashedly rejoicing at Macron’s election. Someone posted on my Facebook feed praising Macron and Trudeau and saying something to the effect of “If it takes running young handsome men to beat the far right, let’s do it!” As a democratic socialist, I’m just as relieved as the next gal that Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist and truly nasty piece of work, didn’t win the French presidency. But Macron is a deeply flawed politician who offers more of the same old neoliberalism (he worked at an investment bank, is a fan of austerity, and wants to cut pensions and increase work hours). He ran using the politics of spectacle, personality, and celebrity, privileging style over substance. His party isn’t a movement – it’s just a candidate-oriented vehicle that brought him to power. He doesn’t have a solid theory of political struggle and social change, and, in part as result of this glaring failure to understand how politics actually works, it’s unlikely that he’s going to be able to cobble together a coalition strong enough to effectively resolve the problems the French face. So what’s likely to happen is that, over the next five years, France’s problems will worsen, and the far right will be emboldened and empowered by the continued failure of neoliberalism. 2022 will be a bumpy ride. (Incidentally, had Hillary Clinton won, I would have said essentially the same thing about the United States.)

More than that, though, to be giddy over Macron’s election ignores the fact that the Western world is now locked in a vicious cycle: the approach to politics, in both form and substance, that brought us Macron’s victory is the exact same politics that brought us the Front National and Le Pen in the first place. Trudeau, Macron, and Obama, in running as supposedly post-partisan, non-ideological center-right candidates who used their youth and good looks to the fullest and blithely disregarded the suffering and inequality of the masses, represent precisely the politics that must be defeated by the Left if we’re to escape this vicious cycle and move in the direction of something more promising and less likely to plunge the entire world into the depths of entrenched neo-fascism. Macron’s victory is a bandage which has been hastily slapped over a festering wound which will putrefy in the years to come. We had better hope that Jean-Luc Melenchon and the French Left also draw strength from Macron’s failures and are ready to smash the neo-fascists in the 2022 election.

Socialist takes on universal basic income and profit-sharing

There’s been a lot of murmuring on both sides of the aisle about a universal basic income (UBI), a guaranteed annual payment of money to be given to every citizen. It’s an idea with a long pedigree, one that stretches back to Tom Paine’s call for a lump-sum annuity and forward to MLK. The idea behind UBI – to satisfy everyone’s basic needs and establish income as a fundamental social right – is a good one. But in practice, the idea of UBI is also open to cooptation and perversion by the Right, and this is part of the reason why it’s been supported by numerous conservatives over the course of its career as a proposal, and why some support it nowadays. UBI reinforces a system that uses money as a way of valuing the world, reinforces the idea of private ownership, and can be used as a pretext to destroy what remains of the welfare state. The level it’s set at is also a matter of grave concern. Alyssa Battistoni has an excellent article here if you’re interested in reading more about the complicated politics behind UBI.

The idea of profit sharing with workers falls under the same category of political reforms that democratic socialists should embrace only with extreme caution. The modern corporation is unjust and undemocratic, and profits are currently distributed extremely unequally within capitalist enterprises, so on the face of it, any move towards a more equitable distribution of profits within a firm should be grounds for celebration. But unless such profit-sharing also comes with power sharing with the workers – and ultimately, workers’ control over the corporation – profit-sharing simply reinforces the status quo and is perfectly compatible with capitalism, falling under the umbrella of what we might call “capitalism with a human face” or “shareholder capitalism.”

The same is true of liberals’ calls to make everyone into a small capitalist by giving them a certain amount of property or capital (the liberal philosopher John Rawls calls this property-holding democracy). Compared to a situation where many people are mired in extreme poverty and don’t have any personal possessions or money at all, property-holding democracy is obviously an improvement. Property-holding democracy is arguably incompatible with capitalism to some extent, because it would eliminate poverty and capitalism relies very heavily on the tried-and-true technique of using fear of unemployment and poverty as goads to get people to suck it up and accept terrible jobs and unfair contracts because the alternatives are so much worse. But by universalizing the logic behind capitalism, property-holding democracy makes it less likely that we will ever get rid of capitalism and all of the destructive ways of engaging with our fellow human beings and nature that capitalist understandings of rights, property, and ownership make inevitable, even in societies where there’s a “chicken in every pot.”

Quote of the day

“All modern fascist movements, including the practices of contemporary American demagogues, have aimed at the ignorant; they have consciously manipulated the facts in a way that could lead to success only with those who were not acquainted with the facts. Ignorance with respect to the complexities of contemporary society makes for a state of general uncertainty and anxiety, which is the ideal breeding ground for the modern type of reactionary mass movement. Such movements are always “populist” and maliciously anti-intellectual.” -Theodor Adorno et al., The Authoritarian Personality (1950)

Arguments for capitalism, refuted (part 16: capitalism and fascism, part 1)

Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia are poisons that originated and have developed over the course of history. They’re always around, alas, but they are shaped by political and economic conditions: they increase in strength and prevalence during the economic recessions and depressions which are par for the course under capitalism, when anxiety, rage, and fear are most prevalent and far-right politicians who legitimize hatred proliferate like toadstools on rotted logs after a rainstorm.

Under “normal” circumstances, capitalists are able to use various mechanisms (ranging from sham elections between corporate-controlled candidates to dreaming up new and ever more dangerous financial instruments to enslaving people through debt to old-fashioned state violence) to suppress the masses’ unhappiness and make capitalism seem stable (although capitalism is an inherently unstable system because the principle of profit maximization demands constant expansion). But when the economy goes into crisis (as is “natural” for capitalist markets), these mechanisms begin to fail, and people’s fury at being deprived of a decent life when the rich gorge themselves can no longer be ignored.

Under “normal” circumstances, capitalism, coupled with the ideologies of white supremacy, male chauvinism, and heteronormativity, promotes a mentality that champions money, power, strength, beauty, technology, spectacle, and (a very narrow, stupid version of) efficiency. It privileges symbols over substance, images over reality, circuses and horse-races over serious politics, suits and ties and briefcases over normal clothing. It idealizes capitalists, mostly white men, and celebrities. Capitalism indoctrinates people to measure value by wealth and to try (vainly) to satisfy their psychological needs through consumerism. It encourages self-expression, but only for a narrow band of privileged people. Everyone else is to conform to the fashion standards, patterns of thought, and values set by the powerful.

Capitalism marginalizes anyone who doesn’t conform to its ideal image of the virile white, straight, Christian billionaire businessman: the poor, the homeless, the disabled, women, minorities, anyone who doesn’t abide by bourgeois fashion standards or meet bourgeois beauty standards. The marginalized often internalize the loathing and hatred that the system directs their way; this creates resentment and rage, which simmer and slowly come to a boil. All of this is fascism in embryonic form.

Anger and disenchantment with the status quo aren’t immediately political. They are moods that can be harnessed to good political ends (uniting the people around genuine economic justice, a la Bernie Sanders) or to evil ends (stoking hate, scapegoating the wrong people, and making phony promises, a la Donald Trump). Under “normal” circumstances, the masses are denied representation by the capitalist elite and knuckle under. All of the emergencies that people face regularly under “business as usual” don’t get expressed or redressed. But when the masses are “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” (Network-style), they no longer accept being shunted aside.

In a culture that is so thoroughly saturated with fascist values, in a culture where some considerable portion of the masses are filled with self-loathing because of all of the messages capitalist society sends them about their self-worth, in a country where many people think they’re just “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” as John Steinbeck put it, this is the perfect recipe for fascism. But provided that people’s smoldering rage is channeled in the right direction, it could also be a recipe for democratic socialism. What determines which path a country takes? Why do I think fascism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin? How exactly are fascism and capitalism connected? And what relevance does this have for the present? Join me tomorrow and find out.

Arguments for capitalism, refuted (part 15: capitalism and racism)

Much has been written about the connection between capitalism and racism, and I can’t possibly cover every aspect of such a complex topic. I’m not even going to try to address the history of global colonialism and imperialism. This is also a very controversial topic on the Left. I’m going to try to tread carefully, but I’ll make clear at the outset that my intent is not to downplay the urgent need for racial justice, and I don’t believe that there’s a trade-off between racial and economic justice.

If you want to read more on some of the things I will talk about here, here are some great articles (in the name of unabashed self-promotion, I’m putting my own article first):

Slavery was the hellish epitome of capitalism, capitalism with all of the niceties removed. Human beings with more melanin (the vast majority of whom were African-Americans, but some of whom were Native Americans) were brutally instrumentalized, treated as sources of labor and maximally exploited for the sake of capitalists’ profit margins. They were given enough food, water, shelter, and medical treatment to replenish their labor-power – and nothing above that amount. Northern banks and Southern plantation owners collaborated to convert their labor into surplus value.

Native American lands were forcibly seized, and the land and its natural resources were (and are) vigorously exploited for the sake of large corporations’ profit. Native Americans are subjected to pollution, environmental degradation, and the deprivation of basic human rights like access to clean, safe drinking water, all for the sake of fossil fuel CEOs’ paychecks and Wall Street hedge funds’ bottom lines. The struggle over Standing Rock and the Keystone XL pipeline is symbolic of so much of the awful history America has when it comes to racism. One could similarly write about the history of Latinxs, Asian-Americans, and countless other non-white groups.

Regardless of whether it was consciously or unconsciously developed as a tool for dividing and conquering, as long as it’s existed, racism has been used as an ideology to split poor and working-class people up and shore up capitalism. Poor whites derived a ‘psychic income’ from living in a white-supremacist society and looking down on poor African-Americans; throughout American history, many efforts to create coalitions for economic justice (e.g., the Populists, labor organizing drives in the 1940s and 1950s) have collapsed because of racism.

Race is a great distraction from class. But that’s not to say that race isn’t important and deserving of attention in its own right or that class isn’t racialized. This isn’t yet another attack on identity politics. God knows that centuries of racial injustice need to be addressed head-on. But it is to say that appeals to racism can be used to undermine emancipatory politics.

Conservatives use racism to gain power and ram through deeply unpopular right-wing economic policies; they use racism and white supremacy as a way of getting some to vote against their economic interests (and of depriving many people of color of the chance to vote). Neoliberals use a neoliberal form of identity politics (please note that there’s more than just ‘neoliberal identity politics’; see the In These Times article above for more on this), a form of politics that focuses on symbolism and superficial representation as a way of distracting from huge economic injustices. Neoliberals use race cynically. True representation is, of course, tremendously important. Women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community must be properly represented in the media, culture at large, and the halls of power. But neoliberal identity politics gives us tokenism, not true representation, and it doesn’t address economic injustice either.

For example: Hillary Clinton had the temerity to attack Bernie Sanders because he supposedly wasn’t anti-racist enough and because breaking up Wall Street wouldn’t solve racism. Wall Street, of course, is extremely racist (Exhibit A: Wells Fargo’s mortgage racism), and precisely because class is racialized, economic injustices disproportionately affect people of color. Even if Bernie hadn’t had a strong racial justice platform (which he did), targeting economic inequality would’ve disproportionately helped out people of color anyhow.

Any movement for emancipation needs to address racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. But all of these identity-based forms of discrimination are intertwined with capitalism and have economic consequences, as we saw with the statistics on America’s racial and gender income/wealth gaps. One of the most serious consequences of the capitalist system’s usage of racism as a tool of control and self-protection is that, when shit hits the proverbial fan, racism, xenophobia, and nationalism become weaponized in the form of fascism, which is what we will discuss next.