Parliament vs. the People: Corbyn and a New Kind of Politics in Britain

Jeremy Corbyn has been able to win an increased majority for his leadership of the British Labour party after a bruising second election, which occupied much of the headlines over the past few months. Many Labour MPs had a difficult time disguising their hostility as he reorganized his shadow cabinet, but they have had to acknowledge that the party’s base remains solidly behind him. While new party members are enthused by Corbyn’s socialist stand against the super-rich, discredited ex-Labour premier Tony Blair found himself “baffled” by the turn politics has taken.

He is confused because Corbyn did not so much win re-election as Labour’s membership, assumed by Blair to be a passive group of subscribers, asserted its right to control the direction of the party. Corbyn and his supporters in Momentum represent a new kind of politics, one that combines electoral campaigning and locally-based activism. Critics who call him unelectable or not prime-minister-material miss the fact that he wants to build a different sort of party to the monolithic Labourism of the past, one that does not depend on silver-tongued orators like Keir Hardie or Neil Kinnock.

The legitimacy of parliamentary representation, in any case, has been undermined by the legacy of Blair’s New Labour and the Cameron coalition governments – most Labour MPs embraced the premise that austerity policies were inevitable, taking their lead from Westminster insiders and not from their constituents. Corbyn’s insistence on democracy within the Labour party is an assertion of popular sovereignty, which on principle is antagonistic to the British tradition of rule from above.

Parliament has not been the real seat of power since the Callaghan government capitulated to the IMF in the 1970s, but a parliamentary majority still remains the ultimate goal for the Labour establishment. Leftwing sociologist Hilary Wainwright explains why: “Underlying Labour’s devotion to the parliamentary system as a fixed point of reference and conditioning factor of their political mentality is deference to the moral authority of the British state … associated with the potent symbolism of the monarch as the entity to which MPs swear their allegiance – as distinct from the republican European convention of an oath to the people. … To suggest authority lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state.”

The Labour party’s membership have long dreamed of making MPs and the party leader accountable to them, and are now raising again the demands for mandatory reselection of MPs and party control over policy that were aired by the Bennite movement of the 1980s. Like Benn, Corbyn seeks to legitimize forms of political democracy outside parliament, relocating sovereignty in the people. “Only with Corbyn’s first leadership campaign did the new politics come into the mainstream,” Asher, a Momentum volunteer, told Wainwright. “I get infuriated when people talk of the new politics as a Jeremy fan club. This isn’t and was never about just one man.” Another volunteer, Adam, adds that “Corbyn is ‘a figurehead of the new politics’ but ‘not in control of it’.”

Wainwright commented that Corbyn has demonstrated “he would open up spaces in politics for the disenfranchised and ensure they had a voice. … Gemma Jamieson Malik, for example, a London PhD student driven by housing costs to live out of London, explains: ‘It’s not that I’m a Jeremy Corbyn fan. It’s that he’s opened a space for a new politics I and my friends can feel part of. He’s generated a new energy around Labour’.” Emily, a Momentum volunteer, said: “It’s not good enough for a leader to speak for people, it’s about empowering those people to speak for themselves. In essence, it’s about creating a vehicle for the untapped potential of communities to collectively organise and lead the fightback.”

Corbyn, Wainwright argues, “supports an impressive range of struggles but he weaves a web of networks so they connect with each other, rather than going through him. At present, he can see that something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.”

Paul Mason thinks that Corbyn doesn’t go far enough in that direction. “He is a symptom of the wider recapture of Labour by networked individuals and grassroots campaigners, but he doesn’t come from that tradition,” he maintains. “I think he could have been stronger in building Labour as a network and a movement, learning from the benefits this milieu can bring.”

Mason points out that in the first nine months of Corbyn’s leadership much effort was expended on changing Labour’s economic policy so that the party could present a realistic plan for improving people’s lives. “They brought forward a new fiscal charter and a proposal for state investment, there was a successful opposition to the government’s welfare reforms, they forced the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith over disability benefit cuts. None of this would have happened if there had been a different kind of leader,” he said, even though Corbyn was hampered by lack of support (if not outright betrayal) from the parliamentary party and party headquarters staff.

However, parliament is not the place where real, rather than rhetorical, opposition to the Tory establishment is most effectively expressed. That’s why Momentum’s plan to turn outwards and campaign directly with the electorate is better than one of infighting in party meetings. Devolution of powers to English cities and regions offers opportunities to challenge government-led austerity, and a chance to change the terms of electability, “overcoming negative media onslaughts through sheer volume and quality of peer-to-peer political interaction,” the organization says. It plans to campaign in local elections over the next two years, building a base of activists who can mobilize party members and win power for left candidates locally, which it hopes will prepare Labour to fight the 2020 general election.

Momentum has a dual strategy, explains national organizer James Schneider: “We want to make the Labour Party more open, participatory, and democratic. We want it to be an activist party, organizing to win in every community, standing for Corbyn’s platform. … But we also want to provide a point of connection between the movements and the party, to use this moment to build popular power and increase capacity at the grassroots level.”

Momentum itself developed spontaneously at the grassroots level after Corbyn’s initial election victory in 2015. Groups emerged over the country, setting up Facebook pages and organizing meetings, before there was any kind of national organization. It was a form of horizontal democracy, like the Occupy movement, and only later was a form of governance structure created to coordinate the local groups’ activities. This distinguishes it from “Our Revolution” in the US, which seems to have failed to connect Sanders’ organizational apparatus with local activists’ energy.

But what is problematic about Momentum is that its leadership appears to have capitulated to the rightwing witchhunt alleging anti-semitism in the Labour party, removing the organization’s vice-chair, Jackie Walker. What distinguishes this ideological assault is the re-definition of anti-semitism as any criticism of Israel or of Zionism, coded as the “distinct nature of post-second-world-war antisemitism” by hostile MPs. In the US a well-funded assault of the same kind is taking place on college campuses against the campaign for divestment from corporations profiting from the occupation of the West Bank (BDS), where university chancellors have been pressured to define any defense of Palestinian rights as hate speech.

While British society accepts many of the premises of social democracy, its class history has produced an aversion to owning the consequences of democratic participation. The radicals in Momentum will have to find ways to overcome the strong social tendency to bureaucracy and sectarianism if they are to build a truly democratic movement; however, they can draw on the enthusiasm and determination of newly politicized millennial youth as well as the experience of older members who have recently rejoined the Labour party.

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Trump, Farage, and the Transnational Right-Wing Axis: Containing the Tide of Reactionary Nativism in Britain and the U.S.

British UKIP politician Nigel Farage’s defense of Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments caught on video, dismissing them as “alpha male boasting,” underlines the existence of a transnational right-wing political axis that relies on aggressive rhetoric to mobilize specific constituencies against liberal elites and immigrants.

The crisis of globalization has created a pronounced trend to economic nationalism, politically allied with implicit and explicit racism. The achievement of Brexit by Farage’s party therefore is not a purely British phenomenon, but a consequence of the failure of the political establishment throughout Europe to acknowledge the interests of deindustrialized working class communities or suburban communities fearing loss of their steady middle-class existence. The Tory right, backed by the major media outlets, was able to deflect these communities’ anger away from the billionaires accumulating wealth from the system and onto immigrants and minorities.

Former economic advisor to the Obama administration Lawrence Summers notes that the biggest concern of the world’s finance ministers and central-bank governors today is that “traditional ideas and leaders are losing their grip and the global economy is entering unexplored and dangerous territory … with Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the strength of right-wing nationalists in Europe, Vladimir Putin’s strength in Russia, and the return of Mao worship in China — it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the world is seeing a renaissance of populist authoritarianism. … Publics have lost confidence both in the competence of economic leaders and in their commitment to serving broad national interests, rather than the interests of a global elite.”

A globalized economy does not supplant national states, but relies on them to enforce trade and labor discipline; if traditional forms of consensus are losing their grip, that is a serious problem for international trade agreements. The European Union is taking a very hard line with the UK because it faces internal centripetal forces threatening to break it up. European governments are concerned to shore up their own eroding domestic positions: Angela Merkel, for example, is losing support from the German electorate and has insisted on the acceptance of free movement of people as a condition for access to the single market.

In Britain, prime minister Theresa May has called for restrictions on immigration in order to appease the hardline Tory grassroots and keep her party intact. Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith comments: “May has succeeded in uniting a large swathe of the country, both Leave and Remain backers against her, including many with her own party, with her hardline anti-immigrant posture. It’s a confusing wild lurch in Tory politics, throwing big business, London, social liberalism, elites, liberal Brexiteers under the bus and courting UKIP voters.” More importantly, she has triggered a collapse in the pound and the likelihood that the financial industry will lose its lucrative passporting rights that enable it to work in the eurozone.

According to the Guardian, “The French finance minister, Michel Sapin, said on Friday that eurozone governments would not accept the City of London remaining the main euro clearing centre once Britain left the EU. … The leaders’ statements reflect an increasing feeling in European capitals that the hard line the prime minister and others adopted during the Conservative conference – including the home secretary, Amber Rudd’s plans to prevent migrants ‘taking jobs British people could do’ – may reveal a far deeper hostility to the EU than they had imagined.”

As the Washington Post commented: “Ironically, the European referendum — a poll that was intended, in the words of its proponent, to make Britain’s Parliament sovereign again — has made British legislators almost irrelevant. May has declared she will not allow a parliamentary vote on the timing or nature of the British break with the European Union. She will not allow the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland, where voters opposed the changes, to have any voice in the process.”

This absolutely vindicates Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s demand for negotiating a “new relationship with the EU: one that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights.”

Across the pond in the US, Trump will likely lose the presidential election, but his disgruntled supporters will remain a political force on the right. Particularly worrying is his support from the security forces and police, together with his threats to lock up political opponents if he wins the election. Despite the release of the damning video of his remarks, Josh Marshall points out, “he has a massive amount of support among the most engaged Republican voters. The last 24 hours has probably lost him significant support in the race against Hillary Clinton. … But in the context of intra-Republican politics that leaves him with massive levels of support intact.”

This is confirmed by the New York Times: “Trump’s perceived character — a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness — resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values. … It’s not that the economy is bad in all of Kentucky; the arrival of the auto industry has been a boon, and the unemployment rate is just 4.9 percent. It’s that all the old certainties have vanished. Far from the metropolitan hubs inhabited by the main beneficiaries of globalization’s churn, many people feel disenfranchised from both main political parties, angry at stagnant wages and growing inequality, and estranged from a prevailing liberal urban ethos.”

The ideology of the Democratic establishment does not enable it to effectively counter this force. It tends to write off these workers as homogeneously deplorable, without attempting to address the real causes of their alienation. It stems from the meritocratic outlook of the professional class, which sees education as the magic cure for poverty, and has benefited from the demographic changes that white workers perceive as threatening their status and wages. To his credit, Bernie Sanders has consistently refused to write off this layer of the working class and advocates fighting for the ending of the export of well-paid industrial jobs.

Harold Meyerson writes in The American Prospect that white millennials who are thinking of voting for the Green or Libertarian party candidates in the upcoming presidential election, rather than Hillary Clinton, are expressing their white privilege. “On the afternoon of the opening session of this summer’s Democratic Convention, I was walking into the convention arena while hundreds of young demonstrators, many carrying signs backing Green Party candidate Jill Stein, shouted and occasionally hurled invectives at those entering the hall—an odd tactic, I thought, since more than 40 percent of the delegates entering the building were Bernie Sanders’s. The friend I was walking in with—a Latino legislator from California—cast a cold eye on the demonstrators and noted, ‘They’re all white’.”

He adds: “The gap that’s opened between white and minority millennials should come as no surprise; it tracks their different life experiences.” A recent survey found that “48 percent of young blacks had experienced racial discrimination in looking for a job, compared to 30 percent of Latinos and just 10 percent of whites. It found that 57 percent of both black and Latino millennials were concerned about someone in their household being laid off, while just 41 percent of young whites voiced that fear. But surely, the gap also reflects the greater and more direct danger that a Trump presidency poses to minority communities, immigrants, and Muslims than it does to whites.”

But while Sanders’ millennial supporters are opposed to a Trump presidency, they need to overcome the political confusion that inhibits them from voting for Clinton in the upcoming election alongside citizens in the African and Latino American communities, which would be the basis of vital alliances in the fight against racism in the US. Brexit has already led to a marked increase of racist attacks on immigrants in Britain; Corbyn and his supporters have made public their opposition to the government’s demonization of immigrants, despite pressure from within his own party.

Right-wing nativism threatens to erode the social contract of democracy and rights for all peoples in Britain and the United States, for which giants like Martin Luther King gave their lives. In Abraham Lincoln’s words: “A house divided cannot stand.” Voters in the US have a political duty to stop Trump lest they condemn themselves to a repetition of the worst of American and European history.

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Against the Party Machines: Momentum Boldly Asserts People Power in Britain, while US Progressives Fight for their Democratic Moment

Throughout Europe and the US today, the dominant political theme is how the public are shut out of meaningful decision-making at a time when globalization is having a devastating effect on people’s lives. This has led to protest voting that has unsettled the ruling elites: Brexit in Britain; in the US, support for the demagogic Trump.

The British political class, whether Labour or Conservative, believes that it is qualified to rule by virtue of family upbringing and attending Oxford or Cambridge, despite all historical experience to the contrary. What matters most is not its record of achievement – deindustrializing the economy, squeezing living standards with austerity policies, embroiling the country in a constitutional nosedive – but to be able to give the impression of administrative competence while presiding over one disaster after another.

In the US, on the other hand, the essential qualifications are money and support for the security state. That is why Trump continually talks up his mythical billions while never missing a chance to push his authoritarian vision for society. While Clinton “won” her first debate with him, the key question of the presidential election remained unacknowledged: the profound disenchantment of the public with the political system. Her message was directed at those who think the system is fundamentally sound and only needs modifying, while Trump appeals to those who think the whole thing should be blown up.

The left’s role is specific to the conditions in each particular country. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum are taking political struggle outside of the party machine and into the communities. While the official Labour party conference last week resulted in the right keeping control of the party’s inner workings through overturning Corbyn’s majority on the National Executive Committee, Momentum held a vibrant alternate event, The World Transformed, at a nearby venue. It was able to maintain and expand its organization after Corbyn’s election as party leader, thanks to the master tacticians in the Parliamentary party who gifted Momentum a popular issue to mobilize around by renewing their challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

Many of his supporters are from a new generation of “networked, horizontal, democratic, globalist and liberal young professionals,” writes Paul Mason, “who regard [the far left], largely, as oddities. When the man in charge of crowdfunding the Momentum fringe event approached me for help, I asked what had brought him into this. He’d studied social movements at university, he said, and spent five years in banking.”

The Independent’s Ashley Cowburn contrasted official Labour with Momentum’s activists: “One evening, back at the gloomy official conference, I am asked by a Labour MP: ‘How is it over there in cloud cuckoo land with the rainbows and unicorns?’ However, 28-year-old Emma Rees, a former primary school teacher and one of Momentum’s national organisers, dismisses the comment … ‘It discredits the very real experiences that lots of people are living through and I don’t think it’s rainbows and unicorns to actually want to discuss how we can do things better – how we can structure society so that it benefits more than just the privileged few. And I actually think that’s the founding principles of the Labour Party and movement, is to empower ordinary people and the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives’.”

It’s a straightforward message of empowerment and commitment to work towards a better society – no wonder Labour MPs think it a fantasy. Another Momentum supporter, Michael Segalov, explains: “Labour conference may have been consumed by party infighting, factional posturing, and endless debate of internal rules,” but at The World Transformed, “Sessions on phone banking, crowdfunding, community organising and planning were peppered throughout the long weekend, a clear sign that this new, invigorated membership is interested in more than rhetoric and backslapping.”

The situation is not so clear for Bernie Sanders’ supporters in the US. The presidential nomination process allowed a brief democratic moment around his campaign; now that Clinton has won the nomination and Sanders’ backing, the Democratic party establishment has shut down public participation in policy-making.

The dilemma of how to sustain the campaign organizationally has led to a conflict between Sanders’ professional political staff and his volunteers, who were responsible for the success of his fundraising.

Sanders introduced the promised independent organization designed to continue the fight for left policies, “Our Revolution,” through a national webcast. It sought to harness the campaign’s energy into support for candidates with a progressive platform in down-ballot elections. However, Our Revolution is to be structured as a 501(c)(4), in other words a legal entity geared to fundraising, not one able to interface directly with local political campaigns. This decision was taken apparently without consulting the volunteers who were the backbone of Sanders’ campaign.

According to the volunteer-run site, 210 downballot primary election candidates—a figure that includes local, state and congressional bids—were “Berniecrats,” meaning they endorsed Bernie Sanders and a similar progressive platform. Roughly half claimed victory. Since the primary season began on March 1, Berniecrats have won 238 of 379 races. Sanders told The Nation that “Our Revolution candidates have already won a lot of primaries. In Massachusetts, with the support of Our Revolution, a young attorney, a very progressive guy, beat a long-term incumbent. In Rhode Island, the majority leader in the House got knocked off.”

But Our Revolution is uncomfortably like MoveOn, a top-down organization sending out emails asking for donations. The difference is that potential donors are asked to contribute directly to the local candidates. While Our Revolution may develop other forms of political organization, the techniques that were successful in an electoral campaign are not the same as those needed to work with grassroots movements around the country that can change the political climate. Internet technology alone doesn’t build a movement – human interaction is the key to long-term change.

In fact, a number of leading Sanders’ volunteers resigned because of the decision to form a (c)(4) entity. Claire Sandberg, the former digital organizing director for the primary campaign, explained that this legal structure had already prevented them from doing effective organizing for candidates like Tim Canova, who stood in the primary against Debbie Wasserman Schulz; they were unable to coordinate phone campaigning with his campaign or mobilize Bernie supporters to participate in his field operation.

John Atcheson comments in Common Dreams, “Under its current framework, Our Revolution denies people that direct sense of agency, and is less transparent than it could be.  There is an explicit ‘trust me, we’ll do the right thing’ that is exercised by an intermediary. The appeal is based on the promise to support ‘progressives’ – an abstraction – rather than the specific list of policies Bernie offered.”

The challenge for the left in both countries is how to connect with the mass movement. In the US, millions of Latino and African Americans will be voting against Trump; in the UK, the left needs to reconnect with disaffected Brexit voters without compromising with racism. The ideological confusion on the left means that Sanders’ supporters are splintered, most probably voting for Clinton but some for third parties like the Greens.

November’s elections will show how the public responds to “Berniecrat” candidates at local and state level. The danger is that without a national caucus within the Democratic party they will be absorbed into the system without making headway on more progressive policies. For now, it looks like opportunities are greater for the left in the UK.

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Long Island U: An Old For-Profit School Passing as a Private University

Across the street from Brooklyn landmark Junior’s, faculty and students from Long Island University (LIU) are waging a battle with the administration in the latest labor dispute rocking higher education in the United States. Newspapers from The Guardian to New York Times have reported that administrators, facing declining enrollments and revenue, took the unprecedented step of locking out faculty, preempting an anticipated strike over contract negotiations. As soon as the last contract expired on August 31, professors found they had been cut off from their health insurance and denied access to email, and that old syllabi had been posted for their courses.

The draconian measures of the administration have resulted in support for the faculty from public authorities, other unions, and students. The New York City public advocate, Letitia James, sent LIU President Kimberly Cline a letter advising her to sign contracts with all four unions at the institution and warning her that hiring replacement workers for faculty “will only exacerbate your troubled relationship with labor in New York City.”

Yet there is a bigger lesson here than a union struggle: this is what happens when an institution of higher learning passing for a private university is really a for-profit institution. All the reporting on the LIU debacle has omitted to mention this fact, interpreting the university’s claim to be “private” to mean the same as it does when nonprofit liberal arts colleges and universities claim to be “private” universities.

But LIU’s “private” should be clarified to mean “private for-profit”. While most for-profit colleges are comparatively recent, LIU was founded in 1926. A university that makes 90% of its profit from student tuition has a business model no different from the defunct Trump or Phoenix U. LIU’s masquerading as a private university is the triumph of marketing over reason, and the complicity of all involved – administration, faculty, and alumni – in the cover up of this reality.  It has blown up because the demand for profit is unsustainable against the academic standards that should in theory govern an institution of higher education.

Is it any wonder, then, that the university leadership had prepared for the lockout by hiring temporary instructors, many of them unqualified for the courses they were assigned to teach? They also told administrators they had to teach courses in addition to their other duties or face being terminated. As Emily Drabinski, the coordinator of library instruction and secretary of the faculty union, told The Nation: “I think this administration thinks it doesn’t matter who’s teaching in the classroom. I think they think that teaching and learning is about a production of commodities, that it’s about delivering something to students, filling a student with learning that they will then go out and use to make money, and that’s not what higher education is about.”

There are about 8,000 students at LIU taught by about 250 full-time faculty and about two hundred adjunct professors. Under the new contract, the adjuncts, who are paid by the number of courses taught, would have their teaching load reduced from 12 to nine credit hours. Pay for office hours would be eliminated, and new hires would be paid less under a two-tier wage system.

The Atlantic reported that Arthur Kimmel, an adjunct at LIU for over 20 years, would have his income cut by 30 to 35 percent. “That’s because, in addition to the $1,800 or so per course he teaches, he has received pay for having office hours and money from an adjunct- benefits trust fund to help defray the cost of health insurance. Kimmel says the university’s proposal would eliminate the adjunct- benefits trust fund and payments for office hours, among other cuts. The new proposal would also decrease the number of credit hours he could teach, and establishes a two-tier system for adjuncts so that new employees would receive less than Kimmel does.”

Many of the tenured faculty’s salaries are 20 percent lower than their colleagues at LIU’s C.W. Post campus in Nassau County, and this is a sticking point in the contract negotiations. Brooklyn professors worry that their campus, which serves more black, Latino and low-income students than C.W. Post, is undervalued by the administration. Tuition is the same at both campuses—$34,352 per year.

The administration is also proposing a new post-tenure review process that would allow administrators more control over academic standards. On Tuesday, tenured faculty voted 226 to 10 to reject the proposed contract, and the faculty senate voiced their support for a vote of no confidence in Cline. They rallied outside the Brooklyn campus with a giant inflatable rat as classes began on Wednesday September 7, taught by non-union members. On Thursday hundreds of students walked out to protest the lockout.

Students are told they will get high quality education that will qualify them for high-paying jobs, but professors are pressured to graduate struggling students in order to keep the tuition money rolling in. And while some of those who graduate from LIU find jobs in pharmacy and healthcare, two fields where the institution has had success in placing its graduates, only 26% of its student body manages to graduate at all. This means that 74% of students take on loans for a degree they will never finish. The administration and the faculty have long known this, but still persist in calling LIU a “private” university.

Students are encouraged to think of education as a commodity by LIU’s efforts to market itself as a private university. Hakim Sulaimani, a psychology major, is protesting the lockout because, he says, “You expect to get what you’re paying for. You’re paying upwards of 40 grand for a certain level of education and you’re expecting a quality education. I selected certain professors because they’re very passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects. I expect to be taught by the guy I signed up for and not some guy who just popped up two weeks ago.”

“We aren’t planning to go back to class at all until our professors are back,” said Sharda Mohammed, 18, a sophomore studying philosophy. “Today I walked into my English class and the guy gave us a syllabus and told us we could leave. He couldn’t even pronounce the names of the books. They are charging us full tuition for this, and they’re not teaching us,” she added.

While students feel rightly cheated, the bigger lesson is that for profit institutions, even older ones like LIU, are incompatible with the goals of higher education. The LIU faculty deserves support, but they should abandon their collusion with the administration in branding LIU as a “private” university. The administration has exposed what drives LIU. It is not a love for higher learning, its faculty, or its students. It is the same thing that drove the now defunct Trump U: greed.

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Book Review: Richard Seymour’s “Corbyn”

Richard Seymour, the veteran “Lenin’s Tomb” blogger, has put together a highly readable account of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the British Labour party. But while he includes a lot of information about the unsuccessful establishment campaign to prevent this from ever happening, he does not give the same attention to what it was that motivated long-time and newly-joined party members to vote overwhelmingly for Corbyn’s candidacy.

He was an unlikely contender for Labour leader. But, Seymour notes, underneath the political surface “something was already stirring.” The constituency nomination results “suggested that a long dormant Left … had reanimated and fused with a younger generation radicalised through participation in social movements and single-issue campaigns.” The panicked attempts of the right working through the media to warn of disastrous consequences for the party if Corbyn was elected – another “Project Fear” along the lines of the campaign against the “Yes” vote on Scottish independence – only increased his popularity.

However, Seymour gives greater weight to the changed role of trade union leaders than to a radicalized membership. “Corbyn won,” he says, “because the Labour Party was weak, and the traditionally dominant ideologies, and the normally effective modes of political control, had broken down. At the core of this was the degeneration of the union link, which had been hacked away at over years, with the result that the traditionally cautious union bureaucracies seized on a drastic opportunity to reverse their losses.”

His victory, then, is evidence “not of the power of the Left but of the enervation of the Labour Party and of the traditional political centre.” In the context of the decline of parliamentary legitimacy, this means that the prospects for the future of Corbynism are not bright: “we have to consider it as a moment in the degeneration of Labourism. It is the culmination of a series of defeats for a form of political organisation that seems to be inadequate in today’s world. And it is probably headed for a defeat of its own.”

Seymour’s pessimism is not without justification, but only if it is accepted that the Labour party must remain on the Westminster model and exists only to get enough MPs elected to form a government – in other words, excluding changes outside the purely political sphere, including possible social changes among voters. He considers the failed attempts to launch minority left parties like Respect and Left Unity, doomed by the “demoralization and defeat of the Labour left,” to indicate the lack of public support for radical socialist policies, and suggests that party activists follow an alternative strategy of grassroots campaigning to change popular consciousness.

Locating Corbyn’s base in the metropolitan left, and writing before the Brexit vote, he presciently points out the electoral importance of provincial areas where the concerns of the urban working class are not as visible, where there is “a sense of neglect and distance from Westminster” and where social attitudes are less progressive, but he doesn’t mention the deep problems of deindustrialization and unemployment in most of these areas.

Seymour’s brief account of Labour history makes the victory of the bureaucracy seem inevitable. Through the twentieth century, without exception, he writes, “Labour has cleaved to its constitutionalist, electoral roots. It has disowned the radicalism of its members and union affiliates more often than it has allowed them expression. … Insofar as it was a coalition between organized labour, socialists and liberals, it has been the union moderates, Fabians and professional liberals who have usually been dominant.” The left-wing groupings within Labour are “hardly any match for the immense, lordly dominion of the parliamentary party and the electoral-professional caste running daily party life.”

Even his neat characterization of the New Labour project as one that reduced the membership to largely passive supporters and made the “organized core” a professional stratum controlling the party apparatus tends to emphasize the power of the right.

Seymour does not hold out much hope for the future of Corbyn supporters in the Labour party. “It seems likely that Corbyn’s leadership will provide a temporary and much-needed space for the radical Left, wherein it can begin the work of regrouping and re-deploying its scattered forces. … However, it seems likely that for the great majority of the newest recruits, Labour is a temporary home. The political space for left-wing activists to operate effectively is likely to be closed before too long. … In the final analysis, Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism. And it is those limits, above all, which have brought us to this impasse.”

While Seymour’s strength is political analysis, confining himself to political categories is also his weakness. He gives a good account of the genesis of the crisis of social democracy in its inability to access an economic surplus to redistribute, but when it comes to historical change his narrative is couched in terms like “soft left”, “electoral winds”, “liberal reformers,” and so on.

He quotes Jo, a former secondary-school teacher, who attended one of Corbyn’s election meetings in Plymouth: “He’s saying things in a way that people can understand,” she said. “He says things that aren’t patronising, that are talking to working people, and that feel like what the grassroots of this party is all about.” But he doesn’t make enough of this response to Corbyn’s philosophy. When Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” he appeals to a strongly-held popular desire for a social safety net that rejects the neoliberal attitudes of New Labour and seeks to restore collectivist priorities like the NHS and social services.

However, Seymour assigns agency in Corbyn’s election to “a core of activists” savvy in social media, minimizing that of Labour’s membership in rejecting the Blairite elite – and also of the public who became new members in the course of Corbyn’s campaign. What radicalized them was the effects of Tory austerity measures on people’s everyday lives and the failure of the Labour establishment to oppose them. When large numbers of previously nonpolitical people take political action together, that is a strong indication of some kind of social movement.

As Seymour shows, the election of Corbyn means that the conditions that enabled the Labour bureaucracy to wield social power – including the viability of class compromise and the passive support of Labour members – have changed. Unfortunately he does not probe far enough under the political surface to analyze in more detail exactly why Labour supporters respond so strongly to Corbyn’s politics.

Richard Seymour, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, Verso 2016

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Why Voting to Stop Trump Is the Only Choice in 2016

After July’s conventions that anointed Hillary Clinton as Democratic presidential candidate and transformed the Republicans into the Archie Bunker party, the left is engaged in heated discussions about its orientation to November’s election.

Jill Stein of the Green party claimed that voting for her party was “saying no to the lesser evil and yes to the greater good.” This may sound good as a slogan, but it makes voting an individual moral choice, replicating the reduction of society to a collection of individuals that is the hallmark of a neoliberal, consumer-choice world.

Is there a mass movement today that is motivated by the progressive policies of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein? While there is a pervasive populist sentiment that has a distorted reflection in the Republican and Democratic parties, political anti-corporatism is concentrated among white liberals. What is certainly going on is an awakening of minorities to their social strength, and at this historical moment among Native, African and Latino Americans there is an overwhelming hostility to a potential Trump presidency. The left is in danger of isolating itself from this movement if it insists on its moral purity.

Electoral activity is no more than a strategic choice in the course of building a wider movement.  In this specific instance, while voting for the Greens in a state like Massachusetts will not affect the overall result, in a state like Michigan it could be crucial. The first-past-the-post electoral system limits the number of viable parties to two, making a vote for the Greens a symbolic gesture at best, and a spoiler at worst.

There are practical effects from voting, as Noam Chomsky points out, whether or not it offends someone’s individual conscience. He challenges the assumption “that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences … The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.” He recalls the ultra-left faction of the peace movement minimizing the dangers of a Nixon presidency in 1968, resulting in “six years of senseless death and destruction in Southeast Asia and also a predictable fracture of the left.”

A Trump presidency has a high probability of inflicting much greater suffering on marginalized and already oppressed populations than a Clinton administration, he considers; it would even strengthen the elite within the Democratic party because “far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the ‘reasonable’ alternative.” As far as the “lesser evil” argument goes, he says “this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing.”

Stein would argue that voting Green is a step in the creation of an independent third party, or as Socialist Alternative suggests, a “new mass party of the 99 percent.” But the history of the US shows that for an independent party to be established, it has first of all to be based on a real movement within society, closely connected with that movement, not outside of it. Socialist Alternative’s activities at the Democratic convention were directed at a political minority, organizing a highly visible walkout and encouraging Sanders supporters who came with them to join the Greens. They may have a limited success with a number of them, but the majority of Sanderistas at the DNC intend to stay within the party and not leave the field open to the right.

Members of the Sanders delegations at the DNC told In These Times: “Most delegates weren’t Bernie-or-Bust. We all understand that, ultimately, Trump needs to be defeated, and that—especially in swing states—you need to support Clinton.”  “Bernie’s not the ceiling of what we can achieve in the Democratic Party. He’s the floor … In the coming years there’s a lot of space for us to fight, both within and outside the Democratic Party. I don’t think all political change is going to happen in the Democratic Party. It’s just one field of battle.” “I think the Democratic Party is a battleground. You can either play on it to win, or you can abandon it to the enemy. And I would rather play on it to win.”

Sanders was the figurehead of a political movement that was oriented to restoring the New Deal philosophy of earlier Democratic administrations. Likewise Trump is the figurehead of a white backlash against the growing status of minorities while their own economic prospects slump. Both express an anti-establishment sentiment in society, but in different partisan ways.  Trump’s supporters are going to vote for him no matter what he may say. That is because their vote is not based on rational choice but on desperation – the major parties have ignored the plight of the working class in the deindustrialized Rust Belt and Trump is the only one speaking to them – and that could be a key issue in the mid-West.

Conservative author J.D. Vance explained: “What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a ‘stepdad’ only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit … And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops. … Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.”

The Democratic strategy after their convention is to turn to disaffected middle-class Republicans rather than try to win over the white working class. But its plight is not something that can be written off as a political manifestation of right-wing extremism that can be countered by a left policy, as Stein does. There is a real social crisis here that requires the agency of the oppressed themselves to resolve. A radical, progressive agenda imposed from outside without any meaningful means of achieving it is not going to impress these people because they have been patronized and ignored for so long.

This movement is one driven by economic collapse and complete loss of confidence in the ruling elite. Widespread police abuse legitimized by the “broken windows” and “zero-tolerance” philosophies has undermined state legitimacy, and Black and Hispanic communities have begun to defend themselves; white workers are being written off and this is driving them into Trump’s arms. Clinton is certainly not the answer to these problems, but it will be infinitely easier to campaign on them under her presidency than under Trump’s. He will empower the police and security forces to do more than put protesters on trial: he will arm them to imprison and assassinate his critics.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, latino americans, populism, Uncategorized

To White American Progressives: Vote Down Trump with the Rest of America

The Republican and Democratic party conventions held in July both staged a virtual political reality well removed from what is happening in America’s communities. The Democrats produced a carefully choreographed appearance of unity that masked deep divisions between its establishment and Sanders-inspired delegates. The Trump-dominated Republican convention appealed to profound dissatisfaction with the country’s prospects, but stoked the demonization of immigrants to protect the billionaires who are actually responsible for outsourcing jobs.

Meanwhile, state legitimacy is dissolving because of unconstrained shootings of non-white Americans by trigger-happy police.

Clinton’s acceptance speech showed clear signs of the influence of Sanders’ campaign, denouncing factory closings, economic inequality, Wall Street vs. Main Street, and money in politics; but while her speechwriters are attuned to the outcome of the primaries, they are insensitive to the disenchantment of many Americans with the political establishment. For these people, contrary to her message, America is not great. There is a pervasive anti-establishment populist movement in society based on a decline in middle-class jobs and living standards – above all, on a perception that there is no prospect of a better future – that has produced a fundamental shift in the relation between the political elite and the public.

This has created a dangerous desire for a powerful leader who will fix everything. The Associated Press reported: “After a recent Trump rally in West Virginia, countless news articles and academics dismissed Trump’s pledge to bring back coal as impossible, tied to market forces and geology. Chuck Keeney, a professor of political science and history at Southern Community College in Logan, often hears his students dismiss the criticism as the establishment, the very machine that ignored them for so long, beating up on Trump now, too. ‘What they see in their minds is the elite that looks down on them, mocks them, makes fun of them, thinks they’re stupid,’ Keeney said. ‘They see all those establishment groups ganging up on Donald Trump and that makes them root for him more’.”

Trump has leveraged the reaction against globalization and the rejection of political authority to take over the Republican party. Although his convention speeches were politically chaotic, they nevertheless succeeded in convincing his base that he could be president. Moreover, it articulated the appeal of his authoritarian rhetoric to the security forces and the rightwing NRA – not to mention the KKK.

A star speaker at the Republican convention was an African American police officer who denounced the Black Lives Matter movement. Milwaukee county sheriff David A. Clarke told the delegates: “What we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order. So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcend peaceful protest and violate the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy.”

This is the true danger of Trumpism – its affinity with the authoritarianism of repressive state agencies built up under Bush and Obama. Max Blumenthal commented: “Clarke opened with what was perhaps the most successful applause line of the evening: ‘Ladies and gentleman, I would like to make one thing very clear: Blue lives matter in America!’ … Invoked on the national stage by culture war icons like Sheriff Clarke, Blue Lives Matter has become an integral component of the Republican base. It is not only a catch-all for opposition to Black Lives Matter and virtually any effort to spur police reform, but also a brand that conveys the racial backlash sensibility cultivated by the Trump campaign.”

The Democrats began their convention with party organizers maneuvering to contain dissent from Sanders’ supporters, and ended with Obama and Hillary Clinton staking out the Republican territory of American exceptionalism to deliver a message of patriotic optimism. Their election strategy appears to be one of winning over moderate Republican voters disenchanted with Trump and to pivot away from the concessions made to Sanders’ representatives on the platform committee.

“America is already great. America is already strong,” insisted Obama in his convention speech. According to the New York Times, “Democrats sought to seize on the traditional core of Republican campaign messaging: America as a place of virtue, optimism and exceptionalism. … Democrats celebrated the country’s diversity, with Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the vice-presidential nominee, ladling on the Spanish.” It’s a welcome sign of the times – but, as Greg Grandin points out, while Kaine speaks Spanish to market the presidential candidate, he still supports “the policies of free trade and militarization that produced the poverty, the violence, and the immigration [from] Central America.” The party’s leaders are simply blind to the contradiction between their professed aims of social justice and their close connections to corporate financial interests.

Alternet reported that “for most of the 1,900 Sanders delegates in Philadelphia, the convention was a turbulent and trying affair. It began with DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz being forced to resign a day before it opened, after WikiLeaks posted emails of aides plotting against Sanders, but then she was rewarded with a top appointment to the Clinton campaign. That didn’t just affirm their suspicions about DNC bias, but it more ominously signaled that the party and Clinton campaign didn’t care about them.” Luis Eric Aguilar, a delegate from Illinois, told Democracy Now: “The theme of the DNC was to unify the party, but the delegates for Hillary get there early, reserve seats in the front rows so it shows good to the media, and then they push us to the back. … They tried taking away these signs, the ‘No TPP’ signs. All the homemade signs were taken away from us. But that is taking away our freedom of speech.”

By day four of the convention, Sanders’ supporters were arguing passionately about what to do next. They had expected to have more of an opportunity to express their critique of Clinton, but found themselves being shut down. Melissa Michelson, a member of Sanders’ California delegation, told Alternet: “We kind of understand where Sanders is going. We understand that he doesn’t want Donald Trump to win. However, he also told us that the political revolution is about us, not him… A lot of us are going to start getting involved in local politics. … We’re still skeptical how things will work out with this new relationship, you know [with Sanders endorsing and planning to campaign against Trump]. I will not vote for Hillary Clinton and I will not vote for Donald Trump either.”

A different view was expressed by a Texas delegate, Fawaz S. Anwar. He said: “I’m scared that Trump’s going to win now. And now that Clinton is sagging behind Trump, the most misogynistic, sexist, sexist, racist person that the Republicans have ever nominated, Clinton is slipping up. I just—I don’t know how else to say it. But our democracy is in danger if Trump becomes president. I’m in agreement with Bernie. I’m going to vote for Clinton if she’s the nominee.”

Now that Sanders activists have reached the limits of the Democratic nomination campaign, they face a decision about the presidential election. In a discussion between Robert Reich and Chris Hedges hosted by Democracy Now, Reich said he saw no alternative to supporting Clinton because under a Trump presidency there would be negative changes that would irrevocably worsen the structure of the country, including appointments to the Supreme Court. He suggested that it was still possible to build “a multiracial, multiethnic coalition of the bottom 90 percent that is ready to fight to get big money out of politics, for more equality, for a system that is not rigged against average working people, where there are not going to be all of these redistributions upward from those of us who have paychecks” in order to take back democracy.

Hedges, advocating a vote for Green party candidate Jill Stein, responded that corporate power has already seized all the levers of control and the Democratic party was identical to the Republicans in this respect. “We’ve got to break away from political personalities and understand and examine and critique the structures of power,” he said. Obama “has been as obsequious to Wall Street as the Bush administration. … I don’t think it makes any difference. The TPP is going to go through, whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Endless war is going to be continued, whether it’s Trump or Clinton.”

However, the majority of Americans are not going to abstain in this election, nor vote for a third party. For African and Latino Americans this is not an academic debate. They will vote overwhelmingly for Clinton because a Trump presidency is literally life-threatening for them. It would give the police carte blanche to gun down minorities without cause and Trump the power to use state force to suppress political opposition. White liberals have the luxury of potentially abstaining or voting for a third party, but this implies walking away from a long-term fight within the ranks of the Democratic party, and within the communities outside it, in order to change its leadership. It means giving up the struggle before it has begun. The left cannot use its criticisms of Clinton to avoid going through the experience of voting down Trump with the rest of America.

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Filed under 2016 Election, African Americans, aggressive policing, Bernie Sanders, Chris Hedges, Democratic Party, Democratic primaries, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, Obama, political analysis, State legitimacy, Uncategorized, Xenophobia