Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.
Part One: Is Corbyn a populist?
The two authors previously published an article in the New Statesman that argued antisemitism in the Labour party was the logical outcome of a critique of capitalism that framed it as a conspiracy of the economic elite, citing the idiosyncratic views of the Canadian theorist Moishe Postone. Their book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, extends this argument much further, claiming that Corbynism rests on a populist understanding of capitalist society that stresses the divisions between “us” and the elite. Corbyn, they say, fills a “symbolic space” carved out by the economic and political collapse after the 2008 banking crash. His “depoliticised image of moral exceptionalism” became attractive to the Labour membership because of “the particularly moralistic way in which the broad liberal-left came to terms with both the 2008 financial crash and the Tory program of public spending cuts that followed.”
The symbolic space they describe is large enough to include a diverse array of populist movements: Occupy, UK Uncut, Bernie Sanders, Trump’s voters, and more bizarrely an “austerity nostalgia” that the authors say accounts for the election of Cameron’s Tory government (ignoring the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote). But grouping together all these movements as somehow equivalent distracts from their specific nature and the social realities underlying them. Corbyn’s support is characterized as a left populist movement marshaled behind Bennite “economic protectionist” policies, expressing the zeitgeist of “a certain kind of society,” Corbyn himself being “a kind of cipher for a wider political moment.”
The problem with their analysis is that they view the social responses to the 2008 crash as an unreflective populist reflex, when in reality there are always a series of complex mediations between the contingencies of any specific political moment and the logic of capitalist economy. The protests against austerity cuts and UK Uncut’s campaign against tax evasion were clearly part of the wider political moment, but were mediated by a cultural sense of fairness, distinguishing them radically from, say, the Republican “tea party.” In the same way, when the Labour membership rejected the leadership of New Labour and moved towards an anti-austerity alternative, its response to inequality was mediated by its conception of what Labour should stand for. The authors discount the agency of the membership: it favoured Corbyn not because of his moral exceptionalism but because of his ethical socialism. This was an expression of his politics maintained over many years that aligned him with the shift in the party, as well as with anti-austerity protestors and returning ex-members.
The significance of this return to ethical socialism is that it continues a long tradition of the labour movement. In his book, Losing Labour’s Soul? Labour historian Eric Shaw clarifies how New Labour, while retaining the social democratic principle of redistribution, had abandoned ethical socialism in its policies and practice. “The ethical socialist criticised capitalism not simply because it distributed resources in a grossly unequal manner but because it extolled the values of acquisitiveness, ruthless competitiveness and individual aggrandisement, all derived from the market mentality and market practices.” The welfare state was intended to be insulated from market forces and to embody the values of public service, solidarity, altruism and cooperation. This notion of the “public service ethos” had survived the decline of the industrial working class because it was “historically deeply embedded in both the ideology and the culture of the Labour party.”
Corbyn’s election as party leader validates Shaw’s argument; his appeal to the membership derives substantially from his rehabilitation of ethical socialist values against New Labour’s market philosophy. These values are clearly apparent when Corbyn describes socialism as a type of society where “we each care for all, everybody caring for everybody else,” appealing to a strongly-held popular desire for social support that seeks to restore collectivist priorities. In his speech to the 2017 party conference, he criticized the Tories not only for driving down wages, but also for their promotion of ruthless competitiveness and individual acquisitiveness: “their disregard for rampant inequality, the hollowing out of our public services, the disdain for the powerless and the poor have made our society more brutal and less caring.”
At the 2015 Labour party conference, Corbyn posited the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders, and attributed his election to the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society.” New Yorker correspondent Sam Knight also noticedthe appeal of Corbyn’s ethical approach to the broader left-leaning public. After his first speech for Labour’s pro-EU campaign at the University of London in 2016, a student asked about the refugee crisis in Europe. “The crisis has flummoxed leaders on the left and the right, from Berlin to Athens,” wrote Knight, “but Corbyn didn’t need to think. ‘They are all human beings, just like you and me,’ he said. ‘In a different set of circumstances, we could all be in those refugee camps.’ When he speaks simply and off the cuff, Corbyn can have the moral clarity of a priest. The room broke into loud applause.”
Ethical socialists sought to integrate the community through a sense of belonging and shared fate. While the revisionist right concluded in the 1950s that the future of social democracy was tied to the efficient management of the capitalist economy, Shaw maintains that the vision of ethical socialism persisted insofar as its values were embodied in the universalist aspects of the welfare state, which both secured a fairer distribution of life-chances and “a mode of human interaction in which people related and behaved towards each other as equals in a spirit of mutual respect.” One important corollary to this principle for Labour is that basic needs should be filled by public organizations. The idea that the public domain should be insulated from market forces and commercial competition became central to social democratic thought. The maintenance of a large and expanding public sphere, governed by an ethos of public service, came therefore to be seen as the principal institutional expression of ethical socialist values, according to Shaw.
The National Health Service, then, forms an oasis of ethical socialism in a capitalist society and has taken on the responsibility for the overall well-being of the public, even though that is not what was intended at its foundation. The reluctance of Thatcherite governments to dismantle it and its current centrality in public opposition to privatization is a testament to the persistence of the social change begun in 1945. New Labour, Shaw says, shed this socialist tradition when its introduction of the market principle into the public domain “represented an explicit effort to re-engineer the culture of the public sector and to lessen the role of professional norms in favour of market or instrumental rationality.” For Bolton and Pitts, this is only normal, since they believe “we live in a world structured and socially reproduced as and by capital, a social relation which exists as a world market” so that “local wealth only appears as such through its validation as social, or global, wealth.” They make the assumption that use-values needed to maintain life are only accessible through the global market, as though they all have to pass through the portals of Amazon. Trade therefore can and must be extended globally, not limited to the national or local community.
This assumption is a misapplication of the labour theory of value. It the basis of their objection to Corbyn’s stress on the shared process involved in wealth creation, which he called “a cooperative process between workers, public investment in services and … innovative and creative individuals and businesses.” The wealth Corbyn is referring to takes the form of products needed by society, in technical terms use-values, the consolidation of productive capacity that includes the workforce rather than the accumulation of money. However, the authors comment: “The wealth Corbyn talks about here … in capitalism takes the form of value,” and as such has to be mediated in the world market. Since they consider that in a capitalist society “the fulfilment of social needs and the need to make profit exist in an inseparable contradiction,” the authors equate all forms of wealth-creation with abstract labour, which is validated as wealth in the market, so that for them “labour and capital are two sides of the same coin.” In effect, they extend the sway of capitalist logic into all forms of social life.
They assert that Corbynism naturalizes concrete labour, regarding it as “production as such,” or “the means by which humans interact with the external world in order to satisfy their needs, existing in the same way across history.” But human needs still have to be satisfied, even under capitalism: concrete labour is only part of capital circulation if it is engaged in producing commodities to be sold on the market, in which case it takes on the form of abstract labour. Socialism, from Corbyn’s point of view, has the aim of organizing production for society’s needs and removing it from the sphere of capital circulation. This does not necessarily mean a totally state-controlled national economy – the NHS, for example, has survived up until now as an institution oriented to people’s need for healthcare and not an insurance-based market. The political pressure for privatization of the NHS is precisely to return it to the ambit of the market and make the efforts of doctors and nurses subject to “globally mediated” abstract labour.
To give another example, workers who installed badly-fitting windows, faulty fire doors and combustible insulation on Grenfell Tower were engaged in labour that contributed to the creation of surplus value realized by the subcontractors, contractors and manufacturers involved in the refurbishment. The firefighters who courageously attempted to contain the fire and then risked their lives to rescue people after the initial instructions for them to stay put in their flats were rescinded were, however, from the point of view of capital, engaging in labour that had no value.
Bolton and Pitts further confuse the nature of labour when they critique the “Preston model,” often cited by Corbyn as an example of how Labour policy might work, which uses the procurement policy of locally-based “anchor” institutions such as hospitals and universities to favour local supply chains, local businesses and cooperatives. They describe it analogous to what they call Bennite national “protectionism,” which they consider reactionary in the face of international trade and production. However, if the surplus value produced in a community is redirected into local supply chains, the model provides more jobs and local control over the economy, it increases the tax base for local services and keeps wealth in the form of both money and use-values within the community. It answers corporate disinvestment in a way that the building of an Amazon warehouse would not. The Preston model is not socialism: but it has in practice increased democratic participation, reduced unemployment in the city, and strengthened the hand of the labour movement in its struggle against local deprivation and central government cuts.