Tag Archives: populism

Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part One

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.

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Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, political analysis, Uncategorized

“We are the 99 percent” movement opens up a new historical moment

“Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” has announced that “A new uncompromising movement against NYPD’s notorious Stop & Frisk program began yesterday [Friday] as hundreds of demonstrators marched from the Harlem State Office Building to Harlem’s 28th precinct. At the station, Cornel West, author and Princeton professor, Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, Rev. Stephen Phelps, interim senior minister of Riverside Church, and dozens of others were arrested in an act of non-violent civil disobedience. Among those arrested and protesting was a large contingent from downtown’s Occupy Wall Street.”

This extension of the OWS protest is an important step in broadening the campaign. An “Occupy Harlem” protest is due to start next week, and if successful will not only challenge the unconstitutional police harassment experienced by African-American and Latino youth in New York, but also involve these youth with OWS’s struggle against bank control of the political system. This would be a huge breakthrough for the movement.

OWS’s direct action tactics have also re-energized the unions, not at the leadership level, which is still oriented to the Democratic leadership, but at the more militant base. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that on Friday “dozens of Occupy Wall Street protesters joined the picket line outside Sotheby’s, the Manhattan auction house, where 42 unionized art handlers have been locked out in a labor dispute since July 29. ‘Walking around in a circle outside that building is not an easy job,’ said Jason Ide, the 30-year-old president of Teamsters Local 814, which represents the handlers and commercial movers. ‘When they show up, our guys feel a real kick because they care’.”

The reason the protests resonate with so many different social groups is because of the long-term deterioration in people’s living standards which is now accompanied by an acceleration of job layoffs and increased poverty since the bank crash of 2008. This is grudgingly verified by Businessweek, “Income and wealth inequality in America have been growing for decades with little public outcry. The catalyst for the [OWS] movement now is that during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, there is a perception that Wall Street and the wealthy were taken care of while average folks suffer. That isn’t a fringe view. … One of the critics of the Wall Street demonstrations cited a survey showing that three-quarters of the protesters favored higher taxes on the rich. In major U.S. media polls – by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News and Bloomberg News/ Washington Post – two-thirds of the public agree.”

This is very different from the Tea Party whose support from conservative whites stemmed from blaming government for their loss of privilege. The televised search for a Republican presidential candidate reveals the Tea Party’s shrinking base by its increasing extremism and denial of human empathy for the sick, gay soldiers, and unemployed. The vicious demonization of OWS by Tea Party spokespeople like Glenn Beck reflects the fact that their support relied on a monopoly of a populist rhetorical space.

The mass support for the Occupy protests is not going to fade away, since a much greater banking crisis is on the horizon. Bank failures in Europe and the euro’s convulsions threaten to hit Wall Street hard, and in defiance of regulatory bodies Bank of America has moved some of its toxic exposure to the European debt crisis from its subsidiary Merrill Lynch to the main Bank of America account where they are insured by the FDIC and ultimately become the liability of the taxpayer.

At the same time, the government is paralyzed by the rightward ideological push of the Republican Tea Partiers, which Obama’s administration has implicitly accepted by setting up the bipartisan “Gang of Six” to agree on a $1.5 trillion reduction in the federal budget which will further contract the economy leading to further job losses, and dismantle the social safety net. This in turn will draw many more into support for the OWS movement’s confrontation of the political system.

The historical moment we are in is a different one from the period of resistance to union-busting laws in Wisconsin, which was the precursor to the OWS movement, even though only a few months have passed since then. At that time, the Tea Party Republicans appeared ascendant by using their control of the state legislature to steamroller through their agenda. The union leaders led the reaction against them which focused on reversing state laws, although this was extended by the occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison.

Democratic legislators and the graduate students’ union in Wisconsin led the occupation from the beginning, and it was this occupation of public space that became the focus for large demonstrations of support. The occupiers organized themselves with the same kind of horizontal democracy as OWS, although the mass movement still considered Wisconsin Democrats its leadership. The defection of 14 state senators to Illinois was a form of direct action within the political system that denied governor Walker a quorum on his anti-union budget bill, and gave validation to mass actions in Madison and around the state.

However, the union-led movement had difficulty connecting with other struggles in Wisconsin against bank foreclosures and other social issues because of their focus on restoring collective bargaining. Despite these limitations, in a state divided between Democratic-voting cities and mainly Republican rural areas and Milwaukee suburbs, Wisconsin Democrats showed energy and commitment to an election recall campaign which succeeded in reducing Walker’s senate majority to one, and are set on recalling Walker himself next year. The success of the “Occupy Wall Street/We are the 99 percent” movement is now rebounding back on Wisconsin and “Occupy” protests are springing up around the state and taking up social issues on a much broader front.

This will become a problem for the Democratic party leadership nationally, since they are heavily indebted to Wall Street, but on the other hand must respond to the mass movement (particularly at the local level). The divisions which will inevitably manifest themselves within the party open up opportunities to replace corporate Democrats with progressives who support the aims of OWC, which would be a parallel expression of the occupation movement.

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Filed under austerity measures, credit creation, debt limit impasse, financiers, marxism, monetary economies, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, populism, state unions, strikes, Tea Party movement, We are the 99 percent, Wisconsin

What next for Wisconsin?

Wisconsin Governor Walker’s aggressive anti-union budget has finally been passed, after a political decision by the state’s Supreme Court which ruled that Republican manoeuvres to include measures restricting collective bargaining in the budget bill were constitutional. 14 Democrats had left the state in an attempt to prevent the measures coming into effect.

Although the unions are mounting other legal challenges, they are unlikely to prevail. The Republicans have succeeded in using their slim majority in the Supreme Court to line up the legal branch of the state with the legislative branch.

The budget bill, once signed, will take effect July 1. Already school systems are planning layoffs and enforced retirements for teachers, and health centers are feeling the pinch.

While Republicans have sold the plan to their supporters as putting the state on a better financial footing and improving the economy, the budget in fact transfers wealth to big corporations and significant corporate tax cuts will further impoverish the state. Since the state today is such an integral part of economic life, reductions in state employment and effectiveness actually works to contract the economy.

Paul Fanlund in The Capital Times writes that instead of trying to win over independent voters, “Walker and his legislative cronies chose instead to cater to any right-wing interest with deep pockets: Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, charter school advocates, mining interests, payday loan sharks, the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, social conservatives. The apparent goal has been to raise so much campaign money that Walker and allies can buy their way out of any messy electoral fix.”

Since the Republicans have carried out a budget assault on such a broad front, they have also succeeded in  bringing together organizations campaigning on social issues with public sector unions fighting for collective bargaining rights. It challenges the unions to abandon their sectional outlook and take part in building a new kind of civil rights movement. Mahlon Mitchell, the first African-American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, made that analogy at a rally outside the Capitol building recently. “This is not just about union rights, it’s about workers’ rights, it’s about the middle class,” he said.

But some are critical of the unions’ commitment to social justice issues. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of a group which campaigns for immigrant workers’ rights, is reported as pointing out that “some individual unions have a ways to go in embracing the philosophy.”

According to The Capital Times, low-income people of color have not been participating in the protests at the Capitol, despite the impact of Walker’s budget on medical and food assistance programs which directly affect them. The movement has not made their issues central to the fight against the budget cuts and has not effectively reached out to them. The Capital Times quotes Monica Adams, an activist with “Take Back the Land,” a direct action group organizing resistance to bank foreclosures: “To build a collective movement, you have to develop a collective identity, and there’s no collective identity here,” she said. “To achieve that, we’d have to have some hard conversations about race.”

Adams’ criticisms need to be taken seriously. Evictions are not just the problem of people of color, but are a danger to anyone with a mortgage — including state workers now facing the loss of their jobs. The issue has a direct political connection to the budget fight. M&I Bank in Wisconsin gave financial support to Walker’s election campaign and took over $1.7 billion in TARP bailout money while evicting homeowners and promising executives close to $70 million in golden parachutes. “M&I is taking public money and using it to create homelessness,” points out Adams.

Banks across the country are evicting people from their homes even when existing occupiers offer to pay rent, or negotiate a modification of the loan based on changed market valuations. Even though the banks themselves were bailed out with billions of taxpayers’ money, they are intransigent in their refusal to turn foreclosed properties over to the community. They want to keep the fear of homelessness as a whip to prevent people from defaulting on mortgages they can no longer afford. They need to keep extracting repayments so that the revenue stream, which has already been capitalized and sold on, will maintain its nominal value. They could care less about encouraging job creation as a way of resolving the mortgage crisis because they are part of a rentier economy which is the source of superprofits for the rich.

The labor movement must take up this struggle against homelessness and evictions. It can’t rely on electoral activities to restore the social compact which guarantees the right to organize.  It should campaign for a new charter of human rights – one which includes the right to a home, a job, education, healthcare, pensions, and citizenship.

The unions need to take this fight into the national Democratic Party. Obama’s administration wants the government to act as a mediator between entrenched interest groups which have an inordinate sway in U.S. politics. But the super-rich dominate and control the Republican Party and are now going for broke. Democrats must be made to validate and legitimize a new mass movement for civil rights.

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Filed under health care, Obama, political analysis, state unions, Uncategorized, Wisconsin

President Palin? OMG!

In his latest NY Times column, “Could She Reach the Top in 2012? You Betcha!” Frank Rich thinks that Sarah Palin could be a serious contender. He points out that despite the disastrous showing of the Tea Party candidates  she supported, her approval with the Republican rank-and-file still stands at 80%. She is getting free publicity for her image on Fox TV and the misnamed The Learning Channel (“Sarah Palin’s Alaska”).

Rich points out that “What might bring down other politicians only seems to make her stronger: the malapropisms and gaffes, the cut-and-run half-term governorship, family scandals, shameless lying and rapacious self-merchandising. … It’s anti-elitism that most defines angry populism in this moment, and, as David Frum, another Bush alumnus (and Palin critic), has pointed out, populist rage on the right is aimed at the educated, not the wealthy.”

I recalled something I had written immediately after Palin’s launching at the Republican National Congress in 2008, and it seems to need no revision today:

“When Sarah Palin made her much-hyped speech at the RNC, I remember noticing how everything about her – her clothes, her hair, her glasses, her makeup, her delivery – was carefully constructed to project a specific image. Since then, she has been portrayed as a rugged individualist, a moose-skinning, gun-toting mother of five. The truth is that her whole family lifestyle is dependent on using public resources for her individual needs, on support from state and federal government, as well oil company largesse. How else could she be bringing up five kids with a full-time job and husband away for a month at a time? She in fact replaced professional Alaskan public officials with her family and friends . She entered public office for her own advancement, not for the public good.

“The question is, not whether the image is false, which it blatantly is, but why does it resonate with the US public? I think that the answer is that it appeals to an eighteenth-century ideal of virtue: the “virtuous” person is not dependent on any master, is strong, courageous, armed, and militantly public-spirited. In the same way, the wars in Iraq have been fought under eighteenth-century ideals of democracy and freedom from tyranny. These ideals are so intimately bound up with the social framework of the US state that they are embedded at an emotional level in people’s thought. The Republican strategists sense this intuitively and use it to identify the “general good” with support for the US administration; again, the opposite of the truth. …

“The Republicans are the asset-strippers, the union-busters, the corporate raiders, the bankrupt financiers. Their aim is to offload a massive devaluation of wealth onto ordinary people, so they can keep their own wealth intact. The Democrats are too close to corporate America to say this out loud. They can win only if Obama is strong enough to take up the theme implicit in his speeches, restoration of popular sovereignty and ending popular helplessness. Which way will he go?”

Well, we know now about Obama. The Democrats are leaving the country frustrated with the fact that the bankers and financiers who caused the fiscal crisis are going unpunished while voters daily face the threat or reality of unemployment, having their benefits terminated and contracts rewritten, and the continuous rise in the cost of living as the dollar plummets against world currencies.

Palin’s success is due entirely to the fact that she is able to glorify ignorance in order to manipulate her supporters into voting for the opposite of their interests, for  a policy of ravaging the nation for the benefit of the overpaid and rapacious corporate elite. She glamorizes the opposite of an informed electorate necessary for a democratic nation. Her image is nurtured by those who would make her a robotic presidential candidate, one guaranteed to support policies that will destroy democracy and deliver the country into the hands of an oligarchy. She is an willing puppet whose strings are pulled by the likes of the Koch brothers.

There can be no compromise with these people. Now is the time to renew the spirit of the American Revolution: Down with the tyrants! Defend pensions and health care! Defend the right to a good public education! No taxation without representing the interests of the majority of the people in government!

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Filed under political analysis, populism, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, US policy

Joe Stack: Kamikaze patriot or domestic terrorist?

Joseph Stack’s suicidal act of flying his light plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, seems to have vanished quickly from the horizons of the media. Nobody in the public sphere wants to dwell on the implications of what he did that day: setting fire to his home, destroying all his property and his own person. His act was relegated to the realm of madness, outside that of everyday experience and “normal” guys.

But his suicide statement, which is articulate and meaningful, makes it clear that Stack was not crazy. What did he want? Something quite simple: security in retirement. He had learned early in life not to trust corporations for his retirement needs, after US Steel raided pension funds in the 1980s. He resolved to build his own personal fortune by becoming an independent contractor as an engineer, which he believed entitled him to tax relief – just like the “big boys.” After all, the ideal of individual independence is fundamental to the U.S. national psyche.

His plans were destroyed: first by the IRS in the 80s, then the L.A. depression of the early ‘90s, divorce, the dot.com bust and 9/11, a failed move to Texas, then prosecution by the IRS for undeclared income. It reads like a contemporary history of failed dreams. He felt powerless in the face of a government agency that was unable to deal with the super-rich, who stash all their money off-shore to avoid paying a dime to the common wealth, but would pursue small proprietors with utmost ruthlessness.

Finally he decided he could not take any more and had to make a stand, had to add his body to the count of those “dying for freedom.”

So: terrorist or patriot?

Robert Weiner, former spokesman for the White House National Drug Policy office and the U.S. House Government Operations Committee, has no doubts about it. “He’s a domestic terrorist.  He wrote a confirmed suicide note saying he was mad at his tax bill, the national health care stalemate, and the bailout helping corporations and not people.  He opposed the government and our laws, and flew a plane into a federal building to make his point.  If that’s not terrorism, what is?” he asked.

But Stack was not as politically specific as Weiner implies. What he was expressing was a general, inchoate resentment about the government and state precisely because it did not match up to what he was taught government should be. He believed that he had the right to accrue wealth like the big corporations, and his problem was not only that he was prevented from doing so, he was being punished for attempting to do so while the directors of major corporations and banks were being rewarded even after embezzling public funds. It was the principle of equality before the law which was being broken, that of “justice for all”.

As Paul Craig Roberts points out, the gap between government and governed is as large today as the gap between England and its colonies in the eighteenth century. “Anger is building up. People are beginning to do unusual things. Terry Hoskins bulldozed his house rather than allow a bank to foreclose on it. The local TV station conducted an online survey and found that 79 per cent of respondents agreed with Hoskins’ action.”

Joe Stack spoke for an undercurrent of populist rage that is building up, unseen in its full dimensions, but which cannot be channeled by teabaggers, Republicans, or an increasingly corrupt political system. The social contract is broken. It is a portent of the future, in its own way a message of patriotic despair.


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