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Review of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour

To those unfamiliar with Seymour’s previous The Meaning of David Cameron, Corbyn may come as a surprise. While the book features a large portrait photograph of Jeremy Corbyn on the cover, it is emphatically not a biography of Corbyn, not even a political biography. Corbyn is in fact somewhat incidental to the analysis that Seymour is interested in doing. Corbyn is in fact a history of “Labourism,” written with an eye to the political conjuncture that Corbyn’s election to the Labour Party leadership represents. In the spirit of the Salvage quarterly that he has contributed to, Seymour takes a pessimistic view of “Corbynism” and its prospects. While Seymour’s comments on Corbyn on his blog have generally been more optimistic, in this book he takes a “big picture” and “longer term” view of the prospects of the kind of social democracy and (perhaps) democratic socialism that Corbyn represents.

In the “big picture,” there are a number of competing ways to view the history of social democracy. The dominant view is the one advocated by socialists like Bernie Sanders and most social democrats. In this story, there was a growth of union organization in the early 20th century, which built to a climax in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, where unions were powerful enough to be given a certain degree of respect and consultation in the organization of society. In conjunction with this pro-labour turn, there was a turn towards state management of economic organization, with the aims of maintaining broad-based growth and avoiding economic chaos such as slumps, crashes and recessions. This sort of social democracy learned its lessons from the Great Depression and strongly curtailed the power of finance, instead focusing on industrial growth, full employment, low income inequality, and redistributive public spending programs. However this golden age came to an end in the 1970s, and at the first sign of trouble capital made common cause with shadowy cabals of neoliberal intellectuals, who seized control of key government institutions, first in South America, then in the United States and the UK with the rise of Reagan and Thatcher. These leaders and their advisers crushed inflation by depressing the wages of the working class and opening the flood gates of free trade and privatization of public institutions. They also engaged in broad based programs of social repression that shattered the 1970s left in both countries, and began waves of police violence to suppress dissent from marginalized groups. As free trade spread, so to did the dominance of the finance industry, and the centers of working class strength atrophied under the pressure of globalized competition, leading to the growth of rust belts that neoliberals looked on coldly, leading to an ever-growing increase in social inequality.

The degree to which the two key inflection points in this story (The golden age of the 1950s-1970s and the 1970s-1980s degeneration of social democracy) are analyzed by advocates of this story varies considerably. In the simplest case, there is an appeal to the nostalgia of lost stability and social harmony, usurped by the greed and cruelty of bankers and other plutocrats. This is the message that Bernie Sanders ran on in the Democratic Party primary. More sophisticated analyses try to identify the causes of the decline of the postwar “Fordist” system, and the reasons why labour lost so badly as that system collapsed. This sort of analysis tends to take two overlapping views, with the emphasis put on one or the other. The first view focuses on political history, on the dreamers, humanitarians, and rebels who could have plotted a different course of history if they had only won a crucial victory at some given point in time. This point of view also focuses on the failure different groups either defending the old order or trying to build a new future of the left to combine forces effectively. We can find this kind of analysis, for example, in Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and countless other histories. The other point of view focuses on the growth of globalization and the way that the finance industry undermined the ability of state to manage their national economies. This is the sort of perspective we find in Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century. The point at which these two points of view converge is in their so-called “political determinism.” They typically recommend a larger-scale and/or more forceful type of state regulation of the economy in order to revitalize social democracy as a workable system of class compromise. The losers of this story are typically seen as unlucky, disorganized, short-sighted, or weak-willed. If a stronger political alliance could be “articulated” in a Gramscian bid for political hegemony, then presumably capital could be forced into a class compromise. In terms of economics, advocates of this view typically favour “Post-Keynesian” thought, since it focuses on the importance of demand management and the way that this can be used to create the economic basis for a sustainable social democratic “mixed-economy.”

This is not the school of thought that Seymour draws on in Corbyn, although it is the school of thought that “Corbynism” belongs to. Faced with the string of social democratic defeats in the aftermath of the 2007 crisis, Seymour instead draws on the opposed tradition of “hard left” analysis that views the postwar “golden age” as an extreme abnormality in the history of capitalism, and one that cannot be reproduced through any amount of political will or organization. This is a school of thought often associated with Henryk Grossman, and his split from the Frankfurt School in the aftermath of World War Two. Where the Frankfurt School distanced itself from Marxist economics in this period, Grossman continued to hold to the views that he developed in the 1920s and published in his landmark work The Law of Accumulation and the Breakdown of the Capitalist System (1929). Grossman was the first major modern advocate of the view that capitalist crises were caused by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (TRPF) and the view that this tendency would lead the secular stagnation and breakdown of the capitalist system. While Marx himself wrote about this tendency, and the idea of a secular falling profit rate was common to many classical political economists, and even Keynes, the Marxist view of the TRPF had very distinct political implications for the labour movement. In particular, it implied that there was under capitalism a continuous pressure to increase the exploitation of workers (by lower wages or speed-up) as a way of offsetting a falling profit rate. Not only is this pressure argued to exist, it is also argued that such efforts at offsetting the fall in profitability are ultimately futile and undermined by the competitive dynamics of capitalism itself, leading to a situation of high unemployment, financial instability, and frequent crises. Ultimately, this tendency will force capitalism to the point of “breakdown.” Therefore attempts at social democratic class compromise are short-sighted, and can only succeed in periods of extraordinary profitability, such as that which was afforded after World War Two by the massive destruction of capital. The inescapable conclusion this view leads to is that labour long-term interest is in the replacement of the capitalist system with socialism. However much the capitalist system increases productivity, in the long term the gains of this productivity will not go to labour, and the social chaos that the growing instability of the system will cause will hit workers the hardest. It is important to note that this type of economics has nothing whatsoever to say about how to organize socialism, except in a minimal negative sense. It is a view of capitalism, and nothing more. Nevertheless, its uncompromising pessimism about capitalism has made it the standard around which the “hard left” has often rallied. Today, the most famous advocates of this style of argument are Michael Roberts, Andrew Kliman, and Anwar Shaikh. Unlike Post-Keynesianism, which focuses on the management of demand, this school focuses on the “supply” of profit and how it determines the rate of investment. This so-called “supply-side Marxism” is often paired with a more critical analysis of social democracy that casts doubt on the benevolence of postwar class compromise, seeing it as a dead-end that allowed capitalism to recover from the war while laying the groundwork for the future destruction of the labour movement and its profound demoralization in the face of the failure of “Keynesianism.”

Seymour’s own analysis of the Labour Party’s history tends to follow this model, emphasizing its political roots in liberalism, its tenuous connection to the working class, the patrician disdain of its leaders for socialism, its automatic respect for “family, faith, and flag” which lead it to engage not only in domestic campaigns of political repression but also in imperialist adventures abroad, and finally its emphasis on winning elections within the existing political system to the exclusion of any other goal. Within the Labour Party, the left is seen as perpetually frustrated not only by the opposition of the media and other institutions of the ruling class, but also by the long-term (and often short-term) impossibility of managing capitalism in such a way as to both increase profitability and redistribute wealth to the working class.

As Seymour writes:

So many of Corbyn’s supporters – admittedly less so the younger variety – want ‘real’ Labour, ‘old’ Labour, ‘traditional’ Labour, what Labour is supposed to stand for. The allure of this idea is difficult to overstate. If there are risks in being too impressed by Corbynism, there is an equivalent danger in being transfixed by an idea of Labour that has never really been close to reality. The only remedy for this is a cold, unsentimental look at what ‘real’ Labour might be (or have been), and why it might not be an satisfactory basis for what is to come. Rather than demonising New Labour as a cuckoo in the nest tearing up the fabric of social democracy, it would be useful to look at where the germs of Blairism were already present, and how they came to the fore. We should at least make space for the possibility that the problem, one way or another, is Labour

…not only is the story of Labour overwhelmingly one of failure. It is one wherein the conditions for any success once enjoyed have long since passed. The doctrinal coordinates which once underpinned social democracy everywhere – from the ‘mixed economy’ to welfarism, from public ownership to Keynesian intervention – will no longer avail, because global capitalism would reject these policy nostrums, much as a body rejects an organ implant.

The only era of Labour that Seymour genuinely praises is that of the Attlee government, and even this era is subject to critical examination. Attlee is described as “a monarchist from the party’s Right” who “disowned” the Jarrow March and “quietly endorsed extensive fascist intervention on Franco’s side” in the Spanish Civil War. Under Attlee (and his successors) newly nationalized “public corporations were preserved on the model of private industry, with the usual worker-management hierarchies, and their production decisions made on the basis of what was good for private business.” The wave of political change was held back by “the architects of the nationalisation programme, such as Herbert Morrison…” who were “…reluctant to extend it, arguing that Labour had to ‘consolidate’ its gains before attempting further transformation.” This transformation was never to come, as the ruling class recovered from the postwar upset and first halted, later reversed the campaign of social ownership. The Attlee government was also one of “…financial orthodoxy, the continuation of rationing alongside increased exports, a willingness to use troops to break strikes, and wage freezes.” The government is described as “pungently authoritarian…in some respects more avid than the Conservatives in prosecuting the war against organised labour and, later, social movements.” It “…repeatedly deployed armed forces against striking workers, invoking wartime anti-strike legislation.” Finally, the “…post-war consensus was also bought in part with American dollars, which ensured Britain’s orientation in a new axis of power which demanded continuity in foreign policy justified by a staunch anti-communist line.” Labour is indicted for supporting “the policy of crushing the Greek partisans and supporting monarchist forces” as well as maintaining imperialism in Kenya, Malasyia, and Vietnam. It also supported NATO and developed the much hated nuclear weapons that today take the form of the Trident program. The “zenith of social democracy…achieved as much as it was ever likely to” but still remained firmly committed to a pro-imperialist foreign policy.

The point of all this is to suggest that the exceptional period of Labour’s history was not so exceptional. The “origins [of the party] in Victorian Liberalism” remained significant, and the notable deviations from liberal ideals found in the postwar height of social democracy were largely shed in the era of “new Labour.” In other words, New Labour was a return to business as usual, not a deviation from “old Labour.” Seymour strongly emphasizes that this makes J
remy Corbyn a highly unusual leader in Labour’s history. He claims that the comparisons of Corbyn with Michael Foot are misplaced, given that Foot came from a background of “radicalised Liberalism,” and argues that Corbyn is better compared to George Lansbury, Attlee’s predecessor as Labour leader and “…a left-wing pacifist with an activist past…” Notably, Lansbury was unseated by a hostile Labour leadership who did not agree with his pacifism or leftism. Still, Seymour notes that Lansbury had experience in office as a “popular local mayor and a cabinet member” before being elected, unlike Corbyn, who was a perpetual outsider and who was elected on the unpopularity of the “governing strata” of Labour. Therefore Corbyn has little in common with Foot, and even less in common with Attlee. In this sense Corbynism is the really exceptional event in the history of Labour, not the rise of New Labour.

One of the most notable sections of the book is in fact Seymour’s settling of accounts with the intellectuals of Marxism Today, who stressed the novelty of the “new times” that New Labour came to represent. The dominance of “new times” thinking during my youth is hard to overstate, and even at the time of the 2007 crisis I still had to struggle greatly with the ideas of intellectuals like Anthony Giddens and Manuel Castells, who preached a very similar gospel. It seems to me that with the publication of works such as Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Seymour’s Corbyn, as well as the return of talk of class-struggle to regular discourse, we have finally overcome this episode and can look at the era with fresh eyes. While Seymour certainly owes an intellectual debt to Stuart Hall, both in his writing style and his interest in structuralism, his analysis of New Labour sharply differs from Hall’s. Generally speaking, the “new times” were taken to represent “…a great shift in capitalist civilisation…” where “[e]conomies were now global rather than national, the mass media was increasingly trending toward twenty-four-hour coverage, the working class was fragmenting and identities were increasingly plural.” In the overlap of its focus on identities, signification, informationalism, and the dynamic changes being wrought by globalising capital, this brand of thought ruled out the possibility that the fluid identities of a global informational capitalism might acquire a certain stability in the matrix of social class and class struggle. In fact, this seems to be the worldview that is today emerging, and one that is quite different from that of “New Times,” which even where it was transfixed by social change remained within intellectual horizons dominated by the history of postwar social democracy. “Fordism” remained the baseline against which change was measured in this era, whereas in Seymour’s (and, it should be said, Piketty’s) account it is liberalism that is taken as the norm, and social democracy as the aberration. From this point of view, the 1990s appear considerably more bleak. While thinkers like Castells did critique the times they were writing in through frameworks like the “fourth world,” they tended to frame the immmiseration of some sections of society as a problem of exclusion from a great dynamic upswell of social-technological change. This perspective is much less plausible in a world where capitalist stagnation is the recognized norm and class politics are openly conducted.

In retrospect, the watchwords of New Labour appear as “reactionary old cliche[s],” and the worn glamour of Britpop fails to conceal the liberal moralism of the era’s politics, whose “Third Way” who imposed its “flexibility” and “dynamism” through social programs that drew on intensely racist and classist norms to support campaigns of almost unprecedented violence against its enemies. Social democratic parties, often in concert, adopted structures of rigid internal hierarchy, both to deal with the new news cycle and to suppress the influence of the grassroots and the left on their policies. For example, New Labour adopted a system of “One Member One Vote” that was in fact the imposition of an anti-democratic electoral college that would insulate the leadership from outside influence. Everywhere, the buoyancy of white middle class culture and wealth concealed brutally reactionary politics such as the concentration of minorities in declining council housing stock, the imposition of strongly deflationary fiscal policy based on the myth of the “non-accelerating rate of unemployment” or NAIRU, which became the orthodoxy that replaced the norm of so-called “full employment,” the full fledged support of the growth of finance capital, wage suppression, tax cuts, the construction of “private public partnerships” that starved providers of public services while enriching the well-connected, social policies that justified massively expanded policing in the name of imposing “family structure” on the “anti-social” and placing them in the wage-suppressing bureaucratic nightmare of “workfare,” if not in jail. Finally, of course, came Blair’s crusading zeal in invading Iraq in the name of “western values,” a campaign of violence that was mirrored at home with a campaign of demonisation of foreign cultures that has borne its worst fruit in the xenophobic hysteria that has become commonplace in the UK. As Seymour writes: “The demonisation of the poor, the rise of stereotypes about council estate dwelles, single mothers, ‘feral’ teens and ‘chavs’ was the logical terminus to which New Labour’s ideological thrust moved Britain – and on such terrain, neither the Tories nor UKIP have had much difficulty making gains.” While many of these developments were recognized at the time, they were not generally seen as the norm of capitalist society driven by the need to sustain profitability. It is only with the ongoing stagnation of the capitalist system since the 2007 crisis and the manifest failure of anyone, including the left, to address this stagnation that a new historical horizon has become visible to us, and it is one that finds more commonality with the prewar era than that of the postwar.

If the long-run history of Labour has been one of defeat and betrayal, it raises the question of whether Corbyn can achieve unprecedented success. Certainly, to someone who grew up in the era of New Labourism, Corbyn’s speeches in defense of the poor and the excluded of society can feel unprecedented, but Seymour’s intent is to take the long view, and in the long view Corbyn’s prospects look bleak. Sooner or later the endless stream of opposition to his leadership from every institution of the ruling class, including those of the Labour Party itself, will overwhelm him and his supporters. However the more acute problem that Seymour identifies is that of social democracy itself. As he writes: “Corbyn’s most pressing task is to demonstrate that there is a coherent alternative economic model. Only on this basis can he support his policies of protecting welfare and public services.” He furthermore argues that:

Even if their persuasive powers are ultimately ineffective, Corbyn and McDonnell still face the problem that they cannot force businesses to invest. They are still in the same bind as previous social-democratic governments, which is that they aim to represent workers and the poor while necessarily, desperately needing the cooperation of business. Should Corbyn inherit an economy in recession and a government whose finances are in dire straits, he would face the choice of having to govern from a position of weakness, constant crisis, under fire from all sides, or of having to adjust and accept the orthodoxy, implement spending cuts and do as much as he can to humanise the worst effects of what he is compelled to do. The term for this, following on from ‘Pasokification’ is ‘syrizafication’, a process wherein the radical Left is swiftly chewed up and metabolised by the institutions it seeks to govern, becoming in effect an instrument of the neoliberal centre that it was elected to displace. The only possible counterpoint to such a scenario, and the inevitable unedifying cries of ‘betrayal’ that it would precipitate, would be a vibrant and mobilised grass-roots Left in the unions and beyond – a possible, yet by no means inevitable, political outcome.

Yet if we accept the economic view that Seymour has adopted in his history of Labour, that of “supply side Marxism,” even this slim hope appears to be wishful thinking. The prestigious Post-Keynesians that McDonnell has brought on board to form Corbyn’s economic platform are working from exactly the opposite assumptions that Seymour takes for granted. Given that the general rate of profit is not high at the moment, whether or not capitalists can be cajoled into supporting an expansionary fiscal program makes little long-term difference. The whip of competition will force them to oppose Corbyn in the name of not “throwing good money after bad,” destroying unprofitable capital, and increasing the rate of exploitation. In that case the only available option (assuming widespread popular support) is the replacement of capitalist economic organization with socialist economic organization, and that would no doubt raise the specter of first international fiscal discipline (such as that which enforced the original “syrizafication”), and in the extreme case civil war. It is unsurprising that Labour leaders have backed down from this prospect in the past, and that Corbyn’s team have welcomed the school of economics that promises class compromise if only the right ideology can gain ascendency. However as the gloom of stagnation, the growth of global inequality, and the strain of the international regime of labour control grow more acute the doctrines of the “hard left” continue to become more plausible, no matter how unwelcome they may be.

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