Saturday, 19 September 2015

A New Hope

Martin Kettle reckons that, like Gaul, the Labour Party is divided into three parts: ethical socialism, labourism, and social democracy. In his view, Jeremy Corbyn represents the combination of the first and second, while most MPs represent the combination of the second and third. For Kettle, the sine qua non of social democracy is to be pro-European (quelle surprise), while the other strands of Labour are deemed respectively sceptical and suspicious (if tractable). This is a travesty of history. The ethical socialist strand has always tended towards internationalism rather than isolationism (unlike labourism), while a reluctance to engage in the early stages of the European project was a distinguishing feature of the Attlee administration, whose social democratic credentials are hardly in dispute. Though Labour came round to the idea of joining the EEC, opposition to this was as strong on the right (e.g. Hugh Gaitskell's warning of "the end of a thousand years of history") as on the left. What's significant about Kettle's pen portrait is not the polite sneering, which has a long history dating to back to caricatures of vegetarians and cart-horses, but the attempt to claim social democracy for continuity Blairism.

It's assumed that the UK's in/out debate has always been about sovereignty, but it's perhaps not so well understood that in the 60s and 70s this was a question of the restraints to be placed on the activist state. In other words, the EEC was seen as potentially inimical to social democracy, rather than its logical extension. The agenda of the "modernisers" of the Labour Party, whether in terms of supporting European integration or advocating the repeal of Clause IV, was usually distinguished by the idea that the state should commit to a self-denying ordinance of reduced intervention; that it should be less an active participant in the economy than a referee seeking to maintain a balance between capital and labour (reflecting the growing neoliberal/ordoliberal influence). This made their nomenclature, from the Campaign for Democratic Socialism in the 60s to the formation of the Social Democratic Party in the 80s, all the more ironic. According to Kettle, "Social democracy’s priority is to fashion achievable compromises between capitalism and social justice. This places the emphasis on governing". Leaving aside the snide implication that not all are capable of governing, this prompts the question: what distinguishes the social democratic state in practice?

Ambivalence over the role of the state has been a theme in the work of Western liberal historians (i.e. those on the broad centre-left, and not just self-identifying social democrats) over the last twenty years. In the 70s and 80s, the foundational arguments against totalitarianism - a prominent issue for academics after the 1975 Helsinki Accords - were extended by the growing acceptance of neoliberalism's critique of central planning. A somewhat rose-tinted view of the daily heroism of Eastern European intellectuals was spliced with the quotidian frustrations of dealing with the likes of BT and the IRS. This transformed an argument about the motives of specific states and their elites into a claim that all states were inherently a menace and that we'd be better off trusting civil society or markets - which were increasingly taken to be much the same thing. Since the early 90s, following the impacts of globalisation and privatisation (and not just in higher education), these historians have come to regret the eclipse of the activist state, and in particular its capacity to act as the agent for social improvements that the market cannot or will not address, from  housebuilding to social mobility (again, acute issues for meritocrats struggling to afford prices in university towns).

This ambivalence has been explicit in the historiography of the social democratic state and les trente glorieuses, but it has also been implicit in the reassessment of the Nazi state and the legacy of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Examples of the former by British historians include Tony Judt's polemical lament, Ill Fares the Land, and David Kynaston's fine-grained social history, Tales of a New Jerusalem. Examples of the latter, by British and American historians, include Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire, which examined the differences in Nazi governance between Western and Eastern Europe and traced their roots to imperial attitudes (thus implicating a wider, Western European worldview), and Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which advanced the thesis that the extreme violence in Eastern Europe was the cumulative product of both Soviet and German invasions and their destruction of the state apparatus in the occupied territories (a thesis that was welcomed both by East European advocates of the "double genocide" and American neocons eager to draw parallels between Putin's policy and Stalin's).

Judt's panoptic Postwar combined a history of social democracy's triumph and troubles in Western Europe after 1945 with the slow collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe following their institutional corruption under Stalin and his successors. Together with the intellectual history of France and modern debates over Israel (between which Judt sees parallels of dishonesty), these were the themes that he returned to in his last major work, Thinking the Twentieth Century, a record of his conversations with Snyder in which he looked back over his career. Mazower, who had earlier made his reputation with works on the multinational polities and civil wars of Greece and the Balkans, also produced Governing the World, which examined the history of attempts at supra-national governance from the Concert of Europe to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Despite the slightly "black helicopters" tone of the title, this was an attempt to recuperate the idea of popular internationalism in the face of the realpolitik that has monopolised multilateral institutions.

The historiography of social democracy is partly a nostalgia that seeks to separate the warm bathwater of indoor plumbing (and other material and social advances) from the baby of stereotyped crisis (over-mighty trade unions, working-class yobbishness, awful fashions etc), and can be seen not only in the positive revaluation of the interventionist state (e.g. Mariana Mazzucato's The Entrepreneurial State) but in the evolution of the "not so grim 70s" pop-cultural trope (e.g. Danny Baker's TV memoir, Cradle to Grave). The ambivalence arises from doubts over whether the "good state" can be reconstructed in the era of globalisation and unfettered capital and a fear that collective action may be impossible in a society of fragmented identity and commoditised expression. Where once pessimism was a specialty of conservative historians (with a particular accent on a decline from past glories), it is now to be found among progressives, many of whom have internalised the "realism" of the neoliberal era ("there is no alternative") while indulging a maudlin and increasingly tedious "baby-boomer" guilt. Of course some of this is just conservatism in liberal guise. I remember being particularly struck by Judt's utter contempt for Punk Rock in Postwar, reflecting his historical situation as a 60s old-fart (he was not impressed by a three-chord tune).

The historiography of the Nazi state (as opposed to the Nazis more broadly or topics such as the Holocaust) was originally a predominantly domestic German concern, divided between an institutional strand, focused on the "failure" of democracy and the transition from the Weimar Republic (e.g. Karl Bracher's The German Dictatorship), and a moral and cultural strand, focused on personal responsibility and collective guilt, which reflected generational conflicts in the postwar years but also engaged with traditional ideas about German exceptionalism and its "special path" (Sonderweg). This highly political debate reached a crescendo in the late-80s with the Historikerstreit ("historian's quarrel"), which centred on the question of equivalence between the crimes of Hitler and Stalin. This development turned attention to the sites of those crimes just in time for the fall of communism to open up the archives of Eastern Europe. From this point forward, the mechanics of the Nazi state, and the related question of German popular knowledge of the occupied territories, became a more international interest, leading to cause celebres such as Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, as well as more judicious syntheses such as Richard Evans's Third Reich trilogy.

Elsewhere, Western Europe saw a greater willingness to discuss domestic collaboration under Nazi rule following the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, while Eastern Europe started to excavate (often literally) the history of Soviet atrocities both before and after the Nazi years. These developments combined to promote the discussion of the Nazi state from Germany to occupied Europe, thereby setting up a tension between state activism and state destruction. This was amplified by the recrudescence of ethnic-cleansing during the Balkan wars of the 90s and the emergence of "regime change" as an active Western policy (both being casually linked back to WW2). The latter was initially couched in terms of "humanitarian intervention" (pro) or "gunboat diplomacy" (anti), both of which assumed a quick in-and-out operation. That appeared credible in the Balkans, and even in Kuwait, but the post-millennium occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq looked altogether more mid-twentieth century, particularly when prejudices about the incorrigibility of the natives led to policies more reminiscent of Poland than Vichy France, with the state apparatus trashed and governmental cadres driven into opposition. The lesson that many historians drew was that states must be preserved even at the risk of compromising on regime change, which has obviously informed calculations in respect of Syria.

Timothy Snyder has a new book out, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, in support of which he published a representative essay in the Guardian this week. I've not read the book, but my interest here is more in his attitude towards the state, on which I think the essay is revealing. Relative to Bloodlands, the new work appears to further emphasise the centrality of state destruction to genocide: "Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness". Snyder also sees Hitler's quest for Lebensraum as a misguided response to ecological pressure: the need for land to prevent food shortages, rather than to multiply the racial stock. In noting that Hitler rejected the possibility that science might solve the immediate problem (which it did postwar in what became known as the Green Revolution), he draws a parallel with modern climate change denialism.

He also notes that histories of the Nazis equate genocide with the modern, industrialised state (either as the inevitable product of capitalism or central planning, depending on the historian's priors), but insists that it is the absence of the state that leads to such systematic killing. Observing in passing that "The invasion of Iraq killed at least as many people as did the prior Iraqi regime", he concludes that "When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. On the political right, the erosion of state power by international capitalism seems natural; on the political left, rudderless revolutions portray themselves as virtuous". Despite this even-handedness, it is clear that his defence of the state is primarily directed at those whose own privileged history means they fail to appreciate the necessity of the Leviathan: "A common American error is to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority". This is Hobbes contra Locke, revealing once more the conservative pessimist beneath the liberal optimist. The point of this detour to Eastern Europe in the early 1940s is that is highlights the extent to which contemporary concerns have led to the intellectual rehabilitation of the strong but plural state.

However, independent of whether you accept either the ecological explanation for Hitler's mania or the counterfactual that the absence of Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe before 1941 might have limited the German genocide (I am unconvinced by both), Snyder's central argument is problematic because there is no reason to believe that a global challenge like climate change is amenable to the actions of individual states, no matter how powerful they are or respectful of science. The only way of resolving this is to believe that strong states, subject to democratic constraint, are the best means of achieving multilateral cooperation. This harks back to the heyday of social democracy (which was both sovereigntist and internationalist) and the initial optimism around institutions such as the UN and the EEC. The problem that liberals face is that this optimism has been eroded: first, by the evidence that state elites will subvert democracy to pursue their own agenda (e.g. Iraq); and second, through the gradual supersession of multilateral institutions by markets and non-democratic regulators (e.g. TTIP). While everyone gripes about the spiralling cost and ineffectiveness of the UN, international governance is being monopolised by business interests increasingly antagonistic towards individual states.

This suggests that the long-anticipated transition from the Westphalian state to a democratic global order is stuck, and will likely remain stuck for the foreseeable future, which in turn opens up the opportunity to revive the activist state as the primary agent of social change. It is worth remembering that the European Parliament is the only democratic supra-national institution in the world, assuming you don't count the Eurovision Song Contest. In other words, the only example of popular internationalism where the will of multiple national communities is directly represented rather than mediated by state elites. Of course, cynicism about its powers and perks means its is increasingly dominated by charlatans and parasites (so not unlike the Eurovision Song Contest). Its sorry history of manipulation, institutional corruption and sidelining (e.g. over TTIP), by both the Commission and the Council of Ministers, doesn't suggest it is a template for the future. Its uniqueness suggests that it may now be little more than a historical curio.

The turn against Europe during the neoliberal era does not represent the revitalisation of the nineteenth or early twentieth century nation state - i.e. the belief in a common ethnic identity and destiny - but the fear that states are increasingly incapable of protecting citizens in a globalised world, and that supra-national structures like the EU are all to often fronts for global interests that undermine nation states. The policies of UKIP may be absurd, but they are activist, in the same way that Donald Trump's threats to build walls are, and it is this that attracts voters as much as the licenced bigotry. Contrary to the claims of those insisting that Labour must "listen to" the concerns of xenophobes who just know that most immigrants are benefit tourists, or idiots who believe that the party caused the financial crash, a more activist (and therefore left-wing) leadership may be precisely what is required to win back working class voters. This appears to be the conclusion of a recent IPPR analysis of the British Election Study's 2015 data, which incidentally provides quantitative support for my own suppositions about executive competence and the pivotal role of the LibDems.

Though it's early days, one thing we can be confident of is that the election of Jeremy Corbyn means that the role of the state - rather than just its size - will return to the heart of political debate. This is a good thing, though I fear that a social democracy tribute act is not what we need at this historical juncture: the debate must focus on the challenges of the twenty-first century, not nostalgia for the twentieth. However - and to show that I don't mind contradicting myself - the familiar form of a rebooted social democratic state may be precisely what's needed to secure the election of a Labour government capable of moving beyond Blairism and reimagining the economy and welfare and thus the future role of the state itself. To answer my original question, the distinguishing feature of the social democratic state in practice is precisely the activism that Corbyn politely promises. This is not the activism of New Labour (the "busy" state haranguing the populace to be more competitive and compliant), nor the trivial activism of Miliband (capping energy prices), but the willingness to intervene in order to influence the game. The state may stop being a referee (and a flagrantly bent one at that, in the case of the Tories) and become a player once more. Time to charge those light-sabres.


  1. I think Corbyn and his allies would be better off pretending that the 2020 election isn't happening. Poring over opinion polls and resurrecting 'Mondeo Man' and 'Worcester Woman' are antithetical to the whole 'project', and as we've seen over the past week, the wider environment isn't conducive to electioneering, with the blanket media condemnation and constant threat of backstabbing from within the PLP.

    I've been a little surprised by Corbyn's timidity since the anthem non-singing incident. I thought that as a 66-year old non-careerist he would be relatively unafraid of the possibilities of failure, but I suspect I have underestimated his commitment to holding the party together at all costs. I think the best policy would be for him to really assume as radical a position as possible and to create controversy as a means of broadening the political debate. A more conciliatory approach will sap the morale and motivation of the mass of people that supported his leadership campaign, and will not appease his enemies, who will home in on signs of weakness. In the end, the campaign of media criticism might well backfire, as it will spur on socialists and might well elicit sympathy for Corbyn among those who respect the underdog and think the press has gone too far.

    In short, I think Corbyn has to court the risk of 'martyrdom' and make his mark as an 'outsider'- ultimately to raise the kind of issues that have been submerged in a sea of neoliberalism will be his gift to socialism. I'd love to see on the agenda socialisation under worker's control, a generous basic income, a 30-hour week, genuine free access to life-long learning and training, and massive support for social housing and public transport coupled with discrimination against profit-making alternatives. I'm not holding my breath though.

  2. The problem for Corbyn re polls is that he can't stop idiot polls being produced, or the media filling their pages with them. Another two in the last few days - that he's lost 20% of Labour voters (untrue) and that people prefer Cameron to him as PM (quelle surprise after one week and wall-to-wall anti-Corbyn coverage).

    But you're right about ignoring the election and focus groups. Better to get on with what his current job should be, which is opposition, and one which suits his main attributes.

  3. Herbie Kills Children23 September 2015 at 16:57

    Martin Kettle is the village idiot of the media world. The most obnoxious journalist in the industry, which is saying something.

    I tend to agree with Igor's points above, though whether Corbyn is a careerist or not is an open question. After all he saw no problem with being in a party responsible for embedding neo liberalism and murdering hundreds of thousands of people. You might call this revolutionary discipline or careerism!

    A week is a long time in politics, it is a little harder to use Corbyn as a punch bag while Cameron is shown to be a degenerate buffoon. But I am sure the media will give it a good go.

    This brings us to a weakness of Corbyn, his reluctance to fight fire with fire, and his insistence to put policy before muck raking. It seems here he is sticking to his principles and ignoring revolutionary discipline!

    If I were Corbyn I would have a pit bull who can do the dirty work on his behalf. He also needs to occupy some of the right wing ground. So when they claim he is a threat to national security, he needs to say all those people who refuse to pay their taxes or those wealthy people who refuse to accept modest tax increases are not only anti patriotic but also a threat to national security because their selfish greed not only endangers the finances of the nation it means we have to take an axe to the military budget!!

    So Corbyn should turn the tables on his opponents, but this doesn't appear to be his style at all. I hope he doesn't turn into a simple punchbag.

    If he doesn't fight his corner then he won't find many friends in the media, from far right through to centre left they all see him as a threat to their cushy existence.