Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Common People

John Harris had a longform essay in The Guardian yesterday asking "Does the left have a future?". This is a question that has been repeatedly raised since the French Revolution, when the political metaphor of left, right and centre was born, which ought to be a clue as to the answer. Though he eschews the bitterness of Nick (What's Left?) Cohen, Harris is another representative of the school of liberal thought that castigates the organised left for having betrayed "the progressive cause". If Cohen takes inspiration from George Orwell's contempt for hypocrisy and muddled thought, Harris is inspired by his romantic patriotism. As the leading chronicler of Britpop, this should come as no surprise. Led astray by nostalgia, Harris's thesis suffers from the sort of muddled thinking that Cohen would take great pleasure in ridiculing. The most obvious muddle is his belief that "the left" and the Labour Party are interchangeable.

One of the problems of longform journalism is that in its search for human interest it substitutes anecdata for sociology. Earlier forms of state-of-the-nation writing, such as J B Priestley's English Journey, would sculpt human cameos to fit a didactic theme, but it was understood that this liberty would be supported by hard data (see Orwell's painstaking record of household costs in The Road to Wigan Pier). In the era of video, what we get is selectivity and soundbites. The derision of experts is not some novel invention of the right but the culmination of structural biases in the media that have elevated the personal and trivialised data. Investigative journalism is expensive and most media "data analysis" originates in marketing and PR. As The Guardian's go-to guy for video vox-pops, Harris has become notorious for his inability to find any voters happy with the Labour Party and his indulgence (in the spirit of "understanding") of ignorance.

For example, Harris tells us of a visit to Merthyr Tydfil in 2013: "Outside the town’s vast Tesco, I spoke to two retired men, who understood what had happened to Merthyr as a kind of offence to their basic values. In the past, one of them told me, 'a man wanted to be a working man: he didn't want to be in here, stacking shelves'". Stacking shelves or factory drudgery have always been more typical (if less emblematic) of working class employment than rolling steel or hewing coal, as Harris should know from the biographies of musicians (e.g. Jarvis Cocker worked in a fishmongers). His acceptance of clichés is reinforced by a reluctance to challenge wonky logic: "In the bellwether seat of Nuneaton, two women told me that Ed Miliband would probably win the election because 'all the people on benefits' were going to vote for him". It doesn't seem to have occurred to Harris to ask these women how they imagine the Tories ever get elected.

Harris believes "The western left faces three grave challenges, which strike at the heart of its historic sense of what it is and who it speaks for. First, traditional work – and the left's sacred notion of 'the worker' – is fading, as people struggle through a new era of temporary jobs and rising self-employment, which may soon be succeeded by a drastic new age of automation. Second, there is a new wave of opposition to globalisation, led by forces on the right, which emphasise place and belonging, and a mistrust of outsiders. And all the time, politics rapidly fragments, which leaves the idea that one single party or ideology can represent a majority of people looking like a relic". You might think the third challenge was "fragmentation", but the sub-editorial gloss is: "the disruptive force of globalisation, the rise of populist nationalism, and the decline of traditional work". This rejigging points to the confused nature of Harris's claim as much as The Guardian's determination to yoke populism (i.e. anti-elitism) to rancid nationalism.

The idea of "traditional work" is ahistorical. Jobs are constantly changing, both substantially and incrementally. This, after all, is the orthodox reason why we shouldn't fear automation: new jobs will spring up as a result of new demands while technology (and ideology) requires everyone to "adapt or die". Rather than acknowledge his own nostalgia, Harris projects it onto the left: "Supposedly radical elements too often regard deep technological shifts as the work of greedy capitalists and rightwing politicians, and demand that they are rolled back" (he cites no examples, but the Luddite smear rarely does). On his second claim, the political right is not leading a "new wave of opposition to globalisation" but replacing the left's long-established critique of the free movement of capital with a critique of the free movement of labour. This diverts popular anger into a cul-de-sac, as can be seen in the current confusion over the meaning of Brexit. Globalisation is not impeded by xenophobia but by capital controls. Harris's third theme, fragmentation, is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity, as will be seen shortly in his prescription.

Harris's thesis rest on an apocalyptic interpretation of recent history: "an atomising, quicksilver economy ... has fragmented people and places so thoroughly that assembling meaningful political coalitions has begun to appear almost impossible". This is typical of a strand in liberal thought that over-states the revolutionary impact of capitalism in order to insist that proven approaches are no longer viable. Whatever else it may presage, the growth of the SNP and UKIP suggests that political parties as vehicles for change remain in rude health. Harris is sceptical of any political enthusiasm on the left, dismissing Podemos, Syriza, Bernie Sanders et al as "an expression of protest and dissent [rather] than a sign of the imminent acquisition of power". This attitude reflects the technocratic and elitist interpretation of politics that he elsewhere criticises New Labour for. His suggestion that nothing can be done in the political realm because of the conditions of modernity is little more than bog-standard neoliberalism. The sentence quoted at the start of this paragraph could as easily appear in a Silicon Valley pitch to upgrade democracy to crowdsourcing.

The centrepiece of Harris's thesis is that the Labour Party is a volatile alliance that is now breaking down because of irreconcilable differences (a bit like Oasis). Of course, this same rupture has been predicted ever since the party was formed. The sociological reality is that Labour's base has shifted and reconstituted repeatedly over time (and far more so than other political parties because capitalism demands greater changes of labour). Harris presents the current cycle in this process as an unbridgeable divide: "the rising inequality fostered by globalisation and free-market economics manifests itself in a cultural gap that is tearing the left's traditional constituency in two. Once, social democracy – or, if you prefer, democratic socialism – was built on the support of both the progressive middle class and the parts of the working class who were represented by the unions. Now, a comfortable, culturally confident constituency seems to stare in bafflement at an increasingly resentful part of the traditionally Labour-supporting working class".

This is a variant of the fashionable dichotomy of "cosmopolitans" and "the left behind".  It's a reductive caricature that excludes the majority of the population (who are in work and not in London) and obscures the reality that globalisation is no respecter of class. Casualisation and insecurity have affected many more than just "traditional workers" - that was the whole point of "we are the 99%". Likewise, we need to remember that many of the working class voters attracted to UKIP were previously neither trade union members nor Labour voters. We have always had working class Tories. Harris persists with The Guardian's favourite anti-Labour line of recent years, warning that "Arron Banks is said to be mulling over a new party that might capitalise on the support for Brexit in working-class Labour areas and deliver them a new political identity". Not only is he forgetting that UKIP couldn't topple Labour at its pre-referendum peak, but he is subscribing to a theory of politics as elite-managed branding ("deliver them a new political identity") that rejects working class autonomy.

Harris finally gets to the point when he considers the prospects of electoral success: "There is a rising recognition, among both former followers of Blair and alumni of the traditional left, that Labour’s old majoritarian dreams are probably finished – and that it should finally embrace proportional representation and build new alliances and coalitions. This change would probably trigger a split between the party’s estranged left and right, and thereby bring Britain into line with the rest of Europe, where the left’s crisis is highlighted by a tussle between traditional social democrats and new radicals". Once more he undermines his own case, citing "the 1930s, when the aftershocks of an economic crash saw the left pushed aside by the politics of hatred and division". In the UK, Labour was marginalised by the MacDonald split (the hatred came after) and the National coalition. In Germany, proportional representation split the left while conservative miscalculation handed power to the Nazis. The idea that PR is the solution is both naive and underwhelming.

What we can deduce from Harris's confused essay is that liberals still haven't come to terms with 2008. They remain wedded to the neoliberal idea that the market is the best mechanism for making decisions, even if it must be created and expertly managed (much as the London music press cultivated Britpop). The resulting political belief is that democracy must be governed by an enlightened elite who can resist populist pressure to bypass the market's logic. This is not because liberals are in denial about the market's "imperfections" but because they accept (in private) that wealth inequality, economic redundancy and social atomisation are a price worth paying for the preservation of the liberal order. All 2008 has done is strip away the messianic enthusiasm of "high neoliberalism" to reveal the underlying conservative pessimism about human nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in the liberal patronisation of the Labour Party, resting as it does on the twin beliefs that the working class is a foolish mob and that anti-establishment party members are driven by malice or delusion. This has been the essential critique of popular politics (and the role of "agitators") since the Putney Debates.

The institutional purpose of the Labour Party has always been to restrain the wider Labour movement, usually by exploiting the "realities" of the Parliamentary system to moderate demands, and to channel autonomist initiatives into the safe embrace of state control. So long as workers seek to organise, there will be a Labour Party, and that means an ongoing struggle between the more radical "shopfloor" and the managerial class. The "Corbyn phenomenon" reflects two developments, but ones that suggest a further evolution of this relationship rather than a terminal rupture. First, the ongoing disruption of the workplace (the decline of unions and the growth of precarity) and the erosion of civil society by the market (e.g. local authority privatisation) means that the party is increasingly the only medium through which workers can organise for political ends. What is sociologically significant about the membership growth is not the return of "old Trots" but the arrival of young workers, even if they are dismissed as "cosmopolitans" enraged by tuition fees and mortgage affordability.

Second, the failure of the PLP and the party executive to bin the New Labour model of a technocratic vanguard and a neutered membership has undermined their ability to moderate the emboldened CLPs. The doubling-down of authoritarianism, no less than the hysteria over antisemitism and misogyny, is symptomatic of an intellectual void. It is as counterproductive as it is absurd (a party that refuses to accept converts). There is much irony here. The UK's first-past-the-post parliamentary system has ensured that the left insurgency has been channelled into conventional politics and traditional parties, despite the calls for a wider "movement". In this sense, Corbyn is a sign of the system's resilience. His tendency to invoke social democracy's greatest hits -  i.e. things proven to work, like a nationalised railway system - has meant that attacks have avoided policy and focused on the ad hominem, but this only obscures the relative modesty of the left's ambitions and means that policy shortcomings aren't interrogated.

The historian Charles Maier makes a good point about the collision of social and institutional change: "although Marxist political economy argued there were long-term social classes generated by capitalism, we live in a world where coalitions of interest form and reform; they are fluid and evolve. How can we coherently discuss the conflicting interests in the economic system if we see no social agents incorporating those interests? The sociology underlying political economy must be one of processes, not unchanging populations". John Harris's fundamental failing is that he cannot envisage the Corbyn phenomenon in process terms, as evidence of the evolution of conflicting interests rather than institutional dissolution. He cleaves to an antiquated image of the British working class as an unchanging population of formerly-skilled workers laid low by deindustrialisation and social conservatives suspicious of outsiders and elites. Just as Britpop tried to reimagine the 60s, so Harris (more so that Corbyn) seems determined to view the present through the prism of the 80s.


  1. "He cleaves to an antiquated image of the British working class as an unchanging population of formerly-skilled workers laid low by deindustrialisation and social conservatives suspicious of outsiders and elites."

    Yes, from the 'end of ideology' sociologists of the late-1950s, through various 'embourgeoisment' theories, Hobsbawm pessimism and Marxism Today pieces about the newly Thatcherite workers, there has always been a focus on the identity crisis of a working-class that exists only as a cliché.

    The best bit of Selina Todd's recent book 'The People' was the fact that she treated domestic servants and shopworkers just as seriously as miners or factory workers.

    1. I agree Todd's book is excellent, not least because of the emphasis she puts on working class autonomy (which is routinely ignored by orthodox historians). What irritates me about the likes of Harris is his emphasis on the passivity and homogeneity of ordinary people.
      This is not unlike the academic critics of Todd's book who were baffled by the interludes about Viv Nicholson, missing the point that the pools-winner's story undermined the notion of a conservative working class with modest and common ambitions.

    2. And the fact that even when she moved 'up in the world' to a modestly middle-class estate in Garforth she was still shunned by the locals!

  2. John Harris is quite frustrating really. On the plus side he is one of the few journos that get out into the country and talk to actual people. On the other hand he reminds of what was once said about Frank Field, that he had spent so long working with the poor that he had grown to hate them. Now we get the occasional insight, but too often he seems to fall into a role similar to those who wrote the book about the ride of UKIP (Goodwin? Godwin?), as a rent-a-quote who, like some religious millenarians, are always predicting the rise of UKIP and demise of Labour tomorrow.

  3. herbie Kills Children12 September 2016 at 19:03

    What I find laughable about people like Cohen and Harris is that when you sweep aside all their bullshit they are so close to values of the Tory party you just want to say, "You have a political movement you can hang your hat on, it is called the Tory party".

    Cohen moans endlessly about the left, yet why? It isn't as if the ruling class are refraining from their imperialist adventures! In fact they have increased! So the ruling class are delivering everything Cohen wants and more.

    Cohen and Harris should just cut the bull and start praising the ruling class more. Scratch the surface and this is their true ideological bent anyway.