Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Neoliberal Corbynism

Recent opinion polls have put Labour and the Conservatives roughly neck and neck in the low-40s. With the LibDems lacking sympathetic media coverage, not least because so much of the available space is taken up with centrist criticisms of Labour, and UKIP suffering as it implodes in comical fashion, it is hard to envisage the political scene shifting away from this familiar duality any time soon. With the exception of Scotland's three-way split, we are back to the two-party model of British politics that characterised the quarter century between 1945 and 1970. In terms of rhetoric, however, we are back to the early 1980s, with the Labour leader cast as politically illegitimate: at best a naif, at worst a traitor. Of course, the persistent under-estimation of Corbyn suggests that the naivety is more likely to be found among his critics. For example, his response to the likely involvement of Russia in the Skripal case - a demand for practical action on oligarch money in British politics - will probably turn out to be a shrewd move once the hyperventilating ceases and the UK government's proposed sanctions turn out to be underwhelming, particularly if the Tories continue to drag their feet on the issue of donations.

While there are substantial differences between the parties in areas such as public ownership and housing, and there may even prove to be a clean dividing line in respect of Brexit, the gap between the two is not that large when viewed historically. Though many people recall the "longest suicide note in history" crack about Labour's 1983 manifesto, it is worth remembering that the Tory programme at the time was no less radical in its commitment to root-and-branch "reform" of society and the economy. It was the gap between the two that provided the imagined space for the launch of the Social Democratic Party, though the SDP-Liberal Alliance manifesto of 1983 was in reality a pick-and-mix from the other two rather than a distinctive third way: that would have to wait on the social reordering accomplished by Thatcher in the 80s and the advances of financialisation and globalisation in the 90s, whose political manifestation would be New Labour. The relative narrowness of the political choice today, despite Labour's clear (and ongoing) shift to the left, shows the extent to which the neoliberal norms established in the 80s and 90s still dominate.

The common understanding of neoliberalism centres on the intensification of pre-existing practices and modes of thought, such as free markets and laissez-faire, hence it is often described as simply "late capitalism". The more sophisticated view is that neoliberalism is essentially biopolitical. In this reading the ideological core of neoliberalism is the translation of labour from a class both in and for itself (as described by Karl Marx) to a field of atomised individuals, each pursuing their own utility preferences. Workers are no longer the objects of collective state discipline in the service of capital but notionally autonomous subjects actively involved in self-discipline. There are some obvious paradoxes here - what Michel Foucault described as crises of govermentality - such as that "freedom" necessitates state coercion (e.g. anti-union laws); that individualism is achieved through the pursuit of common goals and metrics, such as property-ownership and financial wealth; and that political expression becomes increasingly narrow (i.e anti-plural) through ideological constraints such as TINA ("there is no alternative") and technocracy. But a less obvious paradox is that while this erodes faith in politics, when a clear alternative is presented, as was the case with the EU referendum, traditional party affiliations are found to be a weaker defence against radicalism.

What the biopolitical view tends to neglect is the transformative impact of neoliberalism on the institutions of the state. Over and above the re-engineering of those institutions to achieve particular social and economic goals, the fabric and culture of government itself is effected through feedback from an established neoliberal society. In other words, a focus on governmentality can obscure the historical evolution of government. To take an example from the para-state, the excessive pay awarded to university vice-chancellors is not merely the result of a conscious programme of marketisation in the higher education sector, it also reflects the common expectations of CEOs across the economy in respect of their relative remuneration - i.e. it should be a high multiple of average employee salaries and generous pension contributions are matters of executive esteem as much as simple avarice. The same processes are at work within the apparatus of central government, both as a result of the "revolving door" with the business world and the programmatic adoption of business practices and modern managerialism within institutions such as the Civil Service.

While there have been compositional shifts in the state due to secular changes since 1945, such as the declining demands of defence and the increase in elderly welfare, the only substantive retreat by government attributable to policy has been in the area of house-building. Privatisation did little to change the nature of the state because most nationalised industries were operated at arms-length: the man from the ministry was a nominal presence hence there was little feedback that affected the ministry itself. What has changed is the commercialisation of both public service delivery and government administration. Despite high-profile failures such as Carillion, the story of government contracting-out has been less one of incompetence than poor value for money. In contrast, the adoption of commercial practices within the state apparatus has reduced its ability to respond to challenges that fall outside the implicit neoliberal "contract". The obvious example of this is Brexit, which has not only monopolised government bandwidth but has highlighted the lack of key expertise within the apparatus. This is not just a matter of the skills that were made redundant by membership of the EU, such as trade agreement negotiation, but of fundamental capabilities such as agility and foresight.

We are faced with an interesting conjuncture: the Labour Party is likely to offer a programme at the next general election that will significantly diverge from neoliberal orthodoxy in certain areas, while the capability of the state apparatus to deliver this programme will be severely constrained. That might sound like a recipe for inhibition and disappointment, but paradoxically it could prove to be the reverse. Just as the apparatus of the state will struggle to operate outside the orthodox neoliberal paradigm, so it will struggle to baffle and constrain a reforming government that ignores the orthodoxy, not least because the bypassing of state institutions by political management has been normalised over recent decades by special advisors, public-private partnerships and the bullying of civil servants (the tonal difference between Yes, Minister and The Thick of It is illustrative: from creative tension to zero-sum coercion). The modern administration is far more vulnerable to political control than was the case when Tony Benn was lamenting the obstruction of civil servants in his diary.

Among organised labour, the cultural changes stimulated by neoliberalism had the greatest impact on skilled workers, which led to a disproportionate decline in the membership and influence of those unions that had traditionally been on the right of the Labour Party. This was exacerbated by structural changes in the economy, such as the continued relative decline of manufacturing, the increase in self-employment and the growth of non-unionised service sectors, all of which disproportionately affected "moderate" unions. Meanwhile, neoliberal initiatives to marketise traditionally non-militant sectors, such as higher education, and the antagonistic attitude towards unions identified with the welfare state, such as in local government and health, have helped to advance more leftwing union leaders and broaden the focus from pay and conditions to structural questions of ownership and social responsibility, many of which hark back to the radical tradition of the 1970s (workers control, UBI etc). The current manoeuvring within the Labour Party between Momentum and the unions is being presented by centrists as evidence of factionalism, but the underlying story is actually one of an increasingly leftist bent that is being driven by both unions and constituency members. Their differences are more tactical than strategic.

The disenchantment of politics by the market was not simply a case of shifting the boundary between the two, with areas of life once under political control now exposed to market forces, but also encompassed the marketisation of political practice itself. Politics was relegated from the ethical oversight of progress to a series of techniques for addressing collective action problems that cannot (yet) be resolved by either competition or technology. A consequence of this was an increased meeting of minds between the state apparatus and the political class, evidenced in the increasingly technocratic approach of the one and the professionalisation of the other. One corollary of this was a decline in cognitive diversity and thus institutional resilience within the apparatus, but another was the increased confidence of politicians in their managerial ability to direct the machinery of state. The prospects for a reforming Labour government (assuming it can get elected) have paradoxically been boosted by three neoliberal developments: the weakening of the civil service as a normatively conservative institution; the advance in public sector trade unions of a left committed to structural change; and an acceptance among even centrist MPs that the state can be transformative.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 March 2018 at 18:49

    “a demand for practical action on oligarch money in British politics “

    The other demand was of course evidence that wasn’t either circumstantial or baloney! For example what does Russia’s heroic effort in defence of the people of East Ukraine have to do with a nerve gas attack in Salisbury? Yet this is presented as evidence by the British state? The rush to judgement is a clear sign of a political angle and Corbyn was correct to cast at least some doubt on the official version. After all those who actually care about lies that go on to kills thousands of people will remember the many times the official version has been criminally false. Only the most partisan and corrupt defender of western values or the most demented nationalist or the most idiotic fool would swallow the official line without any questioning or doubt. I am tempted to ask, which category do you fall into?

    On the oligarch’s, wht are we only talking about oligarchs and the obvious Russian connotation. Why not the rich and powerful in genera? Can you imagine the furore if after a murderous Israeli assault on Gaza people were to ask for confiscation of Jewish property? Quite rightly people would be outraged, but in this case it is all perfectly acceptable.

    The struggle against the global elite and the system of capitalism and imperialism that enriches them cannot be fought on nationalistic grounds.

    The left should condemn those who seek to attack people based on their country of origin and those who seek to make capital via the use of Russophobia.

    You probably haven’t noticed but along with extreme prejudice against Muslims and other we claim to go to war for, Russophobia is all the rage!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I am not "swallowing the official line", as you put it. The issue I'm drawing attention to isn't the probable involvement of elements of the Russian state (at a minimum connivance), but the gulf between the rhetoric of the UK government and its consequential action.

      The reason why Russophobia is all the rage is because Western governments have no intention of rocking the boat: it's displacement activity. Just as a focus on Russian "meddling" in the US election avoids the need to question the influence of money and the Democrats' too-cosy relationship with high finance, so Gavin Williamson's "shut up" is a substitute for substantive action that would hurt Russian interests in the UK.

      I'm not personally a great fan of Magnitsky laws and the like as they look too much like post-imperial "disciplining". For example, the French moves against Teodorin Obiang haven't noticeably improved the lot of the people of Equatorial Guinea. In many ways they are the flipside of actions taken to penalise foreigners who have the temerity to "interfere" in domestic affairs, such as Russian actions against investors like Bill Browder or Hungary's demonisation of George Soros.

      A better approach would be to apply tougher laws on transparency and taxation universally, rather than trying to make a special case for people close to the centre of power. The line between private sector rent-seekers (who exploit the state) and corrupt apparatchiks (who exploit their position with the state) is often vague at best.

      All that said, I think your parallel about Gaza and a general confiscation of Jewish property is irrelevant. Specific Russian oligarchs may have a dependence on the Russian state, but non-Israeli Jews have no necessary connection to Israel.