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Friday, 31 January 2020

On Paradoxes and Indecision

The irony of Brexit Day is that nothing significant will actually change at 11 o'clock tonight. The departure of MEPs from Strasbourg won't alter the complexion of the European Parliament, not least because there are plenty of others willing to inherit Farage & co's mantle as class clowns, while the lowering of the EU flag (or even its retention at Holyrood) isn't going to be noticeable in a country that never really got into the habit of raising it. The various plaques and signs dotting the regions to record the investment of EU structural funds will largely remain in place, if only because it would be too much trouble to remove them. This may prove to be symbolic of the damp squib nature of Brexit. I don't mean that the great adventure will fail miserably, but that a United Kingdom outside of the European Union will look and act pretty much like a continuing member. Of course, the end of the 12-month transition period may well bring more substantive changes, such as blue passports and eye-watering mobile roaming charges, but even then I suspect that the chief emotion will be along the lines of Peggy Lee's famous song, "Is That All There Is?" We live in paradoxical times.

It is a paradox that the decision to leave the complex EU will probably prove to be less significant than the decision to join the then limited Common Market in 1973. That marked a watershed in British history: the final turning away from empire, the commitment to Europe as our chief export market, and the first tentative steps towards deindustrialisation and a service economy. In reality, all three were well-established directions of travel. 1973 was simply the moment that the long-held preference of the British establishment became public policy. If it hadn't been for De Gaulle, it would have happened sooner. What the 1975 referendum indicated was not that the British public was convinced by the technocratic case for membership of the Common Market but that it recognised the futility of trying to hold on to the past. A similar clear-sightedness is lacking today. There is no coherent vision of the future, but I feel confident in predicting that we're not going to become Singapore-on-Thames or the 51st state. Our future will be much less remarkable and (ironic given that it's the consequence of a binary referendum) fundamentally indecisive.


That looming indecision can be seen in the consequences of last month's general election. A result of the Tory inroads into Labour's so-called "red wall" is that the Conservative party now has less of an interest in pushing forward with boundary changes and the associated reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Whereas post-industrial and semi-rural constituencies with ageing and declining populations tended to be disproportionately represented by Labour MPs, a larger number are now held by the Tories. As a cheap gesture towards the North and Midlands, preserving the "voice" of these areas will prove attractive, particularly as future boundary reviews are likely to increase the number of metropolitan seats, despite the Boundary Commission basing constituencies on registered electors rather than population (i.e. excluding the poor and domestic migrants), which would be to Labour's advantage. We won't see a return to "rotten boroughs", but the inequity in representation between the big cities and small towns is likely to become a counterpoint to the inequality in economic growth and infrastructure investment.

The Conservatives have tried over the last decade to informally rebrand themselves as "the workers' party". This was an attempt both to revive the popularity they enjoyed among aspirational blue collar workers in the Thatcher years and to emphasise their commitment to "alarm-clock Britain" in the era of austerity. Over the same period they have also done a volte-face on the minimum wage, responding both to the evidence that it does not inhibit growth and to the political opportunity of neutralising a Labour attack-line. However, this positioning has failed to take root because the Tory electorate has increasingly aged, leaving it the party of pensioners and older workers (as well as the well-off) more interested in defending their fragile gains than broadening opportunity. In contrast, the demographic shift of Labour's support away from declining small towns to the cities, which reflects the migration of younger workers, has made it the party of aspiration: to a decent home, higher wages and job security. This electoral sorting will increasingly drive policy. In the case of the Tories, it will lead them to question one of their shibboleths.


Stephen Bush asked recently, "Are we heading to a situation where Labour becomes the party for the majority of not just working class people but all people who are actively in work?" The significance of such a shift is that the Conservative commitment to lighten the tax burden on the working population is coming under strain. With little meat left on the bone of the welfare state after a decade of cuts, increased investment in the services and benefits that the old depend on, such as the NHS and the state pension, can only come from higher taxation. The Tories aren't going to reject their prime directive and start taxing capital income and wealth, and they will want to deliver eye-catching gains at the bottom of the wage scale in order to stymie Labour, so the burden of increased tax is likely to fall on middle-income earners. This won't come in the form of an increase in the base rate of income tax, as that would be electorally toxic, so we can expect the government to steal Labour's clothes on the taxation of higher earners and to also increase indirect taxes.

The indecision over HS2 and the third runway at Heathrow look like the continuing saga of the British state's fraught relationship with infrastructure, but we should remember that the postwar period was actually marked by confidence. The creation of new towns, the Beeching rationalisation of the railways and prioritising of motorways, the building of the M25 and the Channel Tunnel were all evidence of a willingness to think big, despite the various flaws and disappointments of each. What's different about a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and the expansion of Heathrow is that these relatively modest (if bizarrely expensive) decisions have become a test of political virility rather than strategic capability. The chief arguments in their favour are negatives: "What sort of nation would we be if we didn't proceed?" Those postwar achievements were decisions that were inevitable but had been delayed (the new towns and rail rationalisation should have started in the interwar years, the M25 in the 40s, the Chunnel in the 60s). Though we can't predict the future with accuracy, the current decisions look anything but inevitable. This is why indecision reigns.


It's early days, but my guess is that the Johnson government will go down in history not as the point of departure for a new direction in the country's history, let alone the start of a new golden age, but as a reversion to an older style of mismanagement familiar from the Macmillan years. This doesn't mean a rejection of Thatcherism and a return to "One Nation Toryism", outside of media-pleasing rhetoric, nor a revival of aristocratic restraint. The Thatcherite legacy is too deeply-embedded among MPs, party members and the Tories' electoral coalition for the one, while the media will not tolerate the other. Rather it means the return of dither and delay. Johnson's performance since becoming party leader and Prime Minister might suggest otherwise, particularly the cutting of the Gordian Knot of the Irish border and the determination to force a general election, but the consequence of the one has been a continuing refusal to admit the reality (Irish Sea border checks and a tipping of the scales against unionism) while the other was an inevitability given the impasse in Parliament (and delivered not by Johnson's persuasion but by Jo Swinson's opportunism).

As his time as London Mayor showed, Johnson isn't an effective manager and his desire to avoid conflict leads to his regular disappearance. While he will have plenty of photo-ops to fill his time, the suspicion is that most of his grands projets will, like the estuarine airport and the garden bridge, fail to leave the drawing board. The paradox of Brexit is summed up in that infamously mangled line from Lampedusa's The Leopard, that everything must change so that everything can stay the same. The 2016 referendum was a cry of rage and nostalgia from Northern and Midlands towns that had never recovered from the blows of the 1980s, but it was also a demand by comfortable Southern market towns and suburbs for the restoration of a settled order that connected the complacent 1950s and 60s of their childhood with the triumphalism of the 80s. The Tories cannot satisfy both constituencies, no matter how many culture wars they launch, but they also cannot risk alienating either of them. The result is likely to be indecision, dither and delay. The final irony is that Brexit may be the only thing that Boris Johnson manages to get done.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Was New Labour a Failure?

The new Labour MP Zarah Sultana's condemnation of "40 years of Thatcherism" has hit a nerve. I suspect this has more to do with her age, 26, and her reference to the views of future teenagers, than it does to an otherwise uncontroversial reading of recent British history. For the defenders of New Labour, this intervention suggests that they have lost the argument over legacy and that no amount of praise for Sure Start and NHS investment, let alone revisionist tomes by the likes of John Rentoul, will alter the popular assessment. That the retort is "What about X?" when the charge is "You didn't do Y?" is evidence enough that they are batting on a sticky wicket. New Labour accepted the Thatcherite dispensation, even going so far as to fetishise it in the guise of "prudence". While it ameliorated the worst social effects, its intervention in the economy and society was characteristically neoliberal, promoting markets and consumer choice and bullying the marginalised and non-compliant. This isn't really in dispute. And nor, outside a fringe, is the calamity of Iraq.

However, to judge New Labour chiefly on that particular mistake would be to give too much significance to contingency and personality. Had 9/11 not happened, there is a good chance that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq might never have followed, despite the neoconservative dreams of glory in Washington, and there are also grounds to believe that another Labour Prime Minister (say, Gordon Brown, for argument's sake) would have been more cautious, lining up with the rest of the EU on a policy of non-intervention rather than committing to military action. If we are to judge New Labour as more than the preferences and foibles of one man, then we should probably get out of the habit of talking about "Blairism" or "Blairites". After all, there is little that distinguishes the latter from the "Brownites" at the level of political theory, and the differences in terms of policy (enthusiasm versus scepticism about the euro, for example) were usually much shallower than presented by a gossipy media.

New Labour was a failure in its own terms. It didn't remake the Labour party and even the election of Keir Starmer as leader will not represent a revival of its fortunes internally. What killed it off was not Iraq, or even the steady growth of disillusion among the electorate after the millennium, but the 2008 financial crisis. New Labour's fundamental premise, that light-touch regulation of the economy could be combined with mild redistribution and decent public services, was shown to be inadequate in the face of capitalism's internal contradictions. With the climate crisis further accentuating those contradictions, and with the public's appetite for a more interventionist state whetted by Brexit, Labour is unlikely to change the direction of travel towards economic justice pursued under Corbyn. It may well revive the liberal managerialism of the New Labour years, but this is likely to be softer in tone and more sincerely committed to devolution and participative democracy, whoever becomes party leader.


New Labour didn't make Britain a "young country". We are clearly now a nation in which the interests of the young are marginalised and the interests of the old, from house prices to pensions, have a grip on politics. Nor did New Labour raise Britain's status in the eyes of the world after the initial high of the Good Friday Agreement and the fluff of "Cool Britannia". The country's reputation took a hit with the Iraq War, however the willing acceptance of the Washington Consensus and the emphasis placed on liberal interventionism were just as important in cultivating the image of "America's poodle". Of course, the UK has experienced declining global status for over a century now. In this context, New Labour could simply be said to have been on-trend - it failed to arrest this secular decline - however a case can be made that its behaviour over Iraq was the first example of a new recklessness in British politics that was all too evident over the last decade, from the stupidity of austerity to the casual gamble of the EU referendum and now the fantasy of Brexit's sunlit uplands.

While New Labour clearly achieved much in terms of better public services and reduced poverty, it did so in a manner that was always likely to prove impermanent. Its insistence on market efficiency and the virtue of fiscal prudence left the public sector vulnerable to parasitism and welfare subject to the "common sense" of austerity. While the latter was unquestionably a choice of the Conservatives under Cameron, it was already conventional wisdom precisely because of New Labour's record in government. This included its failure to adequately address the structural causes of growing inequality - famously exemplified in its belief that it could be tolerated so long as the winners paid their taxes - and its focus of the narrative of rights and responsibilities on welfare claimants rather than the rich or the financial sector. As Stuart Hall put it in 2003: "Marketisation is now installed in every sphere of government. This silent revolution in "governance" seamlessly connects Thatcherism to New Labour."

Hall was an early critic of New Labour and also of the ameliorative argument that would subsequently be presented in its defence: "It combines economic neo-liberalism with a commitment to 'active government'. More significantly, its grim alignment with corporate capital and power is paralleled by another, subaltern programme, of a more social-democratic kind, running alongside. This is what people invoke when they insist, defensively, that New Labour is not, after all, neo-liberal. The fact is that New Labour is a hybrid regime, composed of two strands. However, one strand - the neo-liberal - is in the dominant position. The other strand - the social democratic - is subordinate." It is this point about dominance that underpins Sultana's reasonable opinion. It is also no accident that many of New Labour's staunchest defenders have also questioned whether neoliberalism even exists, let alone whether it was influential. Remove that from the equation and you can better defend the record, albeit by reducing government to mere administrative tinkering.


New Labour clearly failed to undo or substantially alter the economic and social dispensation of Thatcherism, and went so far as to make this a selling-point in the mid-90s. It even reneged on promises to reverse some of the emblematic achievements of Tory rule, such as anti-union laws and NHS marketisation. By accepting the Thatherite analysis, both in its diagnosis (that the country was being held back by unions and welfarism) and in its prognosis (that entrepreneurial spirit would drive prosperity), New Labour ensured that Thatcherism remained hegemonic and paved the way for a Tory revival. For all the differences in style and rhetoric, Cameron, May and now Johnson are all recognisably Thatcher's children. It wasn't mischief or levity when Thatcher claimed that her chief legacy was Tony Blair. As Phil McDuff recently put it, "In 1997, to say that Blair built on the economic foundations of Thatcher’s economic reforms would have been neither a radical statement nor something with which either Thatcher or Blair would have disagreed."

It is easy to forget how much Ed Miliband was attacked after 2010 for his minor divergence from New Labour orthodoxy, largely because this was eclipsed by the hysterical vituperation of Jeremy Corbyn. Any deviation from the script was seen as heresy, which in part explains the continued indulgence of Blair by sympathetic media. He isn't an elder statesman dispensing wisdom but a protagonist obsessively curating his reputation. For Blair and his epigones Labour has become rotten and essentially illegitimate. While this takes a variety of forms, from a critique of its supposed middle-class indulgence to the "scourge of antisemitism", there is a common theme of decay and corruption in the rhetoric, which sounds suspiciously like projection. The party has been "taken over", it has "lost its mind", it has "forgotten its history" (a charge that requires rejecting most of its pre-90s history). This is not a rational analysis but a psychotic episode.

New Labour was a failure because it didn't alter the political landscape in any substantial or lasting way. It steadily lost popular support through its economic caution, social authoritarianism and foreign policy misjudgements, but was unable to point to any major positives to offset the accumulating negatives. There was no equivalent to the foundation of the NHS or the introduction of Right-to-Buy, let alone the Falklands victory. In many ways Jeremy Corbyn, both in his politics and his age, was a godsend to Blair and his supporters, allowing them to create a more convincing strawman of antiquated leftism than was possible with Ed Miliband. The problem of Labour could then be presented as one of regression to self-indulgence, so reviving memories of the 1980s and the eventual arrival of the saviour. The truth is that Corbyn's popularity showed how superficial the impact of New Labour had ultimately been on the party. Having failed to change Britain, Blair also failed to change Labour.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Surveying the Wreckage

Jeremy Gilbert's post mortem on the 2019 general election at Open Democracy has been one of the more intelligent contributions to date, but it suffers from his habitual determination to squeeze the result into the frame of electoral reform. To this end, he insists that "the single most significant shift between 2017 and 2019 was the desertion of the ‘centrist Dads’" (it's unfortunately gendered, but not inaccurate as a thumbnail). This leads him to reject the idea that pushing Labour towards backing a second referendum was damaging: "there is good evidence that the largest distinctive cohort of votes that Labour actually lost between 2017 and 2019 wasn’t any one group of leave-voters, but middle-aged liberal centrists. The only good reason for any such voters to abandon Labour between those two elections was they had come to believe the relentless propaganda to the effect that Corbyn was an enemy of cosmopolitan liberalism. It wasn’t in pushing Labour to adopt a less ‘Leave’ position that the centrist-Remain camp did their damage. It was in convincing a large section of their own audience to vote against Labour."

I'm sure the relentless anti-Corbyn propaganda turned off many liberal centrists, by which we can assume Gilbert means largely middle-class voters across the whole of the UK, but to suggest that Labour's loss of working class leavers in Northern and Midlands constituencies wasn't decisive flies in the face of the evidence. The reality is that Labour faced a perfect storm and consequently lost votes in every direction: remainers to the Liberal Democrats and Greens, leavers to the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, and crucially both to abstention (it was the last of these that appears to have tipped the balance in key marginals). Where I think Gilbert is more on the money is in his assessment of politics since the 1970s: "The end of the post-war consensus gave way to a period in which neoliberalism was implemented by a professional political class in allegiance with powerful sections of capital; but their project never commanded widespread public support, and anger and frustration at its long-term implications now inform every shade of political opinion in the country." The irony, of course, is that this project did command the support of the (now) middle-aged liberal centrists.

Gilbert has focused on this particular constituency because he believes it is key to building an anti-Tory alliance. Despite the commitment to mass mobilisation and the Popular Front gestures with which he concludes his argument, he is essentially advocating a technical solution to the problem of parliamentary democracy: ditch first-past-the-post in favour of proportional representation. The rationale for this is that the electoral system, as much as the media, has an in-built Tory bias that can only be overcome by a unified anti-Tory bloc. The problem with this argument is that we cannot assume that the disposition of parliamentary forces in a PR system would always produce such an outcome. Indeed, there are good reasons, notably the 2010-15 coalition government, to believe that PR might simply entrench the Conservative Party in power, making it the equivalent of the Italian Christian Democrats in the postwar era. In our contemporary context, as John Gray puts it: "More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics."


Gilbert concedes that PR would cause the Labour Party to split: "if we had had proportional representation for any significant portion of the past century, then neither the Labour party nor the Conservative party would still exist in anything like their present forms. Both would have fragmented into a number of smaller, more ideologically coherent units." However, I am less convinced by his claim that the Tories would have split in the same way, if at all. The ideological division within Labour - between a socialist left and a managerialist liberalism - is far more profound than any division within Conservatism. Michael Heseltine and Nigel Farage may appear to be poles apart, but they share a unity of vision when it comes to the sanctity of property and the defence of capitalism. Their differences are ultimately tactical, notably in their view on whether close integration into European markets was in British capital's long-term interest. In contrast, what divides a socialist and a liberal is a strategic disagreement over the value of capitalism itself.

For this reason, I am also not convinced by Gilbert's claim that had PR been adopted in the past, "whatever such outcomes may have ensued, they could hardly have been worse than the ones that we’ve endured." Had Attlee adopted PR in the late-40s, it is likely that the shift to neoliberalism would have happened much earlier, probably at the start of the 1960s. The crisis of the late-70s was in large measure due to the resilience and resistance of the welfare state during that decade - for many people the era of actually-existing socialism and advancing living standards, rather than the hellscape of subsequent media caricature. Had the "revisionism" of Hugh Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland come to power in the 1950s, as it possibly would have under a PR system that biased towards a managerialist liberal centre, then the erosion of the welfare state would have started earlier and simply been more gradual. The introduction of prescription charges would have been the first, small step, not a crisis that prompted a violent reaction and revealed the fundamental division with the Labour Party.

Gilbert isn't advocating "one simple fix". He fully acknowledges the importance of hegemony and his analysis is worth quoting at length: "I’d suggest that there are three principal domains in which working-class power and democratic efficacy have been deliberately and systematically undermined by 40 years of neoliberal hegemony. These are: labour organisation, local democracy and the media. In each of these fields, institutions that were sympathetic or conducive to the democratic, self-organised power of working people have been suppressed, diminished and defeated during the whole period since the 1960s. As I remarked already, I believe that it is the failure to intervene in these domains for which the New Labour administration will eventually be remembered most critically. Had they done more to regulate the press and support independent media, to actively encourage trade-union membership, and to restore power and autonomy to local government, then the Tory austerity assault could never have been as successful as it was."


In my view this confuses hegemony, in the sense of its ideological grip (which certainly explains New Labour's inertia), with actual material conditions. The trade unions have been undermined by globalisation, specifically offshoring and the disaggregation of production, more than by anti-union legislation. Rebalancing the power dynamic between capital and labour is going to take more than a membership drive. Similarly, local government has been weakened by privatisation, not just in the narrow sense of outsourcing services but in the wider sense of provision being transferred from the public sector to the private, as in the case of housebuilding, and the reduction of council responsibility to a "safety net" for a residuum of the poor and vulnerable. Redressing this would require not only the re-establishment and expansion of democratically-controlled public services ("broadband communism" wouldn't even be the half of it), but a sea-change in the managerialist attitude of local government itself (bear in mind that councils remain the powerbase of the Labour right).

The media has become more rightwing because the expansion of channels due to technological change (digital TV, the Internet, smartphones) has made private interests more dominant. Basically, money talks and so dominates the conversation. This has also fed-back into the increasingly constrained public sector, particularly the BBC, where a rightwing agenda is now routinely accepted. Meanwhile, though new media has lowered the cost of entry for the left, it has also allowed it to become ghettoised and thus marginalised. Left voices are given airtime and column inches, but this is intended to provide an antagonist for more "sensible" analysis, hence the preference for gobby lefties who can reliably wind up conservative viewers and liberal readers. One result of this has been that while the liberal media still provides room for left voices in order to perform its own tolerance and inclusivity, its actual editorial line is increasingly anti-left and unforgiving of dissent towards the house rules.

Gilbert's conclusion is that the forces arrayed against the left are so powerful that only an anti-Tory coalition stands a chance: "We inhabit a political system that is not only designed to prevent the socialist left of the Labour party from taking power. It is now clearly biased against every force other than nativist ‘platform nationalism’: ‘disaster nationalism’ in the age of ‘platform politics’. Under such circumstances, it makes no sense not to try to build as broad a coalition of anti-Tory forces as possible – from anarcho-communists to liberals – to try to challenge it and change it." But if you change the political system to try and facilitate such a coalition, say by introducing proportional representation to Parliament, you should expect the Tories to adapt accordingly. As last year's point-blank refusal of the Liberal Democrats to consider a Corbyn-led administration indicates, coalition tends to be a tool of political discipline more than a joint endeavour. In the 2010-15 coalition, the Tories disciplined the Liberal Democrats, not the other way round.


I think Jeremy Gilbert is too pessimistic. He is right in his analysis of the structural constraints that make a Labour government difficult, and a left-leaning one even more so, but I think he is also too intimidated by the success of the forces of reaction and too inclined to believe that this is structural ("platform nationalism") rather than contingent on the failure of the centre since 2008. His insistence that "Labour has never come from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority and then gone on to implement a radical programme" is correct on a technicality but ignores that Labour in 1945 was very much the opposition to Churchill, even if Attlee and others had been in the wartime government, that the two elections of 1964 and 1966 should really be seen in tandem, and that while New Labour's 1997 manifesto had the approval of Rupert Murdoch, the public version on which the electorate voted included rolling back anti-union laws and reversing NHS marketisation, both of which the party reneged on in office as Murdoch no doubt confidently expected.

I don't have a principled objection to proportional representation, I merely believe that it presents a different set of structural constraints and that ultimately the shift between left and right is driven by material interests, not the electoral system itself. The choice appears to be between occasional periods of socialist government - the British model - and a more persistent progressive alliance - the Scandinavian model: hare versus tortoise. But this ignores the secular shifts of the postwar age. The dominance of social democracy was a product not only of ideological hegemony but of a realisation by the political centre that the state needed to be more active both to address urgent social problems and to provide security for private capital. Once globalisation made the national economy model redundant, and once improved living standards reduced much of the electorate's dependence on the welfare state, the political centre moved firmly back towards support for a larger private realm and a more punitive approach to welfare. And it has stayed there ever since, despite 2008 showing up the limitations of the post-national economic model and austerity proving to be self-defeating.

We are now in a new phase in which much of the electorate has shifted left on material issues (popular support for Labour's policies has become almost a cliché). The right has managed to deflect this through a focus on manufactured issues of patriotic identity, notably Brexit, and by a generalised culture war in which the condescension and authoritarianism of actually-existing neoliberalism, notably the New Labour years, is held up as evidence of an anti-democratic elitism. But the reason the right has managed to prosper is not because of the vagaries of the electoral system but because the political centre remains unwilling to support a return even to the mild social democracy offered by the likes of Corbyn and McDonnell. Gilbert's analysis is correct in its initial observation, that the problem is the "centrist dads", but the idea that proportional representation would lead to the formation of a progressive anti-Tory coalition is simply not proven. The problem is that the political centre has been decidedly centre-right since the early 90s and shows little desire as yet to change.

Friday, 10 January 2020

American Empire

The New York Times report that advisors to the US President only included the assassination of Qassim Suleimani to pad out and flatter the other, more sensible options strikes me as suspiciously self-serving. As the newspaper with arguably the best access to senior personnel in the US government and military put it: "In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable." In other words, their defence plea is that they were blindsided by an idiot. The flaw in this excuse is that senior US officials in particular have had over three years of first-hand evidence that Trump either lacks the intelligence or the desire to respond to such subtle prompting. His erratic behaviour and love of cheap spectacle means that you would no more give him such an option than you would let a child play with a knife. Of course, that very framing - Trump as a wilful child - merely reinforces the idea that what we are seeing is a rogue President rather than the inexorable logic of America's foreign policy.

The subsequent reports casting doubt on the "clear and unambiguous" evidence of an "imminent attack" by Iranian proxies on American interests, not to mention the bewilderment of allies, have reinforced the impression that this is not the "real America", but against this must be put a long history of the US's employment of targeted assassination to enforce its often petulant will, from the at-times comical attempts on the life of Fidel Castro to Barack Obama's routine use of drone strikes. It should also be seen in the context of a post-Cold War stance in which the US reserves the right to act irrationally. This was laid out by the Department of Defense in 1995: "The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially 'out of control' can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary's decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries."

Any nation could adopt a policy of irrationality and vindictiveness. What makes America unique is it overwhelming military dominance. In other words, it's ability to act irrationally and vindictively without any constraint. The US accounts for a little under 40% of global military spending, which is roughly as much as the next 9 biggest spending countries put together. If you include America's core military allies (the UK, Saudia Arabia and Israel), it can probably count on half of the world's military resource. In practice, no other country comes close. Despite its steady build-up in recent years, China, which is the second largest country by expenditure, has only about one-third of the US's individual capability. That gap may well narrow in future, but from a Chinese perspective it will remain daunting, not least because the top-10 also includes its near-neighbours India, Japan and South Korea, none of whom are realistic allies and some of whom would undoubtedly side with the US in a conflict.


Writing between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Ellen Meiksens-Wood described the military logic of the empire of capitalism created after 1989: "It is an imperialism that seeks no territorial expansion or physical dominance of trade routes. Yet it has produced this enormous and disproportionate military capability with an unprecedented global reach. It may be because the new imperialism has no clear and finite objectives that it requires such massive military force. Boundless domination of a global economy, and of the multiple states to administer it, requires military action without end, in purpose or time" [Empire of Capital, 2003]. To this we might add that it requires force to be used spectacularly, as in the "shock and awe" of the invasion of Iraq, and that its interests are just as well-served by salutary destruction as by regime change, which is perhaps a better explanation for the outcome in Iraq than the claim that it was due to incompetence or hubris.

In its punitiveness and impunity, US foreign policy, and in particular the use of military intervention, is reminiscent of the Roman Republic and early Empire, from Scipio's destruction of Carthage to the "wasteland" of Agricola's incursion into Caledonia. The United Kingdom's gunboat diplomacy in the nineteenth century doesn't come close (as Meiksens-Wood makes clear, this was because of the different imperatives of a trade-based empire. The spectacular destruction would occur in those parts of empire run on the older model of extraction, such as Ireland and India). Trump's language, far from being an aberration in US foreign policy terms, or even the foible of someone who has spent too much time in the company of Mafia associates, is actually consistent with this tradition. His threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites is probably groundless, but it provided an echo of that older empire and its punitive modus operandi.

The infamous quote attributed to George W Bush's senior advisor, Karl Rove, in 2004 has long been held up as evidence of America's retreat from reason in its criticism of the "reality-based community" - i.e those who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality". For many liberals this is evidence that neoconservativism inevitably leads to irrationalism and hubris, and that this brings fake news and a severe lack of tone in its train. But the important part of the statement is the justification: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality". In other words, what is being claimed is not that America can enjoy its own facts but that it has the power to alter facts on the ground to suit its current worldview and that it can do this wherever and whenever it pleases.

The emblematic value of Suleimani's killing is that the US could do it simply because it chose to, and with little worry about the consequences. The Iranian response has been rhetorically robust but practically timid, and it's unlikely they will want to escalate further given their relative weakness. It's also worth bearing in mind that Tehran remains "ahead" of Washington in terms of tit-for-tat insults simply because nothing the US has managed to do since 1979 has eclipsed the coup de theatre of the Iran hostage crisis. The flimsy justification for Suleimani's assassination is part of the message: we don't need reasons, we simply need the will. Where Obama fretted about ensuring spurious legal cover for his drone attack orders, Trump has the nerve (or lack of self-awareness, if you prefer) to make this clear.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Imagined Communities

It is not just nationalism that depends on imagined communities. All politics makes claims about who the people are and whom the state should serve, whether that's the working class or hardworking property portfolio owners. In recent years it has become a commonplace that populism depends on defining the people against an elite, but this is a statement singularly lacking in insight given that practically every political movement presumes an antagonism at the heart of society that reflects a difference in virtue. There is always a "them", whether it's the 1% or the metropolitan elite, that helps to negatively define "us". The problem comes when we try to positively define that "us", particularly when we seek to subdivide the nation into its constituent political communities. Then we struggle to identify a coherent identity and are all too often reduced to caricatures based on the epiphenomena of class or regional prejudice. But this struggle is not consistent across the political spectrum: it is far more acute on the left than the right.

The media's obsessive anthropology of Labour's support is matched by a lack of interest in the Conservative Party. While there was a vogue for the sociology of the right during the heyday of UKIP, this was very much a political science perspective about the allegiance of right-wing voters to particular electoral vehicles in pursuit of fetishised ends, such as Brexit or curtailed immigration, rather than an analysis of their reasoning or value formation. This was the corollary of the fashion for vox-pops that avoided interrogation. The characterisation of right-leaning voters as goal-driven dovetailed with the broader study of populism's "rise" as the emergence of innate prejudices under contingent pressure, and was in stark contrast to the rational assessment of self-interest suggested by public choice theory in the years before 2008. This turn was reinforced by the more philosophical speculations of writers such as Jonathan Haidt who posited intrinsic "types" of character and associated values. The unity of homo economicus was replaced by a theory of incompatible humours.

In this intellectual setting, flirting with far-right parties was seen as regrettable but natural: the product of a predisposition that was not easily amenable to rational persuasion. In contrast, leftwing voters are characterised as a mixture of the mad, malign and mistaken, with the last of these being particular to the young (hence the persistence of the "in want of a heart" maxim). What the last decade has done is augment this with a belief that older leftwing voters are really conservatives who were hijacked by history, specifically the postwar settlement's marrying of economic radicalism and social conservatism. You obviously have to ignore a lot of evidence to make this thesis work, such as the aversion to workers' control in nationalised industries and growing tolerance in attitudes towards sexuality and race, but selective historical amnesia is central to imagined communities. The consequence has been an increased emphasis on the fragility of Labour's electorate and a tendency to downplay the liberal policies of Labour administrations, or at least question their popularity with the "base".


Since 2015, Labour's coalition has been characterised as far more divided than the Tories' because cultural values were deemed to cut across material interests and those values were in turn held to be much stronger in determining voter choice than traditional "economic concerns". The ideological utility of emphasising the metaphysical over the material is obvious. Just as Tories two hundred years ago emphasised throne and altar, and Conservative Unionists of a century ago emphasised crown and empire, so modern Conservatives will seek to foreground issues that marginalise the consideration of material interests, from sovereignty through patriotism to "Cultural Marxism". One reason why Labour's leadership candidates should aggressively neutralise issues like singing the national anthem (actually the royal anthem - if you want a national anthem, become a republic) is that out-competing the Tories will only see the goalposts shifted to some other "value". In other words, adopt a strategy of "I'm not married" rather than "Yes, I have stopped beating my wife".

Since the victory of the Tories in December's election, much ink has been expended on the Conservative Party's need to "deliver" for its new blue-collar voters in the North and Midlands, but this compositional change is not seen as altering the basic nature or interests of British conservatism - its imagined community - any more than it did when working class Toryism was the dominant electoral force in cities like Glasgow and Liverpool in the mid-twentieth century or when Thatcher won her decisive victory in 1983. Those new Northern voters are instead described as auxiliaries, "loaning" their votes to the Tories in order to get Brexit done. This transactional framing reflects not only a longstanding prejudice about the biddable working class, which goes back to Plato's beast, but also an assumption that Conservatism has only a marginal dependence on that class. The working class Tory is never fully integrated into that imagined community.

Labour also has to contend with competing imagined communities that span the left and centre. The most prominent of these in recent years has been the community of remain. I don't need to rehearse the way that the remain cause was used by some to undermine the Labour Party. What I'm more interested in is the way that it presented itself as a national community with a superior claim to the loyalty of the broad left. This recently culminated in the insistence that because 52% of the electorate voted for pro-remain or pro-second referendum parties in last month's general election, the Conservatives lack a mandate for Brexit, an insistence that was absurd (the last time a single party won more than 50% of the vote was in 1931) and also excused the Liberal Democrats for splitting the anti-Tory vote. Our relationship with Europe was (and will remain) an objectively marginal issue in British politics, much as empire was a hundred years ago. It may generate strong emotions, and it may win or lose specific elections, but it isn't going to define our future. The stagnation of productivity over the last decade will have a more profound and lasting impact on the British economy than changes to the trading relationship with the EU.


As the role of remain has been eclipsed, so another imagined community has come into focus: the progressive alliance. This isn't new, but it has been given a fresh impetus by the 2019 general election result, particularly among leftist thinkers who see it as a pragmatic recognition of the limitations of Labourism and a warning about the necessity of electoral reform. However, the legitimate criticisms of Labourism (its intellectual conservatism, the not-invented-here syndrome, the party's democratic centralism etc) should not distract from the fact that it is a rational response to the structural problem of first-past-the-post. Labour already is, and always has been, a progressive alliance that encompasses a wide range of political positions from the radical left to the establishment centre. The argument that it should formally ally with the Liberal Democrats or Greens is not so much a plea that it should expand its ideological "broad church" beyond its current boundaries than a demand that it should weaken its organisational strength.

Imagined communities are, by their very nature, exclusive. This means that one way of better understanding what they represent is to identify who is excluded. For example, the imagined community of Northern Labour voters appears to omit the young, the educated, people of colour, city-dwellers and a whole variety of "types" that don't match the profile of the 60-something shopper encountered in a mid-morning, small-town vox-pop. Conversely, the remain alliance appeared to omit every Northern working class pensioner, despite scoring over 40% in every UK region and securing the same share of the over-65 vote. The guest who is missing from the progressive alliance feast is organised labour. The unstated assumption of the alliance, whose dynamic will inevitably tend towards a bourgeois front, is that the influence of the unions would be diminished. Despite the unions' history of strategic caution, that is anything but progressive in the context of British politics.

A progressive alliance is unlikely to come about unless Labour commits to proportional representation, though it's worth noting that this wouldn't currently be in the interests of the SNP, even if it is in the interests of the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Should PR be enacted, the Labour Party would likely split into at least two parts: broadly the left and right. Given that the latter will almost certainly pursue a reinvigorated neoliberalism (i.e. Blairism unshackled by any scruples), it is probable that most of the unions would cleave to the left. At this juncture, the most likely basis for a governing coalition would be the centrist combination of the ex-Labour right and a centre-right Liberal party (augmented by former "moderate" Tories). This means that while a progressive alliance might well eclipse the Conservative Party, it would also marginalise the institutional representation of the working class in politics, which British capital would probably see as a fair deal. A progressive alliance would be the political death of labour.