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Monday, 8 April 2019

Brexit and the Constitution

It might appear that the current apocalyptic tone in British politics is a unique and contingent result of Brexit, but the claim that "politics is broken" has a long pedigree, while the twin suggestions that the institutions of the state are on the point of collapse and the established political parties are about to be swept away by the winds of change are as old as the institutions of the state and political parties. But just as none of this is really novel, so we shouldn't assume that there isn't change afoot. The archaism of Parliamentary procedure lends an absurd air to contemporary events, but it also obscures the extent to which the unwritten constitution is being dynamically rewritten before our eyes, most obviously in establishing the right of the Commons to seize control of the order of business in extraordinary circumstances. The Queen isn't about to prorogue Parliament, but the fact that this could be seriously suggested indicates the fluid nature of the times.

That the constitution requires continuous but careful reform is the central, motivating belief of British liberalism. Though it has never dominated the parliamentary agenda to the extent that social and economic reform has, it remains the ne plus ultra of liberal parliamentarianism. No liberal administration, from Gladstone to Blair, has been complete without an attempt to refine and improve the constitution in a "progressive" direction. That modern initiatives, such as electoral reform or changes to the composition of the Lords, have often been ridiculous in both conception and execution is irrelevant. They serve a catechistic purpose in reaffirming both the parliamentary road to liberalism and the supremacy of the executive as the engineer of the state. While many have claimed that gay marriage was the signature liberal achievement of the coalition years, the failed 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote was just as symbolic, and would now be held as the crowning achievement of the Liberal Democrats if it had been approved.

The reconfiguration of British politics, i.e. the emergence of a centre party that will marginalise both Labour and the Conservatives, is obviously a constant desire of a certain strand of media commentary, but it is no more likely today than it has ever been. Just as Renew failed to make an impression in the Newport West by-election, despite the Guardian's hopes and subsequent claims that the 2017 return of two-party politics is now over, we can be confident that Change UK will fail to trouble the scorers come the next general election and probably won't even make much of an impact should the European Parliament elections go ahead in May (not least because they will further split the irreconcilable remain vote with the Lib-Dems and Greens). The realisation that Chuka Umunna is never going to be a British Macron, along with the clear indication from Tom Watson that the Labour right isn't going to split, has helped shift liberal expectations away from an insurgent third party towards the emergence of a pro-EU centre-right grouping from the ruins of the Conservative Party. As this would literally be business-as-usual, it has to be seasoned with the spice of constitutional reform.


Tom Clark in Prospect catches the mood: "British liberals have long yearned to rationalise the far-flung pieces of parchment and vellum, as well as all the half-forgotten precedents on which our governance often rests. The Brexit crisis ought to be the moment that finally chivvies us into getting around to it". One thing this ignores is the extent to which liberals successfully altered the constitution in the years immediately prior to the 2016 referendum, most notably in the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011. It can plausibly be argued that the current impasse is both the result of the FTPA - without which the government's repeated defeat on its Withdrawal Agreement would have been taken as a vote of no confidence, thus leading to a general election - and Theresa May's cynical attempt to circumvent the Act to her advantage in 2017 by calling a snap general election, which backfired and produced a hung parliament.

It is amusing to note the liberal reservations about the Act now that it is in practice, particularly the prospect that a vote of no confidence might produce a new administration. As Clark continues: "The assumption has been that the first chance would go to the leader of the opposition, but is that necessarily right? -Tradition has it that the monarch should send for whoever is best placed to command the confidence of the House—which probably isn’t Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Just three years ago, his own benches voted for him to quit, and many of them continue to mutter he isn’t fit for No 10; Tories who agree on nothing else can all agree on that. In theory at least, it seems more plausible that someone like an Amber Rudd figure on the Tory left or Yvette Cooper on Labour’s centre-right would stand a better chance of securing the cross-party acquiescence required to sustain an administration through the emergency. But who is to say whether they will get a go?"

What this points to is an element of continuity in liberal thought: that democratic legitimacy is of less constitutional significance that parliamentary consensus. This is not just an objection to a left-wing Labour leader, i.e. a belief that the judgement of the PLP must trump that of the party membership, but extends to the Conservative Party as well: "But it is on the government side where zealous party activists are—now that May has signalled she’ll go—set to pick a serving prime minister for the first time in history. If a Johnson or a Rees-Mogg emerges, as they very well could, moderate Tory MPs could refuse to recognise them, leaving a minority government to crumble away. Under Conservative rules, the parliamentary party could soon table a vote of no confidence in a leader foisted on it by the voluntary party." That "foisted" is the essence of liberal constitutional thought: whatever we do, we must preserve the political settlement from the danger of democracy.


We are clearly in a period of constitutional flux. An "advisory" referendum has been recast as "the will of people" and honouring it has been elevated to the supreme duty of the legislature. A government that lost a parliamentary majority and has been defeated three times on its primary legislation remains in office and could legitimately stay there till 2022. The leader of the opposition has been blackballed not only by the government (recent events notwithstanding) but by the overwhelming majority of the media, retired military figures and even a faction of his own party's MPs, leading to the serious possibility that a general election victory for Labour could result in a literal coup. While a liberal "state of exception" remains unlikely, the heightening of rhetoric - from the hyperbole of Russian meddling to the contempt directed at leave voters - suggests that the style of populist authoritarianism could just as easily be employed by a liberal "strongman".

The likelihood that the UK will see an acceleration of constitutional reform over the next decade has increased. Brexit will have serious ramifications for the authorities and competencies of devolved government, and has already called the value of the union into question. The Supreme Court has become a site of political contest, and one that can only become more fractious as it takes on more responsibility in future. The House of Lords has once again proven itself to be worthless, unless you imagine that giving a platform to the hysteria of Andrew Adonis has been helpful, while the role of the Commons Speaker has clearly been enhanced for reasons that have nothing to do with John Bercow's personal foibles. The legislature has continued its centuries long push to encroach on the rights of the executive and the collective discipline of cabinet (and shadow cabinet) has been further weakened.

The 2016 referendum - which was perfectly proportional and ensured everyone's vote had equal weight, making it superior on at least two counts to traditional constituency elections - has led to a liberal turning away from popular democracy, which is now increasingly characterised as crude and divisive because of its binary nature. Don't be surprised if future referendums are outlawed without the "checks and balances" of citizens' assemblies and the censorship of political advertising on social media (propaganda masquerading as comment in newspapers will, of course, remain untouched). In other words, the constitutional consequence of Brexit is likely to be a redoubled effort to impose a managed democracy, which is ironic as it was the tendency towards this in the decades on either side of the millennium that led to much of the frustration and anger that would eventually find an outlet in the 2016 vote.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Institutional Failure

Too much of the commentary on Brexit has been personalised, from the all-too-evident limitations of Theresa May to the idea that Jeremy Corbyn has a magic "Stop Brexit" button that he refuses to push. This has reached a new peak of absurdity with an article in the New Statesman by Anthony Seldon, entitled "J’Accuse! The guilty men and women of the Brexit debacle", in which he liberally spreads the blame across the political class before insisting that "Britain badly needs statesmen of deep humanity and imagination to steer us into the next phase of our history". This holding-out-for-a-hero isn't surprising from one of Tony Blair's political biographers, but it is no less naïve than the calls of the ultras who reckon we could achieve a clean and beneficial Brexit simply through force of will, or indeed those who imagine that in its hour of need the nation is simply waiting for someone with the balls to revoke Article 50 to step forward. As ever, a focus on personal culpability and the associated dream of a saviour serves to distract from a structural understanding of the problem.

Seldon makes gestures towards a more systemic analysis, but this doesn't amount to much beyond the progressive shibboleth that the institutions of the state are no longer fit for purpose. In his view, this necessitates a constitutional convention "to determine whether we should be a parliamentary or popular democracy", though he doesn't explain whether he sees this as a citizens' assembly or just another meeting of the great and good, either of which would beg the question. He also argues for a reconstitution of the civil service, though he doesn't explain why this is needed, and he also revives our old friend "root and branch reform" of Parliament, as if this were some novelty in our political history. He provides no analysis of institutional failure, covering this void with the hyperbole of "national humiliation", and you can safely bet that his idea of parliamentary reform (which he doesn't sketch out) would be both gradualist and elitist.

The point about Zola's original denunciation of the Dreyfus Affair, from which Seldon takes his title, wasn't that it arose from the evil machinations of individuals, but that it was a systemic response that revealed a corruption within the military and political institutions of France. A topical parallel would be the handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case, which was detailed in Liza Williams' three-part documentary on BBC4 this week. Institutional classism, misogyny and racism, compounded by an obsession with prostitution and a lack of "respectability", led to Peter Sutcliffe remaining at large for far longer than should have been the case. While the incompetence of the "top cops" was all too clear, this was primarily an institutional failure exhibited in groupthink, a deference to traditional "coppering", and a hermetic culture centred on contempt for disadvantaged sections of the community.


That the same features were to be found in many cases of inept policing and miscarriages of justice explains why the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of Steven Lawrence was able to make a charge of institutional racism stick. The police had never denied that racism was part of its "canteen culture", but they had denied that it was part of the institutional fabric, preferring to blame "rotten apples". What the various retrospective critiques of failures such as the Birmingham Six and Hillsborough showed is that the police were so institutionally biased as to be functionally ineffective in respect of their duties. They were, in simple terms, incompetent. What other scandals such as the policing of the Miners' Strike showed was that the police were politically compromised in the 1980s and had consequently lost the trust of much of the public. They were, in simple terms, partisan. These two aspects - competence and neutrality - are a useful way of thinking about institutional failure in a system based on public trust, as they often feed on each other (for example, the increasing partisanship of the BBC's political coverage is matched by its growing incompetence).

A better question to ask rather than "Who is to blame?" would be: is Brexit an institutional failure and/or an institutional crisis? In other words, was Brexit the result of a dysfunctional state and political system, or is it a black swan event that the institutions of the state have proven incapable of dealing with, or indeed both? To put it another way, is Brexit like the Dreyfus affair: a symptom of something rotten in the UK state and thus an inevitable development that couldn't be avoided, no matter how adroit our politicians? Or is it like the botched Yorkshire Ripper investigation: evidence that Parliament, government and Whitehall are constitutionally incapable of responding to a crisis brought about by an exceptional event, in this case an exercise in popular sovereignty that failed to align with the interests of the establishment?

The central focus of criticism over the execution of Brexit has been the twinned failures of Theresa May's administration to pass its Withdrawal bill (defeated for the third time today) and the failure of the House of Commons to agree an alternative (though it's possible that this might still happen next week). However, neither actually suggests an institutional failure, and you could argue both indicate institutional good health as the legislature furthers its centuries-old desire to constrain the executive and individual MPs insist on their independent consciences. Another government might well have made a better fist of the job, particularly if it had not been dependent on the DUP and could therefore have agreed an exceptional status for Northern Ireland, while a different composition in the Commons might have quickly produced a consensus on a customs union-based soft Brexit or perhaps EFTA membership. The current impasse is contingent, being largely the result of the 2017 general election. Theresa May has driven Brexit into the ditch, but that was not inevitable.


A more plausible argument is that Brexit was the result of tensions arising from a strategy of hybrid membership of the European project that in turn arose from lingering exceptionalism and a fetishised sovereignty in the post-war years. Had the UK state reformed itself in the 1960s - implementing devolution, replacing the unelected Lords and modernising the Civil Service - then it might have stood a better chance of integrating more seamlessly with the mainstream of European political development: a bourgeois democracy, a cautious federalism and a commitment to technocratic governance. In other words, Ted Heath was undone as much by the constitutional timidity of Labour during the 1964-70 administrations of Harold Wilson as he was by the National Union of Mineworkers in the early 70s. However, many of those reforms were eventually enacted by the UK state in the 1980s and 90s, but far from neutralising the issue of sovereignty they served to accentuate it, suggesting that the problem may lie elsewhere.

So perhaps Brexit was a black swan event: an exceptional moment that arose when a press-led obsession with EU "meddling" and immigration collided with the social despair of austerity, releasing the genie of popular sovereignty from the bottle of establishment politics. Perhaps the hollowing out of the civil service in the neoliberal era and the outsourcing of a raft of competencies to the EU has left the UK state incapable of responding to the challenge. Emblematic of this was the creation of the Department for Exiting the EU, a project-based approach for an undefined project that was eventually subsumed by Number 10. In fact, the marginalisation of DExEU could be read as a sign of the resilience of the civil service as individual government departments started to gear up for no-deal, while the repatriation of competencies is not likely to be that challenging, despite the early panic over trade negotiators (that not many trade deals have been agreed has less to do with capability than the unwillingness of other countries to conclude them before the UK's future relationship with the EU is clear).

My own interpretation is that while the British state is rickety in appearance and dysfunctional in key areas, these failings are often symptomatic of deliberate policies being successfully pursued, and not just long-term rot, notably the avoidance of democratic reform through archaic practice, the erosion of welfare and the commercialisation of public services. Brexit isn't a contradiction produced by the dysfunctional institutions of the state, and nor is the failure of the Article 50 process to date an inevitable outcome of the incompetence of the state's agencies. It arises rather from the institutional failure of the Conservative Party. Though Labour is often analysed in institutional terms, not least the conflict between the PLP and CLPs and the shifting balance of interests on the NEC, similar analyses of the Tories are much rarer (this is partly hegemonic - the Tories as a permanent fixture in the British political universe - and partly media bias - the idea that Labour is pathological). The result is that analysis of the institution is replaced by analysis of factions and personalities: the "Tory Civil War" and the jockeying for leadership.


The key institutional failing of the Conservative Party is its decline from the largest mass-membership party in the post-war years to an ageing and increasingly reactionary hardcore today. Theresa May is clearly no one's idea of a capable Prime Minister now, but history will probably see her as the last desperate attempt of the establishment to install a rational Tory leader before the party membership elected a Brexit ultra (whether an opportunist or a true-believer). A parallel development was the outsourcing of the party's policy development and electoral strategy to think-tanks and consultancies, something that was notably accelerated under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the 70s. Though this has been a general trend across politics, parties of the left have tended to preserve a degree of autonomy due to their democratic structures. It has been more pronounced on the right and the British Conservative Party, together with the US Republicans, has been at the forefront of this development.

The consequence of these two trends is that policy has become more driven by the rich and niche capitalist interests (financial engineering, fracking etc), while mostly-retired party members, with limited current experience of business or social developments beyond their own milieu, have become more receptive to the sugar-rush of identity politics and the "culture wars". The British Conservative Party is increasingly clientelistic and populist, which means it is ironically converging with a style more familiar in continental polities. The tragedy from the perspective of Ted Heath's spinning corpse is that the trend is more towards Forza Italia than the CDU. Compounding this institutional dysfunction is the inability of the party to respond adequately to the challenge of Euroscepticism, an inability that has been evident since John Major's days and his frustration with the "bastards". This was not because those who would become known as leavers were strong within the party hierarchy, or had compelling arguments, but because the dominant remain faction was incapable of articulating a truly positive case for the EU in the face of a membership who were predominantly and increasingly Eurosceptic.

That Theresa May has steered government policy with the primary goal of maintaining Tory unity and ensuring the party would be on the right side of any Brexit-centred general election is generally acknowledged, though this hasn't stopped media commentators whining about politicians in general not putting nation before party, as if Labour rolling over would magically resolve the Conservatives' institutional problems. Brexit is not just a product of the Tory Party's internal ideological divisions, or the changing and fragmenting interests of UK capitalism, it is also the result of a party that has neglected its wider social base - in part because the conditions for a hegemonic conservatism no longer exist - and allowed its institutional structure to atrophy. If Labour has seen some nutters washed in on the tide of its rapid membership growth, the Tories have suffered as the tide has gone out to reveal too many nutters clinging limpet-like to the rocks.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Leaving the Lectern

One thing we can say with confidence is that yesterday's "Put it to the People" march will have little impact. The 2003 "Stop the War" march also failed in its objective, but it proved consequential in helping to shift public opinion towards a greater scepticism about both the integrity of the state and the honesty and motivations of New Labour. This wasn't an overnight conversion but one of a number of incidents on a steady, descending path that commenced with the disappointments of the first Blair administration and ended with the exhaustion of Gordon Brown's premiership, the latter including the concession of the Chilcott Inquiry into the prosecution of the Iraq War that would eventually prove the 2003 marchers to have been justified. In contrast, not only will the Commons almost certainly reject a motion for a second referendum next week, but the low opinion of both Theresa May's competence and the British state's capability has been priced-in for many months. That supporters of the march are focusing their energies on claiming it was bigger than the 2003 demo is a sign of its inconsequentiality, not its significance.

The real story of the weekend is that the Conservative Party has decided that Theresa May's time as Prime Minister is up, with rumours of a mass cabinet walkout on Monday if she doesn't agree to resign. A dozen or so walking a few yards is more likely to break the political logjam than a million marching a mile. That said, Tory coups, like Tory rebellions, are rarer than popular history imagines, and objectively May could face this one down after the failure of the parliamentary party's confidence vote in December. The optics would be appalling, but when you are already lying prostrate on the floor there is no further distance to fall. Short of a breakdown, the psychology of May as revealed through her career suggests she will cling on for as long as possible, or at least until she is utterly powerless. In practice this could come about if the planned indicative votes next week produce a majority for a softer Brexit, but for that reason she may well decide to pre-empt matters. Though her options have narrowed, there are two possible courses of action: either committing to a "managed no-deal" (i.e. shifting further to the right) or calling a general election to secure a mandate for her deal.

Given that her guiding star has been the preservation of the Conservative Party, she may decide that embracing no-deal is her best chance of both maintaining unity and remaining as leader. That no-deal has been rejected by the Commons is irrelevant: it remains the default outcome (now on the 12th of April) unless the government falls and/or an alternative deal is agreed. Even though this would void the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, it's likely the EU27 would still agree to a transition period (they get the certainty of the UK leaving but avoid the damage of an abrupt departure), during which a looser trade agreement (roughly the Canada model) could be negotiated. While this would be popular with the party membership, it would risk alienating a small but numerically significant number of Tories (Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve etc) who might then feel obliged (finally) to vote against the government on a confidence motion, so the end result might still be a general election, but one in which the Tories would have a coherent platform that could galvanise most of their core voters and perhaps the reactionary segment that turned out in 2016.


If May could not bring herself to adopt a no-deal stance, then calling a general election with the intention of putting her own battered deal to the people (something she hinted at in last Wednesday's scolding sermon) would require the support of two-thirds of all MPs. As the opposition parties would automatically support this (though maybe not the Independent Group), she would need the support of approximately one-third of Conservative MPs, so roughly 105. Given that 235 of them voted for her deal when it was submitted for a second time earlier this month (and 196 did so in January), there is probably a large enough bloc willing to take the deal to the country, even allowing for the reluctance of those who fear the election result might be worse than 2017 and those who believe she is the wrong leader for such a campaign. As Labour would probably stand on a platform of a renegotiated soft Brexit plus a confirmatory vote (with remain on the ballot), the Tories' offer would essentially be "guaranteed Brexit now". Despite the unpopularity of her deal, this would give May a fighting chance.

The decision of the EU27 last week to take control of the timetable, together with the likelihood that the Commons will take control of the process of working out a deal that can command a majority of MPs this week, suggests that May's grip on power has irrevocably weakened and her days are numbered, but a cabinet coup on Monday might prove as premature as the party vote of no confidence in December did. May's strategy has always been to assume that her deal will be the last one standing when all other alternatives have failed, so her end very much depends on the Commons coming to a compromise over the next few days. If it cannot, then she would be entitled to submit her deal for a third time with the clear understanding that a further rejection will mean a no-deal exit in April. The suggestion this weekend that she won't submit her deal next week if there appears to be insufficient support doesn't mean she's giving up, but that she is still waiting for the opposition to give up first.

Insofar as we can discern a compromise behind daft labels such as "Common Market 2.0", it would essentially be Labour's plan for a customs union and single market for goods as a minimum, with horse-trading around other aspects of the single market such as state-aid and freedom of movement. The biggest impediment to such a compromise emerging is the unwillingness of the smaller parties (particularly the SNP) and the media to give Labour any credit for it, even if the specifics are negotiated by Keir Starmer and vocally supported by Jess Phillips. For all the talk of Labour's incoherence and Corbyn's leaver sympathies, this soft-Brexit compromise has been staring us in the face for over two years now. It has also been staring Theresa May in the face, and I suspect she has always considered it to be both the greatest threat to her deal and to the unity of the Conservative Party. For that reason, I imagine she perversely took some comfort from Saturday's march: both the uncompromising demands for revocation or referendum and the anti-Corbyn spin of the media.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Anti-capitalism and Antisemitism

The centre-right Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh's recent admission that she believes anti-capitalism is akin to antisemitism shouldn't surprise us. The idea that the two are linked has been building for a while, as part of a wider tendency that also treats philosemitism as a narrow political identifier and associates antisemitism with political attitudes far beyond the confines of the Israel/Palestine issue. Morbid symptoms of this include Americans like the TV anchor Meghan McCain (daughter of the late John McCain) claiming a superior empathy with Jews and Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian suggesting that in trying to understand 2008 we instinctively reached for "the archetype of the avaricious Jew". There's a degree of projection in evidence here, with traditional antisemitic tropes being liberally used by the right to characterise anti-Semites as malevolent and traitorous, in particular anti-Zionist Jews, but there is also a sense of centrists seeking to defend capitalism not on its merits but by discrediting its critics.

Ironically, the roots of this latter strain of thinking are to be found on the political left, not in the centre or on the right, and they go back decades. The linking of anti-capitalism and antisemitism originates among Marxists of the New Left who deplored the rigidity of the Stalinist "Two Campism" of the post-war era, and who more recently criticised the lack of a sufficiently structural approach by the anti-globalisation movement in the 1990s and the Occupy movement after 2008. Their essential argument was that a failure to treat capitalism as a system of social relations led to a moralising focus on "bad actors" that left itself vulnerable to conspiracy theories. One of the central thinkers in this tradition was the Canadian academic Moishe Postone, who espied a thread of "vulgar anti-capitalism" overlapping with antisemitism running from the Boer War through the Nazis to the contemporary era: "Anti-Semitism is a revolt against global capital, misrecognized as the Jews."


Postone's 1986 essay on Anti-Semitism and National Socialism saw the centrality of the former to the latter as intimately bound up with its anti-capitalist utility: "Anti-Semitism so understood allows one to grasp an essential moment of Nazism as a foreshortened anti-capitalist movement, one characterized by a hatred of the abstract, a hypostatization of the existing concrete and by a single-minded, ruthless—but not necessarily hate-filled—mission: to rid the world of the source of all evil." Of course, this theory runs up against a number of well-known problems: Hitler wasn't a socialist and adopted the term opportunistically ("We might have called ourselves the Liberal Party", he said of the name); he purged the Strasserites, who were certainly vulgar anti-capitalists; he forged a close alliance with German capital both when building the Nazi Party and once in power (and pioneered privatisation along the way); and his antisemitism was "classical" in its focus on ethnicity and its hatred. There is also the small matter of the characterisation of Eastern Jews as verminous sub-humans and "Judaeo-Bolsheviks", rather than an exclusive focus on the haute-bourgeois Jews of Western Europe.

Postone attempts to explain the Nazis' equivocal attitude to capital through the Marxian distinction of value (i.e. money) and use-value: they objected to the abstract, "rootless" former (biologized as the Jews), not to the concrete, "organic" latter (biologized as Aryan labour): "According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism. The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case antisemitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form".

Postone wasn't responsible for the popularity of the "Nazis were socialists" meme on the right. His point was a more subtle one about an affinity between anti-capitalism and antisemitism as responses to the confusion and abstraction of late-nineteenth century modernity ("the rapid development of industrial capitalism, with all its social ramifications, is personified and identified as the Jew"), but that still provided a handy brush for neoliberals keen to paint the anti-capitalism of the last thirty years as essentially reactionary, despite the very different social contexts of those eras. While Postone provided insights into the theory and practice of Nazi antisemitism, he didn't argue that anti-capitalism tout court is necessarily antisemitic, but too many who have used his work subsequently have been prepared to make that generalisation, ignoring his distinction between a Marxist critique of capitalism and a vulgar anti-capitalism that sought emancipation from an "other" in the form of bankers or a global elite.

In Postone's telling, the synergy of anti-capitalism and antisemitism was furthered after the war by the Soviet Union, which had junked the structuralism of Marxism in the 1930s for a crude anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, and had then instrumentalised antisemitism in the 1940s and 50s (the Doctors' Plot, the Slansky trial etc) as part of Stalin's repression of dissent within the Communist Party and among the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact. According to Postone, "This strand of anti-semitic anti-Zionism was imported into the Middle East during the Cold War, in part by the intelligence services of countries like East Germany. A form of anti-semitism was introduced into the Middle East that was 'legitimate' for the Left, and was called anti-Zionism." Again, it's important to emphasise that Postone wasn't insisting that anti-Zionism was necessarily antisemitic, but that the culture of anti-Zionism on the left (which was actually pre-war Jewish in origin) was corrupted by Soviet influence.


Postone's leading epigones in the UK are probably Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, who published Corbynism: A Critical Approach last year. For them, "Corbynism" is characterised by "a national-populist platform of economic protectionism, twinned with a crude 'two campist' isolationist foreign policy". Following Postone, the first is framed as a vulgar anti-capitalism (hence the emphasis on its "populism") in which the system is explained by the actions of an elite (the few not the many), while the second serves to frame Corbyn's foreign policy as an antiquated anti-Americanism that subscribes to an anti-Zionism that is inherently antisemitic (as an aside, the regular press snark about the influence of "Stalinists" in Corbyn's "immediate circle" alludes to this narrative while ironically employing a conspiracist trope). What is important is the "twinning": an antipathy towards Israel (inferred from a left anti-Zionism that is presumed to have been corrupted) is taken as corroborating evidence that Corbyn's anti-capitalism is tainted by antisemitism and must therefore be illegitimate (i.e. vulgar). The aim is not to characterise Corbyn as an antisemite so much as a naïve anti-capitalist.

Just as Postone semi-detached Hitler from a long tradition of cultural and ethnic antisemitic thought, so Bolton and Pitts obscure the English socialist tradition that Jeremy Corbyn is the inheritor of. If the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marx, then Corbyn owes even more to the Quakers and the ethical internationalism (which actually has its roots in 19th century Liberalism) exemplified by individuals like George Lansbury and groups like the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Ignoring the intellectual history of the Labour left in this way is all the odder given the effort they expend in linking John McDonnell's economic thinking back to Tony Benn and the Alternative Economic Strategy of the 1980s (essentially to rubbish it as old wine in old bottles). Corbyn's emphasis on a system rigged for "the few" is wholly within the ethical socialist tradition. While that was no more free of the risk of antisemitism than any other tradition - the "socialism of fools" is a real thing, after all - it cannot be written off in its entirety any more than Adam Smith can be dismissed as a conspiracist for claiming that "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices".

Conspiracy is as central to Bolton and Pitts's analysis as populism: "A critique of capitalism based on the need to eradicate 'globalism' is politically ambiguous at best, able to be utilised by the far-right as easily as the left. What this lapse from critical to conspiracy theory suggests is that the antisemitic tropes which pervade the Corbyn-supporting 'alt-media' and activist base, as well as Corbyn’s own dubious brand of 'anti-Zionism' and 'anti-imperialism', are not mere contingencies, but the logical outcome of the movement’s morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy." That the anti-capitalism of the last twenty years has often been simplistic is not much of an insight. That a focus on the "1%" or the "global elite" sails dangerously close to conspiracy theory and thus the employment of traditional antisemitic tropes is true enough, but this is not sufficient to damn the rhetoric let alone equate anti-capitalism with antisemitism. It also fails to show that Corbynism is peculiarly conspiracist (The Canary or Chris Williamson are not persuasive evidence), in much the same way that centrists have failed to show that it is peculiarly populist.

Though their utility in the media obviously depends on their willingness to say disobliging things about Corbyn and McDonnell, and even if it is the charge of accidental antisemitism that sells rather than that of deviationism, Bolton and Pitts are not shy in advancing an explicitly Marxist analysis: "Our critique stems from a fundamentally different understanding of capitalism. In our view, capitalism is not a monolithic system consciously designed and covertly imposed by one group — be it the 'capitalist class', the 'bourgeoisie' or the 'elite' — upon another, whether that is the 'workers' or 'the people'. Capitalism is a specific historical form taken by human social relations. It compels everyone — rich and poor — to behave in certain ways in order to survive, even whilst one group benefits at the other’s expense." But what they don't prove is that the Labour leadership actually disagrees with this analysis. Corbyn and McDonnell are operating within an antagonistic political system in which an appeal to a common interest over vested interests is perfectly normal (try a structuralist approach on BBC Question Time and see where it gets you). That the shared preferences of the owners and managers of the larger capitals are a product of the system of capitalism, rather than their collusion, doesn't mean that they are not a coherent interest group that can be distinguished for rhetorical effect.


Many politicians who wouldn't be considered antisemitic have employed populist rhetoric and questionable tropes, from Margaret Thatcher's characterisation of trade union leaders as an unelected elite frustrating "the people" to Theresa May's "citizens of nowhere" remark, so attacking the "few" or the "1%" proves little on its own. Likewise, favouring a more "national" economy over a "rigged" one isn't compelling evidence of antisemitism, unless every British party leader from Attlee to Callaghan is to be so condemned. To make the charge stick requires the addition of the international dimension and in particular a critical attitude towards both the USA and Israel. As Bolton and Pitts put it: "This often comes combined with a mechanical 'anti-imperialism' which regards the foreign policy of the US and its allies, particularly Israel, as bearing responsibility for the negative effects of capitalist development around the world." For them, it is the absence of this half of the combination that exempts post-war administrations, and it is its presence that is characteristic of Corbynism. The argument is that a suspect anti-Zionism is amplified by a vulgar anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, thereby encouraging antisemitism.

In reality, economic Corbynism - specifically in the statements of John McDonnell - doesn't amount to much more than mild social democracy, while the foreign policy outlined to date would have found favour with Robin Cook, Tony Blair's first Foreign Secretary (that Blair wanted a more right-wing policy, which he got with Jack Straw, is not in dispute - the point is that Cook's attempt at an "ethical" approach was mainstream in the eyes of the public, if not the establishment). This suggests that the issue really does boil down to Israel. The implication is that Corbyn might, if he came to power, push for a more explicitly anti-Zionist policy by the UK, or at least an implicit one in the form of a questioning of the viability of the moribund two-state solution. This idea - that Corbyn has raised the risk of antisemitism gaining purchase within Labour precisely because he is neither a Zionist nor conventionally agnostic on the subject (i.e. conservative) - was made explicit by John Harris recently: "Corbyn’s lifelong interest in Israel-Palestine, and his associations with – and I’m being polite here – some of that conflict’s more controversial elements, have played a part in pushing this narrative somewhere grim."

We have then a particular strand of Marxist thought that espies "the socialism of fools" in modern anti-capitalist and anti-globalist movements, essentially because their lack of a structural approach makes them vulnerable to conspiracism. Where this intersects with anti-Zionism, antisemitism is likely to flourish both because of that conspiracism and also because of the historic corruption of left anti-Zionism by Stalinism. This is obviously a rather patronising (even snobbish) view, which not only marginalises Jewish anti-Zionism but dismisses naïve anti-capitalism for being unschooled, but it's perhaps not surprising to find this given the notorious factionalism and long memories of the left. What is unusual is the recent prominence of an argument that can be traced back to the 1960s and whose revival can't be explained by the supposedly "antique" nature of Corbynism. I suspect its salience has little to do with the idea that capitalism needs defending with any weapon that comes to hand, despite its intellectual cringe since 2008. Capitalism didn't collapse a decade ago and the system has accommodated itself to both stagnation and a more discreet hegemony. Corbynism isn't an existential threat to it.

It's more likely that the argument's contemporary utility arises from anxiety over Israel and in particular that country's drift towards both an exclusionary nationalism and an aggressive, anti-social capitalism during the Netanyahu years. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, but if you accept that anti-capitalism is inherently antisemitic, then given that Israel is demonstrably capitalist and is increasingly happy to identify with the broader ideology of the American right, the space for a socialist anti-Zionism that is not antisemitic disappears. Indeed, even a Zionist socialism begins to look like a category error. The corollary of that is a tendency by those who support Israel to attribute criticism of it not to its own domestic choices but to a wider attack on "the West", whether in the religious form of "Judaeo-Christian values" or the secular form of liberal capitalism. Siobhain McDonagh isn't ironically presenting a Marxist critique, or even exhibiting philo-semitism, so much as continuing the fine old Labour centre-right tradition of philo-Americanism.



A stylistic note: I have got so irritated by the inconsistency of auto-corrections across the various platforms I use that I have decided to try and apply a simple rule to spelling in this post. Antisemitism is one word (no hyphen, no capital S) because there is no proper noun Semitism (the IHRA agree). Ditto philosemitism. Conversely, anti-capitalism deserves a hyphen because capitalism is a thing in its own right, while anti-Zionism is also fine because Zionism is both a thing and a proper noun (being derived from Zion).

Friday, 8 March 2019

Turf Wars

We have become so used to the ineptness and tone-deafness of the Prime Minister that when she makes a correct statement there is scepticism about both her grasp of the facts and her motives. The recent increase in fatal knife attacks is not the direct result of cuts in police numbers and Theresa May isn't simply trying to defend her time as Home Secretary by saying so. Given that the role of the police is primarily to respond to crime rather than prevent it, and given the often random nature of violence, attempts to reduce it through more bobbies on the beat or more stop-and-search are likely to prove fruitless. In reality, greater police numbers rarely leads to a reduction in offences (if anything, it tends to produce an increase in offences recorded). Secular declines in crime, such as the one experienced since the 1990s, reflect complex and multi-variate changes in society. Despite the fact that none of this is a mystery, the media coverage of crime - which largely defines the popular perception of what are actually rare acts - inevitably bends towards "something must be done".

One of the arguments presented to support the idea that there is a correlation between police numbers and crime levels is a variant on the logic of the Laffer Curve. This assumes that a extreme level of policing - literally a police state - would minimise crime, while a complete absence of police - effective anarchy - would maximise crime. This appears to accord with common sense and leads to the assumption that there is a straightforward relationship between crime and police headcount, yet a moment's thought reveals it to be mistaken. Totalitarian regimes do not lack for "common-or-garden" crime as well as thought-crime, while under-policed communities do not necessarily descend into a permanent state of savagery. This reveals two truths: that levels of crime are often determined more by what the state decides to criminalise than by any innate quantum of human evil, and that left to their own devices most people do not consider riotous looting or banditry to be a viable way of life. The Hobbesian nightmare (man is a wolf to man) is just that: a scare-story required to justify the state.

In practice, policing is always disproportionately focused on sections of the urban population (because policing is fundamentally a product of urbanity) considered to be problematic by the state: the poor, immigrants, racial or religious minorities, the sexually deviant etc (one reason for the persistence of police corruption is that officers have a greater commonality of background and present milieu with career criminals). The focus on marginal communities is not because they have a greater propensity to do wrong but because they are an objectified "other" that helps define the societal norm. Policing validates their problematic status and therefore their inferiority to the imagined community of the "law-abiding". Where particular characteristics of a community intersect with criminality for structural reasons, this allows crimes that are actually common across society to be mentally situated on the fringe. For example, the contemporary Turkish and Albanian involvement in the drugs trade, which is the product of geography and family ties (echoing that of the Chinese in the past), or the Pakistani involvement in the night-time economy and its overlap with "grooming".

That both drug offences and sexual abuse are more likely to be committed by "white natives" in the UK is obvious enough, but this is elided by a focus on the idea of crime as something alien and infectious that has been introduced from abroad. This belief about the nature of crime is fundamental to the self-conception of the state and is reflected in its organisation. There is no compelling reason why the same government department (the Home Office) should be responsible for both domestic crime and border security. Equally, there would be obvious operational advantages to combining border security with customs and excise (which is part of the Treasury), something that Brexit has brought into sharp relief. That refugees are seen as potential if not actual criminals is one inevitable consequence of this wonky mindset. If Theresa May's time as Home Secretary is vulnerable to criticism, it is over her championing of the "hostile environment" to immigrants and asylum-seekers, not her reforms of the police.


Beyond the boundary of institutionalised crime (i.e. what the criminal justice system concerns itself with), we find the grey area of anti-social behaviour. Central to the disciplinary turn of neoliberalism has been the idea that previously informal sanctions, such as public opprobrium, should be formalised through new "instruments" (such as ASBOs) and by state regulators (the EHRC being a topical example). Whereas moral panics in the past would lead to demands for new laws or more vigorous policing, contemporary panics are more likely to lead to demands to extend the use of existing sanctions (ASBOs for Drill musicians), to extend the definition of rights (which may in practice mean justifying penalties, e.g. excluding trans-sexuals from women-only spaces) or to beef-up state regulation (the recent "Momo challenge" hoax was enabled by an ironically self-regulating press that wants independent control of social media). What this highlights is that the criminal justice system is actually in retreat as the disciplinary state expands. Consider the way that benefit sanctions have supplanted the magistrates court in popular lore as the face of a punitive and unsympathetic state. This shifting of the boundary has been one of the major reasons why police headcount has been reduced (and also why legal aid has been cut).

One logical trend in the future would be for the police to become ever more focused on what Americans refer to as "homeland security". The extension of police powers in respect of surveillance and cyber-security, along with the heavy investment in counter-terrorism and increased militarisation, certainly suggests this, but we should also acknowledge the corollary, which is that the police will continue to retreat from their traditional beat in the frontline of social control. As anyone who has dealt with the police in recent years over "minor" offences like burglary or theft will know, this retreat is already well underway. This doesn't mean that the wider security state is shrinking, but that more and more of it has been transferred to other disciplinary functions or outsourced to corporations serving the state apparatus, while the arena of non-violent crimes against the person has been increasingly left to the individual to address through insurance or private security.

In this context, the upsurge in knife crime (which is still low in historic terms) is emblematic of much that the police are gradually leaving behind. Framing it as a "black" problem, when that isn't the case in most of the UK, or an issue of "gangs", when the vast majority of offences are not gang-related, is not simply a case of the institutional bias of the media and renta-quote politicians. It is a form of nostalgia (the demands to reinstate stop-and-search make this explicit) and therefore a subconscious expression of dissatisfaction with the performance of the disciplinary state (i.e. that it hasn't been coercive enough). The political problem is that insisting we treat knife crime as a public health issue (which is sensible), or insisting that austerity is more to blame than fewer coppers (which is probably right), risks advocating a policy approach that funnels more resources into that disciplinary state at the same time that it restores public services. The knife crime "wave" will eventually subside, but the evolution of the police into a gendarmerie and the greater policing of society by public bodies are linked trends that look likely to continue.