The false prophet of progressivism

examines the movement and ideas behind the accession of Jeremy Corbyn and his comrades to power, and argues that there’s nothing new to any of it

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Party leader. Image: Wikimedia

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Labour Party leader. Image: Wikimedia

When Jeremy Corbyn assumed office on 12th September – a political event that was never supposed to happen – he beat odds of 100/1, flushing out competitors like Burnham and Cooper more typically in line with Labour’s veering-centre trajectory.

Supporters are quick to point out the smear-project that ideologically charged media-heads continue to pursue against his leadership

The consequential ideological conflicts that continue to partition Labour should therefore surprise just about nobody – and while his leadership, on account of his ideological convictions, has tendered polarization from the start, recent debate regarding principles concerning collective action on the Syria-airstrike vote will no doubt leave Labour to the dissent-machine of internal conflict. Even John McDonnell pushed for a free-vote in opposition to the decidedly undemocratic line of the party leader in supporting party-wide resolution, and accordingly a significant number of Labour MPs voted directly against Corbyn.

Supporters are quick to point out the smear-project that ideologically charged media-heads continue to pursue against his leadership, particularly in regards to propagandist marks attacking his patriotism; he is openly criticised for his ‘radical’ leftism, he didn’t sing the national anthem, he doesn’t bow deep enough – he hasn’t attended privy council (and must therefore hate the queen) and so on. While these factors all have very real consequences for the party, contemporary political commentary almost always frames irregularities within the political sphere negatively, if purely for the unpredictable nature of a political swerve that does not align with established trends in broad centrism.

I doubt very much, however, that Corbyn is particularly concerned over party dissent, given some 500 instances since 2001 in which he’s actively voted against the whip’s authority. The point is that if there really is so much negativity surrounding the ‘proper’ left, how exactly have we managed to generate an environment so conducive to its appointment? The answer, I think, lies in the ways in which’ve come to frame our criticisms of the establishment.

The first example might be given by the quite apparent irony of Corbyn’s mantra – ‘it’s time for a new kind of politics’, being that Corbyn, despite being a prolific party rebel, is still fundamentally establishmentarian. It is a failure of analytical scope which leads to the assumption that Corbyn is something new. While obliquely maverick to contemporary centrism in terms of policy commitments, Corbyn is dogmatically regressive: nationalisation, high staggered taxation, proliferate social welfare etc.

Take for example the notion of introducing a national maximum wage – which, in all its attempted implementations…were resounding failures

Essentially, old Keynesianism (tax-and-spend economics) in policy-modelling is not at all new – these are post-war, Attlee-style convictions. Take, for example, the notion of introducing a national maximum wage – which, in all its attempted implementations, from Soviet Russia to Roosevelt to the 80s ‘tax rebellion’ in Sweden, were resounding failures. I might praise proposals to explore the possibility of a ‘Quantitative easing for people instead of banks’ (to give credit where due).

Ultimately, however, Labour’s current economic proposal appears not only resoundingly ambiguous but somewhat contradictory in its approach with aims to at once massively stimulate the economy from central planning while increasing corporate restrictions (which most serious economists accept as rendering a nation as increasingly unappetising as an investment opportunity) and simultaneously ‘closing the deficit on the current budget’. Whether or not one approves of the probably dangerous rampant neoliberalism in modern global economics – we ought not to ignore the economic lessons of the later 20th century through sheer dogmatic discontent.

previously dormant far-left voters…have finally found a champion

It would be short-sighted to assume that disdain for the political establishment is something new, and similarly contentious to claim that the rise of democratic socialism in the UK is really as significant as claims of Corbyn’s ‘largest Labour mandate ever’ might seem. It seems one might explain such a burst of support and subsequent negativity as the mobilisation of previously dormant far-left voters who have finally found a champion, as opposed to the conversion of the instutionally disaffected.

Regressive politics is not the solution to the current blanket of broad cynicism and distrust

Regressive politics is not the solution to the current blanket of broad cynicism and distrust smothering our contemporary political program, which has only gained momentum since the banking crisis crippled our capacity to trust our economy, and the expenses scandal our representatives. The kick-back against centrism is certainly aided by the reality of a ten-year Tory government, but is not wholly reducible to it – social democracy, as a supposedly transformative popularism, is a global movement. The most obvious example being Bernie Sanders in the states, a social democrat with a serious possibility of beating Clinton out of the democratic primaries. The re-election of Rafael Correa (though Latin America has been largely socialist since Bolivar) and the success (democratically) of Syriza in Greece point similarly to a resurgence (which I might argue is largely cosmetic) in democratic socialism.

I can’t help but quietly despair

While there’s much praise for the challenge social democrats are presenting to more traditionally left-centre and right-centre parties – particularly in terms of welfare and foreign policy – I can’t help but quietly despair. We seem to think we’re changing things, kicking up a fuss, promoting a new type of political program which better services the people – but truly, regression to old (and I would argue, often antiquated) forms of governance signifies the failure of genuine progressivism, and the crippling inability of establishmentarians to look outside of contemporary institutions towards true political innovation.

Social democracy … doesn’t solve the ultimate concerns we have with contemporary politics

The broad outlook still, however, seeks to qualify advocates of social democracy as ‘the progressive left’. Social democracy may or may not be preferable to the sort of liberal democracy we live in now, but it doesn’t solve the ultimate concerns we have with contemporary politics; democratic structure, failure of representation, archaic political technologies, careerism, short-termism, massively exploitative financial systems (the ultimate conceits of a fractal economy), arbitrary authority and state violence. I fear a lot of faith is misplaced in the ability of old-left socialism to respond to the demands of a world that is immediately disconnected from its origins.

If we are asserting that modern centrism has failed – and I think it very much has

It is not, I think, a particularly effective tactic of the left regressive movement to champion the historic success of social democracy as applicable to the challenges of a financially and informationally integrated modern context.  If we are asserting that modern centrism has failed – and I think it very much has, as pervasive scepticism indicates, the search for solutions ought to modern problems ought not to rely on economic and democratic instruments founded in antiquity. Our parliamentary system is out-dated, but more importantly, so is our whole notion of political activism and democratic representation.

There is nothing remotely radical about Corbyn and the social democratic movement – and that’s the problem. He may or may not be the preferable candidate within our floundering establishment – but I fear social democracy fails to answer to a context that its founders could never have imagined, and lacks the transformative power of progression that supporters and dissidents alike desperately hope for.

7 comments

  1. 22 Jan ’16 at 4:04 pm

    Daniel Gronow

    I think you’ve taken too literally the notion of Corbyn as something ‘new’. His policies are self-evidently anacronistic, but what they’ve done is to pull Labour to the political penumbra, away from the centrism that has been treated with such disdain by the electorate. In terms of Corbyn being fundamentally establishmentarian, I disagree. The establishment is plagued by neo-conservatism, in particular the military adventurism which was nurtured by Blair’s New Labour and embraced unequivocally by Cameron. In this sense Corbyn is perhaps the most Conservative member of parliament, derriding as he does the apparently crucial need for military intervention and the proliferation of Western (read: American) democracy. This view, while perhaps regressive, is hardly an ‘oblique’ resistance to the political othodoxy.

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    • The establishment isn’t just a set of views nor is it wholly a particular political trajectory, it’s the realm of contemporary political discourse, which Corbyn sits very comfortably inside of. This is the point I was trying to make – that evolving what it means to be engaged in political action and making very fundamental structural changes to our parliamentary-democratic system is necessarily more crucial to progression than merely knocking the tennis ball of popularism around the court of ideology.

      In this sense I call Corybn’s challenge ‘oblique’. He challenges the establishment in an indirect, almost secondary way. Fundamental (direct) challenges to the establishment seem to necessarily require a reformed political discourse (i.e. serious discussion of significant structural reform).

      Maybe we just mean different things by ‘establishment’.

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      • 26 Jan ’16 at 7:50 pm

        Daniel Gronow

        Lending the ‘establishment’ this vague, almost metaphysical intangibility seems somewhat overblown. If a political leader came along who denounced the entire ‘realm of contemporary political discourse’, they would be viewed either as a nihilist or a revoltionary, neither of which is going to get you a seat in parliament. And yet for you, any challenge to the government which doesn’t deal with ubiquitous structural reform is dismissed as an indirect, inconsequential ‘knocking around’ of some demagogic tennis ball.

        Whether or not these reforms would even be sensible considering the current state of world affairs is another question entirely.

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        • I take your point. But what I’m trying to capture is the root cause of apparently widespread political estrangement. Broader discontent seems to occur not because the wrong party’s in power, but because the institutions underwriting our democracy are antiquated and inflexible.

          My point is that Corbyn isn’t a symbol of an overhaul of the establishment, he’s just a particular incarnation of it.

          Other than that I don’t find arguments from electability particularly convincing, and dismissal as a ‘nihilist’ or a ‘revolutionary’ as if these are dirty words seems childish (though not unlikely). Besides, who gets to set the criterion of electability? That people feel compelled to vote against their own interests because of some constructed criterion of electability is a great example of a defect in our political discourse.

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          • 29 Jan ’16 at 8:39 am

            Daniel Gronow

            Of course, in terms of electability, nobody gets to set the criteria. My point was that attempting to achieve the aims of the electorate while at the same time lamenting the establishment is an incongruity. One cannot (or rather is unlikely to) achieve practical changes if one insists on razing the meeting hall in which those changes are discussed. The electorate votes according to this implicit and unconstructed criterion; will this candidate represent me and highlight in parliament issues of practical and pressing concern? Of course, some people find an urgency in the need for structural reform, but I contend that the vast majority would find your intangible establishment pretentious, in the truest sense of the word.

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            • Well maybe they’d be right, maybe they wouldn’t. It’s not like I’m the first person to point in this direction – all I’m really doing here is applying a sort of post-structural lens to a contemporary issue. Unger (Obama’s teacher at Harvard Law) speaks very much to this, as does Foucault, so I think dismissing it as merely pretentious is a perhaps a bit flippant. I think it’s helpful to consider things from a different theoretic perspective occasionally.

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              • 6 Feb ’16 at 2:50 pm

                Daniel Gronow

                Flippancy has its place. I maintain that the public at large would dismiss anyone who suggests that the entire ‘realm of contemporary political discourse’ needs to be reformed before progressive legislation can be passed. Foucault may well have ruminated on this issue for years, and his (and your) thoughts may well be interesting, but their practical utility is moot.

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