Because it’s the end of term:
So says Russell Brand:
Brand condemns some rather old problems, among them inequality and “political disillusion”: only then, with the same swiftness, to dismiss some relatively useful questions about how on earth they might be addressed. Which is rather to miss both the point and the long intellectual history to have spent time struggling with it.
Socialism makes the modest suggestion that welfare should not depend upon the charitable donations of the rich and religious to the deserving poor, a view that holds petty paternalism and charity as insults to human dignity – what Marx called the soothing of the heart-burned aristocrat. It’s why charges of hypocrisy are so ludicrous: “champagne socialism” is an attempt to vomit egalitarians out of public discourse with a pithy remark, alluding, apparently, to the miso soups and lattes over which they denounce the bourgeoisie. (I can only afford cava myself but we’ll let that pass.)
Is this really “hypocrisy”? Compare socialism with the sickly utopianism of so-called “compassionate capitalism”: a view – usually of the wealthy and often of the masochists whom they exploit – in which the accumulation of money by private individuals can only and inevitably operate to the benefit of wider society. It’s why the liberals who befriend this fatuous verdict are usually such chillingly dull specimens.
Now: whatever questions might be raised about the viability of economic rationalisation under socialism (usually envisaged as being without a monetary system), or the popular tyranny that any “revolution” would risk stirring, there’s at least a sense of commitment to this ideology. On the practical level, you might say, there’s the nationalisation of production; and more romantically there are distant visions of equality and internationalism. Neither scientific nor humanistic impulses can be separated from socialism.
Brand, on the other hand, has nothing to say on this tradition: he’s an anarchist of the most vacuous sort. It’s the political activism of weed and hedonism: he was arrested for public nudity in 2001 as though ventral modesty and complicity in child labour were inextricable allies. As a rule, anarchism doesn’t impress me; it’s a commitment to distaste rather than principle, the populism of idiocy and intellectual dishonesty plagued by the frivolous hypocrisy of which socialists have the right to be dismissive. In 1968, thousands marched through London demanding Harold Wilson take a moral lead in his foreign policy; while the Occupy Movement, four decades later, would say nothing beyond vaguely austere denunciations of capitalism and Wall Street suits somewhat overly overly-sharp for the primate species that we are.
If we don’t confront social crises, they’ll defeat us: it is not enough to complain about flooding in winter and then to stay silent when people march against building the flood gates in spring. And that is why Lenin and Brand should never be mentioned in the same sentence.
Goodness. How on earth did I become this left-wing?
In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.
I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.
I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.
The Looming Legacy
“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”
True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.
In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”
The Wretching Legacy
Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?
We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.
I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.
So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?
Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?
All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.
With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:
- We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
- There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
- The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
- There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
- Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.
We are permanent members of the Security Council and must fulfil our responsibilities.
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) August 30, 2013
The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.
Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.
Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:
If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]
If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.
And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.
There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.
An Abdication From Giving A Shit
For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?
Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.
But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:
And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?
81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.
I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).
It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.
The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.
And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.
I’m always suspicious of puritans. There was something stuffy about the air in which Owen Jones argued that “the Tories aren’t actually evil”, just “cruel” and “unforgivable”. It masquerades as a concession while remaining firmly wedded to the presumption that those with different political outlooks ought to be “defeated”.
All the same, conservatism doesn’t mingle well with populism. The Home Office’s twitter account is an outright disgrace:
— The Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) August 1, 2013
And in case you didn’t know what a true British arrest looks like – because you’re a disgusting illegal – they even include a photo to remind you:
— The Home Office (@ukhomeoffice) August 1, 2013
They even blur your face – so you know that you are as meaningless and devoid of character as any other capped transgressor of immigration law.
Nasty, sick, and brutish. Selective figure-thumping designed to win votes from the far-right – irrespective of the fear and social antagonisms it merrily brews.
The same awful rabble-rousing politics has also been found, can you believe it, in what the government had hoped would become a new billboard scheme, currently being piloted in a number of London boroughs:
Thankfully, it’s unlikely that the campaign will continue. But that does nothing to hide the fact that the British electorate are finally giving in their most base and selfish instincts, and that party political officials can only jump to capitalise upon them.
Update: I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me, but @JackofKent suggests that the Twitter campaign could be challenged on the grounds of contempt of court:
— Jack of Kent (@JackofKent) August 1, 2013
My title’s so vague that it might look like I’m being ironic: but, in all honesty, I have a lot of sympathy with unemployed people struggling to explain away their position to angry workers. As ridiculous as it might sound that unemployed people can get benefits worth more than the wages of those in a 9-5 job, no solution should involve a policy of systematic impoverishment. Taking away the money from the people who need it most is not the answer we need.
The BBC is currently showing a very strange series hosted by The Apprentice stars Nick and Margaret, “We Pay Your Benefits”. It’s effectively an hours worth of zoo commentary during which four working and four unemployed people compete to appear the least privileged. It’s a sad state of affairs when people just judge their moral puritanism by their poverty. I had hoped that we had escaped that – but no, of course. We’re all still bloody peasants.
As Nick says, the welfare problem is indeed a visceral one. Supporters of every party, in every district – except perhaps self-professed Marxists and a few of the middle-class Guardian clique – have a “problem” with welfare payouts to scroungers and layabouts. That only 10% of the welfare bill goes to the unemployed – its recent spiraling, we’re told, being entirely unrelated to the economic crisis – is lost and buried under anger.
If people are getting paid more for not working – if, for a moment, we neglect the disabled – then it’s not the fault of those without a job. Wanting to soak more people in poverty out of bitterness is as nonsensical as it is nasty and impractical. It’s the equivalent of getting drunk because you’re in a bad mood/depressed by the mess your life is already in. Social polarisation following the Washington consensus has concentrated money, even if there’s more around. You’re not going to get it back by snatching away claimants’ cigarettes.
I’ll merrily admit, like anyone else, that I have no idea how such a system would look: but before any serious debate about the work-wealth correlation can be had we have to remove some of the inevitable class distinctions that we’ve rebuilt for ourselves – Americanised class, that is, in which bourgeois “equality of opportunity” has given the illusion of economic liberty, but which in reality has become only the “right to exploit others for profit“.
That joke I once heard sums it up pretty well:
A student writing his thesis is asked about his subject. “The survival of the American class system,” he replies to a confused reception.
“I didn’t know there was a class system in America.”
“That’s how it survives.”
That’s precisely why hostility to welfare “generosity” has become so broad and embittered – the government is introducing news tests and regulations because although they might be poor, vulnerable and liked or perhaps envied, arrogant and detested, welfare claimants do exist; and, above all, they are a target that can be shot even in an age of utmost intellectual bankruptcy.
There is no more painful an unrequited love than that for history. Nevertheless, someone should tell Nigel Farage that the days of the Motte-and-Bailey are long over. He is not our hero; and the barracks he purports to champion, that refuge of well-civilised romantics standing stoic against a hoard of European barbarians, is no more realistic a concept than toddlers throwing balls in a playpen.
The surge in support for UKIP is then, we might then say, alarming not so much for the troubles it might present to the Commons but for the delusions it legitimises as a constitutional party. It would almost certainly lose every seat it were to contest at a general election; but if the Tory party is to defend itself then it too will need to slur out some drunken nonsense. The task of the political party should be to justify the direction in which to take the nation, not to embody its most irrational and populist psychologies.
“National sovereignty” has become as much an oxymoron as the “global world” a tautology. Once political authority had passed from the Crown to Parliament it was always presumed that the people had gained some control over their lives; and with the coming of nationalisation, and of the welfare state, it seemed guaranteed. But however cliched it might be to say, these days are over. In order for Britain to maintain its influence over both its foreign policy and indeed internal affairs it has to align itself with other powers. Free trade, for a start, is in itself incompatible with isolationism; and in contrast there is nothing to stop a government upholding trade links both with South America and with Europe. Now it is true to say, of course that London’s dependence on the financial services would give it a merry position from which it could grow outside of the EU. The government could cut corporate taxes and make the City favourable to foreign investors.
But so fluid a river as that of global capital would leave Britain not a barge but a raft resting nervously on its surface. The investors it attracts would not, after all, be from within Britain – a slap in the face to the cultural isolationism of the UKIP voter. In this context, though, the implications should also concern the socialist for whom there can be no defence against tyranny of capital through only domestic machinery. From the perspectives of both socialists and capitalists, then, it is fundamental to (virtually) all British people that we remain a part of the European Union.
None of this is to demean what are very powerful criticisms of the EU, of course. For a start, any convicted neoliberal should be seriously concerned with the Common Agricultural Policy. At the price of a third of the EU’s budget, the CAP is in effect a method of subsidising French and German farmers at the expense of those in underdeveloped nations. And herein lies a frightening moral conflict that we’d rather ignore: the British middle-class contenting itself with buying Fair Trade no more alleviates the poverty in rural Africa than clapping loudly to make contact with aliens. Perry Anderson’s The New Old World concurs; radical ideas gave momentum to the EU’s shape but ultimately it has an exploitative history, the trading relationship between France and West Germany mutating into a bourgeois authority over the less equipped.
And here I return to the question of sovereignty. Can an essentially undemocratic bureaucracy offer any autonomy to a nation, either in its economy or its political process, if such a nation is shaped by a group of unelected figures in Brussels? Clearly not; and fortunately that is not the situation in which we find ourselves. The EU has a tiny bureaucracy; it has only a few thousand employees. It has no methods of collecting taxation, and its control even over its own currency is not a lot more persuasive. In no fewer words, I might therefore suggest, the we are looking at a transitory state. A right-wing project, Anderson describes it, with radical potential.
It’s times like this that we must return to those principled ambitions when the hope of European unity was nascent and urgent. Orwell, 1947:
When I think of these and other difficulties, when I think of the enormous mental readjustment that would have to be made, the appearance of a Socialist United States of Europe seems to me a very unlikely event. I don’t mean that the bulk of the people are not prepared for it, in a passive way. I mean that I see no person or group of persons with the slightest chance of attaining power and at the same time with the imaginative grasp to see what is needed and to demand the necessary sacrifices from their followers. But I also can’t at present see any other hopeful objective.
If Europe is growing then it needs the participation of Britain. It’s perfectly possible for us to get a political – and economic – Union favourable to the principles to which UKIP claims, however falsely, to uphold. But the weight to mature rests not only with the Right: what cannot be allowed to happen in defenses of the European Union is for left-wingers to abandon their commitment to the democratic process. An obvious point, we might say, but in recent days that old favourite of mine Glenn Greenwald decided, one again, to equate liberal democracy with Islamic jihad.
And then the image of Nigel Farage in his grand armor of chivalry returns to me. If he had his way, we’d be repairing the wooden stockades while France and Germany build citadels. He needs to drop the drawbridge and enter the fucking world.
Workers’ Liberty – a small Trotskyist group, whose website can be found here – today sent out a letter to fellow far lefties. Out with the zealotry of working-class comradeship and treachery, they cry, and in with some good old-fashioned unity:
There are real differences between the different groupings on the left, about real and important issues. For the labour movement to be able to win socialism, we will need to thrash out those issues and develop a coherent strategy.
We need a framework which allows unity in action where we agree, and honest and serious debate where we disagree. The best way would be to establish a transitional organisation.
This would be a coalition of organisations and individuals, organised both nationally and in each locality, which worked together on advocating the main ideas of socialism, working-class struggle, democracy, and welfare provision; in support of working-class struggles; and in such campaigns as it could agree on (against bedroom tax? against cuts?), while also giving space to debate differences.
It would have a newspaper, a website, and leaflets, based on the ideas its components agreed on, but would allow for debates in the newspaper and website, and for groupings within it to publish their own journals and websites.
It would deliberately allow its components to continue their own special activities — some in the Labour Party, and some not; some in this campaign, some in that — but also provide for debate on those choices.
I like the AWL. One of my best friends is a member, and it’s always struck me as sincere, pragmatic and ultimately collective in its approach to socialism – a far distance from the organisational Stalinism of the SWP or the high-minded delusions of Richard Seymour’s splitter party.
Take Iraq. When Blair threw in his lot with Bush, the AWL said at the time what many people only feel justified in arguing with hindsight. They were critical of American motivations – with apparent correctness. But they were fully conscious of the dangers of immediate withdrawal. Had that myopic paranoia triumphed, it is perfectly possible that what now is engulfing Syria would then have spread through Iraq like cannabis plants in wildfire. The organisation frequently expressed support for Iraqi trade unionists – whose principle enemies first were Baathists and second were Islamists – while holding anti-American sentiment firmly in perspective.
Bring on the Socialist Workers Party, whose central platform is built upon advocating policies so ludicrous that no right-thinking government official would ever seek to enact them. This they then use to masquerade as truthers struggling by dusk against authoritarian imperialists. Rather than writing tirades against those who veto Iraqi peace with bombs they excuse them as symbols for desperation struggling against that apparent non-oxymoron of an occupying democracy. Their rationale appears to be that an enemy of America is an ally, no matter how flippant they are towards human life. All this as their Central Committee protects potential rapists from the terrors of bourgeois law.
But it requires a faithless pessimism to believe that this is in anyway reflective of the SWP’s membership base. The biggest far left organisation in Britain, it’s inevitable that young people sincere in their conviction in the failures of capitalism will be drawn to it. There is, after all, no logical reason why significant numbers of people would translate disgust with poverty into the dogma of anti-Americanism. Add to that Richard Seymour’s new party – International Socialism, whose name it shares with a party from a better age – that cries renewal while clinging desperately to its former insanity.
If all these parties came together in an open space, then I don’t think it would be an entirely removed dream that grassroots of, say, the SWP would see the awkwardness of their more irrational doctrines. Perhaps they’d see that it isn’t at all necessary to conflate left-wing with anti-establishment; that some socialists do not feel everything that is wrong with the world is due to Israel or Tony Blair.
It’s the sectarian’s faithful battle for hearts that in the end alienates so many. I couldn’t label myself a Marxist – but I’d have no trouble backing the sort of left unity organisation for which the AWL is hopeful. Socialist humanism was the general ideology of the New Left in the 1960s; but it was this very rejection of orthodox, dogmatic Marxism that prevented any party emerging from it. The intellectual sincerity of many of its proponents emasculated any popular potential they might have dared to win. What the AWL proposes is the best for which they might have hoped.
If it comes to anything, of course. It probably won’t.