Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

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We’re ten years on from the events the triggered the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression (although read my caveat here) and centrists—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to peddle an ahistorical nostalgia.

Fortunately, people aren’t buying it.

As Jack Shenker has explained in the case of Britain,

one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it. . .

Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

Much the same is true in the United States, where centrists in the Democratic Party watch in horror as the Republican Party falls in lockstep with Donald Trump and the only energy within their own party comes from the Left. All the while, they ignore their own role in creating the conditions for the crash and the fact that their technocratic promises to American young people—university or community-college education leading to a stable and prosperous worklife, the dream of a thriving middle-class democracy, the claim for capitalism’s economic and ethical superiority—lie in tatters.

As it turns out, Jürgen Habermas sounded the warning of just this eventuality back in the mid-1980s.* His argument, in a nutshell, is that western cultures had used up their utopian energies—and for good reason, because

the very forces for increasing power, from which modernity once derived its self-confidence and its utopian expectation, in actuality turn autonomy into dependence, emancipation into oppression, and reality into the irrational.

In particular, the social welfare state—based on Keynesian economic policies and democratic politics (with a social basis in independent labor unions and labor-oriented parties)—had lost “its capacity to project future possibilities for a collectively better and less endangered way of life.”

The reactions to this crisis are well known: on the Right, the rise of neoliberalism associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; on the Left, the celebration of non-party social movements. And, in the center? “Those who defend the legitimacy of industrial society and the social welfare state”—such as the more conservative wing of the Social Democrats (he mentions the Mondale wing of the Democrats in the United States and the second government of François Mitterand in France)—who “have been put on the defensive.”

I would make it even sharper: the center refashioned itself in the mould of the right-wing neoliberals, at least in part to isolate and contain the criticisms from the Left, by emphasizing individual (not collective) initiative and market-based (not social or solidarity) solutions to economic and social problems. As a result, the center lost its utopian impulse and settled for a meek defense of what remained of the social welfare state.

Habermas’s view is that society has been reoriented away from the concept of labor toward that of communication, which requires a different way of “linking up with the utopian tradition.” The alternative approach would be to rethink the concept of labor in terms of class and analyze the ways in which the forces of capital that were supposed to be regulated and contained by the social welfare state were left with both the interest and means to undo those regulations. And it’s the center that put itself in the position of responding to and representing the progressive dismantling of the economic side of the social welfare state—in deregulating finance, pursuing globalization, and helping to unleash new digital technologies. The result was, not surprisingly, the growth of obscene levels of inequality, increasing precariousness for large parts of the working-class, and finally the crisis that broke out in 2008, which has led not only to economic but also political breakdown.

However, as Shenker correctly observes, “the breakdown of any political order can be both emancipatory and revanchist.” And it now falls to the Left to reharness and reinvigorate the utopian impulses and energies that the center has squandered in order to chart a path forward.

*The English-language translation of Habermas’s article, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” was first published in Philosophy & Social Criticism. The article, with a slightly different title (“The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies”) and translation, was reprinted in On Society and Politics: A Reader. According to a friend and colleague who is a Habermas expert [ht: db], the essay is typical of his thinking that issued from what most people still consider Habermas’s most important work, The Theory of Communicative Action. “I would characterize Communicative Action as his middle period, which follows his earlier, more Frankfurt-styled emphasis on ideology critique (especially positivism) in books like Knowledge and Human Interests and Theory and Practice. In this middle period, he moved way from negative dialectics à la Adorno and Horkheimer toward developing a positive social theory of his own, one he would say was a “reconstruction” of Marxism but I would call a “replacement,” in which he develops a theory of communicative action to avoid what he sees as productivism and economism in the Marxist tradition.” And he adds:  “I find his means of doing so, evolutionary theory, unacceptable.”

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Much has been made of the rise of populism in recent years and the threat it poses to liberal democracy.

My view is that liberal critics of populism, standing on their heads, get it wrong. If made to stand on their feet, they’d have to admit that populism actually represents the failure of liberal democracy.

Populism has experienced a resurgence of late—in Hungary, Britain, France, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere—especially the form of populism variously characterized as right-wing, nationalist, or authoritarian. It has attracted increasing support and achieved notable political victories within the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy.

The problem is that liberal democracy has failed to confront, much less solve, the problems that have led to the rise of populism in the first place.

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Consider, for example, the history of populism in the United States. The three notable periods—in the late nineteenth century (with the rise of the People’s Party, which was also known as the Populist Party), the first Great Depression (around such figures as Father Charles Coughlin and Huey P. Long), and then during the second Great Depression (starting with the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump)—all coincided with obscene levels of inequality and severe economic crises that decimated American workers and other classes (including farmers and small businesses) across the country.

Populism has been one of the principal responses to the complex and shifting layers of discontent and resentment that the ideas and policies of the leading political parties, economic elites, and mainstream intellectuals within American democracy first created and then failed to respond to. As I explained last November,

The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class. . .

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

A different response was, of course, possible in all three circumstances. Instead of populism, marginalized classes in the United States might have been persuaded by and coalesced into a movement with utopian impulses—an association, organization, or political party that combines a critique of the existing order, including the elites that defend it, with an agenda that seeks to radically transform economic and social institutions in a progressive direction.**

As I see it, both right-wing populism and left-wing utopian movements see the existing system as “rigged” against the vast majority of people and level an indictment against “elites” that both benefit from and defend the existing system. Both responses therefore represent a failure of liberal democracy.

But the two reactions are not at all similar, even when both attempt to represent the grievances of workers and other classes that have been left behind.

There are, it seems to me, two key differences between right-wing populist and left-wing utopian movements. First, they approach the matter of alliance and opposition quite differently. Utopian movements identify a basic conflict between the people and an elite or establishment, and then challenge the claims to universality of those on top in order to form a different universality, a set of changes that will create a new humanity and realm of freedom for everyone, including the existing elites. As John Judis explains, right-wing populists exhibit a radically different approach. They

champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

The second major difference is that right-wing populists look backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of workers was employed in manufacturing, American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries, and Wall Street played a much smaller role in the U.S. economy.***

That time was, of course, exceptional—in terms of both U.S. and world history. And it’s a vision that conveniently forgets about many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

Instead of looking backward, left-wing utopian movements look forward—criticizing the existing order but also understanding that it creates some of the economic and social conditions for a better, more just society.

Liberal critics of populism understand neither their own role in producing the circumstances within which populism emerged nor the senses of injustice—especially class injustice—that fuel populism’s gathering strength.

The Left should be able to do better, both in analyzing the rise of populism as a failure of liberal democracy and in offering a utopian alternative to the status quo. But for that, it will have to look beyond the idea that populism alone represents a threat to liberal democracy.

If liberal democracy is under threat it is because of its own failures.

 

*The chart illustrating the wealth shares of the top ten percent and top one percent is from Richard Sutch, “The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States,” Social Science History 41 (Winter 2017): 587-613.

**Such a movement did in fact gather strength during the first Great Depression, the Thunder from the Left, which is precisely what led to the second New Deal in 1935 (after the 1934 midterm elections and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign).

***Joshua Zeitz argues that the Populists of the late nineteenth century also looked backward and that the parallels between then and now are striking:

Ordinary citizens chafed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.

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Just a few years ago, students at Oberlin College protested the college’s decision to fund a talk by Jeffrey Sachs, whom they considered to be a “neoliberal imperialist liar.”

As regular readers of this blog know, I am quite sympathetic with the Oberlin students’ concerns. I have called Sachs to task on many occasions (e.g., herehere, and generally here).

But it’s also true Sachs is changing his tune, at least on some issues. Here he [ht: ja] is on interventions by the United States in the Middle East:

It’s time to end US military engagements in the Middle East. Drones, special operations, CIA arms supplies, military advisers, aerial bombings — the whole nine yards. Over and done with. That might seem impossible in the face of ISIS, terrorism, Iranian ballistic missiles, and other US security interests, but a military withdrawal from the Middle East is by far the safest path for the United States and the region.

And then Sachs ups the ante: “America has been no different from other imperial powers in finding itself ensnared repeatedly in costly, bloody, and eventually futile overseas wars.”

That’s right: Sachs is accusing the United States of acting today as an imperial power—in a long line beginning with the Romans and continuing in modern times with the British, the French, and the United States itself in previous periods, from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines through Vietnam and increasingly in the Middle East. In fact, in all these cases, the United States took up the preceding wars of other imperial powers, including Spain, Britain, and France, thereby extending imperial adventures that have been “both futile and self-destructive.”

Sachs is led therefore to conclude,

The United States should immediately end its fighting in the Middle East and turn to UN-based diplomacy for real solutions and security. The Turks, Arabs, and Persians have lived together as organized states for around 2,500 years. The United States has meddled unsuccessfully in the region for 65 years. It’s time to let the locals sort out their problems, supported by the good offices of the United Nations, including peacekeeping and peace-building efforts. Just recently, the Arabs once again wisely and rightly reiterated their support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians if Israel withdraws from the conquered territories. This gives added reason to back diplomacy, not war.

We are at the 100th anniversary of British and French imperial rule in the Mideast. The United States has unwisely prolonged the misery and blunders. One hundred years is enough.

I can only agree.

Even more: give Sachs another decade or two and he might actually become a Marxist.

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It’s clear the British referendum on the European Union was a gross miscalculation on the part of David Cameron, who decided to move ahead with the vote in an attempt to placate the nationalist, anti-immigrant forces inside and outside the Conservative Party. And he lost—by much more than any of us expected.

A couple of issues should then concern us.

First, the fact that the 52-48 result in favor of Leave was so unexpected, not to mention mainstream economists’ overwhelming support for Remain, is a reminder to those of us on this side of the pond that supposedly expert opinion is increasingly unreliable and out of touch. So, even though Trump’s numbers currently favor his defeat, and mainstream economists on this side of the pond have been so dismissive of the kinds of issues raised by Bernie Sanders, we should continue to expect the unexpected and do everything we can both to oppose Trump’s election in November and to continue Sanders’s political revolution.

Second, the British vote is just the latest (but not yet final) nail in the coffin of neoliberal Europe. Europe without a real and vibrant Social Chapter was (in Thomas Friedman’s language) only a “golden straightjacket” to protect European and non-European corporate interests. That transcontinental free-market utopia—after the combination of bank bailouts, austerity, and high unemployment, the costs imposed on Greece (and Spain and Portugal), the unwillingness to treat ordinary people’s concerns about open borders and to humanely integrate war-ravaged refugees, and so much more—now lies in tatters.

The real issue, within Great Britain and the rest of Europe, is whether the Left will be able to reassemble the pieces to create a new “social-democratic internationalism”—a politics that attends to both national concerns (like healthcare, wages, and immigration) and internationalist ones (having to do with such things as debt relief, human rights, and global warming). In Britain, that means forming a demos, under the aegis of the Labor Party, consisting of groups of voters who ended up on opposite sides of the Leave-Remain vote—to defend workers’ rights within Britain while maintaining an internationalist concern with the plight of workers in other countries. It’s the kind of politics outlined by both Richard Tuck (who argued for Leave) and James Stafford (who supported Remain).

That’s important because, notwithstanding the title of my post, we’re far from being after Brexit. The process of Britain’s exit from the European Union is just starting. And while the Tories are engaged in their own internecine battle (which, as Boris Johnson steps forward, may even exceed the spectacle that led to Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee), with even more fallout for economic and political elites across the rest of the continent, the British and European left-wing parties and movements have an opportunity to imagine and create the kind of social-democratic internationalism the various countries’ working-classes have long wanted and ultimately deserve.

Class war in Britain

Posted: 29 April 2016 in Uncategorized
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A couple of days ago, I linked the 1989 Hillsborough disaster with the earlier attack on the striking Orgreave miners, since both groups were treated as the “enemy within.”

Suzanne Moore just did, too, arguing that the Hillsborough verdict shatters the fantasy that class war doesn’t exist in Britain.

It must be somewhat galling for those in power now to have to accept this ruling, for they do not hide their class contempt either. They have elevated it to actual policy: all schools must be modelled on the schools they went to, but with fewer resources. All hospitals must be run to make a profit. Taxes are for the little people. Those who don’t “get on” have only themselves to blame. An increasing range of theories come into play about why poor people are poor, which is never to do with lack of money but lack of civility. Or perhaps there is something wrong with their actual brains! Imagery of working-class people invariably invokes moral deprivation by showing a tendency to excess.

Social mobility, the supposed solution to all this, only allows the odd person to slip through the net. The middle class must simply hold on. Once there, one is required to be grateful (I am not) or merely chippy (I am). As I strain my ears to hear someone who talks like me on Radio 4 that isn’t in a drama about child abuse, I never know who I am to be grateful to.

Sure, class contempt works both ways, though it is impolite to show it except by gentle humour. Rage is so 1980s. We must not discriminate against the posh apparently, though class doesn’t really exist any more. As more and more people tell us it no longer matters, we see more and more of our creative stars were privately educated, that our leaders come from the same tiny enclave. Retro-feudalism.

This fantasy should be well and truly shattered by the Hillsborough verdict. This was a war crime committed in a war that was not then, nor is now, a figment of our imagination. Class war.

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Apparently, the British public [ht: ja] are generally proud of their country’s role in subjecting the world to colonialism and the British Empire, according to a new poll: 44 percent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, while only 21 percent regretted that it happened. 23 percent held neither view.

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The same poll also asked about whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing: 43 percent said it was good, while only 19 percent said it was bad. Twenty-five percent responded that it was “neither.”

I suppose the results are not surprising if, in fact, as the author of the article observes, the “British Empire is not widely taught in detail in British schools.” Therefore, British schoolchildren don’t learn about the numerous atrocities committed in creating and maintaining the empire—such as the Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, the partitioning of India, the Mau Mau uprising, and the famines in India.

What little they and their parents do learn probably comes from the likes of Niall Ferguson, the author of the 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (on which a television series of the same name, starring Ferguson, was based).

Ferguson actually attempts to come up with an answer to the question, was the empire good or bad? And, no surprise, Harvard’s incorrectly political ignorant gay-bashing bloviating right-wing infotainment war-crimes-apologist historian’s answer is the British empire was a good thing:

Many charges can of course be levelled against the British Empire. I do not claim, as Lord Curzon did, that “the British Empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen”; nor, as General Smuts claimed, that it was “the widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed in human history”. The Empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practised a form of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged – in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 or 1865, in South Africa in 1899 – the British response was brutal. When famine struck (Ireland in the 1840s, India in the 1870s) their response was negligent, in some measure positively culpable.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.

I suppose the best one can say is, Ferguson understands the brutality of the empire striking back. But, in the name of “global welfare,” his argument suggests he would join forty-plus percent of the British public and be on the side of the empire striking again.