Local elections: the view from West Lancashire

John Curtice thought Labour might lose anything between 120 and 220  seats in the May 2016 local elections.  In fact, the net loss was 18, principally to Lib Dem and UKIP candidates.

So why was the prediction, based on the extrapolation of local results from the national share, quite a long way out?

I think the main answer is staring us in the face, and it seems odd that no-one appears to have mentioned it yet.  I also think it’s good news for supporters of Corbyn.

So this is my take, based on my own local election experience.  (But if tl;dr applies – we did well because we had better candidates than we used to).

This morning, I had a really good meeting with two council officers and one of our five new West Lancashire Labour councillors.    We were talking about environmental issues in and around her ward (I don’t represent that ward, but was wearing my Resources Innovation Adviser).

She was a delight to have in the meeting.  She knows everywhere.  She knows all the local groups.  She knows lots of council officers already.  She knows funding stuff.  She knows how to set up a CIC.   She gets stuff done.

She joined the party just recently, after Corbyn stood for the leadership.  She was selected to stand for council not because she’d done years in the party, but because she’s so bloody good.  I’m good at all this stuff.  She’s really good.

She’s one of five new Labour councillors around here.  Twelve months ago I’d never met any of them.

But they all won, all with increased majorities over their opponents, because they are all well-known people in their area, all social activists in very different ways, but never before active in party politics.  They won because they were massively the better candidate in their own ward.   One such candidate took a previously safe Tory rural seat- just like I did all those years ago – because she was by miles the best candidate.  Voters are not stupid.

They all won selection to be a candidate because they were good, not because they’d done their time or because they were another councillor’s son or daughter.

If I were to ascribe socio-economic class, I’d say three are working class, one is working class become middle class because of doing really well at school, and one is middle class. None of them are parachuted in posh boys/girls, and none are ‘connected’ to the party from previously.

West Lancashire Labour party is now a world away from what it was twelve month ago.  It exudes confidence. It excuses competence.  But more than anything, it exudes a commitment to social activism which goes way beyond the narrow confines of the council chamber, and ends up cleaning out rivers, chairing housing groups, campaigning for equal pay, representing people at risk Universal Credit sanctions (that’s me, that one).

And it’s the Corbyn revolution that’s made this happen in my area.   Not all of them support Corbyn explicitly, but the all joined/stood up to engage in party politics because they understood a year ago that the party was changing, and there were new opportunities to enhance their existing social activism by engaging with the party political process.

Whatever the media says about the Corbynistas being committed Trots, out to take over the party infrastructure is – with the possible exception of one or two big Momentum branches within easy reach of central London – is utter garbage.  The real Corbynistas are these people.

This doesn’t mean to say it’s like this everywhere.  If it was, we’d have won a lot more seats than we did.  In places like Thurrock, where we did badly to UKIP, I suspect the party has not been able to open up to new blood.

But overall, my sense – in line with Corbyn’s instincts and Phil’s commonsense –  is that of a party heading in the right direction – opening up to new positive faces and influences, and genuinely moving beyond politics as usual.  This trend will continue, and if the NEC and regional HQs can catch up with and then help replicate best practice and best culture from places like Bristol and Exeter, sbsequent local election results will really start to improve overall.  More importantly, these local results stand a better chance of then being replicated in the 2020 general election, because voters will identify the link between the new form of local politics and the national leadership which fostered it.

The big downside risk, of course, is that the door may be slammed shut on these new influences by the parts of the party who feel their old power base most threatened – not because they wish the party harm for the most part, but because they are now too blinkered to see the results for what they are – good candidates beating worse candidates in the places those good candidates got to stand.

So no, the results on Thursday weren’t great in themselves, but what they presage might just be, whatever maths the gainsayers do.



Categories: Labour Party News

Celebrity death

March 31, 2016 1 comment

Ronnie Corbett, a gentleman of 85 year and reputed for his comedic talents, has died.  Lots of other people reputed for their comedic, musical or other artistic talents have also recently died.  David Bowie is one.  Alan Rickman is another.

So is 2016 a very bleak year for celebrity deaths?   Well maybe, but we’d better get used to it.

For what seems to have passed everybody by is that the recent upsurge of celebrity deaths is probably not because lots more people with talent worthy of celebrity status are dying than normal, but that we are moving into an age where people who became celebrities on TV are dying.

Ten, even five years ago, people with these talents dying at much the same rate had displayed those talents in an era before mass entertainment TV, and were already “past it” when mass entertainment TV started in mid-late 1960s.

Now, the people we notice dying in their mid-80s are those who became famous in the 1970s, and who stayed famous since.

As time goes on, people who came to fame in the 1980s will die at the same(ish) rate. This apparent phenomenon of celebrity death is not a weird fluke – it’s TV vs demogrpahics.

The weird thing is that no-one seems to have noticed this demography-mass TV thing, because everyone’s so obsessed with the latest dead celebrity.   As the wave increases, if TV coverage of TV death carries on at the current trend, there’ll be no more room on TV for any news other than news generated initially, 40-50 years ago, by TV.

Baudrillard would have a field day. He died in 1999 though, before all this happened, so he can’t be on TV

Categories: General Politics

Taking Trump’s penis seriously

For many UK observers, Donald Trump defending the size of his penis, in retaliation to Rubio suggesting his small hands might be indicative of a small one, is just another example of how ridiculous the man is.

But there’s another reading, where talking proudly of the size of your dick is actually the logical conclusion to a process fifty years in the making.

This is perfectly captured in William Connolly’s 1995 essay Fundamentalism in America [1] in which is traced the development  in post-industrial, post-traditional American society of what has now become full-blown Trumpism:

The contemporary subject position of the white male blue-collar worker, then, is well-designed to foster a culture of social revenge and hypermasculinity. If boys in this class are indicated into a traditional code of masculine authority and gender responsibility, if they then find it increasingly difficult to get jobs that embody that idea, if liberal rhetoric addresses this ideal in ways that assault that masculinity without opening up viable alternatives to it, then one predicable effect is the emergence of a hypermasculine urban cowboys who drive pickup trucks and listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Using the terms in their traditional valences (in the valences through which many in this subject position receive them), we might say that this constituency is first indicted into a masculine ideal, then feminized through the structure and insecurity of work available to it, then assaulted in its masculinity by representatives of the gender it is supposed to govern and protect, and finally courted by the right-wing elite who idealize the very model of masculine assertion that has been promised and denied.

This co-option by the far right of the disempowered male is not unique to the United States, though it may be most advanced there.  I have written previously of how UKIP has successfully tapped into the ‘rage’ of old, white men just like me.   For Trump’s dick, read Farage’s fag.

Back then (2014), I suggested that the only realistic way forward for the left in responding to this phenomenon was through the creation of high quality, valued and valuing employment.  Two years on, I think that may no longer be enough; what we need, as Connolly suggests above and sets out in his book more broadly, is a wider re-evaluation of how liberal fundamentalism have fed this anger, and how the only long term solution [2] lies in reinventing what we mean by democracy, and how – through a widen ecology of democratic associations combined with a Habermasian commitment to unfettered discourse.

On that, though, you’ll have to wait for the book.


[1] The essays is in The Ethos of Pluralization (1995) collection.

[2] I don’t mean by this that good quality jobs, and a wider process of economic equalization, are unimportant, just that efforts in this areas may no longer be sufficient on their own without an accompanyng process of democratic renewal, to heal the ‘sickness’ that capitalist modernity has brought.

Categories: General Politics

BBC official line: what the PM says is always correct, even when it’s incorrect

February 11, 2016 1 comment

In January I made this formal complaint to the BBC about its inaccurate coverage of one aspect of the Prime Minister’s “renegotiations”.

Your news story about the EU referendum negotiations describes one of the Prime Minister’s “four main aims of renegotiation” in the following way:

Integration: Allowing Britain to opt out from the EU’s founding ambition to forge an “ever closer union” so it will not be drawn into further political integration.

This is an incorrect understanding of what “ever closer union” is about, in the terms set out in the Lisbon Treaty. Article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty states: “This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen.”

That is, “ever closer union” is about union between people, and decidedly not about political greater integration between states. Indeed, article 1 makes it clear that “ever closer union” is about the localisation of political decision making, effectively the opposite of integrated decision making.

In making such an incorrect assumption about the meaning of “ever closer union”, the BBC is effectively displaying bias, as a result of poor research and attention to detail. I suggest the BBC should offer a corrective to its coverage of the “ever closer union” issue, which has been incorrect in this and other coverage.

I have now received this reply, which suggests that, for the BBC, the Prime Minister’s twisting of fact is more valid than actual fact.

Thank you for contacting us about our coverage of the negotiations by the Prime Minister ahead of the forthcoming Referendum on UK membership of the EU.

We appreciate your understanding of the term ‘ever closer union’ as defined by the Treaty of Lisbon. [1]

However the Prime Minister David Cameron has another understanding of the term. In a recent statement to the House of Commons, he said:

First, we don’t want to have our country bound up in an ever closer political union in Europe.

We are a proud and independent nation – with proud, independent, democratic institutions that have served us well over the centuries.

For us, Europe is about working together to advance our shared prosperity and our shared security.

It is not about being sucked into some kind of European superstate. Not now. Not ever.

Mr Speaker, the draft texts set out in full the special status according to the UK and clearly carves us out of further political integration.

That seems to be the Prime Minister’s understanding of ‘ever closer union’, i.e. further political integration within the EU. While we appreciate that this is not your understanding of the phrase, nor perhaps the official EU line, given the Article in the Treaty of Lisbon, it is nevertheless how the BBC interprets what David Cameron means when he uses the term.

We do appreciate this feedback and your concerns about this issue have been sent to the news online team, and senior BBC management via our daily report, which means they have been seen by the right people.


[1]  For Avoidance of doubt, I did not write the Lisbon Treaty, though the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and The Iliad are indeed both my work.

Categories: General Politics

TCF review of the 2015

December 31, 2015 1 comment

Worse than 2014.

Categories: General Politics

On Corbynism (part 2 of 3)

December 30, 2015 9 comments

habermas picIntroduction to part 2

In part 1, I set out how the British Left’s reliance on Gramsci as principle political inspiration for its 40-50 year long modus operandi is now outdated and even delusional.

Under the alienating condition of late capitalism, I suggested, the idea of successfully addressing ‘false consciousness’, through a process of political education and  efforts to gain political terrain by ‘shifting the narrative’, has become even more implausible than it ever was.  This is not just because power has become ever more concentrated in the wrong hands, but because in a very real sense people living in the conditions of late capitalism are just not the same: they are, in Giddens’ terminology, “ontologically insecure”, and as a result largely now lack a capacity to meet the demands which a Gramsci-inspired revolutionary project would make of them.

Where then, does that leave Corbynism?  My conclusion to part 1 was to the effect that, if the direction of the Corbyn leadership/project is set by the type of political activists that dominated the recent NEON seminar Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it), then the Labour left – and perhaps Labour itself – is doomed to social and electoral obscurity, in the way that so many gainsayers are now taking pleasure in predicting.

But I am not a Corbyn gainsayer.  I think Corbyn’s victory in the leadership battle in September was very good news indeed for Labour (and perhaps even the wider European left), as long as its potential can be harnessed through a process of intellectual reassessment and consequent practical orientation.

This harnessing is what part 2 and part 3 (to follow) are about.

Part 2, given the scale of ambition, is quite long (part 3 will be shorter).  So if you can’t be bothered to read all the way through, my main conclusion is that interpreting Corbynism through the work of  pre-war Italian communist is no longer valid (if it ever was); instead, we should interpret it through the work of Germany’s greatest post-war political philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and though the development of German political culture in general.   Doing so, I contend, offers a real prospect of renewal for democratic socialism in Britain.

What Corbynism is: a proto-Habermasian project

The ‘usual Gramscian suspects’ have tried to squeeze early Corbynism into the only leftwing framework they understand; in time they may succeed, in a way which squeezes the life out of Corbynsim. But for the moment at least, Corbynism is not what they would have it.  We can see this from two brief examples.

First, there is the interview conducted with Corbyn by BBC political reporter Norman Smith, just a few days after Corbyn became leader.  Smith felt strongly enough about what he’d just gone through with Corbyn to write a follow-up piece about the change of style he had witnessed.   He described how refreshing it was to ask a politician questions to which the politician actually listened, and then replied; Corbyn, he recalled, even appeared to be considering a response to some questions as he spoke, as though he’d never thought about it before.  Smith concludes simply with “maybe he [Corbyn] is on to something” with this different style, suggesting that not just journalists, but the wider public might be receptive to it.

Secondly, and rather better known, is Corbyn’s first appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions, at which Corbyn sought to set down a marker for his ‘new politics’ both by sourcing his questions directly from the public and by asking his questions as genuine questions, to which he expected an answer.  The most noticeable thing about this event is not Corbyn’s civil tone and ‘everday  language’ questioning, but the way in which Cameron felt obliged to respond in kind, in a quieter tone (continue to listen to the broadcast and he soon reverts to type on questions from other MPs).

On neither occasion – and there are many others with a similar feel for the Corbyn style – does Corbyn conduct himself in a way which fits the ‘war of position’ strategy of the Gramscian-influenced Labour left, or of the equally (though less explicitly) Gramscian-influenced Labour centre.

Indeed, for mainstream Labour ‘strategist’ Mark Ferguson, Corbyn makes a terrible mistake when he allows PMQs to “turn into free airtime for Cameron”; for Mark, losing the opportunity to get your voice heard, and allow an opponent to have their’s heard, is a cardinal political sin.

Mark’s criticism reflects other early calls for communications strategy as normal: from Owen Jones calling for a “media offensive with clear, sharp messages”, to Tom Clark calling for a spin doctor to sharpen those messages.

All of these critiques rather miss the point that the ‘freshness’ that gets to Norman Smith is precisely because Corbyn eschews the conventional game of having the answer ready before the question is put – a hitherto self-enforced paradox neatly summed up by intelligent political commentator Stefanie Lehmann:

Paradoxically, the leader must be both human and relatable, and mechanically effective by always having an answer ready

Corbyn has, however intuitively, realised that this paradox cannot be resolved, and has plumped for being “relatable” over being “mechanically effective” (in other words, ineffective in the real world).

Old-style, war-of-position politics, dominated on the British left (and the right, less knowingly) by Gramscian and sub-Gramscian thought cannot deal with this ‘new, kinder politics’, and of course Corbyn’s conduct is itself out of kilter with a vocal minority of so-called Corbynistas, for whom the same old gaining of internal terrain within the same old Labour party remains the same old ‘struggle’.

But there is a strong, coherent, and in some respects remarkably successful leftwing intellectual tradition which does explain not just the ‘kinder politics’ of Corbynism, but also explains why it proved so attractive to both new and old members of the Labour party that it brought Corbyn 60% of leadership votes, and why (perhaps more arguably) the polls about Corbyn’s early days are so conflicting.

This intellectual tradition, which for reasons I will explore in part 3, has not to date had any traction with the British left, is the Habermasian tradition – a tradition which has had a subtle but powerful influence on German political culture since at least the 1980s and is, I will contend in part 3, a significant factor not just in Germany’s economic success but also its social cohesion and openness (at least relative to the UK).

It is this tradition, at the expense of the worthy but now-outdated Gramscian tradition, to which I suggest in the remainder of this essay that the British left should now consciously turn for inspiration – not just in the short term as a way of understanding then bolstering Corbynism, but as a longer term route to the renewal of the British left.

This is, I recognize, an ambitious suggestion, and will no doubt receive its fair share of mockery from people within mainstream Labur, but I see no other form of leftwing thought that might prompt the left to move beyond the tired and certain failures of the current cycle of decline; to my mind, only Habermasian inspired democratic socialism grapples with the realities of the human condition under late capitalism (in a way which recalls but expands on Marx’s concept of alienation) and provides the grounding for a normative project of democratic renewal.

What’s the Habermasian tradition?

The Habermasian project for the ‘New Englightenment’, even if dated just from his ‘linguistic turn’ in the early 1980s, is a massive undertaking, challenging  in its complexity (and language) and startling in its overall coherence (although it remains incomplete and open to much valid criticism).

As such, it is difficult to know where to ‘cut into’ it, but perhaps in light of my critique in part 1 of the continuing and counterpoductive reliance of the Gramscian left on the need to resolve the ‘false consciousness of the masses’ (see, for example, Doreen Massey’s essay [pdf] on how Corbynism offers this prospect), the best place to start is with Habermas’ assessment of the position under capitalist modernity:

In the place of false consciousness there appears today fragmented consciousness, which hinders enlightenment about the mechanism of reification.  The conditions for a colonization of the lifeworld are thereby fulfilled; as soon as it is stripped of its ideological veil, the imperative of independent subsystems press in from the outside on the lifeworld and compel assimilation, like colonial masters in a tribal society (vol. 2, p.522 [pdf] italics in original).

This summarises Habermas’s exposition of how capitalist modernity ‘inflitrates’ our consciousness, in the way previously assessed by his Frankfurt School forbears Adorno & Horkheimer, as making resistance futile, at least from the point of view of ‘traditional’ leftwing politics (cf. also Mark Fisher).    It also points to Habermas’ conceptual distinction between ‘system’ and ‘lifeworld’, by which he means ‘normal’ societal relations [1], unhindered by the ‘colonization’ of capitalist financial control, media, administrative processes and, more broadly, consumerist cultures.

This analysis of the alienating properties of capitalist modernity [2] links to and is underpinned by the second major theme in Habermas’ work – the prospect of “communicative power” which is in turn underpinned by a complex grounding in formal pragmatics [pdf] (essentially how people communicate in ‘everyday language situations) and to the consequent development of a programme of universal ethics and ‘rules’ for legitimate argumentation.

Clearly, in a short essay I can’t hope to do any kind of justice to the complex, overarching strength of Habermas’ reasoning and backing empirical evidence (e.g. JL Austin on linguistic competencies and Lawrence Kohlberg on intrinsic ‘moral development’).    I will come back to these details in other writing.   For the present, the  important link to make with nascent Corbynism is Habermas’ contention that at the root of all human communication is an built-in mechanism for and motivation to mutual understanding, and that ‘strategic’ forms of communication, of the type extolled by the political commentariat and strategists referred to above, are ultimately distortions of that in-built human mechanism.

From here, as noted, Habermas creates an ‘ideal type’ of argumentation, free of the constraints we see in actual argument, where various forms of duress are brought to bear around membership and allowable content by those with power. [3].

Ultimately, Habermas points us towards forms of deliberative democracy and  ‘public sphere’ as not just normatively desirable, but also ethically and linguistically grounded, in a way which may help us to resist and turn back the colonising influences of capitalism and, through this process, rediscover our ‘automomy’ as humans relating to other humans (in other words, to address the  alienation described economally by Marx, sociologically by Giddens (“ontological insecurity”) and Ulrich Beck, and culturally by Rieff and Lasch).

To cut a very long story short, my contention is that Jeremy Corbyn – and some of the facets of his leadership campaign – offer us a glimpse of this ambitious Habermasian democratic project, and that now is the time to recognize that glimpse for what it is.

Moreover, my contention is that this Corbyn-led glimpse of a ‘new, kinder politics’ – in which the corruption of every language and deep distrust of the body politic go hand in hand skipping towards a dark future [4],  is supplanted by something approaching argumentation aimed at mutual understanding, and where the ‘validity claims’ Habermas demands of such argumentation could actually be redeemed [5] – is actually what has made the Corbyn project to date so attractive to people prepared to engage with it.

It is this glimpse of something new – largely unrelated to specific policy content from the Corbyn camp – which has excited a wide range of people, and which at the very least saw the people of Oldham West & Royton vote to give Corbynism a chance (I don’t underestimate the quality of the local candidate in the by-election, but I do think it had something to do with the size of the majority, given my own conversation with “apolitical” people about Corbyn’s ‘authenticity’).

It is this glimpse of the new which, I suspect, may also explain the seemingly odd opinion polling, in which Corbyn as “leader” or “possible PM” currently scores very badly – because people can’t yet make the conceptual leap to what a new style of leadership competence might look like, and adopt a safety first attitude [6] – but in which he scores much better than Cameron for being “in touch with British values”, for example.

So how might a Habermasian Corbynism fit? (towards part 3)

As noted, the call for the wholesale co-option of n intellectual tradition, aimed at a transformation of the British political culture, is an ambitious one, to say the least.

Even to get to first base – that of the idea being taken seriously –I will  need in part 3 of this essay  to pre-empt and respond to some of the more obvious objections and questions.

The two main questions I see are arising, and which I will see to answer in part 3, include:

  • Why, if the Habermasian project is so powerful and convincing, has it made virtually no headway in Britain in the last 30 years?
  • The Habermasian project is strong on democratic deliberation, but what’s so socialist about it?

This I will do before moving on to how in current institutional and practical terms a consciously Habermasian Corbynism might start to be brought to bear within the next year or so, and before the false, sub-Gramscian constructions of Corbynism, which foster internal battles for ground, squeeze the life out of the new opportunities that those same sub-Gramscians helped to create through their undoubted organisational energies [7].

Within this, the current ‘movements’ (as a catch-all term) with which I will seek to align a proposed new Habermasian influence will be:

1) The current Momentum strategy of the Corbyn leadership (though not necessarily Corbyn himself), which I will argue, in spite of the torrent of justified but exaggerated criticism of infiltration by the less-thinking hard left, is potentially an inspired route towards the kind of civil society/public  sphere democratic and associational democratic institutions of which Habermas approves, and which fits with both the work of Habermas activist/scholar Mark E Warren and the earlier, related thinking of the late Paul Hirst.  In this context, I will argue that Momentum has no place within the formal structures of the labour movement – an argument I will be taking forward through my own  formative Momentum branch.

2) The (remants of) Blue Labour and the much more extant Common Good Labour(ish), which contains/contained some impressive thinkers/activists like Jon Wilson.   I will argue that Habermasian Corbynism can come to the aid of some of Blue Labour thinking about community and family tradition as a bulwark against the impacts of capitalist modernism, but in a way which moves – via the Habermasian concept of constitutional patriotism – beyond the authoritarianism and even the reactionary impluses of the very worst bits of Blue Labour, which arise because there is an insufficiently rigorous grounding (cf. the authoritarian morality inherent to Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism).

3) The new Open Labour network, established with admirable organisation and energy by Labour members sick of the apparent slide towards civil war in Labour, and promoting a pluralism which is appealing, but again insufficiently grounded to make any real headway.

4) ‘Kendallite Labour’: as I’ve set out previously, there is much to commend in this sect’s vision for the dispersal of power, though that concept needs refining, and there will certainly be an intersect between Habermasian/Hirstian  thinking about how this can be put into practice through the development, within and beyond Momentum, of associational democractic organisations.

5) What I’ll call for now Painter Labour:  Anthony Painter is the only public intellectual I know of from the Labour centre who has sought to distance himself from those tired certainties, and is currently seeking to plough a different intellectual course, framing/basing his work on the radical ‘first principles’ tradition of Tom Paine, in a way which might assist Labour and the Left in coming to terms not just with current modernity, but with the huge technological, social and environmental change now upon us.  Again, I think there will be significant points of intersection between his thinking and whatever may come (I hope) of Habermasian Labour.

I’ll finish part 3 with an afterword about the relationship between Habermas, Germany’s greatest 20th century public intellectual, whose commitment to socialist ideals and to resisting moves towards a revisionist take on Nazism  has done so much to build the relatively tolerant and cohesive Germany we know  today, and the construction of which many British leftwingers would give their own right arm to have been part.

See you for part 3.



[1] Habermas’ concept of what constitutes the lifeworld is perhaps the most contentious part of his overall schema.  There are valid criticisms, especially from feminist academic  such as Nancy Fraser (pdf), that the conception is too static, and does not properly account for power imbalances within the ‘lifeworld’.  Any serious attempt to incorporate Habermasian thought into the British left way of doing things will of course need to take account of such critique.

[2]  I have, in the interest of relative brevity, sought to avoid quoting Habermas directly in this essay, though I will certainly need to do so in further writings.  However, I do think a direct quote is warranted to show how close Habermas’s anlausis of capitalist modernioty is, at points, to the work of third-way intellectual guru Anthony Giddens, and how therefore Habermas’ more complete schema should be taken seriously in a British context, including by those who supported the rise of New Labour (as I did) but who now need to move beyond it.

Culture and personality are attacked for the benefit pf a crisis-overcoming stabilisation of society…The results of this substitution [are that] in place of anomic occurrences(and in place of the….withdrawal of legitimation and motivation) phenomena of alienation and insecurity of collective identity arise (vol 1, p.566, quoted in Stephen K White excellent critique Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice & Modernity (p.121)).

[3] Habermas defines  the three formal conditions of the ideal speech situation as follows:

[1] Each subject who is capable of speech and action is allowed to participate in discourses.

[2] Each is allowed to call into question any proposal. Each is allowed to introduce any proposal into the dis­course. Each is allowed to express his attitudes, wishes, and needs.

[3] No speaker ought to be hindered by compulsion— whether arising from inside the discourse or out­side of it—from making use of the rights se­cured under [1 and 2].

[4] There is not space here to delve into how Habermasian thought can elucidate the current problem of distrust of politics and politicians, and how this relates to a corruption of  language.  In further work on this, I will certainly make use of the insights of Mark E Warren, probably the leading Habermas-influenced associative democratic theorist, and especially his superb essay Deliberative Democracy and the Corruption of Speech [pdf]  in which he sets out the argument – highly relevant to emergent Corbynism, that effective democracy is not just about what is discussed, but about the relationships which are built via the process of discussion, and which serve to counter the processes of alienation and insecurity to which I have referred above.

[T]he first contemporary theorist of deliberative democracy – Habermas – built his theory out of a pragmatic philosophy of language (what he called “universal pragmatics”) that emphasized the social relationships that are established as a consequence of making claims, and upon which the cognitive content of claims depend for their capacities to coordinate among and between social actors…

So the work accomplished by deliberation is in part about what is deliberated: conflicts, claims, values, information, and matters of substance that is communicated through language. But it is in part about the relationships that are established as a consequence of speaking and listening – relationships that constitute speakers as agents who have the kind of solidity that others can trust p.14-15)

[5] These ‘validity claims’, which Habermas suggests operate subconsciously in everyday speech, and which must be ‘redeemable’ by a speaker if her/his speech is to be recognized as a valid part of consensus-oriented speech are:  truth, normative legitimacy and truthfulness/authenticity.  This conceptualization of what makes up everyday language is at the heart of Habermas’ linguistic theory and normative project, and I will come back to them (and how they might be practically taken on board) in future writing.

[6] It is course arguable that the best arena in which to set forth for the first time a ‘new politics’, which engages with questions on a ‘want to hear the actual answer’ basis, is not that of national security, whether the dangers to it are real or perceived, and this may account for some of the bad polling around the Syria war vote.  However, even here, polls swung toward the Corbyn position in the period before the vote, even while his ratings as an effective leader slipped.

[7]  I make this point, about how many of those I now criticize for their ‘sub-Gramscian’ thinking about Corbynism were actually responsible for him becoming leader in the first place, advisedly. I recognize that my criticisms in part 1 of the seminar I attended, and the more general  ‘false Corbynism’ it represented, may come across as too personal, which in would in turn be out of keeping with the ‘kinder politics’ Corbyn really does seek to engender (whether or not consciously).

In fact, I admire greatly what the early ‘Corbynistas’ achieved.  They spotted, while I didn’t. the real appetite for what Anthony Painter (above) now describes rather too dismissively as a longing for “something raw and emotive”, and which Jeremy’s character and public persona might deliver.  The fact that they now interpret what happened in a way which will damage Corbynism is a facet of the longterm ‘Grasmci-isation’ of the British left, to the exclusion of all other currents.   Those activists cannot be held responsible for the path-dependencies created in the 1960s (which I will examine more closely in part 3).

On Corbynism: (part 1 of 3)

December 21, 2015 2 comments

Gramsci100 days of solitude

She shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle (chapter 17)


I’ve not written on Corbynism for the first 100 days. I missed its early rise so spectacularly that I decided a period of silence, humility and reflection on why I had done so [1], and more importantly what Corbynism actually is, was warranted.

Here, 100 days on (and 101 days tomorrow) are my first reflections on what Corbynism isn’t, what it is – though Jeremy Corbyn may not well know it – and what promised land it may just offer British socialism.

Or not, depending on whether the British left decides that time has actually passed, or whether it should  go in a big 40 year circle of diminishing returns.

What Corbyism isn’t

82 odd days into my 100 days of reflective solitude, and having started to come to some conclusions, I went to listen and perhaps engage with self-proclaimed intellectual activists at the heart of Corbynism.

The event, held at the woolly-left think tank premises of the New Economics Foundation was entitled Corbynism (and what Laclau & Mouffe would tell us about it). It was just awful, both in its organisation and in its content. There was no visible chair to invite and moderate contributions, and the principle contributors simply rambled on about the failures of New Labour and how the rise of Corbyn was a great moment for the British left, on which it should now seize. Laclau & Mouffe were hardly referenced [2], and the contribution of the one speaker who did try to interpret Corbynism through a Gramscian lens was soon lost in the to and fro between others who had less focus on the subject supposedly at hand.

The way the seminar was conducted meant I couldn’t bear to stay for the last hour but, from what I saw, I got the impression that those with most intellectual clout in analysing the rise of Corbynism, and therefore in steering its course over the next few months, are doing so with the worn out tools of the 1970s and 1980s.  They are also using the tools badly.

I’d describe the analysis at the meeting as ‘sub-Gramscian’, stripped off all the finesse that Perry Anderson & Tom Nairn and brought to it in the 1960s and 1970s , and now little more than a vague and in-vain aspiration to a ‘counter-hegemonic electoral coalition of the dispossessed and the partly-dispossessed.  Gone, it seems, was any real appreciation that Gramsci was largely writing about the defeat of the left, and of the current hegemonic power over culture and ‘common sense’.

Indeed, such was the reductionism that, ironically, this aspiration to a new electoral coalition did not sound too far removed from the much-maligned Tony Blair’s recent defence of his own – in the electoral and social context of the late 1990s – rather successful coalition building:

Above all, in a society in which fewer and fewer people thought of themselves as traditional working class, we needed to build a new coalition between the aspirant up and coming and the poorest and most disadvantaged.

This was just one awful meeting, but the impression that this where ‘mainstream’ intellectual Corbynism is at the moment is confirmed by other reading [3].

Doreen Massey’s editorial for Soundings, for example, written shortly after Corbyn’s election as leader, sets out her hopes for what groupings might come together to create a new (counter)-hegemonic force via the enactment of Laclau and Mouffe’s “political tasks” (these being the development of “identifiable commonalities” and “chains of equivalence” such that a common enemy is identified. It’s worth quoting at some length:

There is no doubt that Corbyn’s support draws together many flows. It draws together young and old, long histories and new initiatives. It encompasses elements both of the labour movement and of new social movements. It is definitely not only ‘the young’, as it was initially, rather lazily, labelled. The presence of young people is marked, but so too is the presence of the over-60s (a potentially positive constellation that might help get us beyond the supposed battle between generations). It brings together Generation Rent – priced out of the housing market and let down by the Liberal Democrats over university tuition fees; disillusioned

Labour voters coming back to the fold after years in the Blairite wilderness; and people who marched against the war in Iraq only to feel that it had made no difference.

Then there are those in ‘the squeezed middle’ who see their standard of living dropping year on year whilst that of the wealthy mushrooms; the environmentalists who see the chance to move climate crisis higher up the actual political agenda; the ballooning precariat who are no longer buying the line that it’s their fault; people who see corporations not paying their tax, and the privileges of the 1% swelling, whilst everyone else pays through ‘austerity’. There is a politics here that speaks to people using food banks, pensioners whose pension is not enough to live on, and victims of social cleansing forced to move away from their homes. And there are more constituencies than this, many of them overlapping.

Among these new constituencies there are also connections with some of the most innovative moments in socialist democracy over the past fifty years: the anti-racism, feminism and peace movements from the 1960s onwards; that great experiment in popular democracy, the metropolitan counties of the urban left and the GLC (Greater London Council); and the contemporary wave of experimental activism, from alter-globalisation to Occupy.

That’s a long list. In fact, it’s just about everybody who’s not a capitalist exploiter. And it’s not just long. It’s a list deliberately set in the context of the attempts, a generation or two ago, to do exactly the same thing as is proposed now.

This catch-all aspiration to anti-Tory coalition begs a simple question. How on earth, if the counter-hegemonic project didn’t work back then (except in small New Urban Left pockets, for short periods), will such a counter-hegemonic project work this time around?

The answer is also simple. It won’t.

Pretending that the Corbyn leadership will magically create the kind of social and political solidarities amongst groups of citizens who currently feel not just that they have nothing in common but who now actively oppose the others’ interests – as a result of a hegemony of the right only reinforced by the financial crisis and now a security crisis – is simply wishful thinking.

We live in an age of – to use Anthony Giddens’ term – of deep ‘ontological security’, much deeper than that of 30 years ago. As I explored a little while ago, the question of what’s wrong with our politics can and perhaps should be recast as a (Rieffian) question about what is so wrong with all of us.

In such insecure times, Doreen’s vision of an end to the “retail politics” of New Labour and a switch to a “notion of campaigning to change what the electorate might want, to argue for values, and understandings of the world, that may not be popular now but are what the party (says it) stands for” (p.7), reflects a well-meant but hopelessly outdated concept of false consciousness amongst the masses, which can be overcome through a series of courageous political acts and educational endeavours.

This concept of false consciousness, and the consequent imperative of political education of the masses, may have had some validity before the onset of late ‘capitalist realism’, but from Adorno & Horkheimer onwards both socialists and conservative intellectuals have, and with varying degrees of cultural pessimism, come to the conclusion that realism is either inescapable, and humanly bearable only by an alienation from our true ourselves and submission to capitalism’s material and/or ‘moral’ authority, or escapable only via some form of postmodern ‘lucidity pact’ with the capitalist devil.

I will explore this failure of analysis by the sub-Gramscian Corbynistas more in future blogs (and the book-to-be), particularly on how any attempt to recreate the occasionally successful-in-the-short-term, but overall failed attempt of the 1980s counter-hegemonic strategy for a rainbow coalition of interest and identity groups is doomed to failure in a context, 30 years on, of massive ‘ontological security’ and atomization of the working class.

Suffice to say, for now, that those professing to analyses Corbynism through a Gramsican lens seem to me to be confirming what Gramsci himself had to say about why those on the left who seek to oppose the successful hegemonic strategies of the right by appropriating the right’s techniques, but without the material power to combat the ‘ideological apparatuses’ (to borrow a post-Gramsci term) ranged against them. The occasional unexpected victory (e.g. Corbyn’s leadership win), says Gramsci, has the counter-productive effect of making the left think it can win on the right’s terms:

[T]he social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes — when, that is, the group is acting as an organic totality. But this same group has, for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination, adopted a conception which is not its own but is borrowed from another group; and it affirms this conception verbally and believes itself to be following it, because this is the conception which it follows in ‘normal times’ — that is when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate. Hence the reason why philosophy cannot be divorced from politics. And one can show furthermore that the choice and the criticism of a conception of the world is also a political matter (p.23)

In shorter terms: the right won. We lost. The right is much stronger politically and culturally than it was 30 years ago. Combatting it on its own hegemonic terrain will fail, and just make us weaker. The new sub-Gramsci intellectuals of Corbynism need to get real.

What Corbynism is, or at least can be

That’s Corbyn #100. Tomorrow, with Corbyn #101, I move on from the doom and gloom.  I think Corbyn, and Corbynism, do constitute a great moment of opportunity for the left – just not the kind of opportunity either Corbyn or most of the Corbynista are currently aware of, mostly because they’ve not read enough books, like what I have.  I think the opportunities are much greater than the Gramscians think, but it will take a wholesale revolution in British leftwing thinking (and consequent action) if we are to seize them.


[1] In my meagre defence, I missed the early rise of the Corbyn factor because I don’t live in an area which felt anything like Corbynmania, which was by and large restricted to London and other ‘metropolitan’ areas.

[2] My going to London in the first place was inspired by my twitter comrade @RF_McCarthy’s inspired suggestion of waiting to get to the point where someone crassly misinterpreted Chantal Mouffe’s work, then producing her from behind a wall in the manner of Woody Allen producing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall.  I wrote to Chantal, but for some reason  she ignored me.

[3] Another explicitly Gramscian expression of hope around early Corbynism come from Ken Spours, in his analysis of Osborne’s continuing hegemony

At this point Corbynism could be seen as constituting a ‘primitive political bloc’, designed to mobilise the Left, Greens and a new wave of young people to provide the Labour Party with a sense of vitality and moral and political purpose following a catastrophic defeat. Its primitivism lies in the combination of the enthusiasm and mobilisation for a clear anti-austerity position and the fact that its politics is not yet sufficient to build a comprehensive and effective progressive counter bloc. Moving beyond primitivism involves, among other things, recognising that bloc autonomy can only be momentary and that the real aim should not be independence and the comfort of political identity (although these may have a valid function in 2015), but the more difficult and longer-term exercise of hegemony in the conditions of the 21st century.