Friday, 19 August 2016

New Project: Notes from the Underclass

Hold onto your nuts, I have started a new blog on Medium called 'Notes from the Underclass'. Pretension and procrastination continue to be my main skills. I intend to rejuvenate this platform too, and generally refocus my efforts.

As I am unemployed for the time being, I thought I would blog about the arduous task of applying for universal credit and chart the process (which could take up to six weeks). I also intend to interview people who have been living on benefits for far longer than I have. The point being to get the insights of ordinary people completely overlooked, marginalised and vilified by the media and political class.

This is not meant to be a long-term project, as I intend to get hired soon, but it is meant to provide some illumination and humour on unemployment. It's not enough to be morose about the state of affairs in the world. Though it is certainly understandable.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Brexit as Class War

In the wake of Brexit, we were told the vote was a great revolt by the white working-class. We were told it was grounded in racist discontent with an out-of-touch metropolitan elite. The Leave vote was entirely composed of ill-educated, poor racists living anywhere between the progressive bastions of London and Scotland. It's worth asking what's wrong with this view.

Too much bile has been directed towards the working-class for voting the wrong way. It's as if europhilic liberals cannot bring themselves to look in the mirror and examine the Remain campaigns for any failing. And the EU is left beyond scrutiny. Instead the working-class is supposed to play the scapegoat for an incoherent and lacklustre campaign strategy.

There are no legitimate reasons to advocate Brexit, in this view, the vote is simply an expression of racism and ignorance. Importantly, the European political terrain is increasingly split between liberalism and nationalism with each side helping to constitute the other. This basic antagonism has dominated the entire EU debate and, in turn, shaped the way the working-class has been tarred by middle-class journalists.

My first reaction was to characterise Brexit as a "fuck you" vote. I still think it was, but not necessarily by people who have been left behind by globalisation. As Zoe Williams has pointed out, it was the Southern English middle-class that tipped the balance – not working-class Northerners. This should not be a surprise. Middle-class and elite votes play a major role in all elections, as they dominate the whole discourse, the media and political agenda.

No War Like Class War

By holding a vote, David Cameron hoped to resolve the tension within the ruling-class and his own party. He did not believe he could lose the referendum because he was so accustomed to winning on every occasion. There was no game plan for an exit. So when the men who had always won everything finally lost, they had no idea what to do – and they still don't. But this is not the fullest account of the character of the vote.

Although the ruling-class was thinking of its own interests, the middle-classes and the working poor were significant actors. The breakdown of the Leave vote in ABC terms of class, not necessarily the best analysis, it must be said, shows 10 million upper/middle-class votes and seven million working-class votes cast for Brexit. By contrast, the Remain vote was made up of 12 million upper/middle-class votes with around four million working-class votes.

Similarly, the base of UKIP is often wrongly described as working-class and eating into the Labour vote. Actually UKIP has primarily threatened the Conservative Party, and often overtook it in Labour constituencies because so few locals would vote Tory. The UKIP base is petty-bourgeois with some elements of the poor and the rich backing them. Nigel Farage may be the first ultra-rightist to lead a party based on a cross-class alliance.

So we find the narrative of a working-class revolt is somewhat inaccurate. As in most votes, the working-class was present, but key roles were played by elite interests and middle-class votes. This is not to diminish the role of the votes cast by working-class people. Certainly, the grievances of the working-class were a significant factor. But the fact that the Leave vote was a convergence of different class forces should not surprise us.

Likewise, the vote was not a case of total white flight, though it is mostly. Around 33% of Asian voters opted for Brexit, alongside 27% of black voters. Again, this is not to explain away the role of the racism. After all, you can still cast a vote to limit EU migration on the grounds that the system privileges EU nationals over migrants from other parts of the world. This is why multiculturalism did not prevent Birmingham from voting for exit.

In fact, Nigel Farage often made this Commonwealth argument against EU membership. The basic idea goes that the UK should become closer to its former colonies and not the small cluster of European states. This reveals more than a scintilla of colonial nostalgia is present in the kind of nationalism invoked by Brexit campaigners. The wish to "get my country back" can take a variety of forms. It harks back to a dead empire.

The Left and Brexit

Still, the key question for the Left is the role of the working-class. There are those on the radical Left, who made the progressive case for British withdrawal from the EU. Veteran agitators such as Tariq Ali and George Galloway rank in the Lexit camp. Many other socialists found themselves sympathetic to this argument thanks to the EU's austerity programme. Ultimately, the prospect of siding with Farage may have been too much to stomach.

Economist Paul Mason warned against a Lexit vote on pragmatic grounds: the timing was wrong, as the Left lacked a mass movement and leadership, to overhaul the status quo. One might wonder if the time is ever right. Others like John Pilger framed the Brexit vote as an "act of raw democracy" by millions of ordinary people. This repeats the idea that the working-class was in the driving seat and this vote was a "fuck you" to the ruling-class.

Not only is the working-class not in the driving seat, the sections of the poor which supported Brexit may well have done so out of nationalism. This does not mean there was no left-wing element in the Leave vote, though it is a fact that the Left was divided over the EU – which, at once, stands for freedom of movement and neoliberalism. Poor people fell on both sides of the debate too.

Yet the Lexit crowd wants to pretend that the working-class is vote was devoid of racism. This brings us to one of the classic fixations of the Left: if the working-class as a revolutionary agent, how is it that capitalism has not been overthrown? The easy answer is that it is deficient leadership on the part of trade unions and parties. While this may well be true, it does not rule out the possibility that the working-class is open to demobilisation, as well as reformist and reactionary politics.

If liberals are guilty of presupposing the inherent backwardness of the working-class, then a number of leftists can be criticised for claiming the working-class is inherently revolutionary or even communist already. The working-class has agency, and the potential for revolutionary agency, which means the choice is not between a unwashed xenophobic rabble and a red flag-waving proletariat.

Revolutionary Ideals

Obviously, class interests are not self-evident axioms. Classes are alive, they are not subject to test conditions, as they engage in the world and face changing social conditions. If working-class agency means anything, it means the ability to disagree and make independent choices. But this does not extend to the terms of the choice itself.

Even if the proletariat is not on the cusp of a great revolt, it is the Left that needs the working-class and, likewise, class politics is the only way forward for ordinary people. Left-wing ideals without class is a form of anti-politics. If a section of working people, or even a majority for that matter, are not mobilised by the Left, this would not vindicate those who say the poor are backward.

It is worth acknowledging that the main demand of Leave voters was national sovereignty, whereas immigration controls was a secondary concern. Not that this changes the fact that the dominant character of the vote was nationalist. Sovereignty is one of those few ambiguous demands backed by radical elements across the spectrum.

Nevertheless, the Left should not try to externalise racism from the working-class in a bid to save its own romantic view of the workers. The problem here is that it presupposes that the poor ought to have the right set of ideas in order for socialists to stand with them. In this sense, the constant yearning for a revolutionary agent collapses into its opposite.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Corbyn Coup: Jeremy Fights Back!

The coup against Jeremy Corbyn has now fully transmuted into a leadership election. But the key challengers are unlikely to win over the membership: whether it is lacklustre Angela Eagle, or the mediocre Owen Smith. Corbyn is officially on the ballot, albeit with new barriers to his supporters. Sadly the contest may take until September to conclude, while the Conservative government is busy regrouping.

Things are moving very quickly. Not long ago, there was a great deal of anxiety over the NEC vote on whether or not to allow Corbyn to remain on the ballot paper. Many feared Labour would deny the incumbent the right to defend his position from Angela Eagle. The Blairites are cynical enough to take this decision. It would have been a transparent move to overthrow the leader and close the democratic opening within the party. But we shouldn't forget this almost happened.

Much like the no-confidence motion, the NEC held the ballot in secret. The point being to embolden the anti-Corbyn vote, as it had done with the no-confidence motion. This same method allowed 80% of the PLP to fall into line with the Blairite coup. Yet even with the secret ballot, the Corbyn camp won the NEC vote by a modest margin (18:14) and now NEC elections may see the balance of votes turn in the Left's favour.

However, the NEC rammed through new measures, once Corbyn and his allies were out of the room, to deny 128,000 members the right to vote and suspend all branch meetings until after the election. This should not surprise anyone. The Labour Party has a long tradition of rigging its internal contests for the sake of 'unity' and 'stability'. Democracy and contestation is a threat to this Tammany Hall system.

The enemy revealed

First, Angela Eagle emerged to take on Corbyn, but now Owen Smith has entered the field. Smith represents a division in the anti-Corbyn faction, where Eagle is not seen as necessarily the best candidate to take on the leader. He is now positioning himself to be the single challenger to face Jeremy Corbyn. He has called for a second EU referendum, appealing to the liberal europhiles so easily disenchanted with Corbynism. It's an appeal to the muesli belt.

Overall, the Smith campaign looks like a serious bid for power. The Pontypridd MP vows to refocus efforts on inequality. He has proposed a £200 billion investment programme to build housing, colleges, hospitals and improve existing infrastructure. Smith was self-aware enough to outmatch Stephen Crabb's call for a £100 billion plan. He's even pledged to bring in a war powers act to ensure no future government can take the country to war without parliamentary support.

This coming from a man, who was not in Parliament to vote for the Iraq war, surely strengthens his bid for the leadership. But it's not entirely accurate to say Smith is anti-war. In the past, Owen Smith has expressed support for the occupation of Iraq on Eustonite grounds – going as far as to compare the conflict to the Spanish civil war. This was long before Hilary Benn used the same analogy to support the invasion of Syria.

Meanwhile the Eagle campaign has been markedly lukewarm. So far Angela Eagle has succeeded in winning over sympathy with questionable claims of intimidation by leftists. Her debut was spoiled by Theresa May's victory after Andrea Leadsom pulled out of the Tory leadership race. The journalists rushed out of the room to cover the real news. But even when Eagle gets airtime, she fails to inspire. It looks like a kamikaze candidacy.

The aim is victory through destruction. The Blairites and the 'soft left' are trying to use Angela Eagle as a front to slam the Labour leadership. The election will be dragged out over the summer to guarantee maximum damage. The Labour Right would prefer to see Corbyn fail than see him challenge the Tory government. This is just as the government is largely rudderless. A united opposition could have serious impact right now.

Perilous terrain

Faced with Smith, the Corbyn camp has returned to its own take on quantitative easing. John McDonnell has laid out plans for a national investment bank and £500 billion programme for infrastructure. It would be coupled with regional banks to increase the level of investment to the North and the Midlands. This not only tops Smith's position, it is a return to Corbynomics – a radical mix of heterodox Keynesian and post-socialist economic policies.

If Corbyn combines a well thought out platform with a social media strategy and grass-roots organising, the leader should be able to win with a landslide. Victory has to be total here, or it will embolden the anti-Corbyn faction to draw their knives later. It's not just a matter of having the right ideas and decency. The extreme centrists want to recapture the party leadership, and they are willing to ruin its electoral chances to do so.

Not surprisingly, Jeremy Corbyn has fallen back on tried and tested social media networks. This allows Corbyn to connect with his base in a much more direct way than his competitors. It does have limits, though it is the best option. The real battle is how Corbyn can assert influence in the media and reach a mass audience. He recently gave a pretty relaxed interview to the BBC in Finsbury Park. But the press is still overwhelmingly hostile to the Left.

The main problem is not the right-wing press, but the lack of a left-wing press. The Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the New Statesman have led the herd of independent minds. This herd includes liberals and leftists who take issue with Corbyn's idealism. Even the Daily Mirror, the only Labour red-top newspaper, called for Corbyn to let the coup plotters win. So there is no progressive commentariat backing the Labour leader.

The Corbyn leadership faces the difficulty of getting the word out in a hostile media environment. At the same time, the party is locked into a crisis which predates the last nine months and goes back to the compromises of Blairism and even before. The redistribution of power and wealth was always offset to secure gains within the system. Now there is the real struggle to transform the party in order to change the country.

This article was originally published at Souciant.