Cycles of Hegemony

September 15, 2016

In his world-systems theory, Immanuel Wallerstein presents a macrosocial framework for analysing the history of modernity, or of capitalism.  Capitalism, Wallerstein argues, should be understood as a ‘world system’, which can best be analysed as a single unit composed of many mutually dependent parts.  Unlike an empire, in which a single central political unit controls a vast territory through hierarchical lines of command, capitalism as a world system contains no overarching political decision-making body.  In capitalism, many independent and quasi-independent states – each their own political entity – exist within a global interstate system, connected by geopolitical and economic ties.

These different political entities are not equal.  Some are under others’ overt political control in a direct colonial relation; some are client states with only limited decision-making autonomy; some are constrained by lesser economic or military power than their rivals; and some are relatively powerful and autonomous within the framework of the global system.  Wallerstein therefore subdivides the world system into three categories of political entity – core, semi-periphery and periphery – with relations of political-economic dominance and dependence between them.  Although the capitalist world system is, for Wallerstein, intrinsically segmented in this way, which political entities occupy which structural roles is not fixed.  States gain and lose political-economic power, and as they do so the structure of world-system changes.

If a core state becomes sufficiently powerful relative to its rival core states, Wallerstein argues, it achieves the status of a hegemonic power.  A hegemonic state cannot subsume the entire system within a single, centralised, hierarchically controlled political unit – a global hegemon is not a global empire.  But a hegemonic state plays the dominant role in shaping the rules of the global political-economic system, in a way that serves its interests.

In his major work, The Modern World-System, Wallerstein argues that the long-term dynamics of the capitalist world system can be analysed through the lens of ‘long waves’ (‘Kondratiev waves’) of global growth, stagnation and recession.  These multi-decade economic cycles correspond also to multi-decade cycles of political transformation.  Specifically, Wallerstein proposes a ‘cycle of hegemony’ that describes the rise and fall of hegemonic states within the system as a whole.

Since the creation of the capitalist world system in the ‘long 16th century’, Wallerstein argues, there have been only three hegemonic powers, and three periods of hegemony:

The United Provinces was the hegemonic power in the mid-seventeenth century, briefly, from 1648 to the 1660s.  The United Kingdom was the hegemonic power for a slightly longer time in the nineteenth century, from 1815 to 1848, perhaps a little longer.  The United States was the hegemonic power in the mid-twentieth century, from 1945 to 1967/1973. (Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, p. xxiii)

For Wallerstein, the moment in which a state functions as a hegemonic power forms one stage of a recurrent four-stage cycle of hegemony:

If one starts the story when there is an uncontested hegemonic power, the first moment occurs in the period immediately thereafter.  It is the moment of the slow decline of the hegemonic power, during which two powers emerge as contenders for the succession.  The moment after that is when the decline has become definitive.  We can think of this second moment as one in which there is a ‘balance of power’ in the world-system.  During this moment, the two contenders for hegemony struggle to secure geopolitical and world-economic advantage.  The third moment is when the struggle becomes so acute that order breaks down and there is a “thirty years’ war” between the contenders for hegemony.  And the fourth moment is when one of the contenders wins definitely and is therefore able to establish a true hegemony – until, of course, the slow decline begins. (xxiii)

Now – it goes without saying that historical patterns only persist as long as they persist.  There is no reason to assume that a pattern which has held in modern history to date – if it has – will necessarily continue in the future.  And, indeed, Wallerstein himself appears to believe that we are currently in a transition from a capitalist world-system to some other, novel global political-economic structure.  For Wallerstein, the most pressing political question is the nature of that emerging structure – will it take an emancipatory or oppressive form?

I myself, however, attribute this last element of Wallerstein’s position to the perennial analytic defect of Marxists: the hope that “this time is different”, and that the current purported crisis of capitalism is a terminal one.  There seems to me to be no very compelling reason to assume that there is any decisive break in the structure of the world-system, in our current historical moment.  The conservative and reasonable ‘baseline projection’ from a world-systems perspective, in my opinion, is to assume that we are currently still within one of the long-term ‘cycles of hegemony’ that have structured the history of the capitalist world-system to date.

If so, where are we in that cycle?  Well, clearly we are no longer in the period of hegemony.  As Wallerstein says in the passage I quoted above, the period of US hegemony came to an end some time in the late-1960s – mid-1970s.  I would suggest, further, that the period of hegemonic decline has also now ended, or is at the very least ending.  We are instead entering a new period of ‘great powers rivalry’, in which the powers within the interstate system are sufficiently balanced that jockeying for geopolitical position becomes a more central preoccupation of states’ governing elites.

Now, the period of hegemony is characterised by a global political-economic structure created and enforced by the hegemonic state: an economically liberal order within the sphere of the hegemonic power’s global influence.  In the period of decline that order persists, because although the former hegemonic power’s political-economic strength is reduced, it is in the interests of its rivals to retain the political and economic structures that are increasing their economic, and therefore geopolitical, strength.

In the period of great powers rivalry this calculation changes, for two reasons.  First, the period of great powers rivalry is, Wallerstein argues, typically characterised by global stagnation or recession.  In this scenario, economic growth moves closer to a ‘zero sum game’ in which states are concerned to expand their spheres of influence and thereby increase or secure their wealth at others’ expense, rather than relying on general global economic expansion ‘naturally’ increasing states’ wealth through the ordinary operation of the liberal international order.

Second, with the ‘opening up’ of geopolitical space, and the unpredictability of the future structure of the world system, states have an increased interest in gaining geopolitical power relative to their rivals.  This too leads to an increase in interstate geopolitical competition.  Eventually, Wallerstein suggests, that geopolitical competition will result in global war.

It is, again, worth emphasising the unpredictability of history, and the inadequacy of any conceptual schema to the complexities of global political-economic dynamics.  Still, Wallerstein’s approach seems to me to provide a useful ‘baseline’ for thinking about our current macrosocial moment.  

In particular, here are some of the things associated with the shift from the first to the second stage of the ‘cycle of hegemony’, described above: Increasing interstate rivalries; efforts by many states to expand their spheres of influence; global economic stagnation and recession; declining power of a previous hegemonic power.  An increasing decay or collapse of the liberal international order, and a corresponding movement towards greater autarky for individual states, and towards greater interstate competition.  Shifts in the ideological ‘superstructure’ that parallel these political-economic shifts: increased challenges to the global liberal order, and to liberal ideology more broadly; greater suspicion of international institutions; increased nationalism, and therefore, often, nativism.  A shift towards more zero-sum understandings of wealth accumulation, both between and within states; correspondingly, greater intra-state rivalries between economic groups.  All of these things seem to have some explanatory purchase on our current anti-liberal, anti-elite, increasingly isolationist political moment.

Further – again, with all due caution and caveats – this ‘baseline projection’ would seem to warrant a pessimism about the medium term geopolitical outlook.  If the US is, indeed, to be replaced by an alternative global hegemonic power within a capitalist world-system – if the ‘cycle of hegemony’, as Wallerstein characterises it, is to persist – then that new hegemonic power must, somehow, establish its hegemony.  On Wallerstein’s account, this has only ever previously been achieved through a ‘thirty years war’:

The original Thirty Years’ War was from 1618 to 1648, out of which the United Provinces emerged hegemonic.  The second one was the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, out of which the United Kingdom emerged hegemonic.  And the third was the period 1914-1945, out of which the United States emerged hegemonic. (xxv)

Will this current period of interstate rivalries result, eventually, in a new ‘thirty years war’?  Again, the predictive power of social science is notoriously limited.  But this seems like something worth worrying about, in amongst all our other worries.

Going over yet again (very much in ‘notes to self’ mode) the same issues I’ve been circling around for a couple years here now – what is the relation between a radical politics and liberal principles?

Return to the three forms of liberty: negative liberty (freedom from unjust coercion); ‘capabilities’ liberty (freedom to exercise one’s faculties – to realise one’s goals – within that sphere of negative liberty); positive liberty (the grounding of governance – the power to coerce – in the will or decisions of the governed, in some sense).  Add the idea that human nature (which I think is a legitimate concept to use provided we understand that it is probabilistic) is often self-interested and violent.  That means we need coercive institutions to sanction and constrain those who would do harm to others – that’s a condition of widespread liberty.  But those coercive institutions will ‘naturally’ (that is: probabilistically, but predictably) incline to the abuse of power, so we also need a ‘checks and balances’ approach to institution design, in which different elements of governance institutions constrain the abuse of power of other elements.  Democracy is one such check and balance – I’m unclear how much of the warrant for democratic government should be understood in positive liberty vs. in checks and balance terms.

Here are two radical objections to this liberal approach, political and economic. 1) The circle of individuals who are taken to possess the rights to liberty (negative, capabilities, positive) is drawn too narrowly: in liberal practice – and indeed often in liberal theory – there are distinctions along racial, class, gender and other lines between those who deserve these political rights and those who do not.  2) The economic structure of society is such as to intrinsically deny liberty to significant portions of humanity.  Enslaved, enserfed and proletarianised economic actors are – to very different degrees across and within these categories – denied full access to the social power required to achieve self-realisation (capabilities liberty), and must submit themselves to the coercive power of others (loss of negative liberty) to survive, even if they possess liberal rights and entitlements in some other respects.

So – very crassly, you can say that there’s the goal of achieving political power or representation for marginalised groups, and the goal of transforming the structure of society to increase the liberty (negative and capabilities, as well as positive) of those formerly denied it.  Crudely, you can see the twentieth century communist project as driven by the idea that removing – or refusing to introduce – checks and balances on power could be justified by the ability it gave governments to serve, via planning, the economic interests of citizens, increasing capabilities liberty.  The social democratic project, by contrast, aimed to work within a broadly liberal political system, using the power achieved by elected representatives to influence policy in ways that increased the liberties of the citizens represented.  Neither communists nor social democrats necessarily understood their projects primarily in terms of liberal ideals, so there are important dimensions of those projects not captured by this framing.  Still, this is I think a good ‘first pass’ way to think about what is valuable in those political projects.

So: if we reject the communist indifference to checks and balances, as leading predictably to despotism, and if we likewise reject liberal governance over populations seen as existing outside, or only partially within, the sphere of liberal rights – for example, the colonial periphery – as, again, despotic, what are we left with?  One obvious answer is the debate over the appropriate balance between the three different forms of liberty, within a generalised space of entitlement to liberal rights and freedoms – and the problem of what institutional structures can achieve this, both within the traditional modern unit of political governance – the nation state – and also internationally.  This institution-design challenge is compatible with the twentieth century social democratic project – but we shouldn’t assume that social democracy’s institutional achievements are the only or best way to attempt to realise this project.  Anyway, this seems to me to be a useful way of understanding the goal of political-economic institutional proposals.

Labour’s Crisis

July 31, 2016

One useful way to think about the UK Labour Party’s current crisis is by comparing it to the two previous major crises in the party’s history. All three internal political crises have followed, and been directly caused by, macroeconomic crises. Labour’s project, as a party of government, has always been the efficient management of a capitalist economy, to foster economic growth and thereby enable the more equitable distribution of an economic surplus. Absent a growing surplus to distribute, however, Labour is unclear and internally divided on questions of economic policy, and on broader political goals. In Andrew Thorpe’s words:

during more prosperous times, Labour does at least have something coherent to say: namely, that the fruits of that prosperity should be used in order to create a fairer society… The problem, throughout Labour’s history, is what to do when the economy moves into difficulties. (Thorpe, Andrew. A History of the British Labour Party. 1997. p. 241)

Moments of economic crisis and stagnation therefore bring to the fore tensions between the different components of Labour’s coalition. Historically, this coalition has most prominently consisted in: the trade union movement and, secondarily, the co-operative movement; socialists, of a range of different kinds, with centralising statism largely eclipsing decentralising syndicalism across the early decades of the twentieth century; and the left wing of the liberal movement, driven by neither socialist ideology nor ties to organised labour, but by a progressivist opposition to the effects of social inequality. These can – in shorthand, and very very inadequately – be mapped onto the centre (trade unionist / co-operative), left (socialist) and right (liberal / self-described ‘social democratic’) segments of the party’s ideological spectrum.

The three periods of internal Labour Party crisis have tracked the three major economic crises of the period of Labour’s existence: the crash of 1929 and subsequent depression; the period of stagnation and stagflation of the 1970s; and the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession. Each period of economic crisis and stagnant growth has resulted in civil war within the party, as the unifying project of administering a flourishing capitalist economy and then directing its economic surplus to the working class, has fallen apart. In the first two cases – and quite possibly in the present third case – this has resulted (may very well result) in schism and years of electoral disaster.

In each case, Labour has been in government during the moment of economic crisis. In 1929 Labour was in government when the stock market crash took place. The party was divided over the wisdom or necessity of austerity policies in the subsequent depression, and this internal conflict ultimately resulted, in the period 1929-32, in a four-way schism. The internal defeat of Mosley’s nationalist Keynesian plan led to Mosley’s departure from the party and his founding of the New Party, and then in 1932 the British Union of Fascists. Ramsay MacDonald, aligning with the liberal right, chose to leave the party, with a handful of others, to form a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. The Independent Labour Party – representing a significant portion of the left socialist wing of the party – chose to disaffiliate, with the ultimate result of parliamentary irrelevance. The majority rump of the party – the centrists, alongside non-schisming figures from the party’s other wings – persisted, in electoral strife, until the outbreak of WWII, the formation of the wartime coalition government, and postwar electoral success. Very crudely speaking, then, the left, right, centrist, and (in Mosley) novel proto-fascist wings of the party all chose to go their different ways – with short-term success for the right, long-term success for the centre, and electoral oblivion for the schisming left and proto-fascist wings.

In the 1970s Labour was likewise in (and out of) government through the period of stagnation, stagflation, and financial crisis. The Wilson and Callaghan governments’ apparent inability to adequately resolve these crises was widely taken as a damning failure of the ‘revisionist’ Labour right’s technocratic Keynesian approach to economic management. Again, the party was profoundly internally divided, as the glue that bound together the components of its coalition – a smoothly growing capitalist economy with an easy-to-reallocate surplus – evaporated. After the electoral loss of 1979 the party was therefore preoccupied by internal conflict. In the early 1980s, however, unlike in the early 1930s, the components of the party did not so comprehensively schism. There was one major split: in 1981 a significant portion of the liberal (right) wing of the party formed the SDP – a progessivist party unburdened by union affiliations or socialist ideology. The remainder of the party – including the portion of the right that had chosen to remain in Labour – spent the following years in civil war. The left mounted a serious effort to gain control of the party machinery, pushing for greater influence in both its parliamentary (Bennite) and revolutionary entryist (Militant) forms. Ultimately the leftists were purged (in the case of Militant) and internally marginalised (in the case of the Bennites) and the right of the party began a long march to internal dominance over an acquiescent centre and sidelined left, cemented by the victory of Blair in the 1994 leadership election.

In 2008, again, Labour was in government when the financial crisis hit. Again, its immediate handling of the crisis was creditable, but its reputation for competent economic governance was devastated. Again, once out of office the party became profoundly divided on how best to respond to a period of recession and stagnant growth. Between 2010 and 2015, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, the party’s message was confused, as different ideological segments of the party pushed for different platforms. Then, after the 2015 electoral defeat, and the election of a representative of the left faction, Jeremy Corbyn, to party leader, under a new ‘one member one vote’ system, the party moved into open civil war. The present situation is very febrile, and my goal here is not to rehearse the details of the current party infighting – but many commentators find a schism of some sort the most likely outcome, at present. It is not hard to see some of the same basic themes reprised here, as in the 1930s and 1980s.

Three economic crises; three civil wars within Labour; and at least two – quite possibly three – periods of schism and electoral collapse. One doesn’t want to overstate the parrallels, but this historical perspective does at least make clear that, whatever one’s position within the current internal party conflict, this crisis shouldn’t simply be attributed to superficial – or indeed profound – failings of any ideological faction, but rather to a long-term weakness in the party’s very constitution; the glue that binds it together as an electoral project – and that sometimes fails to.

So much for parallels; in the rest of the post I want to note some ways in which the current crisis differs from the previous two I’ve discussed.

To begin with, it’s worth stressing that the categories of ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’ – which I’ve obviously used throughout this post – are fuzzy, internally diverse, and historically variable – see, for example, the changing ideological valence, within the party, of attitudes to Europe and to free trade, since the 1970s and the early twentieth century respectively. Today’s left and right aren’t the same as the left and right of the ’30s or ’80s, on which more below.

Further, the balance of forces within the party is different today than at previous moments of crisis. Seemingly paradoxically, the majority of the parliamentary party is today significantly to the right of the historical norm, while the party leadership is significantly to the left. These facts are related: the rightward shift of the parliamentary party has in relative terms reduced the gap between the median selectorate member and the party’s left faction. Combined with the new one-member-one-vote electoral system, and a leftward shift in the selectorate – partly perhaps due to changing sensibilities, but also partly due to an influx of new members – this has unusually, and probably unstably, aligned a majority of the base with the party’s left. This in turn has led to significant tensions between a large segment of the membership and the majority of the parliamentary party.

Finally, and in my view most significantly, the broader political and ideological context matters. Again very schematically, one can differentiate periods of capitalist history – often divided by economic crises – in terms of the governance systems that enjoy broad ruling class consensus. The period from WWI through WWII is a period of declining liberalism and rising statism – represented by fascism and communism; an increasingly statist understanding of labourism within the labour movement; and the rise of the Labour Party itself as against the Liberals. The period from WWII through the 1970s is a period of Keynesian technocratic governance, the failure of which, in the 1970s, is the (relative) failure of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. The period from the 1980s through the mid 2000s is a period of neoliberalism – the reassertion of the centrality of the market, privatisation, and deregulation. Blairism was an attempt to transform the traditional Labour project by connecting it to neoliberal policy mechanisms and goals.

We are currently in another period (like the 1970s) where the old governance structure (in the 1970s statist Keynesianism; today neoliberalism) is dead, but a new consensus structure has yet to emerge, or secure its dominance. History is contingent; we do not know what will happen next. But there are concerning signs about the current trends. We are clearly in a populist moment – populisms of both left and right are making dramatic gains against a shrinking, threatened and delegitimated centrist liberalism. It also seems to me that the populist right insurgency is stronger than that of the left: fascism, and movements with a ‘family resemblance’ to fascism, are making major gains across the world. One would expect these Zeitgeist shifts to influence the balance of political forces both between parties, and within them.

To state my own opinion, then: I think many participants in, and commentators on, the current Labour party crisis are at once overstating the historical novelty of the present situation, and fighting the last war in terms of their understanding of the factions at play. Speaking anecdotally now: figures from the party right frequently characterise members of the left faction as ‘Trots’ and ‘entryists’, by analogy with Militant’s attempted transformation of the party in the 1980s. This is a poor understanding of the current ‘left’ faction, which is better seen as an alliance between the parliamentary socialist left and its supporters in the membership; the major trade unions – concerned about their waning influence in a party otherwise largely dominated by the liberal, ‘social democratic’ right; an emerging, more youthful, left wing ‘populist’ movement; and a more traditionally centrist base concerned about the parliamentary party’s steady rightward movement. This is, itself, an unstable coalition; but while it lasts, it is a powerful one.

At the same time, the left of the party frequently characterises its opponents on the right as ‘Blairites’, in a way that misses the structural transformation of the economy – and, correspondingly, of the ideological terrain – since 2008. Blairism was a project that combined law-and-order demagoguery, neoliberalising marketisation and deregulation, and high welfare spending. It is dead, in part because in a period of stagnant growth the problem of social wealth distribution moves closer to a zero-sum game, making it harder to enact redistributive policy without threatening the interests of those in possession of wealth and capital. More profoundly, though, Blairism is dead because neoliberalism is dead; for better or worse, that economic governance paradigm has ended. The question for the right of the party is therefore: what replaces Blairism? To a large extent the current relative success of the left faction can be attributed to the ongoing inability of the Labour right to settle the answer to that question. And this failure is itself not simply an ideological one – we are still within a structural transformation of the world system, which will ultimately result in a new global power and governance structure. Political actors can attempt to influence that transformation, but they cannot individually resolve it; and the ideological superstructure that informs policy-makers’ actions is itself strongly influenced by the political-economic base.

Nevertheless, answers are being proposed to the question: what replaces Blairism? One prominent answer is captured by the recent book ‘Labour’s Identity Crisis’, edited by Tristram Hunt MP. Contributors to that book argue that Labour has lost the confidence of many of its traditional voters because its technocratic, economistic emphasis on wealth redistribution has neglected the ‘identity politics’ of “white working class” patriotic pride in Englishness. Hunt and other contributors emphasise that Englishness should not be understood in terms of ethnicity, but rather as a form of class solidarity grounded in local community and place. Yet for many on the left of the party – and that includes myself – this ‘English identity politics’ project seems to amount, in practice, to a Labour variant of the anti-immigrant, xenophobic and racist nationalism that has informed a significant proportion of the recent UKIP, and Brexit, votes. The worry here is that where Blairism proposed a Labour that could operate effectively within the neoliberal paradigm, the advocates of ‘English identity politics’ aspire to create a Labour that can operate effectively within an emerging neofascist paradigm. Further: right or centrist efforts to minimise the influence of the party’s left faction, in the hope of re-establishing something closer to a Blair-era liberal social-democratic project, may instead risk opening the door to a highly illiberal valorisation of ethnic solidarity. This is, of course, a risk, not a certainty. But – to put it crudely – where some on the Labour right fear a return of Militant, some of us on the left fear a return of Mosley.

International Trade

April 15, 2016

Recent discussions of international trade – specifically around the UK steel industry, and Bernie Sanders’ recent trade proposals – made me want to articulate some extremely basic points about international trade. I’m going to distinguish three different arguments about international trade, painted here with the broadest of possible brush strokes.

1) The traditional liberal gains-from-trade argument. Efficiency gains from the division of labour, and from comparative advantage, mean that international trade can produce greater overall social wealth and welfare than the same resources would generate if nation states did not trade. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to everyone.

2) The third-worldist critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade is a mechanism for extracting wealth from the world’s poorest and least powerful nations, and channeling that wealth to the world’s richest and most powerful nations. This is the case in both the historical colonial domination of the periphery by the core, and contemporary neo-colonial relationships. In this respect, international trade benefits the core at the expense of the periphery.

3) The labour-aristocracy critique of international trade. From this perspective, international trade weakens the bargaining power of labour in the core, by outsourcing jobs and production to the periphery. In this respect, international trade brings benefits to countries in the periphery, at the expense of workers in the core.

All three of these arguments are common. In my opinion, all of them capture important dimensions of the international trade. That is to say, in my opinion, it’s a mistake to deny any of the following: 1) international trade can bring aggregate economic benefits via specialisation and the division of labour; 2) international trade can extract the resources of the periphery to the benefit of the core; 3) international trade can outsource production and diminish workers’ bargaining power in the core, to the benefit of the periphery.

The question, then, in my opinion, is where and when these different elements of international trade occur. This is clearly a complicated empirical question – and much more complicated than the above typology suggests. Still, I think that debates over international trade would benefit if all parties made the specific case for their emphasis, among these three perspectives – and for the consequences of their preferred policies on all three of the dimensions listed above.

Liberalism and Radicalism

December 6, 2015

Circling once more around what seems to be this blog’s only real topic of late – radicalism versus liberalism. Nothing revelatory here – just the solidification of what seem like fairly commonplace ideas. Starting with the concept of a collective ‘subject of history’, and moving on to alternatives.

If your politics is based on the idea that if the appropriate collective subject of history attains political power then domination and oppression will cease, your politics will predictably result (should it succeed in attaining power) in domination and oppression. That last sentence is the standard critique of the strand of Marxism that believes in some form of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. It’s a correct critique, in my now quite firmly held opinion. But it doesn’t just apply to that strand of Marxism – it also applies to strands of feminism, of postcolonial politics, of anarchism (where ‘gaining power’ may be understood differently, but still) – and indeed to strands of would-be emancipatory movements of all kinds. Problem: one group of people is being oppressed by another. Solution: switch roles, get rid of the oppressors and replace them by the oppressed. The oppressed are the good guys, so problem solved. That’s the approach I’m criticising.

Obviously, I am caricaturing, and in a familiar way that is often used to criticise emancipatory movements as a whole – that is of course not my intention here. Nevertheless, I think this caricature accurately captures the core of a significant portion of left politics. What’s wrong with this approach? A range of things. One of them is using the collective as the unit of analysis. Why is using the collective as the unit of analysis a bad idea? Because doing so makes it harder to see how different elements of the collectivity have different interests, preferences, politics, etc. – and how oppression can operate within the collectivity, not just against it. This lack of critical insight into the internal dynamics of the collectivity means that would-be emancipatory movements that understand themselves in this way frequently and predictably fail to adequately plan for holding power – as well as failing to adequately moderate existing internal power dynamics. More precisely, they fail to adequately consider how to limit the power of those within the collective who end up wielding it. Thus would-be emancipatory movements frequently and predictably end up producing new forms of oppression and domination, rather than any kind of lasting emancipation.

Contrast liberalism. Liberalism is of course an extremely diverse political tradition, so there are major exceptions to what I’m about to say. Still, one of liberalism’s major unifying interests is the way in which diverse individual actions which may be individually self-interested can, with the appropriate institutional structures, create positive collective outcomes. This idea unites economic liberalism (where despite following individual self interest we are led, as if by an invisible hand…) and political liberalism (in which incompatible interests and perspectives hammer out some compromise in the negotiations of non-absolutist government). The radical left is often impatient with / hostile to this approach, for a range of different reasons, some good, some bad. But this liberal perspective is in my opinion a much better starting point for thinking about politics than any concept of a ‘subject of history’ or ‘collective will’.

That is to say: One of the things this liberal approach is good for, is not taking it for granted that with the right people in charge, or with the right collective will expressed, the right political decisions will made. Liberalism tends to assume, instead, that people won’t reliably look out for each other in solidarity, but will rather engage in conflict, disagreement and, potentially, oppression at all levels of the body politic – and that a core political problem is setting up the institutions within which people operate, such that those conflicts can function as checks and balances to produce positive, rather than negative, overall outcomes. In its approach to institution design, therefore, liberalism is a better starting point for thinking about abuses of power than many forms of radicalism.

OK – so drop the radicalism and embrace liberalism? Not altogether, no. There are, obviously, a range of problems with liberalism – or, at least, with ‘actually existing liberalism’ (including most ‘actually existing’ articulations of liberal political ideals). As I have done before on the blog I want to focus in this post on those emphasised by Charles Mills, in his The Racial Contract and other works. That is to say: liberalism’s ideals – including the ideals of institution design I was just talking about – are severely limited in their application. In particular, they are limited by a hierarchy of the human, in which the principles of liberal politics only need be applied to those near the top of the hierarchy – those humans who are fully human, fully adult, in full possession of their own individuality, which individuality can be given voice by the institutions of the liberal polity and economic order. As we move down the hierarchy of the human, people become less and less entitled to have voice or power within liberal institutions, because, from the liberal perspective, they are not real people. This describes the system of global racial oppression – but also many forms of gender oppression, and other forms of systematic domination.

So we have on the one hand a system of checks and balances that aspires to transform varied and conflictual individual preferences into acceptable collective outcomes, without presupposing an unrealistic degree of harmonious or self-sacrificing solidarity or collective will – then on the other hand we have those excluded from full participation in this institutional space, who therefore do not enjoy those liberal checks against oppression, coercion, violence, etc., and do not find their preferences accounted for within the system of liberal negotiations and exchanges. Here the ‘space of liberalism’ itself functions as a form of collective subject – the human, the civilised – contrasted with another collective non-subject – the inhuman, the uncivilised, the childlike brutes, the Other. And this is of course a way of justifying the actually-existing systematic oppression or domination of the latter by the former.

One way of narrating the history of liberalism is as a series of assaults on this charmed circle of the human, in which excluded groups, through the use of collective action, seek to challenge the existing liberal order, and extend the scope of liberal freedoms and rights. These assaults on the liberal circle of entitlements must use methods that are not permitted by the existing liberal order – in that sense, these movements are not liberal ones. But the end result of many of these movements has been the incorporation of their demands into an expanded liberal politics – a liberalism that includes, rather than opposes, workers’ rights, women’s rights, minorities’ rights, LGBTI rights, etc. – at least within some limited, but meaningful, political and economic field. These achievements should be regarded as (incomplete) political successes, in my opinion.

Now, the hierarchy of the human I just described is not the only problem with ‘actually existing’ liberalism – hopefully I’ll come back to all this again one day. Still, I think all this is enough of a starting point to make the case for a form of liberalism. This liberalism should take a ‘cynical’ approach to the problems of political and economic life – it should presuppose high degrees of social conflict and self-interested action at all scales of social life, and aim to design institutions that use this social discord to provide checks and balances against the abuse of any given group of individuals by any other. It should aspire to the traditional liberal goal of achieving positive overall collective outcomes by ensuring, through institution design, that where possible the individual and diverse interests of many diverse individuals interact in broadly socially beneficial ways. But this liberalism should be alive, in a way that actually-existing liberalisms have traditionally not been, to the systematic exclusion of the bulk of humanity from full participation in and representation through actually-existing liberal institutional structures – one major way, though not the only one, in which actually-existing liberal institutions cannot fulfill their (purported) political goals.

As I say, none of this ought to be very earth-shattering – I’ll aim to come back to all of this in greater depth, one day.

Why Labour Lost

September 30, 2015

I’ve read a lot of commentary in the press, re: Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, along these lines (the quote is Pippa Crerar on Twitter, but it could be one of many UK journalists, the theme is widespread):

I do wonder how much Corbyn has reflected on Labour losing the election. Badly. And on what it means.

When media commentators write like this, they mean the following: Ed Miliband’s Labour lost the 2015 election because it moved too far left; Corbyn’s strategy of taking the party even further left is therefore absurd.

But although most of the UK commentariat and political class share this analysis of Labour’s 2015 defeat, it is not a good one. Here, imo, is a better one – which, as it happens, Corbyn seems to also hold. Of course, political reality is complex, and the following is crass – but to a first approximation, I think it’s useful to see Labour as losing in 2015 for two reasons.

1) Labour disregarded the base for years. The New Labour strategy was, essentially: take the base for granted, and appeal to the ‘floating voter’ in the centre ground. This works while it works – but it cannot work indefinitely. It relies on a reputation with the base established over the years in which the base was actively appealed to, and it eats into that reputation, gradually destroying it. Furthermore, as the party is remade in accordance with the new strategy, organisational ties with the traditional base diminish. All of that is bad, but not fatal, as long as voters have nowhere else to go. But the SNP provided Scottish voters with somewhere else to go. Labour’s mishandling of the referendum exemplified their disregard of their Scottish base, and so Labour lost 40 seats ‘overnight’, in one of their traditional ‘heartlands’.

2) Labour permitted the Conservatives to establish the following narrative on the economy: Blair-Brown era Labour spent too much on welfare, creating a huge budget deficit; the budget deficit (somehow?) caused the global financial crisis, and the recession that followed; getting out of that recession requires balancing the budget; which requires cutting welfare. Labour failed to effectively challenge any of the steps in this argument, even though (as I see it) they are all incorrect. Having permitted the Conservatives to portray them as fiscally irresponsible, and to blame for the great recession, they further accepted the Conservative line that ‘austerity’ is the only way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. On this framing, Labour are always going to appear weaker than the Conservatives, because if austerity = responsibility, even ‘austerity light’ policies are less fiscally responsible than ‘austerity heavy’ policies. So Labour lost the ‘floating voter’ because they seemed weak and irresponsible on economic policy.

That’s why Labour lost in 2015, in a nutshell – losing votes both in the centre ground and among their (former) base. And although the commentariat can’t seem to see it, Corbyn’s strategy aims to address both of these weaknesses.

1) Corbyn appeals to the base, with traditional labour policies denigrated by New Labour – this observation is uncontroversial. Unfortunately New Labour fucked up in Scotland so comprehensively that the party has a mountain to climb to regain ground there. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

2) Corbyn aims to ‘reframe’ the discourse on economic policy, by presenting ‘anti-austerity’ arguments on two fronts. First – progressive taxation-funded government investment expenditure can be a major driver of economic growth, increasing overall prosperity; second – redistributive policies can provide the traditional social safety net, increasing individual economic security. Conservative economic policies, by contrast, are recessionary, at the macro level, and remove the economic security associated with social safety net measures, at the individual level. Therefore Labour are the economically responsible ones, and the Conservatives are a source of economic insecurity, at least for low and middle income voters. Bolted on to this is the insistence that Labour will eliminate the deficit, because apparently everyone has to say that now.

Most of the commentariat and political class think these two strategies are silly. They think (1) is silly because they think the concerns and interests of the traditional Labour base are silly; this is a problem of class perspective, at root. They think (2) is silly because they’ve bought the austerity ideology – they think that a perfectly sound left Keynesian economic approach is absurd and unfeasible – and they can only hear voters’ ‘concerns about the economy’ as meaning ‘cut welfare’.

But Corbyn’s strategy isn’t silly. It might very well not work – politics is hard, the party is divided, and the media are hostile – but as I see it there’s no intrinsic reason why it couldn’t work. Despite the consensus among journalists and politicians, there is a strong case to be made that social-democratic, Keynesian economic policies increase the prosperity and economic security that voters care about, while austerity policies reduce them. If Corbyn’s Labour can persuasively make that case, it should in principle be possible for the party to make significant electoral gains.

By contrast, the ongoing ‘moderate’ Labour strategy of telling the base to go fuck itself, while agreeing fulsomely with the Conservatives about how poor Labour’s economic record has been, seems on its face to be a poor electoral strategy. Anything is possible in politics, of course, and I claim no great insight – but there is reason enough to see Corbyn’s strategy as sounder in important ways than the conventional ‘centrist’ approach, even in electoral terms alone.

I don’t have any great insights into the Corbyn phenomenon – but I do have something to say about the New Labour reaction. It is of course the aggrieved rage of an elite suddenly confronted by the agency of their supposedly passive inferiors. But the incomprehension in that rage comes not just from the isolation of the political class’s social echo-chamber, but also from a faulty theory of history adopted within that echo-chamber. The New Labour elite saw itself as progressivist in a literal sense: history has a direction, and the task of political leaders is to align with history’s movement. Just as much as any stagist Marxist, they saw a teleology in history, and saw themselves as the vanguard of the inevitable. As with all such theories of history, actual political events were taken both to validate their sense of progress, when they matched expectations, and to sometimes, sadly, depart from history’s truth, demanding remedial political action. This teleological view informed both New Labour’s domestic policy – where the structural transformation of the ’80s, and the shift in the political balance of power associated it, was seen as showing the direction that any future politics must take – and its foreign policy – where nations could be ranked on a progressive scale of development and civilisation, with US geopolitical power expressing high advancement on that scale, warranting civilising and humanitarian military interventions into the affairs of the brutes.

Because New Labour understood their historical task in this way, they saw radical politics of both the left and right as something that had been superseded, on the way to a more civilised ‘centrist’ consensus – rather than as the expression of social interests and social movements that were only contingently diminished or transformed. The postwar settlement, wherein radicalism was tamed through social-democratic compromise, was seen by New Labour as a waystation towards fuller achievement of elite political goals, rather than a concession made to diminish otherwise unmanageable dissent. For New Labour the masses are atavistic – and can be manipulated by appealing to this atavism, in the form of racist dogwhistling and law-and-order demagoguery – but they are, at base, on the wrong side of history, when they challenge elite policies and power. The New Labour horror at Corbyn’s ‘regression’ to ‘old Labour’ policies is therefore more than just a rejection of Corbyn’s politics; it is more than a conviction that this politics forfeits electorability; Corbyn’s politics are repulsive to New Labour because they are, from the New Labour perspective, quite literally unnatural; they prompt the horror and unease associated with those moments when the fantastical becomes real.