A ‘no deal’ Brexit?

October 12, 2017

It seems like an increasing number of UK political commentators are adopting a ‘no deal’ outcome as their baseline projection for Brexit negotiations. I’m not close to informed enough to warrant anyone giving my views on this question any weight – but I feel quite a bit more bullish than those commentators on the prospect of some kind of Brexit deal. With all due allowances for severe lack of expertise, I wanted to briefly spell out the baseline ‘priors’ behind that attitude.

As a first pass, I think there are maybe five and a half categories of political force operative in my crude qualitative ‘model’ of the UK side of the Brexit negotiations. (Obviously Brexit negotiations are not carried out by the UK government alone; nevertheless, like most UK political commentary, this post is, perhaps excessively, focused on the UK end of things.)

1) Declining US hegemony is leading to deglobalisation, as the international ‘rules based’ liberal order, which has been grounded in US military and economic dominance since WWII, loses influence. States are increasingly, and rationally, shifting to competition outside rather than within the ‘rules based’ liberal order; there are ideological shifts associated with that changing geopolitical reality; and Brexit is in part an expression of those shifts. We therefore shouldn’t assume that the traditional internationalist and, latterly, neoliberal arguments for economic and political cooperation still carry the weight they used to.

2) The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. Of course the bourgeoisie (understood here as business interests, not the middle class) is not unified behind a single ‘class consciousness’ or unitary set of class interests. Nevertheless, the dominant bourgeois interest is in a Brexit deal, and avoiding the ‘cliff edge’ of a shift to WTO rules or similar.

3) A significant minority of lawmakers in the ruling Conservative party have strong ideological commitments pushing against any kind of ‘soft’ Brexit deal. Because the Conservatives lack a majority in parliament, these commitments have a very substantial influence on government policy.

4a) The UK government regards itself as bound by the democratic mandate of the EU Referendum (either in principle or as a matter of electoral strategy); that vote is widely regarded as mandating both the end of freedom of movement and the extraction of the UK from EU legal institutions, and it seems reasonable to believe that those goals, if fully pursued, are incompatible with anything other than a ‘hard’ Brexit.

4b) Against that, the government of course has its eye on re-election, and it also seems reasonable to believe that the likely negative economic consequences of a ‘hard’ Brexit are sufficient that an electorally self-interested party will do what it can to avoid that outcome.

5) The government is not functioning as a unitary or rational decision-making entity, but is behaving closer to a ‘public choice’ model of state actors’ behaviour, in the sense that individual politicians are primarily pursuing extremely narrow individually self-interested political goals, and therefore the government as a whole is conflicted and incompetent in a way that may be incompatible with reaching an agreement in negotiations.

Ok – that’s five and a half arguments about the forces at work on the UK government’s Brexit strategy (I’ve grouped the two ‘arguments from democracy’ together as (4a) and (4b)). More of those arguments than not, can be taken to suggest we’re headed for a ‘hard’ Brexit – or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit. What matters, though, is how we weight the different arguments.

My feeling is that many of the ‘no deal’-forecasting commentators give particular weight to arguments (3) and (5). That is to say, they think that there is a strong ideological commitment to hard Brexit among a significant minority of Conservative Party MPs, that many important Conservative politicians are pursuing internal party advantage rather than the national interest (no matter what you take that interest to be), and that the combination of these two factors is pushing us towards a ‘no deal’ outcome.

By contrast, although I agree that all these factors are in play, I give greatest weight to argument (2): the role of the executive as committee managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. I think there’s quite a high likelihood that, when we get to the pointy end of negotiations, the dominant interests of UK-based capital will knock heads together, twist arms, have quiet words, and persuade the UK government that a softer Brexit than Eurosceptic Conservatives think they want, is actually not so bad after all.

I would never say that this is a foregone conclusion, that other countervailing political forces are unimportant, or that a ‘no deal’ outcome is impossible. The future is uncertain, and, additionally, what do I know? Just as, in nuclear deterrence theory, the logic of mutually assured destruction is powerful, but can quite quickly be undone by somebody going ahead and launching a bomb, so, in Brexit negotiations, it would be foolhardy to assume that ‘centrifugal’ forces are clearly stronger than ‘centripetal’ ones. Still, it seems to me that at the very least, some of the ‘no deal’-projecting commentators are much too confident in their ‘no deal’ forecasts. More strongly: were I were a gambler, I would certainly be gambling on a deal.


Ideologies of Brexit

July 2, 2017

The standard shorthands for talking about Brexit (Leave vs. Remain; hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit) can be unhelpfully oversimplifying.  Mostly that’s because they oversimplify the negotiating minefield of possible policy outcomes and their consequences.  But it’s also because they oversimplify the attitudes to Brexit within UK politics.

The following is its own massive oversimplification, of course, but I want to schematise very quickly ideological orientations to Brexit within the UK parliament.  I think getting clear on these kind of broad-brush positions will often be a precondition for useful debates about Brexit. Not that lots of people aren’t already clear about this kind of thing – but more people could afford to be.

So – on the broadly anti-EU side we have:

    1. Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism – the core objection to the EU here is the purported regulatory burden it imposes on UK business, with the idea that post-Brexit a reduction of red tape can prompt a surge in UK economic growth.
    2. Anti-immigration racism – the core objection to the EU here is that the free movement of labour within the EEA prevents the UK from controlling its borders, leading to cultural pollution, etc. etc.
    3. Economic protectionism – this comes in a range of flavours, the main one being labour protectionism, that is, the objection to EEA freedom of movement on the grounds that EU migrant workers are undercutting UK wages.  (One might be suspicious about overlap between this category and the previous one, but I think it merits its own box.
    4. Socialism in one country leftism – the core objection to the EU here is that the EU’s governance prevents the implementation of socialist economic policies at a nation-state level, via restrictions of state aid to industry, etc.
    5. Greater Britain sovereignty – the core objection here is again to EU constraints on UK governance, but apparently motivated by a (to me at least) vague sense of lost British (Imperial?) Greatness, to be addressed somehow by repatriating powers.

Clearly there is room for improvement in these categories and their summaries, but this will serve as a first pass.

On the broadly pro-EU side we have:

    1. Defence of the EU as a road to prosperity.  Here the argument is the basic liberal economic one of gains from trade: that comparative advantage and the international division of labour increase everybody’s wealth over time.
    2. Defence of freedom of movement as a human good in itself.  Here the argument is that migrants’ lives can be greatly improved by migration, and/or that freedom of movement should be a human right.  Either this position is (for whatever reason) restricted to the boundaries of the EEA, or European freedom of movement is taken as a first step towards global open borders.
    3. Defence of freedom of movement on economic grounds.  The argument here is that the UK economy is heavily dependent on EU migrants, who are critical to the staffing of UK hospitals / universities / low-wage agricultural jobs.  Really this is a sub-category of ‘road to prosperity’, but given how frequently movement of labour is treated separately from the other EEA freedoms I think it merits its own category.
    4. Defence of the European political project.  Here the argument is that the European project of economic integration as a route to political integration is valuable in its own right, for example as a mechanism for reducing the chance of European war, or as a means of establishing a major European geopolitical power.
    5. Defence of a ‘European identity’.  The argument (or, perhaps better, affective structure) here is that, more or less independent of policy outcomes, partaking of a European cosmopolitan cultural identity is a valuable possession, which Brexit destroys or undermines.
    6. Anti-racism.  The argument here is that, again in addition to policy outcomes, the political fight over Brexit is a proxy war in a fight over race and racism in the UK, and that contesting Brexit is necessary anti-racist praxis.

Ok – those are some of the core Brexit ideological commitments, as I see them.

Now, some of these ideological orientations are clearly incompatible – e.g. ‘Singapore-on-Thames libertarianism’ and ‘socialism in one country’ do not go together; nor do ‘anti-immigration racism’ and ‘anti-racism’.  But plenty of these orientations are compatible with each other – and you can therefore mix and match them to produce quite different ideological bundles, with different ‘weights’ granted to different components of the bundle.  You can also probably clarify matters, politically, by attaching ‘sincere belief’ and ‘electoral strategy’ to each component of any given politician’s bundle.

I don’t really want to get into the question of the content of specific politicians’ ideological bundles here – clearly reasonable people disagree on this.  Largely for illustrative purposes, however, I’d suggest that the current parliamentary Labour Party can broadly be divided up into a group whose highest priority is ending immigration (on protectionist or racist grounds, sincerely or strategically); a group whose highest priority is retaining single market gains from trade; and a group whose highest priority is socialism in one country.  These core commitments can then be supplemented by a wide range of different subsidiary commitments, giving a much wider variety of specific ideological bundles.

However we choose to ‘map’ political actors’ or groups’ ideological commitments, however, I think it’s worth doing so in a more fine-grained way than is common in a lot of the discussion of Brexit.  Too much Brexit analysis, to my mind, schematises political actors into Leavers and Remainers, Eurosceptics versus EU defenders, advocates of hard and soft Brexit, of ‘open versus closed politics’, etc.  All of these framings may be fine as shorthand – but they collapse many different ideological commitments within these overarching categories.  Given the importance of understanding the priorities and likely compromises of different political actors, a more nuanced approach to describing their commitments would, I think, often be a good idea.

Expanding here briefly on some things I said on twitter, in light of Labour’s very impressive showing in the 2017 UK general election.

There are a number of different ways in which a political analyst – an academic, pollster or pundit – can be wrong.

    • You can make a wrong prediction. This is incredibly easy to do – we all make wrong predictions all the time. Social reality is enormously complex, and it’s basically impossible to make strongly reliable predictions about it.
    • You can be wrong about the probability distribution of possible outcomes. It’s obviously difficult to check whether somebody is wrong in this sense – unlikely outcomes often happen, and likely outcomes often don’t happen. Still, it’s another way of being wrong.
    • You can be wrong about the range of possible outcomes. That is, you can incorrectly suggest that some events are outside – or inside – the space of the feasible. (This is a special case of the previous probability distribution point.) This can, sometimes, be checked – if you say an outcome isn’t possible, and it happens, you were clearly wrong.
    • You can have a poor ‘model’ of social reality, generating your sense of the space of probabilities. This can be a model in a formal sense, as in some polling models. Or it can be a model in an informal sense, meaning one’s view of the important forces and dynamics of the relevant social reality.

In relation to Corbyn’s Labour’s impressive electoral performance, most (though by no means all) of us were wrong in one sense or another. I didn’t venture a prediction, because I thought the uncertainty was too high for a prediction to be made with any useful confidence. But if I had been obliged to make a prediction – professionally, say – I would certainly have predicted a much poorer electoral showing than Labour in fact achieved.

It is, of course, impossible to know whether one’s probability distribution is accurate (and, arguably, what that even means, epistemologically), so I’ll put that aside. In relation to the special case of possible outcomes, however, my range of possible outcomes certainly did include the electoral gains that actually occurred – so I was not wrong in that respect.

Finally, in relation to one’s ‘model’ of social reality: I wrote up my view of the electoral feasibility of Corbyn’s project shortly after he won the leadership, in September 2015 – you can read it here. Reasonable people can of course differ on these issues – a ‘model’ can never be definitively proven or refuted – but to my mind, the analysis in that post has stood up well, in light of subsequent events.

Now, the professional UK pundit class has also been wrong about Corbyn. But I would argue that most of them have been wrong in a different, stronger sense. Not only did many pundits wrongly predict electoral disaster for Corbyn’s Labour, they also often suggested that a strong electoral showing from Labour was somewhere in the probability range between extremely unlikely and actively impossible.

Most prominently, Matthew Goodwin, the political scientist, has now literally eaten his most recent book (‘Brexit: why Britain voted to leave the European Union’) on live television, after tweeting that he would do so if Corbyn’s Labour polled 38% or higher (in fact Labour polled 40%). This demonstrates good grace – but the existence of the tweet in the first place implies not just that Goodwin called the election wrong, but that he also called the space of the feasible wrong. And Goodwin is far from alone in this. The professional pundit class, as a whole, regarded the prospect of Corbyn’s Labour polling at ~40% not just as unlikely, but, for the most part, as absurd.

This in turn speaks to the ‘model’ of social and political reality that informs pundits’ analysis. I think there are a range of different pundit models out there, and surveying them would take a much longer post than this one. But it seems clear enough to me that the overwhelming majority of UK political pundits have badly flawed models of the political and social reality they are paid to analyse and interpret. This – rather than pundits’ bad predictions – is the big analytic problem with recent UK political commentary.

Finally, there are problems with the UK pundit sphere beyond the simply analytic. Most obviously from a ‘pro-Corbyn’ perspective, many pundits were not just badly wrong, but (to be blunt) were arseholes about it. Without wanting to get into an unproductive slanging match on this issue – and recognising that there are pundits to whom this critique does not apply – one of the negative consequences of many pundits’ belligerence towards ‘pro-Corbyn’ voices was epistemic. Pundits’ willingness to treat pro-Corbyn advocacy and analysis with contempt restricted the range of positions and perspectives that pundits treated as worthy of attention – and this in turn prevented pundits from appropriately updating their opinions in light of relevant arguments and evidence. This is one of the major reasons, I think, for the dramatic failure of the pundit class to see Corbyn’s Labour’s electoral success coming.

Now, there is an unfair imbalance in my criticism of the UK pundit sphere. I am not professionally obliged to produce analysis every week (or day!) – if I were, then over the last few years I would have been wrong about countless things. Nevertheless, as a consumer of UK punditry, I can still evaluate and criticise it. Moreover, in evaluating punditry, I’ve argued, whether pundits are wrong matters less than how they are wrong. For the most part, the UK commentariat were not just wrong about Corbyn – they were wrong in the wrong way. That is a bad problem for the UK public sphere.

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.