Slavoj Zizek. Photograph: Rex Features
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The unbearable lightness of Slavoj Žižek’s communism

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously - review.

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously
Slavoj Žižek
Verso, 142pp, £7.99

Marxism has always been, since the first collaborations of Marx and Engels, a thoroughgoing critique of capitalist society from the standpoint of a far less developed concept of socialism or communism. In this sense, its premise is a utopian conclusion never yet demonstrated – namely, that there can be a better form of modern society, based on a different regime of property, than one dominated by the accumulation of private capital. No one can in fairness require a detailed picture of this future condition but the vision has to enjoy some minimum plausibility. Otherwise, only a description of capitalism can be offered and some suggestions for reform but no fundamental critique.

Since the 1970s – and especially since 1991 – perhaps the greatest challenge for Marxism has been to keep alive the belief in the possibility of a superior future society. The belief was trampled almost to extinction by miscarried Third World revolutions, capitalist transformation in China, the capitulations of European socialist parties, Soviet collapse and the ostensible triumph of liberal capitalism.

The scepticism that replaced it was twofold. The would-be revolutionary left seemed to possess neither a serious strategy for the conquest of power nor a programme to implement, should power be won. In this context, the maximalism of the left at its high-water marks could only ebb into a kind of survivalist minimalism. The pith of minimalism lay in the alter-globalisation slogan: “Another world is possible.” Its most eloquent expression may have been Fredric Jameson’s book on Utopia, Archaeologies of the Future (2005), which sought to preserve the concept of a break with capitalism in conditions under which neither the bridge across the chasm nor the institutions lying on the other side could be imagined.

These are the reduced circumstances in which the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been, for at least the past dozen years or so, the world’s best-known Marxist thinker. With gra­phomaniacal productivity and postmodern range, Žižek writes mainly about contemporary ideology and culture in the broad sense that covers everything from an animated Hollywood blockbuster such as Kung Fu Panda to the forbidding ontology of Alain Badiou. Corrugated with dialectical reversals and seeming at times to consist exclusively of digressions, Žižek’s writing is often described, with some justice, as elusive. Even so, his basic analysis of the end-of-history ideology that swept the world after 1991 has been simple enough.

Žižek ventriloquised the mindset in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), one of his many entertaining, funny and shamelessly repetitive books: “Capitalism is a system which has no philosophical pretensions . . . The only thing it says is: ‘Well, this functions.’ And if people want to live better, it is preferable to use this mechanism, because it functions.” As he went on to argue in his own voice, “The very notion of capitalism as a neutral social mechanism is ideology (even utopian ideology) at its purest.” In fact, neoliberal “post-ideology” resembled nothing so much as a caricature of Marxist historical determinism. It merely substituted liberal capitalism for communism in claiming that here we beheld the final form of human society, as legitimated by science – in this case, socio­biology and neoclassical economics – and as certified on the proving ground of history.

Such a view was often declared after the cold war in a triumphalist spirit. Lately, with the outbreak, still uncontained, of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, it has persisted in a more resigned key. In his latest book, Žižek quotes David Simon, creator, in the television epic The Wire, of as damning a portrait of class-riven America as any Marxist could wish for: “I accept that [capitalism] is the only viable way to generate wealth on a wide scale.”

Žižek not only rejects this nearly unanimous conclusion but discerns in unexpected places – whether in the chauvinist eruptions of the political right or the low-grade commercial output of US cinema – the abiding wish, however disfigured and denied, for a “radical emancipatory politics”. In recent years, Žižek’s name for such a politics has been simply “communism”. He has carried out this dual operation – against the supposed necessity of capitalism, in favour of the renewed possibility of com­munism – by invoking a remarkable roster of thinkers. Hegelian in philosophy, Marxist in economics, Leninist in politics and an exponent of Jacques Lacan’s particularly baroque strain of psychoanalysis, Žižek combined these ways of thinking at a time when all of them separately, let alone together, had fallen into disrepute. He knew the reaction this courted, as can be seen in a line from In Defence of Lost Causes (2008): “What should have been dead, disposed of, thoroughly discredited, is returning with a vengeance.” Nor did this foul-mouthed wise guy, with an eastern bloc accent out of Central Casting, baiting his detractors with talk of “good old Soviet times” and plucking at his black T-shirt with Tourettic insistence, make himself much more presentable to conventional opinion as a personality.

For many fellow leftists, it has been both a winning performance and a vexing one. Žižek isn’t exactly to blame for his press, much less for the failure of the media to pay similar attention to other left-wing thinkers. Even so, his intellectual celebrity has seemed a symptom of the very intellectual impasse he has diagnosed. A ruthless criticism of capitalism, it turned out, could still be contemplated outside the academy – but only on condition that it appear as the work of a jester or provocateur. In this way, the figure of Žižek seemed to represent, encouragingly, the lifting of the post-cold-war embargo on radical thought and at the same time, discouragingly, its reimposition.

A similar ambiguity attaches to The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, a brief consideration of several of the revolts and convulsions of 2011, from the Arab spring and Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre in Norway to the London riots and Occupy Wall Street in the US. Did last year’s dreams, with their conscious or unconscious emancipatory content, pose a danger to contemporary capitalism or mainly to the dreamers themselves? In other words, did they prefigure a revolutionary challenge to the system or merely demonstrate that such an awakening remains all but inconceivable?

The book begins with Zizek’s general presentation of a capitalism marked by “the long-term trend of shifting from profits to rents”, “the much stronger structural role of unemployment” and the rise of a ruling class defined more by high salaries than direct capital income. Only the last of these features, however, is integrated into Žižek’s explanation of political rebellion: some but not all protesters are recent graduates angry that a college degree no longer assures them a good salary. More relevant to the rest of The Year of Dreaming Dangerously is Žižek’s contention that capitalism can’t be reformed. He disdains the idea, characteristic of “the archetypal left-liberal European moron”, that we need “a new political party that will return to the good old principles” and “regulate the banks and control financial excesses, guarantee free universal health care and education, etc, etc”.

He proceeds to examine last year’s rebellions not chronologically but in order, it seems, of increasing approximation to his own politics. For Žižek, the xenophobic Breivik’s intellectual error (not to speak of his obvious moral catastrophe) is to misunderstand his own ideology: genuine fidelity to Europe’s heritage of Christian universalism would seek to redeem, for Muslim immigrants as well as all others, the “legacy of radical and universal emancipation”.

Next, Žižek discusses the London riots. These illustrate not an inversion of universalism but a post-ideology devoid of transpersonal meaning; looters were, like other capitalist subjects, merely grabbing what they could. “One danger,” Žižek writes, “is that religion will come to fill this void and restore meaning.”

Precisely this danger has already been realised in much of the Muslim world. Yet, in Žižek’s account, the popular overthrow of Arab autocracies, even when couched in Islamist terms, contained a “radically emancipatory core” to which the secular left should remain “unconditionally faithful”.

Finally, in a chapter that revises a talk given before the Occupy encampment in Lower Man­hattan, Žižek explains something of what he takes radical emancipation to mean. He praises Occupy for “two basic insights”. The first is that the principal political problem is capitalism “as such, not any particular corrupt form of it”. The second is that “the contemporary form of representative multiparty democracy” can’t address the problem; therefore, “Democracy has to reinvented.” My sense, as a participant in several Occupy demonstrations and one of last’s years affiliated “working groups”, is that disenchantment with representative democracy, at least in its Ame­rican travesty, does pervade the movement. The belief that capitalism can and should be surmounted, on the other hand, is hardly unknown among Occupiers but doesn’t seem general either.

Žižek sees in various popular discontents the chauvinist misprision, the consumerist absence, the communalist disguise or the anti-capitalist incipience of his own politics. Radical politics at its most basic consists of two elements: strategy and programme or how to get power and what to do with it. Žižek’s programme is straightforward: the replacement of capitalism by communism. It’s not necessary to disclaim this ambition, however, to see that his concept of capitalism is inadequately specified and his notion of communism barely articulated at all.

In his brief against reformism, Žižek scorns the idea that capitalism can be regulated “so that it serves the larger goals of global welfare and justice . . . accepting that markets have their own demands which should be respected”. This suggests that he has confused the existence of markets with that of capitalism. The same goes for Žižek’s rudimentary positive notion of communism. In Living in the End Times (2010), he describes a future society in which the “exchange of products” would give way to “a direct social exchange of activities”. This seems to imply that individuals would no longer come by goods and services through market exchange but instead in some immediate, “social” way, obviating the use of money.

Markets long predate capitalism. Capitalism is better understood as designating a society that subordinates all processes – notably the metabolism between humanity and nature, the production and distribution of goods and services and the function and composition of government – to the private accumulation of capital. As for communism, perhaps it goes without saying, since Žižek doesn’t say so, that it means eliminating private capital on any large scale and realising the Marxist goal of common ownership of the means of production. Yet would productive enterprises be owned by those who worked for them or by society at large – or somehow jointly between the two groups? Žižek doesn’t ask, let alone answer, such questions.

Imagine, in any case, a society whose productive assets are, in one way or another, the property, as Marx said, of “the associated producers”. Such a society might also entail, let’s say, strict depletion quotas for both renewable and non-renewable natural resources; welfare guarantees not only for workers but for people too young, old or ill to work; and democratic bodies, from the level of the enterprise and locality up to that of the state, wherever it hadn’t withered away. These institutions might or might not be complemented by the market. For now, however, to rule markets out of any desirable future while saying next to nothing else about its institutional complexion is to reproduce the intellectual blockage that Žižek and others ascribe to a capitalism that simply can’t imagine how another kind of society might “function”.

In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, even the “direct exchange of activities” has vanished. Here Žižek counsels refusing capitalism from the point of view of “a communism absconditus” without worldly instantiation or conceptual content. He defends this featureless vision by warning, with compact incoherence, against “the temptation of determinist planning”: determinism refers to inevitability, while planning implies voluntarism. Yet it requires no creed of either historical predestination or revolutionary infallibility to hazard an idea, presumably subject to revision both before and after the rupture with capitalism, of a better society. Whether such a hypothesis is called communist is a secondary question; as the poet (and revolutionary) John Milton put it in another context: “The meaning, not the name I call.” At the moment, Žižek’s communism is a heavy name very light on meaning.

His strategic notions, meanwhile, are various and incompatible. At times, as in his advice to Occupy, he seems to advocate the accomplishment of revolution through democracy, though he rejects parliamentary democracy for a “reinvented” kind otherwise undescribed. More often he favours a sort of Leninist quietism, according to which “those who refuse to change anything are effectively the agents of true change”: withdrawal from the system will speed its collapse. Yet he allows that: “A strategically well-placed, precise, ‘moderate’ demand can trigger a global transformation.” The options at least display Žižek’s dialectical facility. Apparent passivity can be the highest form of activity; then again, moderation can have immoderate effects.

Despite this last caveat, Žižek is most often an enemy of reform. However, the experience of western societies since the Second World War suggests that the old opposition between reformism and revolution is no longer useful. The heyday of the welfare state was accompanied, after all, by far more worker and student radicalisation than the era of neoliberalism that followed it, which demoralised radicals and reformers alike.

Projects of reform, in other words, have tended to nourish hopes of revolution and vice versa. In present circumstances, the achievement of reforms might well pave, rather than bar, the way to a new society, not to mention relieving some of the human misery to be endured before the advent of the communist millennium. If, on the other hand, the system were to prove incapable of incorporating any serious reforms, this would demonstrate the need for revolution that Žižek merely asserts.

This perspective, in which reform and revolution are allied, can no doubt be intelligently contested. But the time is past for the left to content itself with the blank proposition that another world is possible. What traits, other than its otherness, would such a world possess? As liberal capitalism saps its ecological foundations, defaults on its economic promises and forfeits its political legitimacy, another world is becoming inevitable. Which one do we want? And can we make this one into that one before it’s too late?

Žižek’s work at its best has shown why those questions have been so difficult even to formulate in “the desert of post-ideology”. His latest book, however, does not interrupt the prospect of the lone and level sands.

Benjamin Kunkel is a founding co-editor of n+1 and the author of a novel, “Indecision” (Picador, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

Picture: Ralph Steadman
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The age of disorder: why technology is the greatest threat to humankind

Disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity – and no nation can fight on its own.

Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

During the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international politics, and when the Cold War ended, globalisation seemed to be the irresistible wave of the future. It was expected that humankind would leave nationalistic politics behind, as a relic of more primitive times that might appeal at most to the ill-informed inhabitants of a few under­developed countries. Events in 2016 proved, however, that nationalism still has a powerful hold even on the citizens of Europe and the United States, not to mention Russia, India and China. Alienated by the impersonal forces of global capitalism, and fearing for the fate of national systems of health, education and welfare, people all over the world seek reassurance and meaning in the bosom of the nation.

Yet the question raised by Johnson in the Daisy advertisement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1964. Will we make a world in which all human beings can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Can Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their like save the world by appealing to our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?

***

Let’s start with nuclear war. When the Daisy advert aired, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear annihilation was a palpable threat. Pundits and laypeople alike feared that humankind did not have the wisdom to avert destruction, and that it was only a matter of time before the Cold War turned scorching hot. In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics had been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945, surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased to use war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, car accidents or suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

Unfortunately, we are so used to this achievement that we take it for granted. This is partly why people allow themselves to play with fire, and that includes not only the latest Russian adventures in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also the choices made by European and American voters.

The Brexit debate in Britain revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the EU’s vital contribution to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, the French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a wrench into the miracle machine. Meanwhile, Donald Trump mixes calls for US isolationism with plans to strengthen the country’s nuclear arsenal and reignite a nuclear arms race, thereby threatening to undo the hard-won gains of the past decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It was extremely difficult to construct the internationalist regime that prevented nuclear war and safeguarded global peace. No doubt we need to adapt this regime to changing conditions in the world: for example, by relying less on the United States and giving a greater role to non-Western powers such as China and India. But abandoning this regime altogether and reverting to nationalist power politics would be an ­irresponsible gamble.

True, in the past, countries played the ­nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. No matter whom American voters elect to the presidency, the atom bomb is still there and E still equals MC². As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. Zealous nationalists should ask themselves whether their nation by itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new threat to its existence that hardly registered on the political radar in 1964: climate change. If we continue with our present course it is likely that global warming, ocean acidification and ecological degradation will result in unprecedented economic, political and social problems, and might well destroy the foundations of human prosperity. What is the nationalist answer to climate change? How can any nation, however powerful, stop global warming on its own? Will the US build a wall against rising oceans?

When it comes to climate, countries are not sovereign, but are at the mercy of actions taken by governments on the other side of the planet. As long as 200 governments pursue 200 different ecological strategies, shaped by their unique needs and interests, none is likely to succeed. With present-day technology, any serious measures to stop global warming are likely to slow down economic growth. Such a policy carries an unbearable political price if it is undertaken by a single country while others continue with business as usual. Any US administration that deliberately slowed down economic growth for environmental reasons would be bound to lose the next election; a Chinese administration that does so courts revolution tomorrow morning. In a nationalist and xenophobic world no government will sacrifice itself for the greater good of humanity, as Trump’s actions show.

***

Indeed, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change than that of nuclear war. An atomic bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that even the most ardent nationalist cannot ignore it. Global warming, by contrast, is a much more vague and protracted menace. Hence, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, as in the case of Trump, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

The same dynamics are likely to spoil any nationalist antidote to the third large threat to human existence in the 21st century: technological disruption. New technologies, particularly in the fields of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, will soon give humankind unprecedented, godlike powers. Whereas previously human beings learned to produce food, weapons and vehicles, in the coming decades our main products will probably be bodies, brains and minds. However, it is extremely difficult to foresee the potential impact of such technologies. They open the door to an entire supermarket of doomsday scenarios.

If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences. In addition, as AI outperforms human beings in ever more tasks, it might push billions of us out of the job market, creating a new “useless class” of people, devoid of both economic value and political power. Meanwhile, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, mani­pulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

On the bioengineering front, breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology and direct brain/computer interfaces could unleash deadly new epidemics or disturb our internal mental balance. In past centuries we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might disrupt our mental system. In addition, bioengineering might for the first time in history translate economic inequality into biological inequality, creating an upper caste of enhanced superhumans, and relegating the poor to the dustbin of evolution.

What is the nationalist answer to these menaces? As in the case of global warming, so, too, with technological disruption: the nation state is the wrong framework to address the threat. Given that research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower such as the US or China cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids the genetic engineering of human embryos, it won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing such work. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial economic or military advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. Particularly in a xenophobic, dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with human beings’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. Although everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely differing opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade human beings and to create new life forms. If we fail to cobble together globally accepted ethical guidelines, it will be open season for Dr Frankenstein.

When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, whereas the technological revolutions of the 21st century should be understood in cosmic terms. Ever since its appearance on Earth, four billion years ago, life has been governed by the laws of natural selection. During those aeons, whether you were a virus or a dinosaur, you evolved according to the principles of natural selection. No matter what strange shapes life took, it remained confined to the organic realm. Whether a cactus or a whale, you were made of organic compounds. Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, science is ushering in an era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this? In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a much wider perspective.

***

The nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and disruptive technology. If, despite these threats, we choose to privilege our particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

A much better path is the one outlined in the EU’s constitution, which states that “while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny”. There is still plenty of room in the world for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet, if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.

In previous centuries national identities were forged because human beings faced problems and discovered opportunities that went far beyond the scope of ­local tribes, and which only countrywide co-operation could hope to handle. In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes.

We need a new global identity, because national institutions are incapable of managing a set of unprecedented global challenges. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics. This mismatch prevents the political system from countering our main problems effectively.

To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics. As it is impossible to ­de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and as the cost of de-globalising the economy will probably be ruinous, the only solution is to globalise politics.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special