The price of beans: today in Britain, some working families are so stretched that parents are going without the basics so that they can feed their children. Photo: FELICITY MCCABE
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Why are so many people using food banks?

Last year, almost a million free food parcels were handed out. At the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, Sophie McBain meets the people only a pay cheque from crisis.

Parsons Green is a quiet, affluent neighbourhood of west London. The streets surrounding the green are lined with smart delis, boutiques and champagne bars, and the well-off regulars at the White Horse pub on the corner have earned it the nickname the “Sloaney Pony”. The red-brick terraces of the nearby Peterborough estate sell for £3m or more. Tucked between two of these multimillion-pound homes is ChristChurch Fulham, an Anglican church that since 2010 has housed the local food bank.

Between April 2014 and January this year, Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank handed out more than 3,000 free food parcels. Most of its clients have travelled in from more deprived corners of west London or further afield, but once or twice residents of the Peterborough estate have been forced, by an unexpected job loss and huge debts, to come here for help, too.

“Most people are only a pay cheque away from a crisis,” said Daphine Aikens, the food bank’s founder. We spoke last summer in the short lulls between new arrivals. Every now and then she jumped up from her chair to clear away plastic tea and coffee cups and cake plates, or to make sure the leaflets from local charities were arranged just so on each table. It was an unexpectedly quiet morning, she said, but still a steady stream of people turned up. A mother-of-three who had fled an abusive relationship; an old man; a young couple; a skinny teenager in an oversized hoodie; a single mother with learning difficulties and her ten-year-old son, who translated for her; an Eritrean asylum-seeker whose claim had been rejected, and who wasn’t eligible for a parcel but had nowhere else to go. “I really can’t help you again,” the volunteer said, searching the woman’s face for a sign of understanding.

Aikens used to focus on giving to international NGOs, until she discovered how many people were going hungry closer to home. When she brought up the subject at church a member of the congregation directed her to the Trussell Trust, a charity that runs the UK’s largest network of food banks. Aikens says her work is inspired by her Christianity. “Part of our faith is that we want to serve and to love, and believe people are of value,” she explained. “Lots of people haven’t ever been told they’re of value. Here we can tell people they’re of value, that they deserve the food.”

The Trussell Trust operates as a “social franchise”, which means that each food bank is run as an independent charity but the central organisation provides training, guidelines and logistical support. The details vary from town to town but the overall set-up is the same. Doctors, social workers, the police and various charities hand out vouchers to people in crisis. With this voucher, they can then collect three days’ worth of food from their local food bank. Food banks were designed as an emergency stopgap: the aim is that people should collect no more than three parcels, by which point they should, in theory, have found a more sustainable solution.

The trust was founded in 1997 by two former UN workers, Paddy and Carol Henderson, and was originally conceived to support street children in Bulgaria. Then, in 2000, Paddy received a call from a mother in Salisbury whose children were going hungry. Her story inspired him to open his first food bank in the city, which he ran from home. In 2004, he decided to expand the model. “The simple phrase that stuck with us was that ‘if Salisbury needs a food bank, every town should have one’,” says Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, who has worked with the organisation since 2003.

In recent years both the number of food banks and the numbers of people who use them have risen exponentially. Between April 2008 and March 2009 Trussell Trust food banks handed out 25,899 parcels. In the corresponding period in 2010-11, covering the time of the last general election, it gave out 128,697. By last financial year (2013-14), that figure had grown nearly eightfold to almost a million parcels. This year the figure is likely to be higher still: 492,741 parcels were given out between April and September 2014, an increase of 38 per cent over the same period in 2013.

This is not the full picture. The Trussell Trust’s 430 or so food banks are believed to account for roughly half the country’s network, but there is no complete database of the charities giving out emergency food aid. The lack of data is partly due to the government’s apparent lack of curiosity about how many people are falling through its welfare net. “The government does not monitor the use of food banks and has no plans to do so,” the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request in December 2013. In March, the department confirmed that this remains its position.

When a series of reports drew links between government welfare policies and increased food bank usage, the DWP repeatedly insisted there was insufficient evidence for these claims. “Figures used in the media about food banks have been self-reported by food bank providers and their users, and the statistics have not been independently checked or verified,” the DWP said in 2013. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me he “would push back very strongly on criticism of the data”, and emphasised that the trust complies with Office for National Statistics guidelines as best it can.

The government also does not collect data on people living with food insecurity in the UK, although in December 2013 a group of six experts, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, described food poverty as having “all the signs of a public health emergency”. In August last year John Middleton, vice-president at the Faculty of Public Health, the standard-setting body for public health specialists in the UK, told the Observer that GPs had reported a rise in Victorian-era diseases caused by malnutrition, such as rickets and gout, as Britons on low incomes struggle to feed their families healthily. So, even without comprehensive data, the very existence of food banks poses a troubling question: why, in one of the world’s richest societies – and in a country that prides itself in having welfare provision designed to care for its citizens from cradle to grave – are so many Britons at risk of going hungry?

***

Sam and Joe (their names have been changed at their request, as have others in this article) have been together for just over two years. They met at work, at a supermarket in Hertfordshire. It’s just as well they have each other, they told me, because they don’t have much else. Most days they eat once. They wait until as late as they can possibly manage, then they have a meal of rice or potatoes or (“if we can afford it”) bread – “anything filling”, Sam said. I met them on their second visit to Tower Hamlets Foodbank, in a church surrounded by council blocks. This east London borough has the highest rate of child poverty in the city; the average income is £11,400. I arrived ten minutes before the food bank opened and already a queue had formed outside the door.

Not long after the couple met, Joe, who is 27, left his job to move in with his grandmother and care for her while she was dying of cancer. Then Sam’s mental health grew worse and she found she could no longer work. She thinks she is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome – she was abused as a child and left home at 15, and before she met Joe she had been in a string of violent relationships – but she has been waiting for months to see a psychiatrist. When Joe’s grandmother died, they were not allowed to keep on her tenancy. They thought they would end up homeless, but just in time they found somewhere to stay. The problem was that for two months their housing benefit didn’t come through. “We’re just sort of stuck at the moment,” Sam said.

The report Emergency Use Only, published last November jointly by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust, found that Joe and Sam’s experience is not uncommon. Many people arriving at food banks have experienced a number of personal shocks in succession – bereavement, the loss of a job, illness – but between half and two-thirds of users end up at food banks because of problems with benefits. This includes delayed payments, changes to benefits such as the reduction in Disability Living Allowance and financial penalties known as sanctions. As a condition of receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), claimants are required to demonstrate that they are actively looking for work, usually by applying for a set number of jobs a month, and to participate in various training schemes. If they fail to meet their targets they can be sanctioned, meaning that their benefits are cut. Equally, people receiving Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a disability or a long-term health condition can be sanctioned for failing to attend a mandatory interview or training programme. In the year to September 2014, 895,000 sanctions were placed on ESA and JSA claimants, up from 564,000 in the final 12 months of the last Labour government.

Emergency Use Only estimates that between 20 and 30 per cent of food bank users have recently faced a sanction. In January this year a former jobcentre official told a parliamentary inquiry that staff were put under pressure by their bosses to meet targets for sanctioning clients. This might explain some of the more unfair examples unearthed by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty, which included a man who was sanctioned for writing on the wrong line of his form, and another fined because the job application forms he was required to fill didn’t arrive until after the deadline for applying.

A standard sanction under JSA is loss of benefits for four weeks, or 13 weeks in the case of a second “offence”. For a single person solely reliant on JSA, this can lead to a complete loss of income for up to three months. Under the DWP’s policy, if the suspension of support is going to cause “hardship” you can apply for a payment of 60 per cent of JSA, or £43.40 a week, after two weeks. Its guidelines make clear that it expects that an individual’s health will suffer under sanctions: “it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without . .  . sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks”. Pregnant women, families with children or people with long-term health problems may be exempt if it is deemed they would “suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult”.

Under a pilot “Foodbank Plus” model run by Tower Hamlets, all visitors to the food bank also speak to an adviser. Martin Williams of the Child Poverty Action Group, who is one of the co-authors of Emergency Use Only, helps visitors with their benefits claims: how to appeal decisions, speed up delayed payments, access advances. The people he sees seem increasingly desperate, he says. For instance, it’s not uncommon for someone with severe mental health problems to be rejected for Employment and Support Allowance and placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance instead. They are then immediately sanctioned because they are too unwell to meet the job application and training requirements for JSA claimants. “Before, you’d see people who have been without help for a couple of weeks, but now it’s not uncommon for people to go without comfort for months,” Williams said.

On the afternoon I visited, he helped Joe and Sam apply for a short-term benefit advance to cover their immediate shortfall and said he would chase up their unpaid housing benefit. How did they feel about the future? I asked. Sam was already gathering up their plastic bags of tinned goods and Joe was still slumped in his chair, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. “I’ve given up on optimism or pessimism,” he said.

The trestle tables at the Cadge Road Community Centre in Norwich were laid out with animal place mats and plastic cups of squash. Reel 2 Real’s “I Like to Move It” was playing at high volume, but the 50 or so children, from toddlers to early teens, lined up patiently for a plate of chicken curry. One boy whose head barely reached above the counter requested a cheese sandwich with no crusts and no butter instead, and the volunteer chef cheerfully obliged. Later there would be Angel Delight and biscuits, and then the children would learn to take fingerprints, detective-style.

When the Trussell Trust learned from local teachers and parent support advisers that many families were struggling to feed their children in the school holidays, they wanted to make sure the FISH lunch clubs they helped set up in response were fun, says Grant Habershon, Norwich Foodbank’s manager. When he retired in 2010 he started working for the Citizens Advice Bureau, but he realised that when people were in need of food he had few places to which he could direct them. When he started the food bank, he estimated he would be supplying food to 2,000 people in the city, but now it’s almost 10,000. “There have always been people who’ve struggled, there’s always been a gap [between someone falling into need and the state stepping in] . . . but it’s just too big at the moment,” he said.

The FISH clubs, which started in 2013 and offer lunches to children during the school holidays, hint at the second major driver of food bank use: low income. According to Trussell Trust figures, 22 per cent of food bank users between April and September 2014 were referred for this reason. “The determinants of food poverty and food insecurity are big, structural issues, including – and very importantly – income. That is one of the most important things: people need more money,” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford, a faculty research fellow at the University of Sheffield specialising in food poverty and insecurity in Britain.

Every year since 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has published its minimum income standard report. Members of the public are asked what goods and services they believe they need to ensure an adequate standard of living, and then JRF calculates how much you need to earn to reach this benchmark. As the cost of living has increased, the minimum income standard has risen but national income levels have not kept up. Today a single person on benefits earns less than 40 per cent of the minimum income standard, and families with children earn less than 60 per cent. It isn’t only the unemployed or those on benefits struggling to make ends meet: up to a quarter of food bank users are in work. Despite a prevailing political rhetoric promising to support “hard-working families” or “alarm-clock Britain”, 700,000 people in Britain are on zero-hours contracts with no guaranteed work hours, according to the latest ONS figures; and the JRF income standard – set at £16,300 a year for a single adult with no children in 2014 – is higher than the minimum wage and almost £5,000 higher than the average salary in, say, Tower Hamlets.

Kate had been bringing her three boys, aged three, five and seven, to FISH clubs since the 2013 Easter holidays. Unlike her sons, she hadn’t had lunch that day – though she picked at their leftovers. “It’s all right. If you don’t eat in the morning or the afternoon, you’re not hungry anyway,” she said quietly. That night they’d eat hot cross buns for dinner, and then they’d be out of food for two days. Until 2012, Kate worked in the customer service department at a large international insurance company. She never imagined she’d start to rely on benefits, let alone food aid, but then her partner left her.

“I dreaded handing my notice in, but I just couldn’t afford the childcare. It’s a benefits trap, because there’s no way out of it,” she said. Things were OK for the first two years, but when prices kept on rising she struggled to make ends meet and now her debts rise a little higher every month. “To live like that for two years – there’s nothing brighter, there’s nothing coming . . . I’ve gone from shopping at Sainsbury’s to Tesco’s, to Asda, to Aldi, and now I don’t even do a weekly shop.” She paused for a moment. “If I was telling you this story two years ago I’d be in tears, but not now.”

I wondered what she would do in the next two days, with three children and an empty fridge. She said she might visit her mum, who had no idea how much Kate was struggling but usually cooks lunch. She didn’t want to visit a food bank. “There are people out there more desperate than me. I’ve got a sofa to sell before I’ll go to the food bank,” she replied. “It’s a pride thing. You don’t want people to know you’re on benefits.”

***

On 19 December 2014, the NG7 Food Bank in Nottingham closed. In the 30 months before its closure it had fed over 5,500 people but it decided its position was untenable. In a media statement in November it objected to the local council using food banks, it said, as an alternative to state welfare provision, writing that “despite our best ongoing efforts, we have recognised that we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long-term strategy of replacement for statutory services, [which] have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need. We recognise that other approaches are now required to attempt to change the current situation for many in our communities.”

Of central concern to NG7 was the council’s provision of emergency funds, such as crisis loans or benefit advances. These used to be administered by the government’s Social Fund, but in April 2013 the fund was abolished and responsibility for emergency hardship payments was devolved to local authorities on a discretionary basis. Nottingham City Council’s hardship fund is designed to support a range of people in short-term need, including those fleeing domestic violence, care leavers, and those waiting for a decision on a benefit claim or who have recently experienced a disaster. NG7 objected to the council’s policy that “the expectation would be that they [applicants] seek help from friends or family and the food banks”. In other words, the council is using food banks as an excuse to give out fewer emergency payments.

“In my research, very often volunteers at food banks will say, ‘We wish we didn’t exist; our ultimate aim is to do ourselves out of business,’” says Hannah Lambie-Mumford of the University of Sheffield. This reflects not only a belief that people shouldn’t be going hungry in the UK, but also that the provision of crisis care should be the state’s responsibility. “We believe every citizen has a right to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, which include the ability to clothe yourself, house yourself and feed yourself, and we think it’s government’s responsibility to ensure that,” Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust told me. “We designed ourselves to avoid being drawn into the world where a food bank is seen as part of the ongoing and enduring provision for people facing poverty . . . because you end up creating something which is an alternative to the state.”

In this way, food banks have become central to a much broader debate on welfare reform and the limits of state responsibility in modern Britain, a discussion that has become more urgent as the state has cut back spending. The Trussell Trust’s advocacy work has elicited a range of government responses, from dismissal to hostility. In July 2013 the Conservative minister for welfare reform Lord (David) Freud, a former investment banker, said that demand for food bank use was being driven by supply, telling peers: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.” Similarly, in December 2014, Matthew Hancock, the business minister, said that he believed the use of food banks was driven by the publicity surrounding them. Ten months earlier, a Defra-funded report had concluded that there was no evidence that food bank use was fuelled by increasing provision. This report was delivered in June 2013 but it was not published for another seven months.

At other times the government has been more directly confrontational. In April last year the Daily Mail published quotations from “a senior Whitehall source”, accusing Chris Mould of “fairly misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity seeking”. Mould says he has been “put under pressure” by government officials after the Trussell Trust started pointing out that austerity cuts were affecting low-income and single-parent families disproportionately, and drawing attention to the effects of  benefit changes. “There was no communication, or dialogue, or engagement,” he says of attempts to talk to the DWP about the trust’s concerns.

Mould says that in 2013, when the Trussell and other charities criticised the decision to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent a year, regardless of inflation, a senior official (Mould didn’t want to give his name) warned that the government could close the trust down. (“Just so we’re clear . . . the comment that ‘the government might try to close you down’ was made in anger, and I didn’t take it seriously,” he later told me.)

At the end of last year the tone of the debate shifted. The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger published its findings in a report – Feeding Britain – and reinforced the messages of earlier third-sector studies by noting the extent to which low wages and benefit changes have fuelled demand for food banks. It made 77 recommendations, almost half of which were directed at the DWP and dealt with how benefits and crisis loans are organised and administered.

“There’s a growing consensus that what we were saying early on is true. It’s just sad that it’s taken so long for the weight of the evidence to be such that the government has had to do something,” Mould says. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, said he would look “very carefully” at the report, and announced a publicity campaign to ensure that people are aware that benefit advances are available.

“A couple of years ago, we saw head-in-the-sand denial. Today, I think we’ve got little more than window dressing so far,” Mould said when we spoke in February. He sees “little evidence” that the government is acting on Feeding Britain’s recommendations. “We haven’t won hearts or minds: [the report] hasn’t made that much of a difference, because I don’t think it’s been taken on board by the people who have the power and responsibility to make things better.”

However, the food bank movement does have many supporters. According to the most recent report by Church Urban Fund, about three-quarters of all churches in the UK now house food banks and the Church of England is adopting an increasingly active role in the welfare debate. Just before Christmas the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told the Mail on Sunday he found the plight of food bank users “more shocking” than poverty he had witnessed in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mould said he is heartened by the numbers who donate food to the Trussell Trust and the degree of public support it has – donations shot up last April after the Daily Mail published an “undercover investigation” into “scroungers” abusing the food bank system. “One of the things is that poverty is very prevalent,” he said. “Lots of people have experienced it, so they have friends who have been there, they have had parents who have been there, children who have suffered, they have struggled themselves . . . In that sense, the public are much more aware than they used to be that people are at times going hungry in the UK.”

***

A month after I interviewed Joe and Sam in Tower Hamlets, Sam agreed to meet me for coffee. When she didn’t show up or answer her phone I wondered if she’d changed her mind. Then two weeks later I saw her at the food bank. She smiled and waved me over. She looks different, I thought, and she said things had changed. Joe had found a job at another supermarket. She was due to have her first counselling session the next week, then a job interview. She wasn’t sure if she was well enough but she wanted to work. “I need my own money and my independence because I feel trapped. And he does, too. Trapped,” she said. So why, I wondered, was she at the food bank again? Joe’s benefits had stopped and until his first pay cheque he couldn’t afford the bus to work, so the Trussell Trust was advising them on how to find a short-term loan. They were both ready to move on with life; they just needed the bus fare.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

CREDIT: COLIN ANDERSON/BLEND IMAGES
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The humanist left must challenge the rise of cyborg socialism

A new “accelerationist” movement, defined by its embrace of technological determinism, represents a threat to the ethical socialist tradition and liberal democracy. 

Undiagnosed by the mainstream media and much of the academic community, a major intellectual renewal is underway across the left. It is energetic and tech-savvy, building platforms such as Novara Media. It maintains a radical, rich heritage within the European left, embraces bold ideas, and is well-organised and networked.

It is fast becoming a new political movement; best captured in influential articles and books discussing “accelerationism”, “postcapitalism” and even “fully automated luxury communism”. It has entered green and radical thinking, and has subtly influenced many political commentators - especially when discussing Universal Basic Income.

Yet there has been little critical engagement with this new thinking in terms of its intellectual origins and assumptions.

***

The US political scientist Mark Lilla has offered a popular diagnosis of the state of the left. He suggests a modern closure of the American mind after changes within liberal thought made it barely recognisable from its previous iterations. The result is the long march of a malign identity politics through the left - which helps to account for the success of Donald Trump and various nationalist movements. Across both the left and the right, politics is now defined by identity and the losers sit on the progressive side.

Lilla’s basic pitch is a compelling one. Following Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, the left failed to develop a new body of ideas as post-war social democracy disintegrated. Consequently, two generations of radicals retreated back onto campus. The political imperative was to build a new public philosophy for the left but this was sidelined and replaced by the embrace of an individualised identity politics; one that “distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognisable”. The historic concerns of the left - nurturing citizenship and building the “common good” - were lost through a descent into relativism and a politics of the self.  We entered the culture wars.

The character of the left has shifted. It has become obsessed with the belief that politics is an authentic search for the self, rather than a sacrificial contribution to the commons, with its trade-offs and compromises. Movement politics - rather than one anchored in the complexities of representative democracy - now dominates. This politics assumes that generalisation is not possible given our assorted personal histories and experiences of privilege, inequality and exploitation. Left politics has turned inward, preoccupied by questions of personal identity and with a new language of fluidity, hybridity and intersectionality. This dovetails with our modern narcissistic, individualised culture and Facebook echo chambers, in contrast to historic forms of collective agency and physical solidarities informed by traditional - often ancient - models of justice.

So far, so good. Lilla’s argument helps define the detachment of the liberal left from both its historic traditions of language and thought and a discernible working class base. This detachment has been brought into sharp political focus over the last 18 months on both sides of the Atlantic.  

How, though, does this liberal reorientation relate to wider shifts across the left? The real challenge is to identify how this liberal rewrite has tacitly joined forces with darker ideas and histories. It is not just about the evolution of modern identity politics; it is about how parts of the left are once again returning to anti-humanist thinking to scientifically determine the true path.  

***

The signature book for much of this fashionable thinking on the left is Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work - Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ brilliant, iconoclastic 2015 text which introduced what we have come to know as “accelerationism” into our political mainstream. It is a genuinely audacious, supremely confident intervention in terms of its intellectualism and its presentation of a highly specific future for the left. It has caught a wave and helped to re-populate the left’s post-crash void and jettison late New Labour managerialism.

Given its many virtues, it is easy to understand why the book has been so uncritically welcomed, especially in its embrace of both automation and a Universal Basic Income. It is seen to speak for a disenfranchised generation: a modern classic imbuing the left with both ideas and confidence. No surprise, then, that the authors and their allies have been invited into the orbit of “Corbynism”. We might therefore request closer scrutiny of their ideas.

For example, the authors make a significant philosophical assertion when they write: “there is no authentic human essence to be realised” and that “humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation” (p.82). A few pages earlier, they suggest that the future demands “synthetic freedom”, exemplified by “Cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology and technologically mediated reproduction”’.

This is not just some prosthetic envy but the demand for a new “Promethean Spirit”, as Ray Brassier, another accelerationist thinker, terms it. “Synthetic freedom” involves “at least three different elements: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources and the development of technological capacities”. This final element is a recurring, disturbing drumbeat within the history of the left.

Things become clearer when the authors proclaim that their overall aim is to “undertake an interventionist approach to the human that is opposed to those humanisms that protect a parochial image of the human at all costs.”

The rebuke of political opponents as “parochial” is common within the left’s internal - and often impenetrable - doctrinal battles. It is not difficult to see why. You frame your opponent as a backward-looking reactionary whilst virtue-signalling your personal grasp of modernity; you own the future whilst your opponent languishes in nostalgia. This approach seeks to define a binary politics: the future against the past, progress against reaction, and right against wrong. It has a long tactical history. For example, witness Perry Anderson’s takedown of Raymond Williams in the Politics and Letters interviews or Tony Judt’s assessment of E.P. Thompson in the New York Review of Books.

So, who and what do they trash-talk as “parochial”? The authors provide two examples of “parochial defences” of the human. First, Jürgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature, and second, Francis Fukuyama in Our Posthuman Future. The sin of both writers - their parochialism - is to suggest that modern “transhumanist” thinking might threaten the foundations of liberal democracy.

Habermas’ “parochial defence” is to propose that we retain what he calls “the species ethic” when negotiating modern technological acceleration. A generous opponent might suggest that this is hardly surprising given that Habermas inhabits a country with recent experience of eugenics. His request is to dare to suggest we search for philosophical rigour and establish moral and ethical principles to achieve minimal human self-understanding to survive these technological currents. Morality is rooted in this understanding; one, however, which is considered a “parochial defence” of the human condition.

Fukayama operates in the same vein. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, he suggested that transhumanism threatens the foundations of our liberal democracy, specifically that “[the] idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?”

This argument is also central to the history of socialist humanism. Fukayama concludes that “transhumanism” is “one of the world’s most dangerous ideas”. So, what is going on here? Maybe - and this is related to Lilla’s assessment of liberal identity politics - we are seeing the formation of a wider chronocentric left generation.

***

A few years back, Fukuyama suggested: “history is directional, and its endpoint is capitalist liberal democracy”. It was a chronocentric argument.

Chronocentrism - first coined to describe “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that others pale in comparison” -  asserts a chronological snobbery; that a specific period of time - usually the present – holds greater significance than others.

It can present itself as a form of generational egotism through overvaluing the significance of your own generation; a personal “end of history” illusion.

Politics attracts the chronocentrically disposed, especially through various forms of economic determinism. New Labour, for example, was affected through its belief in a new cosmopolitan, liberal, knowledge-driven global moment. So too was much Scientific Marxism with its understanding of how the forces of production determine the relations of production, which became an overconfident assertion of revolutionary imminence.

Historically, much left-wing thinking has been prone to this condition through a belief in linear progress driven by technological innovation. But the danger has been an obvious and recurring one -  when the link between technological change and human “enhancement” leads to either tyranny and repression or an explicit embrace of anti-humanist political philosophies. The history of eugenics and the left is an obvious case in point.

Today, the clearest expression of the chronocentric malady is represented in the way that once obscure, marginal ideas regarding “accelerationism” have crept into the mainstream of left discourse. Here, modern technological change creates unique possibilities to transcend (or, in their vocabulary of disguise, to “enhance”) the human condition; for some it offers the opportunities of a technological “singularity”.

This chronocentrism might appear as unhinged, morally deficient nihilism, yet others regard it as the only truly utopian worldview on offer. Today, it is fashionable - as the book says, it is helping to “invent the future”.

Another example - containing a similar, highly deterministic take of Marx’s value theory and asserting revolutionary possibilities driven by modern technological change - is Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism, a modern chronocentric bible and companion work to Inventing the Future.  

These books have been treated uncritically despite the reappearance of anti-humanist thinking within the left. Humanism needs to be defended; or, as Orwell wrote, “the job of the thinking person is not to reject socialism but to make up his mind to humanise it”.

***

We might suggest three “parochial defences” against this hybrid chronocentric left. First, against its technological determinism. Second, against its form of cosmopolitanism. Third, against transhumanism - or, in old money, the new eugenics – in that it falls foul of scientism and fanaticism.

The origins of much of this new thinking lie in the radical politics of 50 years ago. “Autonomism” or “Autonomist Marxism” emerged out of the 1960s Italian workerist movement - the operaismo - characterised by a muscular critique of the centralised, orthodox Italian left. It sought to build a politics autonomous from traditional forms of representative democracy.

This mutated into “post-operaismo” - literally post-workerism - popularised by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire, a work highly influential among those inspired by the anti-globalisation movements, Occupy protests, and militant campus agitation of the last decade.

The young academic Frederick Harry Pitts offers a brilliant critique of this literature. In his book Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx he demonstrates how a highly specific and misleading interpretation of Marx’s value theory leads the contemporary left to celebrate and seek to accelerate  the substitution of human labour - the working class - with technology. In its place, the base of the left becomes a new urban, networked educated youth, rather than the historic class base of left politics.

For the left thinkers Pitts critiques, the era of postcapitalism beckons as the capitalist relations of production cannot manage the epochal shifts in the forces of production. As with traditional scientific Marxism, there is little role for actual struggle - for politics. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride as the laws of history unfold and take us to “postcapitalism”. Resistance is conservative.

If you challenge this teleology, out comes the counter-charges: parochial, reactionary, nostalgic, humanist or Luddite. History is on the side of the left – just not the dematerialising working class. Change is immanent. As with the old scientific left, immanence brings with it political “hope”.

***

In February 1998 (in the New Statesman) one of the founders of the “Third Way” - the sociologist Ulrich Beck - detailed the “Cosmopolitan Manifesto”. Identifying “freedom’s children”, he suggested the basis for a new “world citizenship” through an “ethical globalisation”. He identified the two stages of this entrenched modernity. First, the legacy of freedom captured through various civil rights struggles. Second, through our dissolved attachments where “community, group and identity structure loses their ontological cement” replaced by a radical individualism and strengthened democracy especially amongst the more educated youth.

There are political movements within and between nation states emerging to form “world parties” in a threefold sense. First, their appeal - “liberty, diversity, toleration!” - transcends values that appear in every culture and religion. Second, they prioritise global political action. Third, they seek to democratise transnational regimes and regulators. Here, as with modern technological determinism - the new base of the left is seen to be among the post-national, urban, networked, educated youth, rather than the working class.

This is where Lilla’s identity politics of the liberal left joins forces with today’s cosmopolitan accelerators. As the “Third Way” has collapsed, a notionally more radical left has again pronounced the nation as dead, or at least as offering diminishing returns given intensifying globalisation. Hardt and Negri identify the declining significance of the sovereign nation given the amorphous power of capital; modern rule suggests a declining relevance attached to questions of territory and country - empire without the significance of nation. This has brought forward the political possibilities offered by a transnational multitude.

Followers of Negri, such as Mason, suggest that the globally-oriented networked youth are the new progressive agents as the working class is being destroyed and the nation state is insignificant – and mostly reactionary. Cosmopolitanism asserts a privileged global citizenship over other forms of society or fidelity – parochial attachments or defences

***

Ancient ontology considered the world as a hierarchy, ascending from non-living matter through the levels of plants and animals, to humanity and ultimately the divine. This was contested by Descartes, for example, for whom the world was conceived as two fundamentally disparate substances: the rational human subject and nature; the task, he believed, was to master nature.

Within European left philosophy, the failures of 1968 produced a dramatic reorientation. The superstars of modern cultural studies - Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard – suggested an accelerationist approach to modern capitalism, rather than a search to overcome it, echoed in today’s fashionable texts.

According to another young academic, Lewis Coyne, postmodernism finishes the job Descartes started. As Descartes stripped the dignity from non-human nature Deleuze reduces humans to mere substance. Being - humanity - is construed as “a plane of immanence” -  a continuous movement of matter and time: “there are only relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness between unformed elements, or at least between elements that are relatively unformed, molecules, and particles of all kinds. There are only subjectless individuations that constitute collective assemblages.”

This “plane of immanence” also sits behind the postoperist thought that Pitts critiques. This suggests that everything is one single “assemblage” and there is nothing more; nothing such as parochial human nature with its sociability, relationships and attachments.

Modern transhumanism - in the guise of accelerationism - assumes that technological change creates the opportunity to transcend the present human condition - of becoming transhuman - and critically maintains that this is to be celebrated. Political resistance is “parochial”, nostalgic and futile.

Transhumanism is a modern, in-vogue cyber philosophy, but one which has its origins in a quite conscious anti-humanist philosophy of matter. In the 1990s, the Warwick Philosophy Department, specifically within the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, incubated a home-grown accelerationist movement consuming all the sacred continental texts. It has subsequently helped create a networked movement of activists and thinkers, which is producing books, conferences, and new media platforms that define today’s left.

At times, transhumanism reappears in debates around human “enhancement” - the quest to eliminate ageing, enhance physical and intellectual capacity and transcend mortality. Numerous practical and ethical criticisms can be rehearsed against this literature many of which historically resonate - think Huxley’s Brave New World.

***

Contrary to our chronocentric generation, it appears that history repeats itself. In a previous era, in one of the great essays of the English left, Edward Thompson took aim at Louis Althusser and structuralism; he wrote: “Enchanted minds move through humourless, visionary fields, negotiate imaginary obstacles, slay mythical monsters (‘humanism’, ‘moralism’) perform tribal rites with the rehearsal of approved texts.”

Today, the fashionable left seeks to surrender humanism. What previous generations fought for and defended - from William Morris and George Lansbury to Thompson, Raymond Williams and the Independent Labour Party -  is to be replaced with a decentred, plastic tech utopia.

Historically, humanist Marxists and ethical socialists retained a notion of human nature; without this, it was deemed impossible to establish an agenda for durable economic and social change. The left rejected determinism so that the human being could be reinserted back into history and the means by which lives are commodified could be resisted, rather than accelerated. This was considered the very essence of politics.

The three elements of this modern hybrid chronocentric left - its deterministic embrace of technology and abolition of the working class; its attachment to a specific vision of the cosmos and rejection of the nation state as a politics of land and territory; and its incipient transhumanism - refract into a political worldview and manifesto which is a world away from the everyday experiences of the people. In this new world, apart from a certain chronocentric group of mainly young men, everything else is presented as reactionary and parochial.

For the left, it appears a shift away from concerns regarding social justice and institution-building, towards a narcissistic concern with self and identity. This is the interface with modern identity liberalism – everything is fluid, change is immanent, we are individually all in transition. It also shares an almost fanatical approach to questions of progress and a disdain for history and tradition, or what Chesterton once called the “democracy of the dead”.

Maybe the left should noisily discuss the quiet rise of cyborg socialism.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and is writing a book on the future of the left

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015