Show Hide image

New Times: John Gray on moving right in the new times

If the 1980s were a time when the global market was expanding, our time is one in which globalisation is stalled and fragmenting. It is the right, not the left, that has grasped what the new times mean.

With the irreversible fact of Brexit and the formation of the May government, British politics has undergone a regime change more fundamental than the one signalled by Margaret Thatcher’s coming to power in 1979. Like Thatcher, Theresa May and those advising her have “glimpsed the future and run with it” – as Martin Jacques wrote of the Thatcherites three decades ago. But this is not a rerun of Thatcherism: quite the contrary. If it delivers on half of its prospectus, this will be the first British government that is definitively post-Thatcherite. By abandoning the fiscal orthodoxy that shaped official thinking from Blair and Brown to Cameron and Osborne, accepting the need for a national industrial strategy and reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social cohesion, the May government has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s.

It is telling that the break with neoliberalism has come from the right. Today, as in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the left has yoked itself to failed projects and dead ideas. Then, they were nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Now they are the European Union and a bien-pensant approach to immigration that denies the costs of the uncontrolled movement of labour to working people. Labour moderates are as tethered to these positions as the Corbynites. Taking the delusion and denial gripping the shattered centre left to an absurdist conclusion, Owen Smith made rejoining the European Union once Brexit has been completed a central theme of his leadership campaign and suggested Britain should consider entering the eurozone and the Schengen area. He forgets the millions of Labour voters who rejected Britain’s membership of the EU in the June referendum.

Talk of realignment on the centre ground exposes a failure to understand how the ground has shifted. With Corbyn’s re-election and an ensuing campaign to deselect MPs whose loyalties are suspect, Labour will not split, but become fully Corbynised – an inchoate, anti-capitalist mass movement with a shrunken and cowed parliamentary wing. Equally, despite rumblings against grammar schools from washed-up Cameroons and George Osborne surfacing in the media to resume his career as a political gambler, there is zero likelihood of any breakaway movement among the Tories; the realistic prospect of decades of unopposed power is much too tempting to jeopardise. Paddy Ashdown and others who dream of forming a new centrist grouping belong in an ancien régime that vanished without trace along with Cameron’s petulant but welcome decision to quit as an MP. The only possible realignment in British politics – the disappearance of the centre left as a significant force – has already occurred.

The debacle of the left is one of the defining facts of our time. The irony is that it has come about because of a crisis in capitalism. Anyone who thought the near-collapse of the global financial system would open up a “social-democratic moment” had not bothered to consider what voters want in times of economic upheaval. More sceptical in their thinking than progressive elites, most people are unimpressed by visions of an ­imaginary egalitarian capitalism. They turn instead to the power of the state to protect them from the anarchy of the market.

The resurgence of the state is one of the ways in which the present time differs from the “new times” diagnosed by Martin Jacques and other commentators in the 1980s. Then, it seemed national boundaries were melting away and a global free market was coming into being. It’s a prospect I never found credible. A globalised economy existed before 1914, but it rested on a lack of democracy. Unchecked mobility of capital and labour may raise productivity and create wealth on an unprecedented scale, but it is also highly disruptive in its impact on the lives of working people – particularly when capitalism hits one of its periodic crises. When the global market gets into grave trouble, neoliberalism is junked in order to meet a popular demand for security. That is what is happening today.

If the tension between global capitalism and the nation state was one of the contradictions of Thatcherism, the conflict between globalisation and democracy has undone the left. From Bill Clinton and Tony Blair onwards, the centre left embraced the project of a global free market with an enthusiasm as ardent as any on the right. If globalisation was at odds with social cohesion, society had to be re-engineered to become an adjunct of the market. The result was that large sections of the population were left to moulder in stagnation or poverty, some without any prospect of finding a productive place in society.

History may look on Hillary Clinton’s struggle for the presidency as the closing act in the neoliberal experiment. More than the mistrust she inspires in many voters, or the issues surrounding her health, more even than her Mitt Romney-like dismissal of a sizable section of US voters as “a basket of deplorables”, it is the fact that she is identified with this failed experiment and with those who have most profited from it that casts the longest shadow over her candidacy. Few of those who end up voting for Clinton will do so because they expect her to bring about deep change in the economy. Many will do so from fear of the alternative. But how many other Americans will be ready to roll the dice and opt for Trump, simply in order to impose change of some sort on the entrenched oligarchies and rigged political system that Clinton represents and embodies to them? Until the votes are counted, it is a question that cannot be answered, but it’s a safe bet that there will be more than have yet revealed themselves to pollsters.

If the 1980s were a time when the global market was expanding, our time is one in which globalisation is stalled and fragmenting. Idle dreams of a global free market have yielded to geopolitical rivalries, while anxious populations want safety more than fast-increasing material prosperity. A circulation of elites is under way, in which those that cling to the neoliberal past are being replaced by others that understand the present. The long fag end of the 1980s is over.

In Britain the May government will have to perform a tricky balancing act. In recognising that an unstable global environment requires a reassertion of the protective ­functions of the state, it is ahead of the game. As the Hinkley Point C saga shows, reconciling that role with the need for continuing trade and investment will be a formidable task. But it is the right that has grasped what the new times mean. The left is once again a sideshow.

John Gray is a philosopher and the lead book reviewer of the New Statesman


This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.