If there is a common theme in the reaction to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn it is that he is a throwback to the politics of a long-gone age. Twenty-first-century politics – we have been encouraged to believe – isn’t driven by ideological conflict. Mainstream parties are agreed on the parameters governing how policies are set; a type of democratic capitalism is the framework within which these parties compete to deliver shared social goals. In some countries new forces may have emerged that do not accept this consensus – parties in many ways quite different from one another but loosely described as populist, such as Syriza and Podemos on the left, Golden Dawn on the far right and less easily classifiable forces such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, while in America Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is having an unexpectedly large impact. Yet these developments are ascribed to the particular problems of the eurozone, which are believed to be manageable, and in the case of Trump to the difficulties the Republicans face in coming up with a candidate with broad appeal. According to this conventional wisdom, there is no reason to suppose that any shift in the constellation of political forces is under way in western democracies.
Corbyn’s decisive victory in the election for the Labour leadership plants a question mark over this assumption. The Labour Party has played an important role in British politics since Ramsay MacDonald formed a minority government in 1924. The party has undergone periods of upheaval, and for anyone who was around at the time, it is tempting to view Corbyn’s rise as a rerun of events in 1983, when under the leadership of Michael Foot it produced a manifesto, echoed in Corbyn’s policy statements today and advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EU and large-scale nationalisation, which the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”. In the event, Labour didn’t expire, but it was incapable of mounting any challenge to Margaret Thatcher and remained out of power until Tony Blair formed his first government in 1997 – in all, a period of nearly 20 years. Now that Corbyn has won, it is easy to conclude that the result for Labour will be no different.
In fact, the stakes are higher this time. In 1983 Labour still had its working-class bastions in Scotland and the north, sources of support that have respectively disappeared and are diminishing. Contrary to the Blairite mantra, there is no way forward in trying to reclaim the safety of the centre ground. In Britain as in other countries at the present time, there is no safe centre ground. Labour cannot accommodate post-Thatcherite individualism in the south of England as well as the party’s working-class supporters in the north who are attracted by Ukip, at the same time as it struggles to regain voters in a leftish, nationalist Scotland. The trick of triangulation will no longer work.
Moreover, Labour is no longer the historic party that shaped Britain for generations. It would be foolish to deny any achievements to the governments formed by Blair and Brown; but the effect of New Labour was to hollow out the party, emptying it of its internal culture and making it the instrument of the leader of the day – and Corbyn will be a new type of leader. When Michael Foot became leader he had experience in government and as leader of the House of Commons. Tony Benn, who stood for the position of deputy leader in 1981 and helped produce the split in the party that kept it out of power for so many years, had extensive experience of government. Some are comparing Corbyn with George Lansbury, who led Labour between 1932 and 1935; but Lansbury had served as commissioner of works under MacDonald. Unlike any of these predecessors, Corbyn has no experience of office and his record in parliament is that of permanent opposition. By selecting him the party has taken a leap into the dark.
A heavy responsibility must lie with Ed Miliband and his advisers. Not only did they lead the party to defeat by directing their campaign to a country yearning for an egalitarian type of capitalism – a country that doesn’t exist, as I wrote in the New Statesman in February – but by changing the rules of the leadership election they set in motion a process that has changed the party irrevocably. The Conservatives extended the vote to party members in the leadership contest that produced Iain Duncan Smith; but they left MPs with the prerogative of selecting two candidates from whom members would choose. In contrast, Labour Party members have now imposed a leader on MPs. Miliband and his advisers have created a new party more definitively than did the architects of New Labour. Labour is now more like an extra-parliamentary body, with power in the hands of activists. It is a body that Corbyn – and any subsequent leader – will find difficulty controlling.
Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises. In Britain the effect of Thatcher’s policies was to undermine hierarchies in society and her own party and weaken old patterns of voting, while the attempt to construct a global free market has come unstuck on differences in political systems and disparities in economic development. The architects of the project assumed that, as the world converted to capitalism, it would also embrace liberal democracy. It was an assumption with little basis in history, and the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements.
Corbyn is part of a new politics that is developing alongside the current crises of globalisation. As such, it is a response to real-world problems. The trouble is that Cobynite solutions belong in the realm of fantasy. At the same time, like some manifestations of this new politics in other countries, his rise has given voice to some old and highly toxic attitudes.
The 1990s, when the Blair project took shape, were years of complacency. It was widely believed that with the collapse of the Soviet Union only one system remained in place: the mix of representative democracy and managed capitalism that existed in Europe, the US and other western countries. Post-communist Russia might be experiencing deep depression as it struggled to implement western-led policies of economic shock therapy, while a version of capitalism was booming in China under communist auspices. But the contradictions from which these countries were suffering would be resolved as they were forced to embrace the sole system that combined high levels of productivity with respect for modern aspirations to self-government. A global middle class was emerging, carrying with it aspirations for political freedom and personal autonomy, which would, in time, make the prevailing type of western capitalism universal.
These attitudes had more than a little in common with those Maynard Keynes analysed in 1919 when, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he described how in the age that came to an end in August 1914 an affluent Londoner
. . . could . . . proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference . . . he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable. The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions, and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than the amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.
A similar sense of normalcy existed in the 1990s. There were some clouds on the horizon. More than economic failure, a feature of the Soviet system throughout its existence, it was nationalism and religion – in the form of defeat by western-supported jihadists in Afghanistan and loss of control in Poland and the Baltic states – that supplied the catalyst for its implosion. The wars that raged in the Balkans throughout the 1990s demonstrated that these forces continued to be potent sources of conflict. But they had little place in the western model that was supposed to be spreading globally, so ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia could be written off as a sign of backwardness. The first Gulf war of 1991, a resource war in which western states protected oil supplies without having any larger goals in the region, had on its own terms been successful and could be safely forgotten.
The 9/11 attacks destroyed this sense of safety, but the belief that democratic capitalism was the only system that could in future be legitimate wasn’t abandoned. The global campaign against terrorism which was launched after the attacks was touted as being also a war for freedom and democracy. In practice, it meant backing Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian regimes in the Gulf – from which much of the funding for the fundamentalist ideologies that infuse al-Qaeda and Isis has emanated – and turning a blind eye to the role of rogue elements in the state of Pakistan, another western ally, in supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even in governmental circles, it is now accepted that this “war on terror” – a term that has been banished from the official lexicon – was a ruinously expensive failure.
The disastrous impact of the Iraq war is still unfolding. Labour’s Blairite wing has tended to pass over the subject as quickly as possible. But the promotion of a western model by military force was an integral part of the project of marketisation, while the failure of regime change was pivotal in Labour’s decline. Not only did the war create a failed state, large parts of which are now controlled by Islamic State forces. Compounded by the situation in Libya, an ungoverned space as a result of Britain and France toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi, and by the ongoing civil war in Syria, regime change in Iraq has magnified the flow of refugees into Europe, flows that can only increase if Bashar al-Assad is finally overthrown and the state of Syria disintegrates completely. Any idea that a western model of democracy can be installed in these conditions is wilful delusion.
Estimated as ranging between $1trn and $3trn, the cost of the Iraq war may well have contributed to the financial crisis that erupted in 2007. But the crash signalled a larger breach in the process of globalisation that has been under way over the past few decades. As globalisation has advanced, middle-class living standards in advanced societies have stagnated and the prospects of young people have contracted; many are mired in debt. Where poverty has been much reduced, as in China, rising incomes have been combined with greater insecurity. The world’s middle classes are turning to extreme political movements, such as the French Front National and America’s Tea Party, while giving their support to authoritarian regimes (like Vladimir Putin’s) that promise them safety. When globalisation is in trouble, floundering middle classes and extremist politics go together.
Here, it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, globalisation as a technological process, in which the world’s economies are becoming increasingly interconnected and which is unstoppable, and, on the other, the global free market promoted by neoliberal ideologues, which – like the internationalised economy that Keynes described, which fell apart in the years following the First World War – could well break down. Nowadays it is not uncommon for neoliberalism to be dismissed as a kind of ideological phantom in its own right. It’s true that the term may be too broadly applied. Hayek and Friedman were neoliberals in that they believed in a free market with minimum government intervention: Blair is a neoconservative who believes in a strong state and does not hesitate to subordinate market imperatives to political ends. But neoliberals and neoconservatives do share one crucial belief. For both, anything that stands in the way of democratic capitalism is “on the wrong side of history”.
This was the mindset that produced the Iraq war. Of course, geopolitical strategies to do with oil played a significant role. But lying behind these stratagems was an ideological faith that if only Saddam Hussein’s despotism was removed, a modern democracy would rise from the rubble. This ruling world-view equates modernity with the rise of the market, and forgets the many other movements – some humane and civilised, others horribly malign – that have developed alongside and against the spread of market society.
The same mindset was on display in Blair’s recent attack on Scottish nationalism as “the politics of the caveman”. Blindness to the growing significance of nationalism is one of the things Blair shares with Ed Miliband. A failure to grasp that Scotland was hiving off to become a separate political culture was a crucial factor in Labour’s defeat in May. If the party is now on a course of collapse akin to that of the Liberal Party when it was undone by Irish home rule nearly a century ago, one reason is that Labour’s leading lights have clung to a progressive narrative in which nationalism is a declining force.
The belief that nationalism is premodern is historically illiterate. The Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the nation state, was signed in 1648. Later, the nation state would become the principal focus of the demand for popular government, and despite many attempts to overcome that fact, national governments continue to mark the upper limit of democratic accountability. Whether of the civic variety that prevails in Scotland or the ethnic sort that wreaked such havoc in central Europe and the Balkans, nationalism is an expression of enduring human needs for identity and recognition which show no sign of fading away. Nationalism and its pathologies are as much a part of the modern world as the global market, and in many cases the two have been intertwined.
One of the common features of the new political movements commonly described as populist is that they trade on a conflict between a market-driven agenda that requires openness to global flows of capital and people and the workings of democracy, which act to limit these flows. Obeying conflicting imperatives, democracy and global capitalism are not natural allies. The mobility of capital is not matched by that of labour; the European migrant crisis reflects this asymmetry. Aggravated by western policies of regime change that have left zones of war and anarchy in their wake, the struggle of large numbers of people to move from dislocated societies into the relative safety of Europe is not a one-off event, but a feature of globalisation that will continue for generations. The freedom of movement that existed before the First World War was not contested because democracy was limited then and the welfare state almost non-existent. Today, with already large pools of unemployment in a number of countries, the flows of people will contribute to ongoing political radicalisation.
The forms taken by the new politics vary widely. In the United States, Donald Trump’s campaign rehearses some familiar themes of American nativism. Mistrust of China continues a long tradition, as does Trump’s implicit protectionism. What is new is how he has been able to advance by projecting an image of himself as an anti-politician. Helped by his wealth, celebrity and near-universal name recognition, he has also been empowered by a popular American perception that, even more than in the past, government is a game rigged by special interests while the middle classes are ignored.
At the other end of the spectrum, the campaign of Bernie Sanders, a long-serving independent member of Congress who describes himself as a socialist, is also drawing large crowds. Sanders’s platform – which features reducing inequality, fighting climate change and federal measures to promote job creation – could hardly be more different from Trump’s. (Interestingly, both accept that large-scale immigration has disturbing implications for American wage levels.) That these two, quite different candidates have evoked such a response suggests widespread disillusion with centrist politics. But disaffection with a dysfunctional system has yet to produce anything like large-scale political revolt.
In parts of the eurozone this point has been reached. The rise of new political forces is a reaction against a regime of austerity in which mainstream parties are seen as complicit. The collapse of the centre has gone hand in hand with a rejection of neoliberalism. It may be too simple to say that the euro has become a neoliberal project, but the cult of austerity has a definite ideological pedigree in Ordoliberalism, an ideology that emphasises the active role of the state in creating conditions that favour market competition, which played a prominent role in the reconstruction of the German economy after the Second World War. Rejecting any programme of minimising government, Ordoliberalism might seem at first sight to be altogether different from neoliberalism. But Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics. In the Ordoliberal view, a regime of strictly observed rules is an indispensable precondition of economic stability. Among these must be stringent rules for balancing budgets and the repayment of debt. Under these rules the regime of austerity can be neither democratically legitimated nor democratically reformed. The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements.
Among the forces that have emerged are some that replay themes resonant of earlier periods in European history. The hateful prejudices expressed by Golden Dawn need no elaboration. But there are noxious strands in other new parties. In Beppe Grillo’s Five Star, an anti-establishment rhetoric of resistance to “the Caste” – the established political class – can, for some of the movement’s members, easily translate into anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen’s Front National continues to promote a vision of national identity that is framed to exclude sections of the population, including Muslim citizens of France. Outside the eurozone, Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian experiment in what he has described as “illiberal democracy” involves mobilising popular sentiment against long-persecuted minorities – Jews, gay people, Roma, Muslims and immigrants. Many on the left have applauded the welcome given to fleeing migrants, particularly by Germany; but the sudden suspension of the Schengen Agreement by the Germans, following the reaction in post-communist Europe, points in a different direction. A process of reversion to the historical mean may be under way, taking Europe back to the politics of the 20th century.
Jeremy Corbyn belongs among the new forces that are emerging in a number of countries at the same time as the break-up of centrist politics. It is the former Blairite ascendancy that is beached in the past. Did anyone really believe that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership could equip Labour to mount a serious challenge to the Conservatives in 2020? Even if one of them had squeaked through to victory, he or she would still have had to come to terms with Corbyn’s mass following in the party. But it is Corbyn that poses the greatest danger to Labour’s future.
If Ed Miliband addressed his campaign to a non-existent country, Corbyn addresses a non-existent world. At the present time, Cuba is opening the door to the US and a capitalist Vietnam has been discussing military co-operation with the US defence secretary; Iran seems to be seeking some kind of rapprochement with the Great Satan; Russia is ruled by a type of authoritarian crony capitalism, propped up by nationalism and the Orthodox Church, which despite sanctions and a weakening economy appears to enjoy wider popular support than the Soviet system did at any point in its peacetime history; China’s rulers are struggling to keep their experiment in capitalism on track, watched uneasily by western governments whose own versions of capitalism depend heavily on China’s success; while Venezuela is sinking into poverty and chaos under the impact of low oil prices and endemic corruption.
In these conditions, the notion that Britain can strike out alone on a path to socialism is a triumph of whimsy. What would socialism mean? Even if the current phase of globalisation goes into reverse, the technological advance that drives economic change will not slow down. How would eBay, Amazon and Airbnb fit into a Corbynist Britain?
It’s not so much that Corbyn’s outlook is backward-looking as that it has always resisted contact with reality. He has not changed his political stance since the 1970s – a fact many regard as a point in his favour. But the view of politics he professes, which sounds so invigoratingly unorthodox today, was thoroughly commonplace then. The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia.
It was this ideology that enabled the Soviet Union to be seen as flawed, mildly repressive and even rather dull, but still essentially benign. Rigorous historical studies that demonstrated the enormous human costs of communism – such as The Great Terror (1968) by the late Robert Conquest – were dismissed as exercises in cold war propaganda. Later, neoconservatives subscribed to a similar view of things with their belief that war may be used to promote grandiose projects of regime change. The principal result in each case has been millions of broken lives. Catastrophic gradualism appeals to a type of mind that prides itself on its tough-mindedness while being invincibly innocent of the forces that drive politics, which include sheer hatred as much as the passion for justice. It may be this mentality that accounts for Corbyn’s links with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Inquiries about these connections have provoked a backlash among his supporters, who regard them as McCarthyite smears.
But such sympathies are of a piece with the mindset that Orwell diagnosed. There has long been a tendency in the murkier depths of European politics, including sections of the left, to suspend moral judgement in regard to groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers and to excuse anti-Semitism on the grounds that those who display it are involved in legitimate struggles. That this strange tolerance can surface at the top of Labour is new and ruptures the party’s deep links with the British liberal tradition. For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values.
Some observers – such as the old Tory war horse Kenneth Clarke – have opined that Corbyn’s platform could be more electorally appealing in an economic downturn. This may be so, but the loss of Scotland and the need to garner Tory votes in the south will pose insuperable obstacles to a workable majority, and a minority government in coalition with the SNP will remain unpopular with both English and Scottish voters. Even so, Corbyn’s coronation alters British politics in fundamental ways. One example that has not been much discussed – though its importance has been signalled by Chuka Umunna’s departure from the shadow cabinet – concerns Britain’s relations with the EU.
Brexit is the unavoidable logic of Corbyn’s policy agenda. Whatever may be meant by “people’s quantitative easing” – some more radical version of the unconventional policies of money creation that have been pursued since the financial crisis – it would hardly be compatible with Britain’s continued place in the EU. Austerity has in any case shredded the claim (made in the past on the soft left) that European capitalism is more “social” than the Anglo-Saxon variety. Because of the migrant crisis, the In/Out referendum that must occur before the end of 2017 is already a riskier gambit than it was a few months ago. Corbyn’s opting for Brexit would make the outcome even more uncertain.
Corbyn may last longer as leader than many currently suppose. As resignations from the shadow cabinet immediately after his victory showed, he faces strong hostility from the parliamentary party. But he won the leadership contest by a large margin, and any attempt to dislodge him will provoke intense resistance from the grass roots. His supporters may organise to deselect uncooperative MPs, taking advantage of the fact that upcoming constituency boundary changes will produce fewer Labour seats. As the new deputy leader, Tom Watson will be a formidable figure. He may be able to exercise a restraining influence over some of Corbyn’s more far-fetched policies; but his first priority will be to defeat any threat to Corbyn’s position. Labour may descend into a civil war more protracted and damaging than the debacle of the early 1980s.
Another scenario is realistically possible, however. Blairites and centrists may be a spent force that has been routed. In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return.
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War