The meaning of Jeremy Corbyn

This review was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Richard Seymour’s Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics is the first serious study of the unexpected insurgency that has taken hold of the Labour Party.

In Seymour, a Marxist writer whose work is characterised by both an uncompromising radicalism and an unsentimental recognition of how hard progressive change is to achieve, the Corbyn phenomenon has perhaps found its ideal commentator.

For this is a book that will please no-one. Seymour’s analysis of Corbyn’s rise from nowhere to the summit of his party on a wave of disenchantment with centre-left orthodoxies will offend moderates. But much as he admires Corbyn, and sympathises with the aspirations of the movement he represents, Seymour holds out little hope that the new leader’s bold project will succeed.

He attempts to answer two big questions. First, just how can we make sense of Corbyn’s astonishing ascent to the leadership, an event that is perhaps still too recent and too raw for its significance to be properly grasped. Oft-made comparisons with Michael Foot are inadequate: Foot was a left-liberal whose leadership represented a compromise between the party’s evenly matched left and right wings. Corbyn is a hard-core Bennite who won a landslide victory in a party run by a cadre of centrist technocrats whose membership had hitherto been loyal to a succession of moderate leaders.

Second, what – realistically – can Corbyn and his followers hope to achieve? Their professed objectives are rather more restrained than much of the hysterical commentary surrounding Corbyn suggests, but much more radical than anything Labour has attempted for decades: the development of a ‘post-austerity’ platform that revives discarded elements of the social democratic tradition, and the incremental broadening of Labour’s focus from a narrow, exclusive concern with electoral success to the patient building of a wider social movement pressing for progressive change.

A crisis of democratic representation

Seymour’s answer to the first question is that Corbyn’s rise was made possible by a simmering crisis of democratic representation: his unexpected candidature for the leadership was seized upon by a constituency of disenfranchised voters – young, poor, often both – looking for a genuine alternative to a long established cross-party neoliberal political consensus.

Seymour traces the seeds of the crisis to the breakdown of the post-war social democratic settlement, a period of some 25 years during which Labour had a clear identity as the political representative of a powerful labour movement. Labour governments earned their support by safeguarding trade union powers, investing in public services, building a strong welfare state and setting full employment as the primary objective of economic policy.

During these years the labour movement was strong enough to continue to prosper when the right was in power, obliging Conservative administrations to work within the social democratic parameters established by the 1945 Attlee administration. But when the post-war framework began to break down during the multiple economic crises of the 1970s and the collapse of a cluster of traditional industries, a newly militant Tory government took the opportunity to inflict a series of crushing defeats on the left. Union powers were drastically curtailed, public services privatised, welfare provision slashed, and unemployment allowed to soar as economic policy was refocused on holding down inflation and interest rates.

Fearing that the working class demographic it had hitherto depended on was now too splintered to offer a base for electoral success, a demoralised Labour Party gradually internalised the neoliberal narrative considered by revisionist left intellectuals to define the limits of ‘mainstream’ political discourse: the ‘creative destruction’ of globalised capital was irresistible; worker solidarity had dissolved into atomised consumerism; welfare should be reconceptualised as workfare; and a ‘modern left’ should prioritise the principle of meritocracy over equality.

For Seymour Labour’s acceptance of the broad outlines of the right’s agenda created the conditions for the indignant, disenfranchised movement that propelled Corbyn to the leadership. As society has become ever more starkly divided the alienated constituencies which have despaired of finding adequate representation within mainstream parties of the left or the right have been growing, spreading beyond the ranks of a persistent underclass to encompass an increasingly precarious layer of the middle-class, and a growing body of angry young people burdened with student debt, trapped in low paid transient service sector jobs, without much prospect of ever being able to afford a home or to be able to retire.

Casting around for effective alternative political channels, activists representing these groups have tried to get new movements off the ground or have investigated existing fringe parties. But attempts to create a British Syriza or Podemos have been stymied by a British electoral system that ensures new initiatives such as the Socialist Alliance, Left Unity and Respect, or even more established parties such as the Greens, can never be much more than protest movements.

The possibility that Labour might after all have promise as an effective vehicle for meaningful change briefly flickered when Ed Miliband took charge on a pledge to move beyond New Labour with bold talk of restructuring ‘predatory capitalism’, sparking a brief surge in the party’s membership. But over time Miliband’s appeal was muddied by a chronic weakness for Blairite triangulation: was Miliband’s party pro- or anti-austerity, liberal or socially authoritarian, ‘metropolitan’ or ‘Blue’ Labour?

In retrospect the window of opportunity these frustrated constituencies had been searching for was cracked open – more or less unnoticed at the time – by Miliband’s reform of the Labour leadership election process, which effectively opened the system up to mass public participation. The significance of the change was only realised when Corbyn scraped onto the ballot paper a minute before nominations closed. At last the stars were aligned: here, suddenly, was the opportunity for anyone to stump up £3 to elect a politician of transparent sincerity, ‘unsullied’ by involvement with New Labour or the Miliband interregnum and promising a clear break with austerity, to the leadership of an established political party. As Seymour puts it:

Corbyn’s offer, in this context, was simple and unique. In joining the Labour Party or registering as supporters, they could bypass the need to patiently build an alternative party or start a new one. Instead, they could take the leadership in an existing mass party with union backing, money, and a record of electoral success far greater than any of its rivals, and drive it to the left.

Corbyn’s prospects

Though Seymour’s account of Corbyn’s ascent will displease Labour’s right, there isn’t much here that is particularly controversial, or hasn’t been said elsewhere, though Seymour’s extended analysis consolidates the various factors explaining his victory into a compelling narrative. But Seymour’s assessment of what Corbyn will actually be able to do with the power he has been given is essential reading. Here is something new: a thoroughly sceptical appraisal of the prospects for the success of the Corbyn project from the left.

Part of the problem is defining what that success might look like, which many in the Corbyn camp are only able to express in the most nebulous terms. The new leadership’s project is still very much a work-in-progress, surrounded by a swirl of soaring, often conflicting hopes. But two primary objectives are becoming clear enough.

The first is the design of a coherent programme for government that will move Labour beyond the confines of neoliberal orthodoxy. Far from wanting, as many tired voices continue to claim, to ‘turn the clock back to the 1980s’, it has become clear that Corbyn’s team have something rather more like the 1960s in mind. The central element of Labour’s emergent agenda, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s attempt to think through a ‘New Economics‘, recalls Harold Wilson’s talk of harnessing the ‘white heat’ of technology for economic modernisation. Here all the talk is of modernity and the future, an attempt – in consultation with  academics such as Yanis Varoufakis, Mariana Mazzucato and Nick Srnicek – to re-engineer the economy to make technological progress work for the common good.

Other components of the new programme include possibilities for a thoroughgoing redesign of welfare services (including a promise to look closely at the contemporary debate concerning the feasibility of a universal basic income), a commitment to the selective renationalisation of key public services, a pledge to invest in social housing, and a rededication of resources earmarked for the renewal of Trident. All in all, Labour’s policy rethink under Corbyn and McDonnell is squarely in the well established social democratic tradition of using the state as a lever for economic and technological progress, and the guarantor of a robust welfare system. That it should seem revolutionary to some is a measure of how far Labour has travelled since the 1980s.

Corbyn’s second key objective is to reform the Labour Party by democratising elements of its decision-making processes, and placing a new focus on grassroots and community campaigning. Ultimately the goal is to reposition the party as the political wing of a wider social movement encompassing the unions, student movements, environmental campaigners and other campaigning groups.

Where’s the bounce?

Seymour thinks Labour has started on the right road. The policy review represents a serious effort to face up to the extent of the restructuring necessary to begin to address today’s dysfunctional economic and political systems. And if Labour is to be recast as a reforming party dedicated to a long-term programme for serious progressive change it will need the backing of a wider social movement that will serve both as an electoral coalition and a crucial source of ongoing support for the hard years of government.

The blunt truth, however, is there has been no ‘Corbyn bounce’ in the polls. Granted, Labour’s figures since his election are probably no worse than those likely under any alternative leader, and there is clear public support for elements of his nascent programme. There is increasing disquiet about the capacity of Britain’s financialised economy to generate sufficient jobs to allow even well qualified workers a decent standard of living. There is strong support for renationalisation of the railways and other key utilities, and for investment in social housing. And there is profound scepticism about the need to spend billions renewing Trident. Indeed under Corbyn Labour is at last beginning to look like an opposition presenting a clear alternative, and has proved itself capable of wounding the government, scoring notable victories on issues ranging from the proposed abolition of working family tax credits to nefarious Saudi arms deals.

But the path to election victory in 2020 is long indeed. Though uneasy about Britain’s economic fragility a solid majority of voters continue to accept the Tory line that there is ‘no alternative’, and that the financial crash was caused by ‘reckless’ Labour spending. Though there is widespread disquiet about the evident distress caused by stringent welfare cuts, George Osborne continues to be able to draw upon deep-seated resentment at ‘benefit cheats’. And while Corbyn’s principled stand on refugees has won him a certain respect, Labour is some way from beginning to appreciate the depth of public concern over immigration and freedom of movement, as the EU referendum debate, once again, demonstrated emphatically.

Bumping along at or just over 30% in the polls, well short of what will be necessary for victory at the next election, it is clear that Corbyn’s Labour needs time. Time to develop a coherent policy platform that works out what a ‘New Economics’ might look like, and how a welfare system suitable for the 21st century should be structured. Time to persuade at least some business leaders that any alternative economic platform is viable. Time to undertake the intensive grassroots campaigning necessary to mobilise the disengaged demographic without which Labour will not be able to assemble an electoral coalition. Time to build networks of support for progressive change amongst key opinion formers in the media and academia, networks that go well beyond the faithful crowd Corbyn has cultivated through social media channels.

Without the time necessary for all of this Corbyn’s project will fail. A compromised and inconsistent manifesto will be ruthlessly exposed by a hostile media and won’t engage the disenchanted voters Labour desperately needs to turn out. And even if Labour were able to develop a programme sufficiently compelling to scrape home in 2020 (in the event, perhaps, of another recession, or a final Tory implosion over Europe) a simple Parliamentary majority of itself would be an inadequate base from which implement the kind of far reaching change a reforming Labour government would want to force through. Any progressive administration – Syriza is only the most recent and grotesque example – will be brutally derailed if it cannot draw upon a network of wider support able to put up some resistance to hostile external institutions and economic forces able to block change. Seymour writes:

It is not just that there is something about states, senior civil servants, military leaders, Treasury advisors, Bank of England governors and so on, that makes them resistant to radical change. It is not just that to govern effectively requires a minimum of cooperation on the part of businesses and investors, as well as international trade institutions, ratings agencies, treaty organisations, and other powerful economic actors, which use what clout they have to veto reforms implemented by national governments. It is that there is an almost seamless circulation of power between them all. A radical government finds it difficult to wield power precisely because, if left to itself, it is rapidly encircled by those who actually hold power and who are accustomed to exercising it.

Any Labour government wanting to move beyond austerity economics would need to be able to resist, or draw upon at least some support amongst, powerful forces able to frustrate reform. Otherwise Corbyn would end up administering a form of watered down neoliberalism, just like so many other failed governments of the left. Seymour again:

The term for this, following on from ‘Pasokification’, is ‘Syrizafication’, a process wherein the radical Left is swiftly chewed up and metabolised by the institutions it seeks to govern, becoming in effect an instrument of the neoliberal centre that it was elected to displace.

It is sobering indeed for proponents of the ‘New Economics’ that successful social democratic innovation during this century has only been possible under the ‘pink tide’ governments of Latin America, whose access to reliable oil revenues have allowed them to fund significant social programmes that would otherwise have been vetoed by hostile international economic institutions.

Seymour argues that to have any chance of implementing the kind of change to which Corbyn and his followers aspire Labour needs to be prepared to focus on the long-term: to think in terms of a project that may take a generation to bear fruit, rather than in five-year electoral cycles. And Labour, quite simply, is just not that kind of party:

[S]ince Labour is in the marrow of its soul a constitutionalist and electoral party, it is naturally built-in to the culture of the party to be obsessed with electoral outcomes to the near exclusion of other considerations.

And he fears the romantic vision of Labour held by many of the insurgents who swept Corbyn to power is clouded by sentiment:

So many of Corbyn’s supporters – admittedly less so the younger variety – want ‘real’ Labour, ‘old’ Labour, ‘traditional’ Labour, what Labour is supposed to stand for. The allure of this idea is difficult to overstate. If there are risks in being too impressed by Corbynism, there is an equivalent danger in being transfixed by an idea of Labour that has never been close to reality.

Labour’s establishment – concerned above all with their prospects for 2020 – will judge Corbyn on only one criterion: electoral performance. And they will act on the first opportunity that presents itself to replace him, the day after an election defeat, or, just as likely, quite some time before. In the end, Seymour concludes, Corbyn’s project is likely to fail because the Labour Party is simply not the vehicle for radical political change that he and his supporters so fervently want it to be:

The political space for left-wing activists to operate effectively is likely to be closed before too long. There will be backlashes and disappointments, electoral setbacks and, in the event of government, continual, energy-sapping crises. In the final analysis, Corbynism will struggle to outrun the limits of Labourism. And it is those limits, above all, which have brought us to this impasse.

Hope and illusion

Seymour’s study draws its power from a steadfast refusal to indulge the illusions of Labour’s left or right. Corbyn’s opponents are deluded if they think that a return to cautious centrist technocracy spiced with pinches of social authoritarianism will fare any better with ‘middle England’ than it did in 2010 or 2015, let alone engage the alienated voters the party so urgently needs to forge to viable electoral coalition. And Corbyn et al are likely to be frustrated in their ambition to reshape a recalcitrant party as an effective channel for radical change.

Indeed, if anything the book rather underplays the full extent of Corbyn’s challenge, understating the wider international dimension of the task confronting any reforming political party aspiring to move beyond the prevailing economic and political order. No progressive government acting on its own can hope to unpick the tightly integrated worldwide nexus of interlocking global corporations, financial institutions, economic organisations and trading frameworks that define the parameters within which all national governments have to act. If the international left is truly serious about change it needs to undertake a transnational project similar in ambition to that to which the architects of neoliberalism embarked upon during the post-war years, whose patient and sustained effort to work away at a resolute social democratic consensus began in the 1940s and only started to bear fruit in the late 1970s (an enterprise, it should be said, that Seymour does discuss in his previous book Anti-Austerity).

If to acquiesce in the runaway power of global capital and the accelerating financialisation of the world economy is regarded as simple acceptance of the inevitable vector of modernity, then Labour’s task becomes easier, comfortingly familiar: to convince voters that a Labour government is better able to equip people to prosper as best they can in the global vortex than the other side.

But if Labour dares to get its hands dirty, to attempt to rewire the machine, then it needs to be prepared to see itself as just one element in a global project that will take decades to realise, not just five years. Whether Corbyn and his supporters fully appreciate what lies ahead is not yet apparent.

Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics by Richard Seymour is published by Verso Books.