30 December 2016

Detailed review: Corbyn (2016)

Blogger and broadcaster Richard Seymour's 2016 book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, is a much-needed realist assessment of hopes and dreads associated with Jeremy Corbyn's efforts to transform the UK's Labour Party to oppose the neoliberal state. The core thesis of Seymour's book is that Corbyn has emerged as Leader of the Opposition in a regime where he risks being "encircled" and even "chewed up" ideologically by the British governing elite whether he achieves state power or not.

Much of Seymour's book is a repudiation of Tony Blair and exposes the decay of British democracy, while celebrating how such conditions led to the return of a socialist in Labour's leader. As stated in the book, "Corbyn intelligently exploited an opening which has come about from the decay of the old parties". Phrased differently, "as the state becomes less and less democratic" as it pushes business interests over the interests of the people, "alienation and volatility of the electorate is likely to increase". Meanwhile, Labour suffers disproportionately from this decay as the workers they seek to represent and champion are simply ignoring them. Seymour notes, "the more working class a constituency, the higher its rate of unemployment, the lower its turnout."

Tony Blair and New Labour are often portrayed as Labour success stories simply for putting the party back in power after a history of failure, but Seymour dismisses them as "flimsy". New Labour was so ideologically to the right as to be "inessential" to the labour movement and the left, he writes.

Seymour writes "the ideas with which Corbyn won are ones that have largely been ignored, suppressed, or regarded with amused condescension since the Blairites took control". Tony Blair's New Labour was devoted to stop democratic socialism, to abort any attempt to give the workers power over their managers, the analysis goes. It is no surprise, it follows, that a concerned Tony Blair trying to dissuade Labour members from selecting Corbyn as leader was seen as the "epitome of the problem" and his pleas for centrism fell on deaf ears.

Describing how Labour's membership were radicalised, Seymour writes of the "crisis of legitimacy" in British parliamentary democracy. "Millions simply gave up" on Labour under Blair and his successor Gordon Brown because the party had become "symbiotically dependent" on banks, business, media, and the rightist wings of state. The lack of confidence members developed in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is now best demonstrated in the result of the failed 2016 leadership challenge, when members voted to keep Corbyn despite the overwhelming rejection of his leadership by the PLP. The hostility shown in the so-called Labour coup, if we are to accept Seymour's analysis, brings the legitimacy of much of the PLP into question. Nevertheless, the "underdeveloped" and unconfident youths and students who rally behind Corbyn seem like no match for the "immense, lordly dominion" of the PLP, making the PLP largely invulnerable, no matter what talk about the deselection of anti-Corbyn MPs may exist.

Of course, the real view held by revolting Labour MPs was that the party was being steered to the "hard left" at the cost of its electability. This is a view also evident throughout the national news media in Britain. Since taking office as leader in 2015, Corbyn has been regarded as a saboteur of the party by critics, with "constant harking back to the 1980s" when hard-line socialists had been perceived to create a fatal split leading to the formation of the centrist breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP). Seymour points out, in defiance of this view, extremist fringes of the Labour right connected with Blair are the ones who actually stated their desire for Labour to lose if Corbyn stays in charge. As Seymour phrases it, they think "it would be better to crash Labour than to let it win under a left-wing leadership". In similar pettiness and hypocrisy, anti-Corbyn MPs complain of Corbyn's supporters calling for their expulsion, and demand that the offending members are themselves expelled.

Corbyn's youthful supporters operate in a much friendlier environment than in the 1980s, Seymour indicates, thanks to their effective use of social media as influence shifts away from the tabloids. Despite vulgar attempts on the part of some journalists and politicians to revive the Cold War in the press, there is no longer any concern about fifth columnists in Britain. Nevertheless, Seymour cautions, "it would be a mistake for Corbyn's supporters to be too impressed by their own sudden feeling of vitality."

Despite how wrong Corbyn's opponents are to accuse him of sabotaging and dividing Labour, Seymour accepts that Corbyn's democratic socialism is in fact somewhat alien to Labour's history. In most ways, Corbyn is not in fact taking Labour back to its origins but is a radical attempting to transform the party into a socialist organisation, as opposed to its past role as the "rearguard of reaction". In a somewhat pessimistic account of the future, the author believes the party will eventually not change but return to its more centrist roots. New Labour arrivals who think they are joining a radical left movement could eventually find their space being "closed" if new setbacks and internal party struggles accumulate on Corbyn's record. Even in such an event, Seymour believes, the British left will have undoubtedly benefited from Corbyn's tenure and been able to regroup using the transitory space they had enjoyed in the party.

In his assessment of the negative historical trajectory of the Labour Party for socialists, Seymour also points out how Blairite reforms shifted the party to depending on "passive supporters paying a small fee" rather than being based on union funding and the interests of the labour movement. The loss of union funding and organising power described here arguably undermined the Labour Party's very name. The complicity of the Blairites in anti-union legislation and the "degeneration of the union link", however, has driven unions that normally preferred "moderate leadership" into backing Corbyn's openly socialist leadership. It should also be added that in addition to those officially backing Corbyn, crowds even in unions not officially backing Corbyn don't hold back their enthusiasm for his leadership.

In some respects, Seymour encourages Corbyn to go more radical to reach out to poorer sections of society and former disillusioned Labour supporters. Corbyn's rhetorical approach of pointing the finger at "the Tories", in keeping with Labour's parliamentary lexicon, may be "disabling" for his mission to champion Britain's poorest and most marginalised people. He could instead appeal to growing class polarisation, much the way Bernie Sanders had used the terms "Billionaire class", "one percent", and other language of the Occupy movement to inspire the lowest earners to take action. It can be added to this analysis that such unflinching anti-establishment language could even catch some of the energy that led to the Brexit vote, fed as it was by increased popular contempt for the wealthiest stakeholders in UK politics.

Pressuring Corbyn, Seymour points out, are questions of electoral feasibility, the struggle to keep his programme tolerable for his colleagues in the PLP, and the need for policies that are socialist but can be realistically implemented once in office. In any rush to get Labour elected to power, Corbyn's policies would meet with popular opposition on some issues. Popular opinion is prejudiced against state intervention in the economy and the welfare state, particularly when the issue of migrants claiming benefits is raised, Seymour points out. To go beyond what Seymour wrote, it can also be supposed that anti-refugee sentiment exists among much of the poor, so Corbyn's compassionate stance on refugees could prove disabling among capricious anti-establishment voters.

Corbyn's policies that resonate with voters, to his credit, are more numerous than those that might put them off. Corbyn has supported popular cries against military aggression, unethical arms deals, nuclear weapons, spending cuts, privatisation of vital services, and bailouts for banks. He is also likely to gain approval with promises to tax the rich and make homes and rents affordable to young people. Seymour sums up Corbyn's intentions with the view that "British banks and British tanks do not appear to be doing most British people any favours". Seymour points out that Corbyn's ideas make him an effective Leader of the Opposition, pushing back against inhumane government disability benefit cuts and against the British-made bombs that kill and disable as many people in the Saudi regime's war on Yemen.

A harder task for the Corbyn camp is convincing us that an economic alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy really exists. Seymour points out that a return to an "entrepreneurial state", termed as such in Mariana Mazzucato's 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, is seen as the solution by John McDonnell MP, Labour's Shadow Chancellor. If applied in power, Corbyn's ideas could be unprecedented in "reversing neoliberalism" as the state may use increased direct intervention to boost Britain's technology industries and create growth that way. However, all it would take is for the Tories to incite fear against this project as too economically risky, and the public might be deterred from supporting Corbyn. As noted earlier, British voters suffer a prejudice against increased state intervention in the economy, although they are also paradoxically opposed to privatisation of vital services.

The book could be said to eschew the case for Corbyn's kind personality as something British politics desperately needed, instead looking at the whole affair as an attempted socialist revival coming as a backlash against the inhumane policies inherent in New Labour and neoliberalism. It is possible that the book underestimates Corbyn's personality, implicit in his calls for "kinder politics" and his unimpeachable behaviour and principles in contrast with many of his colleagues.

Seymour does present the view that "the problem for the establishment is not necessarily Corbyn's agenda" but "the type of politician that he is". In a similar assessment of his chances, Corbyn's sole advantage may simply be his kind demeanour and personality. Current polling, local election results and a perceived failure to prevent the Brexit vote could be unreliable in assessing his chances, since these do not assess support for the man but rather for the divided and retreating party he inherited. If Corbyn leads a government, it will be because an alienated and volatile voting public suddenly favoured his personality where they would not have favoured his party.

In the event that a Corbyn government becomes a reality, Seymour believes it would open a new front against him as the neoliberal state itself pushed back against his socialist ideas and "rapidly encircled" his ability to rule effectively. The military leadership has even indicated its hostility to any possible Corbyn government, although it might not be a sentiment found in the rank and file.

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