Corbynites don’t see this as real democracy

 

Labour’s leader and shadow chancellor believe the people’s will is expressed on the street and shopfloor more than parliament

‘Is democracy working? It didn’t work if you were a family
living on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower. Those families, those individuals, 79 so far and there will be more, were murdered by political decisions taken over recent decades”.

You know those police dramas, where the detective stares at a clue for ages before suddenly realising he was looking in the wrong place and missing the real story? I experienced just such a moment while pondering John McDonnell’s remarks at Glastonbury.

At first, like everyone else, I thought the most important part of his statement came at the end, with his use of the term “murder”. And then it came to me. The most important part of what he said was at the beginning.

The shadow chancellor didn’t question if austerity is working. Or if capitalism is working. Or if the government is working. His attack instead is on democracy. The deaths, the “murders”, happened because democracy isn’t working. This, I think, is the key to understanding his approach and that of Jeremy Corbyn.

Let’s begin at 12.15 on Thursday April 11, 1974, an important moment in the history of modern socialism. Sir Anthony Part, permanent secretary of the department of industry, has come to see his secretary of state, Tony Benn, relatively recently appointed to his post. In his diary, Benn records his version of their exchange. Part “hummed and hawed a bit and then said, ‘Minister, do you really intend to go ahead with your National Enterprise Board, public ownership and planning agreements?’.”

When Benn, who regarded himself as the author of these policies, responded “Of course”, Part pressed him on whether he was serious. Because if he was, he could count on a massive confrontation with business, a campaign of resistance. And with that, Part tabled a paper suggesting ways in which his policy might be relaxed.

The encounter took its place in the left’s mythology as Benn cited it in many speeches over the coming decades. It symbolised the way in which a socialist programme would be resisted by the establishment, by the institutions that controlled the system. Jeremy Corbyn, who regarded Tony Benn as his intellectual father and was one of his closest political friends, will have heard the tale many times.

The programme that Part, acting “simply as a mouthpiece for the CBI”, was attempting to obstruct was one that Benn regarded as truly democratic. At its core was control of industry by the people who work in it and the direction of strategic investment by the state, acting on behalf of the working class. The real expression of democratic will was not through parliament and the government but on the shopfloor and on the street.

The Bennite idea was to borrow to invest in the shares of strategic industries. The government would then use this ownership, and other laws, to conclude planning agreements between the state, the unions and management. These agreements would direct investment, and meanwhile government would assist those workers who wished to take over their companies, some of whom would simply occupy their workplaces.

The Bennites also advanced the notion of industrial democracy, going beyond the German model of participation on supervisory boards, insisting instead that executive boards should have more than 50 per cent worker representation.

Democracy is not parliament voting on laws after an election every few years, it is control by working people of their own lives, of the means of production, of the management of their workplaces and of the capital invested in businesses. It is always democratic to insist upon these rights, even if it involves breaking laws made by parliament.

So when John McDonnell calls on a million people to rise in protest on the streets and force Mrs May out of office, he regards it as baffling that anyone should suggest this is undemocratic. Because the demand by protesters that the establishment should yield power can never be undemocratic. And the idea that a government that controls central institutions and governs in the interests of capital can ever be truly democratic he regards as laughable.

It is wrong to argue that he wants violence. Violence is what he thinks the controllers of the state and capital use in order to enforce their domination. What he wants is a surrender to democratic ideas and forces, without anyone having to
use violence.

I don’t think this is a caricature of his position. It is not intended as such. It is an attempt to understand and explain the things that he and Jeremy Corbyn say and believe.

The support Mr Corbyn shows for people like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, his appearances hosting phone-ins on Iranian state television, or his dealings with Hamas and Hezbollah are much easier to understand when it is recognised that he doesn’t see Britain as a real democracy. The voices of protest and resistance are what he regards as really democratic.

This grassroots socialism was the brainchild of intellectuals of the New Left, people like Ralph Miliband and Robin Blackburn who linked up with Corbyn and Benn in the 1990s through the Independent Left Corresponding Society. It replaced the centralisation of orthodox communism — which they saw as leading to Stalinism — with a pluralistic society of street-level democracy.

What Labour is building now through a mass party and social media should be seen as much more than a formidable election machine. The New Left has always believed that the party should “pre-figure” the society it is trying to create. So the anarchism and equality of social media and the enthusiasm of crowds enjoying rock festivals is a model for the sort of society Jeremy Corbyn wants to create.

I can’t pretend that I see this as anything other than hopelessly naive. I believe it will impoverish us all, the vulnerable most of all. I think it will be more tyrannical than democratic. I think it would collapse in lawless chaos. But I also accept it as a powerful and radical idea that deserves to be explained and debated. And if Mr McDonnell and Mr Corbyn would rather not, we must demand that they do.

To consider Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge as being merely on the levels of spending or corporation tax is to miss the point entirely. As Mr Corbyn put it when speaking to his constituency party: “Our job is not
to reform capitalism, it’s to overthrow it.”

If we are going to have a big public argument about Corbynism let’s at least ensure it’s on the right topic.

Let’s stop treating the young as political sages

Clare Foges

We should be challenging the naive, unaffordable views of many under-25s, not kowtowing to them

‘Respect your youngers,” tweeted the pop star Lily Allen after the shock election result driven by a high youth turnout. But have we come to respect the youngers and their opinions too much?

Recent years have involved increasing youth worship in politics. Come election time, TV producers fall over themselves to put together panels of young people to offer up vacuities about “choosing hope over fear” and other quotes they may have spotted on Instagram. Grey-beard presenters nod deferentially at every complaint offered up by youthful contributors, however inane or ill-informed (the passion of youth requires no substantiation). Millennial mouthpieces on social media rouse the tribe with talk of reclaiming their future and how dreadfully they have been let down by older generations.

Then there are the politicians engaging in something akin to dad dancing; loosening the tie to get down with the kids. Ed Miliband making a midnight visit to be interviewed by Russell Brand, Corbyn shooting the breeze with a grime artist, Theresa May grimacing her way through a Snapchat interview. You’ve got to engage with the young, see, however unstatesmanlike the process.

And since Thursday people have been falling over themselves to congratulate the younger among us for doing their democratic duty; a five-minute detour to the polling station given the same weight as going over the top at Ypres. Young people posted selfies taken after the event and wore stickers saying “I voted!” Should they get lollipops too?

Yes, an increase in turnout at any age is to be welcomed. Only 43 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in 2015. Although we are yet to see the hard data, the “youthquake” this time was doubtless real. And, of course, many people born post-1990 are spectacularly well-informed, public-spirited, energetic and the rest. Yet what is galling is the veneration of youthful opinion regardless of the sense it makes; this growing idea that being under 25 confers some special sagacity that the rest of us might benefit from. A generation reared to revere the words “empowerment” and “respect” is demanding that they are empowered and their views respected.

Last week’s election revealed the judgment of many young voters to be as we might expect of those with relatively limited experience: hopelessly naive. They turned out in their droves for a man who became a kind of millennials’ prophet; promising to lead them out of the badlands of austerity and towards a future where everything is nicer, cheaper, or indeed free. They voted for a man who would have endangered our economy, the whisper of whose name can send the pound on a swan-dive.

There is no wisdom here, no great lesson to be learnt; just the insight that many young people rather like being offered free stuff and ask few questions about how, ultimately, that stuff is funded. It has been suggested that the great turnout of the youth vote is an argument for lowering the voting age to 16. Given who they voted for en masse, I would say it’s an argument for raising it to at least 21.

This is not to suggest that the young have no cause to desire real change. It’s true that many have it hard: qualifications that don’t get you anywhere, work that is tenuous, homes that are impossible to afford. Serious action on these fronts would be welcome, within the constraints of our debt-laden public purse.

Yet the passionate sense of grievance among many young people — that theirs is a generation uniquely betrayed by the generations above — should not simply be “listened to” as though it were true; it must be robustly challenged. The phrase “intergenerational unfairness” has a lot to answer for, conjuring up a picture of the baby boomers and Generation Xers scrabbling up the ladder of opportunity and booting those below in the face. It hasn’t happened like that. Those older generations simply took whatever chances were on offer, from £50,000 family homes to university grants, and this does not make them the deniers of opportunity for young people today.

What should be challenged too is the youthful expectation of a free lunch. For instance, many 18 to 24-year-olds — reared on the language of rights — believe it their right to receive a free university education, as Corbyn exploited so successfully. What must be communicated to young people is not congratulations for backing wish-list politics but the reality that public resources are finite.

Wishing for a better world is nothing to be derided, and there is always something appealing about youthful enthusiasm. As Churchill reputedly said; “If you are not a liberal at 25 you have no heart.” But when it comes to the way we run our country, we have a duty not to kowtow to youthful dreaming but to confront some of the myths that underpin it. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Socialism is a proven disaster. These might not make for inspiring Facebook posts but they have the virtue of being the truth.

published in the Times 12/6/17

Beyond Left and Right 1

A large amount of political discourse and commentary is dominated by the categorization of views and perspectives as either left wing or right wing (or left leaning or right leaning). What do people really mean by these labels? In my experience if you ask most people this question they will come up with a list of policy examples that they think typify each stance. For example they might say that a belief in the free market is right wing or that a belief in the welfare state is left wing. People typically struggle to generalise and come up with a coherent general definition. If pushed people often come out with some version of:

‘left wingers are kind and caring and right wingers are really selfish’ (from a left winger!)

‘left wingers are fluffy dreamers and right wingers are realistic and practical’ (from a right winger!)

neither of these positions give much credit to the alternative view and it is little wonder that dialogue and mutual understanding is so difficult with these attitudes.

Ken Wilber and the Integral approach seeks, no surprise, to find a way to reconcile and integrate these two perspectives.  We must start with a more precise way of understanding what is meant by these concepts.

Firstly what is politics all about? At its most fundamental it is an attempt to make people in society less miserable. It asks the question: Why do people suffer and what can we do about it?

The pure right wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they lack the personal qualities of endeavour, hard work and motivation, ‘they suffer because they are lazy’.

The pure left wing thinker may answer: people suffer because they are oppressed, marginalised and persecuted, ‘they suffer because they are victims’.

We can note then that the right wingers tend to see the causation of suffering as interior to the individual and left wingers see the causation of suffering to be exterior to the individual. As Ken Wilber puts it:

Thus the liberal recommends exterior social interventions: redistribute the wealth, change social institutions so that they produce fairer outcomes, evenly slice the economic pie, aim for equality for all. The typical conservative recommends that we instil family values, demand that individuals assume more responsibility for themselves, tighten up slack moral standards (often by embracing traditional religious values), encouraging a work ethic, reward achievement and so on…

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

(Note that liberal and conservative is the same as left and right for the purpose of this analysis)

Now I would like to think that, given these definitions, most sensible people would say: Of course, the cause of most problems is a combination of these factors, we can see that difficult exterior circumstances could make someone lack confidence and motivation. Likewise someone’s personal inadequacy could make their life situation miserable despite a very benign and supportive exterior environment.

What I think happens however, in most political debates that polarise around these issues, is that people differ on which aspect of causation needs emphasising in any given situation. It is the legitimacy of the emphasis on interior/exterior factors that is often questioned. These types of arguments often descend into interminable rounds of whataboutery!

We can see that a more integral approach would be to recognize that in most real life policy debates there are both interior and exterior factors at play. Which factors are the most pressing and need to be focussed on and solved is what any mature debate should be about. (Of course we need to trust one another that we are all trying to make society less miserable and not scheming to further the interests of a special group).

When people get very attached to an identity of being either a liberal or a conservative they become unable to objectively assess these factors. They habitually emphasise their preferred side of the argument and thus render true dialogue extremely difficult.

To finish this introductory post it should be noted that this division of the interior consciousness of the individual vs the exterior objective environment is a really key concept in the Integral approach. These two dimensions of existence co-exist and co-evolve together, mutually interacting with and enacting one another.

 

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