Keep the red flag flying: notes on the British election

Like most of the U.S. Left, I was extremely heartened by the British elections last Thursday. I have been, well, not terribly optimistic about anything political for years, and this was a decisive and meaningful win for our side. There are numerous reasons (some of which I discuss below) to be cautious about assuming that “Corbynism” can be applied wholesale to the American context, or that it means that “Bernie Would Have Won.” However, I do think it indicates a promising way forward for the U.S. Left, and it has changed some of my own thinking, especially about electoral politics.

Most importantly, it provides good evidence that a Left political program can win broad support in a country of the imperial center, a country in which significant parts of the working class, having won a decent life in the 20th century from the scraps of the overflowing imperialist table, are prone to identifying as “middle class” and are susceptible to racist and xenophobic appeals. We don’t need to wait for a “new majority” to emerge from demographic changes, which has become a kind of disturbing trend in progressive circles in America — one which I suspect contributed to the complacency and demobilization during the Obama administration.

It also demonstrates that electoral work, even when not successful in winning state power (remember, Labour isn’t actually forming a government this week), can create, as the British writer Richard Seymour wrote this past weekend, “a once in a lifetime moment, wherein mobilisation and activism could fundamentally change the whole direction of the country, giving a socialist inflection and shape to popular discontents and aspirations.” In light of this:

  1. people on the Left who are, like me, skeptical of electoral work should let go of some of our skepticism, and
  2. people on the Left who are engaged in electoral work should be bolder about pushing a Left program, even if they are told it will lead to electoral defeat (i.e., don’t be Randi Weingarten).

That said, there are some important differences about the U.S. context, each of which points to a key task for the U.S. Left in the coming period:

1. We need to contest with a stronger neoliberal centrism

Corbyn has faced bitter attacks on his leadership from the right wing of his own party, but it doesn’t seem to me that the Blairite “New Labour” forces have anything like the institutional support and ideological coherence of the Clinton/Obama/Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) wing of the Democratic Party.

As Matt Stoller laid out in detail a few years ago, the DLC is not just the right wing of a social-democratic party, making concessions to the center-right in the name of pragmatism. It is actually an idealism of the center – with origins in the experiences of young white activists in the Civil Rights Movement – that incorporates many of the liberatory ideals of the “new social movements” of the 60s and 70s into an individualist, free-market, neoliberal politics.

In 2012, after the shellacking that Mitt Romney received at Obama’s hands, historian Van Gosse suggested that the Democratic Party was on its way to becoming a “mass party of the center.” The right wing modernizing wing of the (now irrelevant) Parti Socialiste (PS) in France has long cherished the hope of forming “an alliance between rightwing social democrats and the most educated, dynamic fractions of the center-right, bringing together the intellectual professions and private-sector managers around a pro-European program of social tolerance and economic neoliberalism,”  and they got their wish this year (at least for now) with the election of Emmanuel Macron.

The Clinton campaign’s strategy of focusing on Trump’s vulgarity and incompetence to win votes from educated, middle-class suburbanites seems, in retrospect, foolish – at least from the perspective of the short-term electoral victory which eluded her. But seen from the perspective of a long-term strategy of wielding together a bloc of “the new majority emerging in the United Statesunder neoliberal leadership, it makes a lot more sense.

In this respect, Trump is the ideal foil for building a centrist neoliberal bloc (which is presumably why the Clinton camp wanted to run against him instead of a more moderate Republican). Clinton and the DLC have almost nothing substantive to offer to the non-elite parts of the bloc they are trying to fashion — i.e., working-class people of color and young people — except for protection from Trump and his hordes.

Corey Robin pointed out in recent months (in some FB post that I can’t find the link to) that the DLC won hegemony within the party through repeated, ruthless and brutal criticism of the failures of Mondale and Dukakis (who weren’t even particularly left-wing), and that the only way the Left has any hope of gaining any kind of traction within the Democratic Party (or the emerging “resistance”) is to do the same with Clinton.

I’m not sure that I fully agree that making a single candidate stand in for the failures of a political agenda is useful (especially because in this case it lets Obama off the hook). I do think that parts of the Left sometimes see the Clintons and Obama as pragmatists whose election “creates space” (or would create space) for more Left organizing. I’m not convinced that this is the case. We need to be clear that the Clinton/Obama/DLC agenda is antithetical to a Left agenda, that is is harmful to the working class, and that it is no longer politically viable in most of the country.

2. We need to contest against a shadow party within the Democratic Party

Another crucial difference from the British context is the vastly different U.S. party system. Indeed, it is only in the U.S. that the “bourgeois bloc” has been able to so thoroughly capture the main left-of-center party (Macron won in France as an independent, sidelining the PS entirely).

Much of my political life has been shaped by debates on the Left about the Democratic Party, between We Must Break With The Democrats! and We Have No Choice But To Work Within The Democratic Party! I participated in the founding of the Labor Party in 1996, and was active in the Vermont Progressive Party for a while after moving to Vermont in 1998.

The Labor Party tried to dodge the question of being a spoiler third party by taking the position that we wouldn’t run candidates until we had sufficient organizational strength (members and union affiliations) to stand a credible chance of winning. Ultimately, the Labor Party strategy was based on a bid to win over a majority of the institutional labor movement to the side of We Must Break With The Democrats! — and that never materialized.

The VPP grew out of the “Progressive Coalition” formed to support Bernie Sanders when he was elected mayor of Burlington as an independent and faced hostility from the Democratic-controlled city council. It is the most successful electoral third party in the country, but has only won elections in very small districts (house seats in Vermont generally represent only about 2,000 voters) or by running its candidates in the Democratic primaries — currently the Lieutenant Governor and President Pro Tem of the state senate are Democrat/Progressives. The VPP started off as a clear alternative to the Democrats, but over time — and after a contentious inner-party vote in the mid-2000s — has accepted that to play politics on any kind of scale (even within tiny Vermont), We Have No Choice But To Work Within The Democratic Party!

More recently, I have tangentially participated in the trend of “movement” nonprofits starting 501(c)(4) organizations in order to do “independent” electoral engagement work — primarily centered around the Center for Popular Democracy and People’s Action. These organizations are certainly doing useful work, but ultimately they are trapped by the logic of winning elections. The CPD/People’s Action affiliate in my own state endorsed the most centrist candidate in the governor’s race last year (as did most of the labor movement) on the basis of “electability” — and he proved unable to even win the Democratic primary (and we now have a Republican governor in one of the most Democratic states in the country).

Kim Moody recently argued that the Democratic Party “has become a well-funded, professionalized, multitiered hierarchy capable of intervening in elections at just about every level.” It seems to me that what he describes, however, is not so much a hierarchical organization (that could conceivably be “taken over” through internal struggle, the way Corbyn and the Left did with Labour in the UK ) but more of an informal “shadow party” of wealthy donors and centrist ideologues that filter in and out of the permeable structure of the “party.”

I don’t think that there is a way to winning even some measure of state power that doesn’t, at least partially and in the near term, go through the Democratic Party. But, just as we need to recognize that there is a coherent neoliberal-centrist political agenda that is currently hegemonic within the party, we also need to recognize that there is a coherent “shadow party” that we will have to contest with, and we will need some kind of formal organization (perhaps along the lines of Momentum in the U.K.) to do that.

3. We need a new Left “common sense”

One of my best friends in high school was a recent immigrant from England, from a Labour family. It was, in fact, his somewhat vague but passionate attachment to a socialist identity that first prompted me to identify myself as a socialist. For him and his working-class family, being a socialist was just common sense for working people.

I suspect that this is still the case for a lot of working-class Labour voters in Great Britain, in a way that has no real parallel in the U.S. Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party — and vastly increased Labour’s share of the vote in the general election — not just by attracting younger and radical voters, but by energizing “former Labour supporters who had given up in despair.”

While this currently has no equivalent in the U.S., I am hopeful that the U.S. Left can create a new “common sense.” It won’t be easy, but we have rich materials to work with: the newfound enthusiasm for socialism among young people inspired by Bernie Sanders, the Black Liberation Movement, the class solidarity of industrial unionism which is still powerful in parts of the country (especially the heartland), the varied revolutionary traditions brought by recent immigrants, and the more than five centuries of resistance to colonialism of indigenous people.

Right now, we’re pretty fractured, and it’s easy to be despondent. But I think last week shows that with Left ideas, Left organization, and Left culture (and only with all three of those), we can change the direction of our country. As Seymour concludes, “The Left has nothing better, or more important, to do than make this happen.” That’s true here, too. Let’s get to work.

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3 thoughts on “Keep the red flag flying: notes on the British election

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