Left populism will eat itself? A reply on populism, elections and the Party of Order

Daphne Lawless, of the New Zealand/Aotearoa-based group Fightback, has recently published a kind of post-mortem or autopsy on left populism after the near-simultaneous collapse of the Sanders and Corbyn projects. As with some of her previous work, there’s a lot in her critique of the left to agree with, but also some troubling points: she rightly attacks the “anti-imperialists” who see Russia or China as a lesser evil to the US, or those who think Trump could be a lesser evil than the Democrats, but sometimes falls into a kind of “campist” mentality of her own, defending liberals, the EU and Joe Biden at the expense of trying to argue for a genuinely independent working-class alternative. By the way, this critique turned out to be pretty long, but the piece I’m replying to is longer.

One example comes early on, in her presentation of Sanders’ defeat in the Democratic primaries:

“Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

…In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.”

This analysis is presented without further comment or critique, in what appears to be a straight endorsement of Beauchamp’s argument. Which is somewhat troubling, because Beauchamp doesn’t seem to be saying that, for example, that the Sanders campaign had an over-simplistic and mechanical understanding of class politics, or that electoralism is a vehicle that’s inherently unsuited to class politics, as much as he’s arguing against Marxist class analysis and the very idea of material class interests in general.

Of course, just because someone seems to be arguing against the idea of Marxist class analysis doesn’t automatically prove that they’re wrong, but for those of us who think that it is a useful tool, it is at least worth noting and evaluating.

Biden’s victory showed the continuing strength of the old Democratic Party machine and its ability to freeze out challenges. For those of us who don’t put much faith in electoralism, that’s not the devastating blow that it is to those who put all their hopes in the Sanders campaign, but it’s still certainly nothing to celebrate.

Arguing against burnt-out Sanders supporters who might be tempted to give up on electoralism altogether, Lawless claims that “However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route.”

This is an argument for endless deferral. Does anyone really believe that the electoral route will ever simply be “exhausted”, or that we’ll be any closer to that in 2024 than we were in 2016, or 2004, or 1980 or whenever? I think it is also simply untrue that we need to patiently wait for electoralism to be “exhausted” before considering more radical options – just look at what’s actually been happening in the US over the last few months!

Those who torched the police station in Minneapolis, or fought the cops in Portland, or burned down the Department of Corrections building in Kenosha, may or may not consciously consider themselves to be insurrectionists, but their behaviour certainly seems to fit the bill. Crucially, when people engage in or support such actions, they’re rejecting the logic of electoralism-above-all-else. We can’t say for sure how true it is that “violent protests help Trump and hurt Biden”, but if we think that there’s even a shred of plausibility to this argument, if there is any possibility that, as the Atlantic says, “this is how Biden loses”, then we need to choose which is more important, total loyalty to Biden’s election campaign or solidarity with those in the streets who go beyond the limits of pacifism.

Moving on to Britain and Corbynism, Lawless makes a claim that manages to be simultaneously logically unsound, historically revisionist, and in contradiction to the arguments made elsewhere in the same article:

“When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction.”

First off, I don’t think it necessarily follows that because Johnson had taken the Conservatives to adopt an extreme position on Brexit, therefore Labour had to shift towards the other pole. In fact, using the “lesser evil” logic that Lawless advances at various points, I would have thought it would have given them more room to fudge – I’m not a Labour member, and I’m not exactly likely to end up in charge of their Brexit policy for the 2019 election, but I can’t see why they couldn’t have come out with some line along the lines of “we will respect the will of the people and get Brexit done, but we won’t settle for Johnson’s bad Brexit, once in power we will negotiate a better Brexit deal that preserves the best advantages of EU membership.”

Even if remainers weren’t keen on such a message, it would clearly be a better option from that perspective than what the tories were offering, and maybe it would have been less electorally poisonous to Leave supporters than what Labour actually came out with. Or maybe not, perhaps Labour were just in an unwinnable position, but I don’t think that the worst-case scenario arguing that line would have been much more disastrous than what actually happened.

And it’s important to bear in mind what did actually happen, and what Labour was actually offering. Labour’s position shifted sharply in the direction of Remain over the course of 2019 with the decision to offer a second referendum. This was a major step away from the ambiguous fudge position, offering up one of the major Remain demands and opening a route to cancelling Brexit. I don’t think it’s helpful to rewrite history and say “if only Labour had listened to remainers more” as if that had never happened.

Finally, it’s curious to note how much this argument conflicts with two other themes of Lawless’ essay – one is ““Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life”, and the second is lesser-evilism, the responsibility to support far from ideal politicians when faced with a much worse option in a two-party system.

On the Cuomo’s Law point, Lawless is keen to point out that Sanders’ actual support as measured in turnout for the primaries didn’t measure up to the online buzz, but doesn’t apply the same criteria to the Remain/anti-Brexit vote in the 2019 elections – whatever you can say about Labour’s position, the Lib Dems, Greens and TIG/CUK all offered a clearly anti-Brexit position, and yet they don’t seem to have reaped much of a reward from it. Again, I think the disconnect between online chatter and real life is a useful thing to bear in mind here.

The lesser evil point is touched on above, but just to reiterate, Lawless argues that people have a responsibility to support Biden against Trump even if he doesn’t actually offer anything positive, but doesn’t seem to feel that this responsibility applies to anti-Brexit voters wanting to stop Johnson, even though Corbyn could offer pretty much any policy short of immediate war with France and Germany and still count as a lesser evil from a pro-EU perspective.

The next point I wanted to pick up on was less about an argument I wanted to dispute, more just about accurate memory:

“[Corbynism] may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties. But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members, which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.”

A footnote adds:

“If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.”

I think this description may be somewhat misleading for foreign audiences in that it understates just how unlikely Corbynism seemed in 2015. It’s worth remembering that in 2015, there really was no significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in the UK Labour Party either, and that for a while people seriously thought that the Green Party would be the most likely vehicle for such a tendency as well. It’s really not so long ago that people were seriously speculating about whether the Greens were about to overtake Labour in size. If anyone seriously thought that there was any level of support for Corbyn’s ideas within the party, Margaret Beckett for one would never have nominated him in the first place. I don’t really have an argument to hang on this point, I just think it’s worth remembering accurately.

Looking at Labour’s collapse in the 2019 elections, there’s another bit I wanted to pick up on:

“Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment.”

There’s something here that makes quite a contrast with the rest of Lawless’ article – for instance, she attacks those who claim “that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars”. But there seems to be a similar kind of wishful thinking here: yes, there was a substantial anti-Corbyn vote, and some of it will have been driven by the stuff that we would identify as failures, his pro-Russia positions and so on. But, equally, some of it will have been driven by his reluctance to endorse nuclear war, or his belief that it’s better for terrorist suspects to be arrested and prosecuted rather than shot down in the street, or by people finding Johnson’s moronic poshboy guffawing to be more charming, or whatever.

Throughout the piece, Lawless constantly reiterates her hostility to any attempt to “whitewash” Trump voters, criticising the idea that “many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton.” At one point, she even seems to extend this analysis to Sanders voters, saying that “All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil… Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016.”

And yet people who voted for Johnson, those who voted for a racist party led by a man with a long track record of publishing antisemitic filth… we’re supposed to expect that they just really disliked Corbyn’s foreign policy failures and ambivalence on antisemitism. This is wishful thinking, and coming from anyone else I imagine Lawless might describe it as “Mr Johnson, who I do not support…”-ism.

Lawless also mentions that

“A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”. British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.”

We’ve been hearing this argument for quite a while, but now it’s possible to test it empirically: surely Oh Sir Keir Starmer is the model of what such an approach should look like. And yet, for much of his time as leader, the tories have continued to enjoy a comfortable lead in the polls, despite fucking up their response to the pandemic worse than pretty much any comparable European country.

Thousands and thousands of preventable deaths attributable to the government, a soft-left but sensible Labour leader with an innocuous track record and Labour still trailing in the polls. Corbyn’s mistakes may have contributed to Labour’s difficulties, but it’s not helpful to discount the role of other factors.

And just to be clear, I’m not making this argument because I think that Corbyn’s record shouldn’t be critically examined, it definitely should. I’m pointing all this out because I think critically examining Corbyn’s record is a good and useful thing to do, but that critique needs to be based on solid foundations, and mixing it up with daft propaganda myths put about by centrists undermines rather than strengthens that critique.

As another example of Lawless’ tendency to unnecessarily weaken her own argument by using nonsensical centrist propaganda, she twice uncritically cites Ian Dunt. The name of the article that the Dunt quotes are taken from isn’t given in the main text, but the citations show that it was titled “Labour returns to its anti-racist roots”. No matter what you think of the Corbyn period, no matter how harshly you judge Corbyn’s failures on antisemitism, you cannot ask me to seriously respect the idea that Labour was an anti-racist party back in the good old days of Blunkett talking about schools being swamped by immigrant children and “extremists want you to vote Lib Dem to punish Phil Woolas for being strong on immigration” and Lord Glasman wanting to ban immigration and Miliband’s controls on immigration mug and his controls on immigration menhir –  that was an anti-racist party, and then it became racist under Corbyn, and now it’s becoming anti-racist again now that the people like Iain McNicol, who deliberately sabotaged attempts to tackle antisemitism, have got their wish, now that it’s led by a man who responded to Black Lives Matter by boasting about his support for the police and his work locking black kids up after the 2011 riots. It’s not just a lie, it’s the kind of lie you can only tell if you’ve already decided your audience is thick as pigshit.

The next section, considering the populist model more generally and its reliance on “great leader” figures, is interesting. In some ways, it reminded me of the Free Association’s article on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, which tried to consider if investment in the figure of a leader could break out of these kinds of dynamics and open up more liberatory potentials, but I suppose that argument is still kind of unproven.

The only other observation I’d make is that I think there’s at least a possibility that the “Great Leader” problem may be inherent, not just to populist projects, but to any electoral formation. Is it possible to run a Presidential campaign that doesn’t have “an outsized role for the personality of the Leader”? I’m not convinced, and in particular I’m skeptical as a result of remembering the lessons of Respect in England and the Scottish Socialist Party north of the border, both of which seemed to breed their own mini-personality cults around Galloway and Sheridan.

One relatively minor criticism would be with Lawless’ citation of Hal Draper:

“But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism, [social democracy] is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards”.

I think Draper’s Two Souls of Socialism has some pretty serious flaws in itself, but one of its strengths is that it clearly identifies the systems that existed in Soviet Russia and Maoist China as being other forms of “socialism from above” along with social democracy, and so I’m not sure Draper would have seen anything ironic or ridiculous about the mash-up of social democratic and Stalinist iconography.

After all, it’s hardly contradictory to wave around Soviet propaganda while supporting Corbyn’s calls for more cops and border guards, considering that both those things were very much a feature of the old USSR or East Germany. Certainly, nothing about it would have surprised Draper, who wrote, “The illusion of the Rooseveltian “revolution from above” united creeping-socialism, bureaucratic liberalism, Stalinoid elitism, and illusions about both Russian collectivism and collectivized capitalism, in one package… in domestic policy the official Communist Party and the social-democrats tend to converge on the policy of permeationism, though from the angle of a different Socialism-from-Above.”

A more serious criticism comes when Lawless returns to UK politics and the Brexit vote, writing:

“Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.”

This is a straightforward untruth, and I’m disappointed to see it repeated here, as I pointed out its falsity two years ago. This claim is backed up by two citations, one to an earlier Lawless article and one to an academic journal article, and, in turn, the earlier Lawless article linked to a Buzzfeed piece.

The Buzzfeed piece found that, for instance, only 26% of those with a degree qualification voted Leave, but 78% of those with no formal qualifications did. Similarly, it showed that 66% of those in the lowest income group voted Leave, compared to only 38% of those in the highest income bracket. In contrast to these very strong predictors, the ethnic data showed that voters who identified as white British were very evenly split on Brexit, only favouring it by 51%, and voters who described themselves as white but not British tended to oppose leaving, with only 34% voting for Brexit. So, to conflate support for Leave with whiteness only works if you’re willing to forget that people who are white but not British – that is to say, the majority of the European population, who might be considered to have some relevance to questions like EU migration to the UK – exist. And even going with this incredibly unhelpful conflation of whiteness and Britishness, I still can’t see how white Brits favouring Leave by 51% is somehow “the best predictor” when 78% of those with no formal educational qualifications did.

Similarly, the “Who voted for Brexit?” academic journal article writes “We find that voting Leave is associated with older age, white ethnicity, low educational attainment, infrequent use of smartphones and the internet, receiving benefits, adverse health and low life satisfaction.” Which, as you may notice, is not the same thing as “We find that voting Leave is associated with white ethnicity, that’s all, that’s the important thing.”

Looking through their data, they do say that “In terms of ethnic minorities compared to whites…, people of mixed ethnicity, Asians and black respondents all have a significantly larger probability of supporting Remain (in the range of 12%–23%).” They also say that “highly qualified individuals with university and college degrees are considerably less likely to vote Leave by over 20% compared to people with average qualifications. In contrast, having no qualification is a very strong predictor of voting Leave.” And “recipients of income support are substantially more likely to be in favor of Leave (by 20%)” and “people of poor health as proxied by frequent visits to the GP or hospital are substantially more likely to support Leave”.

And “To sum up our results on demographic variables, we find that individuals are more likely to support Leave if they are male, older, use less technology, are less qualified, retired or unemployed, and divorced, separated or widowed. These findings are consistent with the results by Becker et al. (2017) based on aggregate data who also find that age, low educational attainment and unemployment are key explanatory variables to predict the Leave vote shares across UK voting areas.”

I might have missed something there, it’s a fairly heavy article and not easy to skim-read, but I really don’t think it ever says that the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.

Then we get another section, on the desire for a “tough guy socialism”, where I sort of agree with Lawless’ point, but find myself baffled by the example used to support it:

“The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.”

Again, checking the citations, the Seymour piece that mentioned “sadism” in a positive light actually turns out to be quite a thoughtful critique of “civility politics”, which I thought was a fairly uncontroversial position on the left, full of stuff like:

“To disavow our aggressive impulses, our desire to punish, our rage, is to engage in a dubious operation of externalisation. There are at least two ways in which we can externalise ‘evil’ in this sense. We can, as Fanon suggested, project our aggression onto a racial Other, finding in them all that is bestial and barbaric in our own behaviour and desires. That is Farage and the faraginous hordes behind him. Or, we can project it onto those who we believe to be the racist hordes (whether they are or not doesn’t necessarily affect the degree of projection).

To put it like this: we can no more live without hate than we can live without an idea of justice. We can no more live outside of resentment than we can live outside of pain, and blame, and unrealistic ideals. There is something deeply suspect about any politics, or any person, that professes to be free of it, that has nothing to despise.”

I don’t think it makes sense to accuse Seymour of “Trump envy” for this stuff, any more than you’d say it about Lawless, who does after all write in the same article that “The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement.”

And to be clear, I do kind of agree with the point that Lawless is trying to make, there definitely was an element of Corbynism, especially around the most Stalinist/red-brown-leaning areas, that tended to affect a kind of macho, sub-Danny-Dwyer swagger. I just don’t think that Seymour’s loquaciously long-winded Lacanianism had anything to do with it. In terms of importance to the Corbyn project, Salvage magazine or Seymour’s own blog are hardly the Morning Star or Novara or LabourList, and the whole “centrist melt” culture would have been a more convincing and relevant example to offer.

Anyway, leaving aside the question of Seymour, sadism, and the absolute boy, Lawless suggests that there are left-wing Trump defenders, and gives as an example:

“…they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.”

Nuance is crucial here, I think. If anyone is genuinely siding with Trump, then that’s obviously fucked, but if you remove the word “unfairly”, then I think it is correct to say “Trump… is being attacked by… law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution.”

Again, I want to be clear on this: siding with Trump is wrong, but it is important not to let that slip into “anyone who is ambivalent about this conflict, or sees it as two bourgeois factions who are both our enemies, is a Trump-supporting fascist.” For a bit of perspective here, I’d go back and refer to Crimethinc’s Take Your Pick: Law or Freedom and Life in “Mueller Time”: The Politics of Waiting and the Spectacle of Investigation, both of which set out a position that is clearly, unmistakably anti-Trump, while also not giving any ground to the liberal dream of a return to normality or a triumph of law and order:

“For the purposes of relegitimizing government, it is ideal that Robert Mueller is not just a “good” authority figure, but specifically, a white male Republican—an FBI director who first made a name for himself overseeing the killing of Vietnamese people. He is everything the average Democrat would oppose if Trump had not moved the goal posts by pursuing the same Republican agenda by potentially extra-legal means. Mueller represents the same FBI that attempted to make Martin Luther King, Jr. commit suicide, that set out to destroy the Occupy movement. Under Mueller’s leadership, the FBI determined that the number one domestic terror threat in the United States was environmental activism.

Mueller Time is a way of inhabiting the eternally renewed amnesia that is America. This is the real “deep state”—the part of each Democrat’s heart that will accept any amount of senseless violence and murder and oppression, as long as it adheres to the letter of the law…

What would it mean to stop waiting?

It would mean to stop looking to others to solve our problems, no longer permitting a series of presidents, Speakers of the House, FBI directors, presidential candidates, and other bullies and hucksters to play good cop/bad cop with us.

It would mean figuring out how to deal with the catastrophes that Trump’s presidency is causing directly, rather than through the mediation of other authority figures. It would mean building up social movements powerful enough to block the construction of a border wall, to liberate children from migrant detention facilities and reunite them with their families, to feed the hungry and care for the sick without waiting for legislators to give us permission to make use of the resources that we and others like us maintain on a daily basis.

Remember when we shut down the airports immediately after Trump took office? It would mean doing more of that, and less sitting around waiting on politicians and bureaucrats. That was our proudest moment. Since then, we have only grown weaker, distracted by the array of champions competing to represent us—the various media outlets and Democratic presidential candidates—all surrogates for our own agency.”

As I say, it’s important to draw these lines with nuance: I think Crimethinc’s position here is as far from “Trump envy” as both are from standard, pro-Biden and Democratic Party positions, that it would be ridiculous to describe it as “Mr Trump, whom I do not support”-ism, and yet Lawless seems to be at risk of vanishing it, sweeping things into a thoroughly campist, “either with us or against us” binary.

Continuing on this theme, Lawless adds:

“These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s).”

Again, I would compare this to Crimethinc’s position:

“That is what makes your cheerleading for the FBI so chilling. You’re familiar with COINTELPRO, presumably, and many of the other ways that the FBI has set out to crush movements for social change? Imagine that your best-case scenario plays out and the FBI helps to orchestrate Donald Trump’s removal from power. What do you think that the FBI would do with all the legitimacy that would give them in the eyes of liberals and centrists? It would have carte blanche to intensify its attacks on poor people, people of color, and protesters, destroying the next wave of social movements before they can get off the ground. Nothing could be more naïve than to imagine that the FBI will focus on policing the ruling class.”

Does Lawless really think that this kind of argument equates to supporting Trump? If not, it would have been better to allow a bit more room for nuance, and to explicitly acknowledge that such “neither Trump nor the FBI” (or indeed “neither Washington nor Washington”) positions exist.

After this, we get an even more confusing criticism:

“Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not.”

If you’re reaching the point where you’re criticising Corbyn supporters for thinking the mainstream media is biased against them, then you’re dangerously close to defending Rupert Murdoch on campist, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” grounds.

There are all kinds of valid criticisms to be made of how Corbynists responded to the mainstream media, and especially of how some of them failed to apply the same level of scrutiny and skepticism to alternative press outlets like the Canary and Skawkbox and so on. And yes, some Corbynists certainly went into a kind of kneejerk reaction where valid criticisms were dismissed as smears. But, fundamentally – and I can’t believe I’m even having to write this – any serious assessment of the relationship between Corbynism and the media has to start off by acknowledging that the Daily Mail and the Express and the Sun and the Telegraph and the Spectator and the Times and Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch and their whole crowd are extremely bad. Corbynists are not wrong for pointing this out, and I don’t know if you can say that they’ve been “attempting to discredit the mainstream media” when the mainstream media is doing such a good job of that on its own.

If anyone wants to claim that Corbyn supporters were wrong to think that the mainstream media was biased against them, then they can dig through that LSE study, Journalistic Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press, and explain what all the flaws are.

Approaching the conclusion, Lawless writes that:

“In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.”

The majority of this is quite a weird criticism to make when Corbynism and Sanderism were definitely both boring-from-within movements inside the major parties, so it amounts to “this thing that no-one was doing would be grossly irresponsible if anyone was doing it.” And the repeated references to fascism, Pinochet and Hitler in an electoral context are confusing to me – as much as I hate and despise Johnson, I think his programme is more “a nastier version of capitalist normality” than anything that could be seriously described as fascist or Pinochet-style.

I’m still very confused by how Lawless sees the contemporary right – are they are at once seriously intending a fascist dictatorial takeover, and yet so constrained by norms and legalities that we expect them to respect the outcome of democratic votes? Surely the flaws of a “stop Pinochet by voting for the left party” argument should be pretty much self-evident?

Lawless concludes that:

“My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.”

And I have no argument with that, I’ve been arguing along similar grounds for years. The problem, though, is that it’s vital to distinguish between different critiques of left populism. A libertarian, class-struggle, direct action-orientated critique of left populist electoralism, aiming to give a more adequate form to the anti-establishment and anti-capitalist impulses that left populism partially expresses, is a very different thing to a critique of populism coming from the standpoint of the Party of Order, from the centrists and moderates and their friends in the mainstream media who see it as being an unacceptably rowdy breach of normality. I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by muddling up those two critiques.

Against “campism”, now and always.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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4 Responses to Left populism will eat itself? A reply on populism, elections and the Party of Order

  1. irreversiblechaos says:

    There is a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii which uses a mouse as part of it’s life cycle with the next part in a cat. Through inflammation of the brain the mental state of the mouse is altered resulting in the mouse being more curious and being more likely to be eaten by the cat.

    I would say this is capitalism in that it makes people do things which in the end lead to a negative outcome. I waded through Daphne Lawless’s article and yours (sorry) and I think that the biggest problem is that capital is so revolutionary it is always ahead of the game.

    The blue collar worker is on the way down mostly because capitalism imported migrant workers to break unions and drive down wages so who does the left support? And the weird thing is I have seen this in other non western countries even read about it in India with a skills shortage which is just another word for cheap labour shortage.

    This is not a racial problem this is just about the changing form of capital. Brexit, Trump, Modism and all those supposed bad populist uprisings are just the communities blindly raging at the thing driving them down. These are wars of communities against capital but like all wars every actor has their own reasons and of all the groups the left is now on capitals side and that is why the left can’t seem to get a break.

    But you have biden now 🙂

    • This is a bit silly though. Migrant workers don’t inherently break unions and drive down wages because of some natural quality, they do it because they’re unorganised. Brexit, Trump, Modi and so on help create and maintain the conditions that keep them unorganised. Wanting to help organise them and integrate them into unions isn’t being on capital’s side, it’s the opposite.

      • irreversiblechaos says:

        I think I was a bit blunt what I mean is migrant workers are used to lower pay the breaking of unions is more the legislative side but the overall aim is lower wages. This is the whole purpose of importing labour.

        If you want to build a movement then you need to pick a common issue that effects people across groups and I though the left would have picked the failings of capital such as in 2008 but then they launched into identity politics. I would have thought that the moment white working class men felt the steel of capitalism would have been the time in which the left could have united whole demographics into one movement but then Hillary when after the deplorables when all she needed to do was stand outside a car factory and say I will not let this close.

        In the end look at the actions

        Trump tore up the TPP but the New Zealand Labour goverment lead by Jacinda Adearn signed it Why?

        Sorry for the crap structure but I haven’t slept for a while.

        Cheers

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