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Friday, November 16, 2018

Chris Dillow: Why the left needs "bottom" [feedly]

Chris Dillow (of stumbling and mumbling blog) is a left wing UK financial advisor -- with a sharp tongue and a knowledge of both the
"economics" and  'left' landscapes too.

Why the left needs "bottom"
https://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2018/11/why-the-left-needs-bottom-1.html

Conservative men of a certain age used to speak approvingly of some men (it was always men) as having "bottom". By this they meant a combination of a moral code and loyalties that gave them a solid reliability.

I was reminded of this by these words of John McDonnell:

We've got to convert ordinary members and supporters into real cadres who understand and analyse society and who are continually building the ideas.

This is absolutely bang right.

Underlying his words is a fear – that the massive current popularity of Corbynism might just be a fad.

There's ample precedent here. The revolutionary ideals of the 68ers faded as they acquired careers and (cheap) property. The Greens won 15% of the vote in 1989, but that soon vanished. And of course there are countless people who, in Christopher Hitchens' words, made the stagger from left to right – and who rarely became less employable as a result. Personally, I wouldn't stake my wealth upon Aaron Bastani or Laurie Penny being vocal leftists in 30 years' time.

The vogue for Corbynism could go the same way. Although McDonnell is giving the programme real and often inspiring economic content, there's danger that Corbynistas themselves are motivated by what James Bloodworth calls "a vague and muddled ideal", a backlash against "neoliberalism." If your leftism consists only of an emotional spasm, a belief that Tories are "evil", it will not long survive contact with real human beings.

Nick Cohen has long complained that leftists have lost touch with their better values and adopted a "my enemy's enemy is my friend" mentality that has seem them "excuseantisemitsm, misogyny, tyranny, and obscurantism, as long as the antisemitic, misogynistic, tyrannical obscurantists are anti-Western." I know many of you reject this account. But in a sense it speaks to what McDonnell fears – that a leftism which is just childish rebellion cannot last long or grow large.

It's in this context that the left needs "bottom" – ballast that stops it drifting with the tides of fashion and instead becomes a genuine solid force for change.

Classical Marxists understated the problem here. They thought workers would be so desperately poor and exploited that they'd have nothing to lose but their chains and so would become radicalized. They were wrong. Yes, one factor behind Corbynism is that erstwhile "middle-class" jobs have become proletarianized; professionals have both lost some autonomy at work and become unable to afford a house.  Resentment alone, however, is not a strong enough base for lasting leftism. It might not survive career progression and more affordable housing.

It's in this context that McDonnell is right to say the left needs an understanding of society. Of course, it would take far too long to spell out exactly what this would consist of. For me, a key principle here is that of complexity. Inequality – of power as well as wealth - does not exist and persist because the rich are evil. It also happens, as Marx recognised. because of impersonal forces which operate with only a little input from people's intentions. Capitalists' influence over the state, for example, happens because politicians want to create jobs and so need to maintain business confidence; support for inequality exists not just because our media is biased but because ideology is endogenous; exploitation occurs not (just) because capitalists are greedy but because competition forces wages and working conditions down.

Equally, the capitalist crisis is the result not just of "greedy bankers" – everyone would like a few quid more – but of impersonal factors causing a lack of capital spending and hence stagnation in productivity and real wages.

A lasting, well-rooted leftism requires an understanding of forces such as these – of why capitalism does not work as we would wish it to. Moralizing is nowhere near enough. The problem is that there are pitifully few institutions that enhance understanding and severalpowerful ones that actively militate against it.


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