Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: Labour

Why Socrates Would Vote for Corbyn

I was reading Plato’s Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista – for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.

For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians’  faces as they think to themselves that – for all the truth of Socrates’ critique – everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can ‘reach out’ to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us – between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I’ll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get ‘our man’ (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing – friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse – as Hannah Arendt observed – power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we’d all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that ‘our’ party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour’s long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates’ most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we’d be disappointed, because we’d listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric – we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn’s refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast – that’s what I love about him. I’m sure that on many matters of detail I’d disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering – both within and without the Labour Party – the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I’m looking for is someone who wants to open debate – not someone with all the answers. What I’m looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I’m looking for is someone who knows I don’t need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people – the demos – who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you’ve probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

From Cameron to May – Thoughts on the Invisibility of Justice

As we change our Prime Minister I’m wondering what we’ve learned about the battle for justice in the last six years. While I doubt we can expect a significant shift in policy, we must certainly take a fresh look at our strategies and amend them for a new period. The new boss, even if she’s the same as the old boss, can always disown previous policies, while continuing them under a new name.

First we have to accept that, for 6 years, Cameron got away with it, and we failed to stop him. We’ve had 6 years of the most vicious cuts, including direct attacks on disabled people, immigrants and on those in poverty. There is no need here for me to repeat his crimes. The United Nations has already successfully outlined his attack on human rights. Yet none of this ever became a political issue.

It was not Cameron’s injustice that was his downfall, it was his foolish gambling and vanity that brought things crashing down. Extraordinarily – our new Prime Minister has even praised his approach to social justice – Good Grief!

It seems injustice is invisible and his crimes have gone unnoticed.

We can of course blame our rulers. But I suspect that most politicians will say, “Well if this issue is such an important one surely it would have come up more. The electorate seems to care more about immigration and Europe than it does about social justice and equality. You’ve got to be realistic. You can only get elected by paying attention to what the electorate actually cares about.”

In fact one of my family, who I love dearly, is a Conservative and has worked closely with that Party in the past. After I explained to her the impact and unfairness of Austerity she said, “I know, it’s sad, but that’s politics, Simon.” And I know she’s right, this is our country’s politics – blind to injustice.

Austerity was purposefully designed to hurt those with no political voice and in ways that are very hard to see:

  • An array of welfare cuts were marketed as ‘reforms’, despite the deep harm they caused
  • Benefits were attacked by a series of salami slices, with cuts hidden inside complex technical changes
  • The skiver rhetoric played well politically and was used repeatedly on both sides of the House
  • There was no resistance to the attacks on local government, and hence on social care
  • Tax-benefit changes actually benefited middle-income groups
  • Interest rate policy created enormous and regressive benefits for the better off

In fact, for most people, Austerity was not Austerity. Most people do not even know what the term ‘Austerity’ means and never experienced any Austerity. What they did experience was a short sharp shock as the fragility of our debt-laden economy was briefly revealed in 2008. The political consequence of this was not that we started to question our crazy financial and economic system. Instead most went running to any politician who promised to clear up the mess and to safeguard our mortgages.

After this Austerity has just been a smash and grab raid on the incomes and rights of the voiceless. It hasn’t touched most people and it isn’t visible to most people.

But why has mainstream media failed to report on these issues?

Well of course, some of this could be considered corruption. Rupert Murdoch’s world view clearly frames the editorial policy of much of the mainstream media. Meanwhile the BBC seems to have turned itself into Pravda. Even The Guardian has been disappointing (despite some excellent individual journalists).

This may also be partly the result of economics. If the people who buy you, or advertise with you, do not want to think about social justice then why are you obliged to offer them something they do not want. Statistics, stories of hardship, analyses of policy impact – none of this is news, none of this is very interesting or entertaining.

You might be on the road to Hell, but if you go slowly enough it will never make the headlines.

The one honourable exception here, in my opinion, has been the Daily Mirror. Only The Mirror has been willing to call a spade a spade on welfare reform and on the cuts. Perhaps this is because it’s readers are much more likely to recognise the reality of the cuts, the sanctions and the everyday heartlessness of Government policy.

But it is not just economics and corruption that has led the media astray. The abject failure of Labour under Balls and Milliband was also critical. I am sure that many in the media assumed that, if Labour didn’t seem to think cuts, inequality and growing poverty was important, then it probably wasn’t important. Labour’s symbolic role has always been to stand up for social justice; when it doesn’t then the media draws the logical conclusion – nothing too much is wrong.

Assuming that they would continue to get the votes of the downtrodden, Labour marketed themselves to swing voters and pandered to their fear that Labour might prove irresponsible and put at risk their mortgages. In the process they lost votes to the SNP, UKIP and Greens, while convincing hardly anyone to come in their direction (they merely picked up some votes from disenchanted Liberal Democrat voters). Given the gift of the most extreme Right-wing Government in over 75 years Labour’s strategy was to merely legitimise the Coalition’s policies, by offering milder versions of those same policies. Poison is still poison, even when it’s watered down.

There is one more reason why I think we have been struggling to defend justice. Too often we are defending an unlovable version of social justice. When the Government attacks justice it does so by attacking ‘welfare’ and it is true that what people often experience as ‘welfare’ is rather hard to love:

  • Bureaucratic and impersonal systems
  • Incompetent and unaccountable services
  • Disempowerment and rightlessness

The welfare state has been deformed by its centralised and paternalistic starting point. We are all its beneficiaries, but those who come in regular contact with it often experience it as an alien force. It does not feel part of the community and it does not treat us as citizens or as its co-creators. What Hannah Arendt says of ‘charity’ could equally well be said of the post-war welfare state:

“But charity is not solidarity; it usually helps only isolated individuals, with no overall plan; and that is why, in the end, it is not productive. Charity divides a people into those who give and those who receive.”

I can probably keep this finger of blame moving. But in the end it will come back to point at me. What have I done? What could I have done differently? Are we just doomed to injustice? Is the rise of greed and inequality just another phase of our history? Must we turn fatalist or Marxist, and merely await inevitable doom or inevitable paradise?

I don’t think so and there are perhaps a few crumbs of comfort to feed on.

Unite the Union recently created Community chapters, in order to recruit into the trade union, people who were not workers, but who wanted to campaign for their communities. This seems to be a crucial development. It is an example of a trade union thinking beyond the immediate and short-term interests of one group of workers and reaching out to include families, neighbours and allies for justice.

The attempted coup within the Labour Party is, on the surface, a disaster. But in a funny way it’s much better that this all happens now. From my perspective what we are watching is an effort to restore democratic control of the Labour Party to its members. To those who think Blair’s New Labour strategy was a high point for the Labour Party then this will seem like madness; but for those like me who think New Labour is part of the problem, then this process is inevitable. I think it is inconceivable that Labour’s new members or the trade unions will fall for another version of New Labour.

In this respect the Labour Party and the Conservatives are very different. The internal politics of the Conservative Party is always about victory first; for they can divide the spoils afterwards. The rich and powerful know that, whoever is leading the party, they will always get a hearing, if they have the money to pay for it. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything can be purchased.

The same is not true for Labour. Like Odysseus’s crew, they must tie their leader to the ship’s mast, so that he or she does not jump overboard to be drowned by the Swing-Voter Sirens. Policies should emerge from the Party, because the Party represents the people and their experience of life. If the Party has not been persuaded in advance then why should it trust it’s leaders to make the right decisions once they get into power.

I can see why some might want their leader to be free of such a restriction. It is clearly more convenient not to have to worry about what Labour Party members think or want. But such leaders ask too much of us. To have reached the top of the slippery poll is certainly a remarkable trick; but it is no guarantee of integrity or a regard for justice. As G K Chesterton said:

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”

The third crumb of comfort is that we are just beginning to see how the welfare state can be reformed to become a local and citizen-friendly welfare state. Last week I was listening to people in Barnsley explain how they are connecting the Council to real community action. Councillors are becoming community champions, and instead of ‘deploying services’ into their communities they are co-creating sustainable solutions within their communities.

If the welfare state can become loveable then it can be defended. This is not easy, and it is not going to be quick, but it is not impossible.

These reflections help me refine my own understanding of my own path and the path of the Centre for Welfare Reform. Sharing and publishing social innovations or accounts injustice may be fine, but we must increasingly seek to engage directly with the groups and organisations who really care about justice and whose destinies will ultimately be bound up in any positive reforms.

I think the Centre must start to think of the audience, which it must serve with integrity, as:

  • Trade union members and other collective bodies
  • Members of progressive political parties, and this must particularly include the Labour Party
  • Local community groups and umbrella organisations that connect people and communities

I suspect that justice cannot be made directly visible, but the institutions of justice can be seen and these can made more loveable. Simone Weil claimed that only a few things can be loved absolutely: truth, beauty and justice. But when it came to her own country, as its leaders prepared to rebuild France after the war:

“…give French people something to love; and, in the first place, to give them France to love; to conceive the reality corresponding to the name of France in such a way that as she actually is, in her very truth, she can be loved with the whole heart.”

Let us try and imagine what might make our country (whatever shape that ends up being), our communities and our institutions worth loving. Perhaps then we can make justice somehow more visible and more defensible.

Image from Darren Cullen

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