It may not be wise nor truthful to think of political (i.e human) activities as driven by uncontrollable forces. But today, as extreme austerity policies lead to ever-worsening harm, it is hard not to see, what Simone Weil called gravitational forces at work. Despite criticisms by the Right-wing of the Labour Party, ridiculous slanders and invented scandals, and the threat of a new Centre Party, the strength of the movement behind Jeremy Corbyn continues to grow.
Are we really free at times like this?
Is there “no alternative.”
Spinoza famously proposed that even a stone, falling through the air, would consider itself free:
Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.
So Spinoza imagine that a stone – falling headlong – would be thinking to itself:
Great – I’m really glad I chose to head down here!
I wonder what a pendulum would think as it swings back and forth?
This question came to mind while listening to current debates surrounding UK politics, and in particular the claim by ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair that:
I don’t think the British people will tolerate a situation where, for example, the choice at the next election is Boris Johnson versus Jeremy Corbyn.
Tony Blair’s personal position (whatever your view of him) is natural enough. He will feel that his own legacy is threatened and also, that as (electorally speaking) Labour’s most successful leader, his views should be given some weight. To a certain group of politicos I am sure all of this seems tremendously important; and I am sure there is a genuine chance that a new ‘centrist’ party will be formed, but as Gary Younge of The Guardian, quoting Heraclitus said:
You can not go back into the same river twice.
Things have changed.
Although, not all things. One of the reasons why the battle within the Labour Party is so vicious is that politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are perceived to have never changed. They supported the movements within Labour that Kinnock and Blair defeated; and as MPs they persistently did not support the policies developed and implemented by Blair and his colleagues. They were always (from the Right’s point of view) going in the wrong direction. It is natural enough that those who went along with the Rightward drift of the Blair years would see them as hopeless outsiders.
However, think about the pendulum. If it were conscious then most of it would be on board with whatever direction it is currently travelling in. If it is Going Right – then most of the pendulum will be on board with the current direction of travel. Only a small minority will still persist in saying:
This is all wrong – let’s Go Left instead!
But for most – Going Right will feel normal and natural. Until it doesn’t. Until the pendulum is pulled back by two countervailing forces: politics (the fulcrum) and reality (gravity). Imagine what the pendulum would say to itself at the point it is about to Go Left after years of Going Right. Most of the pendulum would still be thinking:
This can’t be happening. You can’t be serious. Surely we need to keep Going Right. It’s the only way we can succeed.
This is the point we have reached: the point of change. This is why 2018 is not 1981, and whatever emerges from the Right-wing of the Labour Party will be even less successful than the SDP. The politics of the current situation is different. The Right has been so dominant for so long that, unlike 1981, there is nowhere for them to go other than into self-defeating xenophobia. There are certainly plenty of pro-Europeans who will be turned off by that – but they already have somewhere else to go – the Liberal Democrats – and its pretty clear from the GE 2017 that many pro-Europeans (like me) would much rather support Labour than the Liberal Democrats.
Also, beyond the issue of Europe, what will be the stance of this new centrist party? There’s nothing left to privatise; there’s nothing left to marketise; austerity-lite is not a policy; conditionality, workfare and all the other stigmatising policies of the Blair years have also failed. The Government’s of 2010, 2015 and 2017 have already played the trick of combining vicious Right-wing policies with heart-warming rhetoric. Fewer and fewer people will buy this bullshit a fourth time.
I hear some complain that they are not clear what the policies of Labour will be, as if that was the issue. That is not the issue – when the pendulum swings Left then there will be decades to discuss, implement and explore policies which promote social justice. There will be many issues that good people will disagree about – and many mistakes will be made – all this is natural. Politically the Left has the field of dreams before it: partly because we have now moved to such an extreme Right-wing position.
At this point the details of the Manifesto are not really the issue.
The finite nature of our political options is like the fulcrum that constrains the swing to the Right. But gravity is the other force at work and gravity represents the human forces that must be harnessed in order to win political power. The harm caused by these extreme policies is now unravelling and the balance of power is shifting. Too many people are being left out, harmed, depressed or angered by the swing to the Right – particularly the young.
Blair’s success was certainly partly due to the fact that he managed to offer a kind of Thatcher-lite: he would be a ‘moderniser’ but with a heart. And, although some will see this as harsh, I think it is fair to say that in many ways Blair simply prepared the way for austerity and for the current Right-wing extremism of our Government. For Blair excelled at policies that pandered to the middle – for political success – while often sacrificing the interest of the most disadvantaged:
- Encourage house inflation – This policy benefits the better-off, enmeshes people in excessive debt and leaves the young increasingly adrift.
- Subsidise the middle – Policies like tax credits lift the income of middle earners, but don’t deal with poverty nor the structural poverty caused by Thatcher’s deindustrialisation of the North – thus leaving many communities alienated from politics.
- Blame the poor – Welfare reforms, conditionality policies, sanctions and the rhetoric of stigma were all advanced in Blair and Brown. These policies prepared the ground for horrors of the Iain Duncan Smith era.
- Privatise and marketise everything – Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) were just one example of the craziness by which public services and assets were given away and in their place were contractual arrangement and ‘internal markets’ that never worked. Instead trust, cooperation and innovation were replaced with profit-taking and centralised management.
- De-democratise the Labour Party – This policy enabled electoral success, but left growing numbers of people cynical and mistrustful of politics.
- Fail to reform the constitution – Devolution in Scotland was a policy handed to Labour by the Scots. The failure to reform the House of Lords was symbolic of the cronyism and elitism which grew under Labour, undermining local government and weakening civil society.
It is these failures which prepared the ground for austerity, for the heartless Coalition and for an out of touch Labour Party which, until Corbyn’s election, was actually supporting some of the most regressive ‘welfare reforms’ being imposed by Iain Duncan Smith.
Corbyn has not restored the strength of Labour by inviting back into the party missing Marxists. Corbyn has restored the strength of Labour by telling the truth, by speaking about poverty, inequality and justice and by offering us some hope of actual change. This is why myself and so many people I know have joined the Labour Party – because in England (and with due respect to the Green Party which are owed a great deal of credit) they are only credible hope of a better world.
The pendulum is going to swing back, and after a little while it may even begin to feel normal to care about each other, our communities, all the peoples of the world and even the world itself.