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Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx- Out Now!

My first book, Critiquing Capitalism Today: New Ways to Read Marx, is now published by Palgrave. It came out initially as an ebook and then in hardback in the last few weeks. You can read the eBook now (find out of you have institutional access here) or view the print book here. At the moment the price makes it accessible only for those with a library subscription- which I would encourage you to use to get it ordered in!- but a much cheaper paperback version will be forthcoming in due course. If you would like a copy to review, please drop me an email and I will arrange for a hard copy to be send out to you free of charge. More details, including a full description, endorsements and chapter synopses, are available in the Book section of the site.

From Steve Jobs to Bullshit Jobs: Scattered Thoughts on the Politics of the Productive

At one point during Capital, Marx writes that ‘[t]o be a productive worker is…not a piece of luck, but a misfortune’. Today, popularisers of a postmodern Marx revolt against this misfortune with an assault on work in the name of a post-work society. But, in perceiving Marx’s misfortune as that of work rather than that of being productive- i.e. having one’s work organised in line with rule of value- they leave the capitalist logic to which work is bent intact, and thus the state of things they seek to overturn untouched.

Along these lines, this blog gives some scattered thoughts charting appearances of the productive in the debate on the possibility of a post-work society. It suggests that where Marx wrote of the ‘misfortune’ of being a ‘productive worker’, the contemporary critical imaginary of a world without work focuses on only one part of this formulation, seeking an escape from the status of ‘worker’ without a strategy for addressing the criteria of productiveness to which the worker’s status as such is subject. Work is open to question, but at the expense of questioning the wider circumstances that make it what it is in capitalist society: the rule of value whereby productive activity is structured by certain concrete social relations and produces certain abstract social forms in commodities exchanged by means of money.

In so doing I chart some rough outlines of how certain philosophical and political antecedents and possibilities chime with aspects of the current critique of work and proposals for a post-work prospectus, and how none reckon with productivity and productiveness as we find them in capitalist society- nor, crucially, the likely impacts of automation when depended upon to bring change without a programme of widespread, state-supported class-struggle to accomplish its aims- a consideration typically lacking in all such utopian vistas.

 

Productivity ninjas and post-work dreamers

In their appeals to a future of automated worklessness, popularisers of the post-work prospectus present a virtuous circle. The introduction and expansion of new technology towards automation, encouraged and supported by the state, results in an increase in productivity which provides an opportunity to free labour from production. The ‘freed’ labourers are then supported from a UBI paid out of the fiscal resources created by automation. But, mistaking a totalising crisis of social reproduction for a world of post-work opportunity, rapidly proliferating postcapitalist utopias see a way out of the present only through an escape from work. Although few, if any, of its proponents would appear to endorse the claim that post-work is also post-capitalism, the two are associated to such an extent that the struggle against work precludes a full appreciation of what it would take to overcome capitalism.

The situation whereby we cannot live except through selling our labour-power characterises capitalist society and, in its purported negation, any truly ‘postcapitalist’ society to come. Money, commodities and value, under the constrained social basis of consumption implied in the conditions of social reproduction specific to capitalism, arbitrate our access to the means of living. The criterion of postcapitalism is how far it breaks with this, and not with work alone. Humans produce in all societies. What is specific about capitalism are the social relations that undergird this productive activity and the forms it subsequently takes. Capitalist work produces and is produced by economic forms that mediate relations with the means of life. Postcapitalism can only be realised through addressing these dimensions together. However, current proposals of an automated economy producing a post-work society supported by the basic income might propose a break with work, but do not get to grips with what it would take to break with capitalism.

In eliding the form in favour of the content of work, the post-work prospectus chimes in with resonances past and present that on first sight seem quite opposed, but unite around a common thread of a fetishization of productiveness masquerading under the banner of a restructuring of work, without recognising what conditions and circumscribes this productiveness. Specifically, I’ll go on to suggest, we see this today in the mindful mindlessness of Silicon Valley cod-spiritualists. Advocates of a post-work society base their appeals on the idea there is a better use of our time, and so remain beholden to the frame of reference of the world as it is, where a finitude of time and a reliance on work to live requires us to structure our time based on what is most productive. This idea of ‘productiveness’ is not eternal, but completely internal to the logic of the very capitalist society they seek to escape. There is no other way to think about it than the one we have to hand, and yet the post-work prospectus poses the better use of it as a decisive break with the present. In this, it trades in the German Ideology for a facsimile of the Californian Ideology espoused by Silicon Valley ‘productivity ninjas’, carving out a life that allows the maximum productive use of our time. The shoes-off, shorts-on Steve Jobses and Peter Thiels of this world are the hegemons of contemporary capitalism, and this hegemony extends leftwards aswell as right. Thiel’s support for the basic income and so-called ‘technological singularity’ says it all: the equally expectant projects of a post-work society and a Zen-addled Silicon Valley lifestyle coincide.

This could be dismissed as a mere conceptual mess were its conclusions not so dangerous. These consequences are often unintended. ‘More Arthur C. Clarke than Karl Marx,’ as Jon Cruddas puts it, adherents are admirably concerned with the movement from work to leisure. The basic income, for instance, rests on a logic of providing more space for those activities considered more worthwhile. This is a mentality exemplified, albeit worded through an auspiciously ‘anti-work’ standpoint, in David Graeber’s much-hyped ‘bullshit jobs’ diatribe. This says: not all jobs are bullshit- just some. Implicit in the notion of ‘bullshit jobs’ is the assumption that, say, the academic who writes the critique has a less bullshit job than the holder of the administrative role the academic dismisses as ‘bullshit’, an assumption that crops up repeatedly in rhetorical assaults on the bloated bureaucracy of the contemporary university. Implying that the academic has a greater claim to exist than the administrator, such assaults propose to eliminate the administration, presumably resulting in the wastage of currently employed workers with fairly decent pensions, rather than address the deeper and more impermeable societal processes of rationalisation by which this administration is necessary at all. This elision weakens the resources of this kind of rhetoric’s intended critique of the work society, falling into a valorisation of certain kinds of work that is not oppositional to that society but immanent to it. It also reifies certain forms of work as sufficient unto themselves, as if the productive activity can be divorced from the sizeable infrastructure of capitalist organisation that supports it and still, somehow, survive intact. The concept ‘job’ makes sense only in its social context within this infrastructure. The non-bullshit job is non-bullshit precisely because it is supported by the very same bullshit jobs from which it is conceptually distinguished. There is a dialectic of bullshit and non-bullshit, in which we all find ourselves, the tenured critic of work included. To say otherwise is to potentiate a politics geared not only towards confrontation with bullshit jobs, but the ‘unproductive’ people who do them too.

The desire to optimize one’s time and that of others is not the only shared territory between Silicon Valley visions of the good life and the post-work prospectus. While postcapitalist utopians hang on the prospect of workless states fueled by free money, the start-up solipsists vomit great commensurable bodies of data about their every move through rapidly proliferating technologies capable of capturing some quantification of their selves. In this, they each indulge what Evgeny Morozov characterises as a tech-driven ‘solutionism’, solving problems that don’t exist only so as to create new ones that do. These solutions, whether free money or big data, are just so many ways of outsourcing the contradictions that confront them in their search for new concrete ways of living to new abstractions. This is similar to how contemporary populists and fascists flock to the pure abstraction of a national people united by the happenstance of blood and soil- a manqué concrete subject assailed by outside abstract forces- as a way of avoiding difficult political decisions about who should get what. This last, too, establishes a division between communities of the productive and unproductive. One possible monstrous shape to be assumed in future by this unholy trinity of the productive- post-work radicals, Silicon Steves and tinpot populists- may be ascertained in the new hipster fascism of the alt-right. Take, for instance, so-called ‘right accelerationism’. Recently at the centre of a storm around their scandalous reception in the London artworld, they seek not only the technological singularity chased by the post-work seminar circuit and the Silicon gurus, but a racial singularity with it. There is enough formal overlap to make one wonder how far these resonances will travel if clear theoretical and political firewalls are not quickly established.

 

Self-quantification and class struggle

There are routes through the basic income that rest less on a disavowed productivism that purports to escape work on the basis of a vilification of unproductive ‘bullshit jobs’. One such possible standpoint is that of Marxist-feminist scholar Kathi Weeks. Rather than a reward, recompense or redistributive measure based upon the creation of value, Weeks suggests a different basis. This is that the basic income and the lifestyle of greater freedom that it engenders should be viewed as a right. Conceiving it otherwise, as ‘payment for our participation in the production of value above and beyond what wages can measure and reward’, may offer a politically expedient argument from a strategic perspective. However, this perspective serves to draw upon and reinforce ‘productivist mandates’ that gauge entitlement based on contribution. Against such ‘productivist mandates’, Weeks poses an alternative. Here, what is supported (rather than remunerated) is the better organisation of life instead of work. The principle of ‘life’ at the heart of this approach may include productive activity but, importantly, is not reducible to it, neither for the sake of higher returns and profits. This principle invites a wealth of possibilities for the use of one’s time as desired. It is not predicated on the use of one’s time to generate some great immeasurable plenitude of cooperatively-produced value. It is upon this last implicit expectation that postoperaist exponents like Hardt and Negri, and their modern followers like Paul Mason, offer their projections of a possible basic income. Basing the provision of a basic income on the remuneration of production establishes an ongoing conditionality that offers no break with the status quo. Weeks’s presentation of the basic income as a right indicates a potential way out. In this sense, it is not up to the workers to responsibly contribute ‘productively’ to ‘the community’. The channelling of activities into new forms of work- a redirection of supply- resonates with the perspective of basic income as a ‘directional demand’ towards a new world in which the tasks of social reproduction can be more equally shared.

But the model of a basic income as it appears in the hands of many of those proposing it today- not all of whom are as sophisticated as Weeks- has the potential to see these hopes die hard. At its worst, it would fulfil the programme of right populisms and totalitarianisms through time by liquidating class conflict in production and moving the moment of struggle to the relationship of the individual with the totalising power of the state. In this respect, as Cruddas puts it, the basic income makes possible the self-destruction of the left and of the labour movement. Perhaps there is something potentially more emancipatory in the productivity mantras of the Silicon Valley seekers. Were he alive today, Max Weber would surely find much of interest in how their godless Protestant ethic, dutifully recording how time is spent so as to use it better in a secularised search for salvation, quantifies the unquantified and makes it measurable. But, in one sense, this measurement makes possible struggle over the extent of what is measured. This harks back to the debate between advocates of Wages for Housework with the apparently more radical demand for a basic income. The Marxist-feminist advocates of the former desired it for the reason that it brought women’s work in the home within the sphere of waged labour, bringing it under the forms of measure that allowed male workers elsewhere in the economy to negotiate and strike in pursuit of higher wages and better working conditions.

The ceaseless self-quantification of the productivity ninja, meanwhile, holds out the possibility that workers could harness new means of measuring their efficiency and increasing their time on the job to achieve the opposite: measurement in the name of less and better work, not more and worse. Where work can be quantified, it can also be contested, and its gains better redistributed through wage and productivity bargains struck with employers. In this respect at least, the Silicon Valley dream offers more to workers than their self-announced liberators in the nouveau-Marxist postcapitalist left. Where the networked tech-savants obsess over how to make their time and that of others most productive, policymakers in developed economies today confront a similar issue but on a national scale. Persistently low productivity is a major problem and barrier to growth. But working harder and more efficiently, whether by escaping bullshit jobs or emulating Steve Jobs, offers no route to this kind of productivity. What is needed is the means to endow workers with an emboldened hand in struggle. The productivity increases presupposed in the unfolding of the post-work society flow from this and not before it. Far from the apparently more radical post-work prospectus, it may be, then, its safer Silicon Valley equivalent that offers the better road forward in a world with few other options. Where one productive utopia- a post-work society- promises, in the name of radical change, only to falsely resolve class struggle with free money- another- the way of the productivity ninja- cares little for radical change but does, unwittingly, keep open the possibility of class struggle through the greater means it generates for the measurement and recording of working hours as a focus for industrial dispute. It is only through this circuitous route that either conceptualisation of the future truly comes to terms with the crucial question of productivity confronting capitalist economies in the contemporary age, which is at once a question of class struggle.

 

New boss worse than the old boss

Some question whether automation will actually result in technological employment on which the post-work prospectus is presupposed, and to which the prescription of a basic income is proposed the answer. Over the 20th and 21st century, machines have disciplined workers as much as liberated them. Recently, apocalyptic projections have issued from economists. Some suggest a 47% decline in jobs as a result of technological unemployment. But the methodology of these accounts is contested. For instance, others suggest a less dramatic 9% decline across OECD economies. This might be taken to relate to the persistently low productivity experienced by Western economies- a problem particularly acute in the UK. In light of this uncertainty, and the erosion of some of the ways of addressing it implicit in the utopian vistas offered, it seems there are two scenarios variously haunting or exciting the imaginaries of those occupied on this terrain. In one, automation frees, from the bottom up, the lowest paid, most precarious workers from bullshit jobs, their wages replaced by a basic income paid from the taxes of the benevolent class of intellectuals and technicians who remain in work, in which will surely sit the Silicon Valley set and the selfsame academics and journalists who currently sell this vista to the left. They would function something like the philanthropists German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk places at the centre of his controversial reimagining of the welfare state along the principles of Bataille’s ‘general economy’, in which the majority exist in a state of supported worklessness whilst a rich minority produce and profit for the better good.[1]

Indeed, the basic income rests on precisely such a social basis surviving the transition to a post-work society, proposing slender other means to finance the provision of free money such as a radical restructuring of property relations or sovereign wealth funds, for instance. We are led to assume the persistence of the traditional system of tax and spend on which welfare states have typically depended. Sloterdijk somewhat sarcastically suggests that the enslavement, through a combination of philanthropy and taxation, of a small core group of wealthy workers would be one possible solution to the crisis of social democracy in an age of declining resources and consent with which to enact progressive policies for social change. A reliance on the well-wishing hard-working rich is, on this count, the logical conclusion of social democracy’s search for a new social basis in the absence of any of the certainties of life and labour on which it once rested.

In a political climate defined by the fomented distaste of imaginary peoples for imaginary unproductive, leeching elites, this enslavement is surely the perfect settlement for a new coalition of the productive- post-work dreamers, Silicon schemers, and deal-making, skyrise-building populists- however much it would expose the contradictoriness of political appeals to productivity. In the dreams of the former, those who enjoy non-bullshit jobs would slave in favour of the masses newly liberated from their bullshit equivalents, and, as Sloterdijk suggests, gain pleasure not through profit alone but from the space missions, vertical gardens and driverless highways established in their name, a twenty-first century update on the libraries and institutes erected in the name of Victorian industrialists. Perhaps it is precisely this sense of imminent saviourhood that so attracts this vista’s proponents, their professions gifted by an irreducible human creativity resistant to the automation awaiting the menial masses.

However, another, equally appealing, scenario confronts the prophets of perfectly productive post-work society. Those with non-bullshit jobs are presented with the prospect that it is they who will be automated first, a reward paid to the most productive. Their enthusiasm for time spent more wisely, supported by the provision of a basic income for those expelled from production by machines, may after all say more about their anxiety about their own imminent demise than that of others. Today robots and algorithms write conference abstracts, file sports reports and check legal copy. Perhaps this is why the overwhelming portion of the support for the post-work, postcapitalist scenario of automated worklessness resounds from those working in the media, academia and cognate fields. The kinds of things they like doing promise some continuity from paid employment to free activity. The prize, should these hegemonic actors apply pressure in the right parts of the public psyche and political process, is emancipation from the compulsion to labour with retention of all the cultural and social benefits their previous non-bullshit working lives conferred, lording it up whilst others labour to serve.

In this second scenario, then, one section of society is liberated immediately and swiftly from non-bullshit jobs, whilst another section sit frozen in aspic, as automation sets in through stages each successively more drawn-out than that previous, a new society inaugurated to which the remaining service workers find themselves as indispensable as they were to the last, lest the newly liberated post-labourers spoil their free time with unproductive tasks of social reproduction, but with no attendant increase in bargaining power in line with their necessity.

By not reckoning with the contradictory outcomes the topsy-turvy, inside-out totality of capitalist social relations will surely deliver us in due course, the coalition of the productive seem all set to seal the future up for themselves either way. But those getting paid for so-called ‘bullshit’ jobs smell something’s up. Perhaps this is why, on the one occasion where people were directly given a choice to vote in a plebiscite on the basic income, in Switzerland two years ago, they turned it down, not to mention the many minor political platforms in which it plays a part that voting publics have rejected before and since- the latest and most significant being the lacklustre campaign of Benoit Hamon in France, its appeal to young voters crafted around the false promise of the automated-basic income-workfree future detailed here. Speaking only to itself and not to others, the groundswell of informed opinion behind such ideas has some way to go before it can convincingly connect with those whose jobs it brands ‘bullshit’, no matter how bullshit the reality of those jobs may be. The question is begged: What about if we’re better off in bullshit jobs after all? Having a job you chafe against affords autonomy and distance a job you love does not. In a bullshit job, you can have a hangover on the firm’s time and not your own. The non-bullshit job, for which satisfaction is enough alone to reward us, runs the risk of rounding off any rough edges of revolt and recruits our heart and soul to work alongside our hands and heads. Moreover, twinned with the basic income, this future vista of fulfilled activity remains perilous insofar as it changes the social relation under which we get paid from one based around the wage to a direct relationship of power between citizen and state, in the process liquidating the legal forms through which class struggle today stands the best chance of succeeding.

 

[1] This is sketched in Sloterdijk, P., 2012. Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. New York: Columbia University Press. For a summary see Zizek, S., 2010. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, pp. 236-40

Call for abstracts: Organizing Resilience: In, Against, Despite and Beyond Capital, LAEMOS 2018

This is a call for abstracts for a stream I’m co-convening at LAEMOS 2018, which takes place 22nd-24th March at the IAE Business School in Buenos Aires. Further information is available here.

This stream welcomes submissions that recode the concept of resilience away from survival within the present organisation of work and economic life, towards the development of alternatives ‘in, against and beyond’ capitalism. In critical management studies, resilience is associated with resistance within organizations and how working place resistance relates to other spheres in civil society (Spicer and Böhm 2007). Social movement organizations’ role is regarded as the ‘sites’ for the creation of novel organizational subjectivities and ethical practices’ (Munro, 2014: 1127). This approach demands to ‘reposition organization theory’ towards an anti-hegemonic approach (Böhm 2006: 104) that links critical organization studies with developments in anti-capitalist movements towards the renewal of organization studies (Reedy, 2014: 652) in the direction of utopia (on this see Parker –ed. 2002).

The Sub-Theme will first deal with processes of organising resilience that are grounded in the material production of capitalist social relations and explore a central contradiction of resilience: that in securing our survival in and for situations not of our choosing, we secure the strength to struggle for alternatives in the future, and, vice versa, in struggling for alternatives, we simultaneously seek our survival in the here and now.

Second, the panel will establish a connection between resilience, social reproduction and concrete forms of utopia. Social reproduction is a broad concept developed by Marxist-feminist scholarship (Vogel, 2014; Federici, 2012; Ferguson, 2016), that designates a range of activities and processes through which the ongoing conditions of life are secured.

The neo-liberal restructuring and the global crisis have precipitated a crisis of social reproduction (Zechner and Hansen, n/d). The concept and reality of resilience predominantly relates to survival within the present organisation of our social reproduction within the capital-labour relation, based around the wage relation. But there exist in the wake of the global financial crisis many practices of commoning, caring, growing and living that propose a radical break with the present and the possibility of the development of new forms of socially reproducing the capacity to live and work for different futures. These include, but are not delimited to, social movements, informal work, alternative economies, the social and solidarity economy, community agriculture projects, cooperatives, worker occupations and unemployed workers’ movements. In their development, the contribution these organisational innovations make to society’s resilience in times of crisis invites institutionalisation by the state and other authorities as a component of governmental strategies for greater stability of individuals and communities with the current economic system. The capacity of actors and groups to organise within this contradictory relationship, ‘in, against, despite and beyond’ capital and the state, is the crucial issue we hope to address in this stream.

The panel aims to bring together interdisciplinary contributions that

  • Offer theoretically-informed empirical scholarship on resilience as a contradictory concept.
  • Reflect on how social processes and movements are organising resilience beyond survival, in, against, beyond and despite, capital.

We welcome papers that investigate and analyse, empirically and/or theoretically, topics including yet not limited to:

  • social movement organizations as ‘sites’ for the creation of novel organizational subjectivities and ethical practices’ (Munro, 2014: 1127)
  • how alternative organizations cater to needs that are left unattended to due to the economic crisis and the dismantling of the welfare state
  • the role of alternative organizations in addressing the crisis of social reproduction
  • the relationship between marginalized identities and alternative organizing
  • the role of (counter-)ideologies in alternative organizations
  • how alternative organizations foster subjectivities and practices which resist capitalism as a system
  • how they foster hope and real utopia
  • how alternative forms of organizing foster solidarities cutting across capitalistic relations and/or new exclusions
  • how alternatives forms of organizing are co-opted into the reproduction of capitalism
  • how alternative forms of organization constitute sites of resistance
  • novel alliances of alternative organizations challenging existing institutions
  • institutional factors fostering the emergence of alternatives
  • the role of academics in alternative organizations.

References
Böhm, S. (2006). Repositioning Organization Theory. Impossibilities and Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills – New York.
Dalla Costa, M. (1995) ‘Capitalism and Reproduction’ in Bonefeld, W. (Ed.) Open Marxism Vol. III Pluto Press: London: 7-16.
Federici, S. (2012) Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist StruggleNew York: PM Press.
Ferguson, S. (2016) ‘Intersectionality and social-reproduction feminisms: Toward an integrative ontology’ Historical Materialism 24(2): 38-60.
Grey, C. and Farsten, C. (2002). ‘Organized and disorganized utopias: an essay on presumption’ In Parker, M. (Ed.) Utopia and Organization. Oxford: Blackwell: 9-23
Munro, I. ‘Organizational Ethics and Foucault’s “Art of Living”: Lessons from Social Movement Organizations’ (2014). Organization Studies. Vol. 35(8): 1127–1148
Parker, M. (Ed.) Utopia and Organization. Oxford: Blackwell: 1-8
Reedy, P. (2014). ‘Impossible organizations: Anarchism and organizational praxis’ Ephemera, 14(4): 639-658
Vogel, L. (2014) Marx­ism and the Oppres­sion of WomenTowards a Uni­tary Theory Chicago, IL: Hay­mar­ket Books.
Zechner, M. and B.R. Hansen (n/d) ‘Building Power in a Crisis of Social Reproduction’ ROAR, issue 0.

Deadlines

  • Abstract submission (up to 1000 words): September 30, 2017
  • Notification of acceptance: October 25, 2017
  • Submission of full paper: March 10, 2018

Submissions

  • Abstracts of up to 1000 words should be submitted here
  • The abstracts should include the name and email address of the author(s). Please, contact the convening team in case you want to send your abstract in Spanish, Portuguese or French. Prior LAEMOS experiences suggest that to interact with most of the attendees, it is better to present your work in English.
  • In case that your abstract were accepted by the subtheme convenors, you are then expected to upload a full paper version via laemos.com website form by March 10, 2018 – which you will present in your sub-theme at the LAEMOS Conference 2018 in Buenos Aires.

Further info

To discuss an abstract, and for more information, please contact the convenors:
Ana C. Dinerstein A.C.Dinerstein@bath.ac.uk
Luciana Ghiotto luciana.ghiotto@gmail.com
Harry Pitts fh.pitts@bristol.ac.uk
Patrizia Zanoni patrizia.zanoni@uhasselt.be

Some things matter more than money: national populism, anti-austerity politics and Corbynism

What happens when populist groundswells translate into electoral politics? And how do apparently contrary movements of right and left converge in an age of populism? In this blog I examine how two recent such ‘groundswells’ exerted unintended consequences on the 2017 UK General Election, and the growing sense that their death knell is already sounding. Apparently different but strangely resonant, they show the janus-faced indeterminacy of populism in an era of democratic crisis. Together, the national populism of UKIP and the Brexit campaign, and the left populism of the anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement that brought Corbyn to power, have helped restructure the parameters of political discourse around a single axiom: in the words of Nigel Farage, that there are ‘some things that matter more than money’.

It was this shift towards a politics of pure sentiment, I argue, that carved the path that, today, sees Corbyn close to power, by dint of having circumvented economic credibility as a topic of public concern. But this is a victory the pyrrhic status of which the left, increasingly content to throw in their lot with whichever ‘Lexit’ they think their leader seeks, seems not to see. Based on an unsteady political compromise the contradictions of which threaten its collapse, I conclude the analysis of what made Corbynism’s success possible is also that of what may prove its undoing.

On one hand, in a topsy-turvy world where subjects act under conditions unchosen, creating objective realities beyond their control, groundswells against the status quo can have unintended consequences. The afterlife of the UK anti-austerity movement, now reincarnated in Corbynism, has unleashed, with Brexit, unpredictable political energies. Can Corbynism contain the implications of a critique of capital launched from the standpoint of a national people?

On the other hand, the revanchist absurdity of what dewy-eyed Brexit sentimentalists desire unravels daily. This portends a backlash against the politics of pure sentimentality that delivered first the Leave vote and then Corbyn’s comparative success in the last general election. What current evidence shows is that in a fickle political environment, the seeds are sown for a swing back to the same logic of economic calculation that dominated pre-Brexit politics. Signs abound in the strengthened hand of the Chancellor Philip Hammond to curtail the apocalyptic urges of the likes of Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom on the basis of sound fiscal management. And, within the Labour Party, Keir Stamer’s side this week won out in internal negotiations defining a more robust and oppositional stance in favour of retaining free movement and the single market.

The cycle of political fads and fashions has been swift lately, and if consensus moves from the politics of sentimentality to this nascent politics of sense, such a swing would bode ill for Corbyn’s political offer- and, possibly, his longer-term position at the helm of the Labour Party.

 

A Mephistophelean pact

The morning after the EU referendum Jeremy Corbyn popped up on TV screens nationwide to suggest that the EU referendum showed ‘many communities are fed up with cuts’. Reading a national populist backlash as a protest against austerity, the benefit of hindsight shows us that Corbyn was giving an early glimpse of how the two tendencies would come to coincide in his successful 2017 General Election campaign just less than a year later. Corbynism has succeeded so far through an electorally convenient synthesis of two predecessor counter-movements of our time- Brexit and anti-austerity- united around a common perspective that ‘some things matter more than money’. The latter subordinated to the former, the critique of government cuts has had the unintended consequence of burnishing the licentiousness of an economically incredible nationalist politics of sentimentality. Corbynism has momentum because it has most effectively contained within itself the two groundswells in their cresting and falling. Labour’s capacity to escape this unprecedented conjuncture is the crucial question confronting it ahead of a possible second snap election. Their chances rest on the Tories’ navigation of their own electoral coalition, which augmented their wealthy bedrock with working-class ex-Labour Brexiteers- what Nick Cohen bluntly characterises as ‘the alliance of snobs and mobs’. Should they seek to expand their reach among the latter by beating a tactical retreat on austerity part of Labour’s ‘counter-movement’-based appeal will be neutralised. It is a Mephistophelean pact.

The current political conjuncture can be traced to a moment in early January 2014, when Nigel Farage stated in a BBC interview that, where immigration was concerned, ‘there are some things that matter more than money’. Were five million immigrants to make us richer, Farage would sooner be poorer. ‘I do think the social side of this matters more than the pure market economics’, he said. At the same time, the anti-austerity movement had waned somewhat with Ed Miliband its occasional yet obscure party-political medium. The passage of time shows how, unbeknownst to all including himself, Corbyn waited in the wings to clarify the link between these two moments, seemingly opposed on the political spectrum but convergent on one central point. Each express, in the camps of right and left, a different populist attack on the mantra of economic credibility. On one hand, the national populism of UKIP and Brexit. On the other, the left-populism of the anti-austerity movement. The 2017 General Election, I will suggest, is the high-water mark for these spectrum-straddling populisms that each substitute for economic calculation a politics of pure sentiment. Specifically, the anti-austerity movement had an unheralded success subsumed under grave and unintended consequences exhibited in June’s snap poll, in which Corbynism, Mayism and the question of Brexit comingle.

At the time, what Farage said condescended to the centrality of economic calculation in a style rare among UK politicians. Albeit inspired by the racist desire to cleanse Britain of perceived outsiders, the central message suggests a plane of possibility on which left and right coalesce in certain forms of thinking and acting. Through such a coincidence this election was the first where the sentimental politics represented in Farage’s heresy was generalised. Both main parties backed a more-or-less ‘hard’ version of Brexit, by all accounts an act of economic self-sabotage so severe that the scrutiny of economic credibility that undid Labour at previous elections was impossible for the Tories to exert. On the Labour side, the anti-austerity movement finally and circuitously came to pass as a political force with the Corbyn ascendency, doing what Brexit did from the right but from the left: saying that some things matter more than money. Amplified via Corbynism, this anti-austerity agenda unintentionally synergised with the romantic souverainisme of Brexit to place politics purely on the terrain of emotions, values and sentiment. It has been described as the UK’s first ‘values’ election, in economic credibility eschewed for a ‘culture war’. And Labour profited from this, tacking left with targeted policies that hit their selected recipients in the heart as much as the head. The combined effect of Brexit and, less so, the mainstreaming of anti-austerity politics, has sent politics into a space somewhere between fantasy and abyss in which Project Corbyn was perfectly primed to operate precisely because it has a devil-may-care ambivalence about the continuation of the state of things as they are.

 

Dialectically sublated

There may be something in this of what Paul Mason has described as the ‘Weimar Effect’ latent always on the left: ‘the conviction that our societies are not worth defending anyway’ (for a glimpse of the consequences see the end of this piece by Jon Cruddas). What this bleak assessment undermines is the idea among Corbyn’s supporters that his success in this election marks a resurgence of the left, or of European social democracy. In an age of Trump, the Corbyn surge seems to some like a sign of the side of sense and reason on an upwards bend. But, with both Labour and the Tories subsuming UKIP votes with their promises on Brexit, the politics of national populism over which the election appeared a victory have simply been sublated within the new centre ground of politics, the two parties’ reliance on those votes holding in place a consensus much further to the right on issues like immigration and international affairs than recent electoral offerings from the likes of Brown, Miliband and even Cameron. In spite of Labour’s stepchange this week, the general trend is set in place: a convergence of left and right in respect of the will of a national people seeking a mythic sovereignty.

The election appeared at first glance a defeat for forces of nationalism and national-populism, with UKIP annihilated, authoritarian ‘postliberal’ Mayism pegged back and renegade Remainders emboldened in the wake of the results. But the racism, xenophobia and isolationism propelling Brexit has not gone away but has rather been dialectically sublated within both the Tory and Labour parties. It is harder to read where the wider Brexit vote went, but in many seats in, say, the early-declaring North East one could see a splintering of the UKIP vote left and right. But winning over its supporters is not the victory over nationalism it appears. Rather, residual Brexiteer elements now present themselves as manacles binding the two main parties to an economically disastrous divorce with the EU. It was these votes that put them where they are and to spite them would risk the loss of the seats in which the swing from UKIP to Labour or the Tories was decisive. For instance, UKIP standing aside to allow Tories a free run actually seemed to benefit Labour in most cases- Ilford North one example. As such UKIP and its wider far-right project has not really gone away, but, in a Mephistophelean pact, the two main parties now sup from one source on the main question of our time. Although some of the aspects of social and economic policy that accompany it are different, this represents something like a subterfuge one party state, a convergence around a new centre in which free movement is done for and national sovereignty is prioritised above all else. UKIP has not gone away, but appears in a new dual form split over two parties playing out the former’s internal tensions between co-existing tendencies towards, on one hand, nationalism and, on the other, nationalisation.

This has always been the danger of the referendum. It has unleashed a force that once unbottled cannot be put back in again. The aims the fictional ‘will of the people’ was taken to express- closed borders, communities like they once were, national sovereignty in a global world- are impossible and thus insatiable. In most cases, the sovereignty pursued never existed and cannot exist. And because these aims are insatiable they are all the more dangerous, because they can never be met and never exhausted. This is a vortex into which the Tories and Labour alike are swallowed, perhaps permanently, without escape. The Tories adopted a de facto hard Brexit position; Labour saw the immediate electoral expediency of closing off Tory attacks by dutifully voting, often against the convinced will of MPs and their constituents, for Article 50 and including a commitment to the end of free movement and an unconditional exit from the EU in their manifesto.

This last accommodation is stark. Corbynism has always outwardly emphasised integrity and moral certitude over what its sees as the abstract imperative to ‘win’ elections and thus compromise with the cold, hard requirements of political reality. However, what is interesting is that the calculation on Brexit sprang as much from electoral contingency as Corbyn’s instinctual left-Euroscepticism. As Matt Bolton has astutely pointed out, Corbyn has triangulated, insofar as he can depend on the support of his central constituency, which has turned a blind eye to Labour’s backing under their leader’s watch of the most retrograde and reactionary step in recent British history, in pursuit, apparently, of the kind of calculation they once openly resented: electoral success. Having succeeded in their endeavour they now owe any ability they may have to effect elements of their manifesto to the ongoing support of a group of voters- not the much-lauded youth vote, but the residual Brexit vote shared with the Tories- the continued satisfaction of which relies on the completion of an isolationist step into the unknown that will trash the economy and make any pledges to revolutionise it untenable.

The problem here is that the contradiction of the class coalition formed around the reactionary aims of Brexit has not been resolved or abolished, but merely carried over in another form. To confront it head on is a price no party will now be willing to pay. In this Labour’s success in this election is not so much the sign of an anti-austerity step change but part and parcel of the national-populist wave to which that anti-austerity politics was called into service, another chink in the armour of what was once the centreground of liberal democracy- and not necessarily for the best.

A cruel irony undermines Labour’s attempt to track back on Brexit this week. Whilst resetting relations with the party’s liberal left, it runs the risk of losing the nationalist segment of its temporary electoral coalition. The only hope must be that it reassures enough swing voters dissatisfied with Brexit backwoodsman takeover of the Tory Party to make political hay as the so-called ‘will of the people’ rapidly erodes.

 

A politics of pure sentiment

In reinstating a politics of sense over one of pure sentimentality by seeking retained membership of the single market and maintained free movement, Labour play with fire on another front, too. Rather than heralding a new world in construction, in a way Labour has benefitted directly from a disintegration of liberal democracy and its forms of doing politics. The sticking point for Labour in the last two elections was economic credibility. But, across a playing field on which both sides back the impending disaster of Brexit, Labour’s bold left platform was subject to scant scrutiny, a concord any shift in the debate towards the benefits of single market membership will surely explode.

The two main parties held something of a conspiracy of silence over Brexit in the final stages of their campaigns and this neutralised any potential threat of being undone on the basis their sums or fiscal rectitude. We have sat for some time irretrievably within the politics of a Brexit-shaped abyss into which all concerned madly throw themselves out of fear or respect for an imaginary working class. The stuff of success in such an abyss is emotions, sentiment, abstract concepts like national sovereignty and the will of a dreamt-up ‘people’ impossible in an island riven with divides. On left and right a kind of optimism prevails, a wishful thinking exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers who think they can make a success of their blind rush to blissful isolation as well as the Corbynists who, although having been proved half-right in vital respects, hold in their man messianic expectations so high as to never be met. This is the kind of heady mix on which this election has been fought. Farage’s heresy resounds, and with it the dangerous insatiability of the abstract principles and unmeetable goals to which it opposes economic calculation.

On the right these aims and goals have typically circulated around ideas of racial or national superiority to which all other aspects of economic and social life must come second. This much is transparent in Farage’s statement. But on the left the legacy of the anti-austerity movement has been to launch a parallel challenge to economic rationality, suggesting that the economy is not a household budget to which the hated bankers and government hold the purse-strings but something in service to other aims and needs. This has resonated in unintentional- but not entirely unpredictable- ways with the same sentimental shift in political action and discourse in the wake of Brexit. From the left as from the right, the material world of making ends meet or economic management is- rightly or wrongly- subordinated to that of ideas, morality, and ethics. It is its role in sparking this shift that may be the watershed contribution of the anti-austerity movement to British politics. The pyrrhic nature of this victory is largely lost on the left. Corbyn has smuggled in his anti-austerity programme under the cloak of his willing participation in the national myths of sovereignty and the will of a fictional people. In this sense, the rhetoric of the anti-austerity movement has segued with that of the John Bull right in such a way as to disfigure political debate, a disfigurement the parties are helpless to resist inflicting upon themselves owing to their reliance on ex-UKIP voters.

This convergence is concealed under a sharp electoral divergence right and left between Mayism and Corbynism. This split between relative extremes paradoxically united around isolationism and populist national sovereignty is, contrary to the left celebrations of the Corbyn surge, just another sign of disintegration. Things seem, to some, to be coming together at precisely the time they are falling apart. Left populisms are in one sense fully of a piece with the rise of right populisms elsewhere. Here, emotional or irrational urges are unlocked as electoral assets with unpredictable outcomes that risk the liberal democratic certainties within which social democracy for better or for worse moves. Attempts to stem this uncontainable tide from the sensible centre is something some are selling but nobody seems to be buying. Others propose to ride it for different ends than Corbynism. This, after all, is what that groups like Blue Labour reckon with in their vision of renewed ‘post-liberal’ appeals to faith, flag and family, however discordant these appeals are with any left agenda worth its salt.

 

Beyond the abyss

However, it quickly became apparent in the weeks and months after the election that the current sentimentalist conjuncture that brought the UK out of Europe, and Corbyn within clear shot of largest party, might not last. As Remain voices enjoyed a resurgence with the chaos of Conservative minority rule, and as Labour clarified its position on a so-called ‘jobs-first Brexit’, the ground almost imperceptibly began to shift. The Tories, negotiating their own electoral coalition struck between the ‘snobs’ and ‘mobs’, may compete for more of the latter by rowing back on austerity. The Treasury has begun to reassert hard-headed economic realities over Brexit plans, and with the increased power of the Cabinet against May’s backroom regime, Hammond’s strengthened hand, augmented by the DUP’s profligacy, may result in a less stifling approach to fiscal policy. This could diminish Labour’s capacity to steal a march on an anti-cuts platform. In turn, the anti-austerity argument on which Corbyn’s campaign in part relied will be neutralised. For instance, the Tory-DUP deal shows that the ‘magic money tree’ May once mocked exists after all.  Moreover, it seems likely a new leader will replace May in advance of any second snap election. Boris Johnson seems to be shaping himself up as an Anglophone Trump, and should he prevail in his Odyssean lurch toward power, will inevitably unveil the same shiny economic baubles as his cross-Atlantic counterpart, having already positioned, for instance, in favour of removing the cap on public sector pay. Subsuming some of the same anti-austerity sentiment propelling Corbyn, this would mark potential disaster for Labour.

Moreover, as Starmer’s policy coup this week showed, the intensity will be extracted from the debate around Brexit, circulating less around starry-eyed but non-existent sovereignty and more around economic credibility couched in less spendthrift terms. Generalised across the Commons, any specific appeal of a softer jobs-first Brexit under Labour would disappear, especially with the existing cross-Commons convergence on immigration. But, moreover, the fantasy politics induced by Brexit would disappear too. Moving from pie in the sky to the pound in your pocket, questions of economic credibility would re-enter political debate in a way unseen since Ed Miliband’s tilt at Number 10. This would squeeze the extent to which Labour can set out its singular stall on giveaways and stimulus, and reduce its room to make emotional pitches for people’s hearts over their heads. If, as appears the case, Labour’s centre and sensible left have been given the space to define the party’s Brexit policy, the new tenor of political debate this will create around financial good sense and the maintenance of the certainties of contintental political and economic order may make the Corbynist wing’s case on other policy areas much harder to communicate.

This debate about economic credibility would admittedly rest less on who would cut best and more on who would spend best. But the latter is a record which is not Labour’s alone to claim under Corbyn. A concerted Tory end to austerity would outmanoeuvre Labour on the anti-cuts agenda that brought Corbyn to the Labour leadership to begin with, and the raised consciousness of which provided at least some of the context for his relentless poll rise over the short election campaign. Movement on austerity and Brexit are dangerous for Labour insofar as they are both likely and the decision over whether they become reality is a ball squarely in the Tories’ court. This means that there is every reason for debate to ensue at Labour’s Party Conference in September over a more adaptable policy pitch that can soak up more supporters on what might be a changed electoral field come the next election. 

There is every chance that the politics of the abyss and pure fantasy remain in vogue well up until and beyond that point. But if Labour remain stuck within them, and the hard Brexit and anti-austerity agenda that propelled this politics slide from view, a Corbyn-led Labour will find itself in a very lonely place indeed, having staked everything on an unsteady synthesis of both. Corbynism has confounded expectations precisely by containing within itself elements of the two leading populisms of the past decade, left and right. But the contradictions this carries over could end up consuming it from inside out- unless a new electoral offer can be crafted. A ‘one-more-heave’ strategy is unlikely to make it across the precipice, whether the abyss awaits beyond it or not. The minor revolt against the ‘will of the people’ announced this week is a hopeful sign. But owing to Labour’s complication within the complex political context of Brexit, it only serves to raise new contradictions the fragile truce at the centre of the party may not be best placed to address.