“Politics is the art of the possible” goes the dolorous hymn of the centrists. Well, it turns out that what’s politically possible in 2015 is pretty different from what was conceivable in 2005 or 1995. Anti-capitalists can take over the government of Greece, Scotland can come to the brink of exiting the U.K. on an anti-austerity ticket, and a bunch of unruly Spanish leftists can go from occupying town squares to becoming a potential party of government in less than a year. Meanwhile in the United States a self-described socialist can blow apart the coronation of Hilary Clinton as the democratic nominee and in Britain a man who lists plotting the overthrow of capitalism as one of his hobbies can become the shadow chancellor. As Aaron Bastani pointed out in a recent interview, the arrogant certitudes of the commentariat regarding the inevitability of Corbyn overseeing an electoral disaster ought to be laughed out of town. Nobody knows what is going to happen, least of all those who thought Corbyn wouldn’t even make it onto the leadership ballot, never mind win the whole thing.
Goodbye to the Long 90s
Just as the economic crisis of the mid 1970s led to a dramatic decline in the hegemony of Keynesian economics the current crisis is now eroding the power of “neoliberal common sense” and expanding the horizons of what is politically possible in the global north. Though Western governments by and large succeeded in stabilizing the economic system after the crash of 2008, growth remains anemic and wages suppressed. The prospect of a fresh financial crash remains strong. Bailouts and quantitative easing may have rescued the system the first time around but with debt levels still high governments will have few tools at their disposal if a new crash is triggered.
Fundamentally the neoliberal trade-off – shoveling wealth to the top 1 percent while buying the acquiescence of the rest of the population with easy credit – is busted. As in the 1970s the current regime of capital accumulation is no longer sustainable and just as in the mid-70s elites have as yet not been able to articulate a plan b. As the cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert puts it “the long 90s is over”.
The Soft Left’s Left Turn
Predictably many on the moderate left of the Labour party reacted to Corbyn’s overwhelming electoral victory with tantrums and denunciations. However, there have been notable exceptions. Many were surprised when Neal Lawson, chair of the soft-left London think tank Compass came out in support of Corbyn declaring that:
“The Corbyn Wave is a window into what is possible. Its energy is breaking up the permafrosted soil that for 30 years has been too harsh for our dreams to grow in.”
“Corbyn’s appeal to the voters is the best evidence so far that the ‘free-market’ hegemony that has held us all — and not least Labour politicians — in thrall for so long is now on the wane.”
Doubtless in some cases the change of course may be little more than opportunism as the political winds begin to blow in a different direction. But it could be that a significant fraction of the soft-left can be won to a more radical programme if it appears that such a prospectus has a realistic chance of securing a democratic mandate.
One of the key lines of attack for Corbyn’s opponents has been to paint him as the avatar of an outmoded politics. Neoliberalism has long depended upon maintaining belief that the doctrine represents modernity and that its leftist opponents are the advocates of a staid tribalism that seeks to set the clock back to the mid 70s. However, pace 2008 the left has the opportunity to turn the tables. That can only happen though if the left foreground policies such as the democratization of public services, the embrace of information technology for empowering the public through use in participatory budgeting and the fostering of other new forms of democratic control that dispense with both marketization and the paternalism of post-war social democracy. Proposals that herald a leftist project of modernity need to be hammered home by the Corbyn camp since the media will do all it can to avoid reporting this aspect of his program. In this regard giving the most prestigious cabinet posts to men, loose talk about reopening coal mines, and singing the Red Flag with Billy Bragg does not exactly help.
Rising Left or Collapsing Centre?
Sounding a cautionary note to those getting carried away by the Corbyn Wave the editors of the new journal Salvage warn:
“Our pessimism… is historically founded. It is grounded in a realistic appreciation of the limits of the Left’s institutional, social and organisational power, the erosion and destruction of the traditional loci of working class power… These factors have not disappeared, even if they are obscured by the magnitude of Corbyn’s victory.”
In large measure, Corbyn was able to succeed not due to the strength of the left but rather because of the ideological vacuity of the Labour Party centrists. As I have written previously Clintonite triangulation is an electoral strategy fit for the 1990s, it is not one that is viable in 2015. In the New York Times Paul Krugman notes that the success of Corbyn is more attributable to Labour moderates vacating the role of political opposition than to the rising power of the left.
Krugman and the editors of Salvage are correct to note that nothing comparable to the working class fighting institutions of old has arisen. Nonetheless, as Adam Ramsey points out, the institutional strength of the left has considerably increased from where it was in the immediate aftermath of the financial crash of 2008. It remains an open question as to whether the left can build a new institutional base to the point where it can become a force capable of pushing the neoliberals onto the defensive.
Sooner or later the global elite will begin to articulate an ideologically coherent response to the current structural crisis. The outlines of a new regime of accumulation will begin to emerge that will secure the maintenance of elite privileges and ensure a return to relative stability and economic growth. That new regime may turn out to be even uglier than the neoliberal variant of capitalism. As David Kotz suggests one possible development might be what he terms “Business-Regulated Capitalism” – the creation of a regime of capital accumulation that would see the state intervening to moderate the power of finance capital but that would be coupled with social authoritarianism and revanchist nationalism.
In the 1970s, the left proved unequal to the task of advancing beyond social democracy and transcending Fordist capitalism. That failure led directly to the torture chambers of Pinochet’s Chile, the devastation of the global south under the neoliberal Washington consensus, and the decimation of unions and other forms of working class power. Facing the prospect of catastrophic climate change, the stakes are even higher now than they were in 1975. The Corbynistas and their international brethren need to raise their game and quickly.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King's College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7