Monday, 5 January 2015

Occupy the Centre Ground

The terms "left" and "right" originate in the physical drama of the French National Constituent Assembly of 1789, when supporters of reform and supporters of the monarchy separated on either side of the assembly president's chair. The "centre" dates from the Legislative Assembly of 1791, being the unaligned deputies who sat in the lower rows of the banked seats on either side. These became known as La Plaine (the plain), in distinction to La Montagne (the mountain), the radical Jocobins who sat higher up on the left, facing the constitutional monarchists (les Feuillants) on the right. Though this sounds like a position of some vulnerability, it would be La Plaine that would cast the pivotal votes to execute the king, and the subsequent history of the Revolution, from the Thermidorian reaction to the Empire, was largely driven from the centre.

For all the focus on the left-right dichotomy in political philosophy, it is the centre that has always obssessed political pragmatists, none more so than Tony Blair who recently commented "I am convinced the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the centre ground". According to The Economist, Blair believes that Ed Miliband has dragged Labour to the left, which only goes to prove how foreign the former PM has become, having spent so much of his time since departing the reality distortion field of Number 10 in the company of mega-rich megalomaniacs. Even the Tories have given up on the Red Ed jibe, preferring to focus on Miliband's competence in handling a budget deficit or a bacon butty.

The reappearance of Blair in domestic politics (and the mythologising of his "skill" at winning) reminds us that we have four weary months of electioneering to look forward to. Others are more obviously calculating in their public lunacy. The Telegraph insists that UKIP are swinging left, the evidence being their plans to ring-fence NHS spending and further raise income tax allowances (i.e. adopt Tory policies). The Guardian, worried that the plebs are getting restless, reinvents radicalism as Blakean mysticism, which it offers as a spiritual tonic to its own tired sophistication because "We inhabit a world in which politics is calculated, targeted and practical, constrained by the possible, fearful of failure and inevitably modest in its goals", apparently. This makes for an interesting contrast with the hopey-changey mood in Greece.

Paul Mason, who is one of the least parochial political commentators in the UK (that's not saying much), wonders if the real challenge of Syriza and Podemos, assuming electoral success in 2015, will be in "restoring the power of agency to deprived and shattered communities" rather than radical economic reform. He is certainly correct to suggest that the economic policies of the "new left" are actually little more than mild social democracy - "a Keynesian fiscal union with a high welfare state" - rather than the redistributive terror bruited by the media, but his romanticism leads him to ignore the warning signs that a stylistic rejection (he notes the mantra of the "radicalised young" is "I don’t want to live in an economy") and the fetishisation of autonomy ("the state must get out and stay out of their private lives") are the same impulses that fuelled the neoliberal turn after 1968. Lest we forget, the long march through the institutions of the 1970s resulted in Kim Howells emerging as a New Labour minister and later chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.

A diversion of the left's focus away from job creation and reduced inequality, towards more divisive or marginal issues such as immigration and abortion, would serve to reinforce the hegemony of the economic order, so we shouldn't assume the media campaign against Syriza will focus exclusively on fiscal meltdown, any more than the Tory press will limit itself to doubts over Ed Balls. That the debate on the welfare state has been reframed in cultural terms (eating habits, scroungers, immigration) is no accident. As Mason says, "But here’s the problem: in a neoliberal world, even the basic welfare state can look revolutionary. Most projections for the survival of free-market capitalism involve the creation of greater inequality, a smaller state sector and a lower-paid workforce." This is true as an observation of the current hegemonic stance, but it would be wrong to think that institutional capitalism isn't flexible enough to moderate its own behaviour in order to safeguard its medium-term future. Just as the UK is perfectly capable of properly funding the NHS, so the EU is perfectly capable of pursuing an expansionary fiscal policy.

Many commentators have insisted that Syriza will lack leverage in negotiations with the EU because a Grexit isn't a credible threat, either because the impact would be marginal or because it has already been priced-in by the market. But this misses the point that the EU is already suffering a crisis of legitimacy in the face of the posturing of the likes of UKIP and the FN, which points to its own weakness rather than the strength of the Europhobes, and that a flanking move on the left would pose a serious threat, especially if it is couched in social democratic terms. As Mason perceptively notes: "Because if basic Keynesianism and an expanded welfare state are not permissible, and if the European institutions are seen actively to collude with attempts to sabotage them, a change of sentiment about the EU on the centre-left might follow." In other words, Syriza might reveal that the "centre ground" that Blair insists we must govern from is a narrow, elitist space, not the broad plain of legend. The valley may have been inverted to become a mountain peak.

Ultimately, the European project of continental cooperation rather than competition, which Syriza supports as much as the neoliberal parties do, depends on the assumption that there is a broad popular consensus from right to left, with only ultra-nationalists and loony-lefties outside of it (hence Syriza is routinely tagged as Marxist in the media, even though most of its supporters are ex-PASOK). The existential threat to the EU comes from the right, in the form of a swing to autarky (however nonsensical that would be in practice), not from the left, but an intransigent attitude towards the left could ultimately boost the far right (notably in France). For this reason I suspect that Brussels will prove willing to "soften" its stance on debt and austerity, in the interests of "solidarity", particularly if the quid pro quo is the advance of neoliberal mechanisms (fiscal oversight, public sector deregulation etc). Though many commentators claim that the push for convergence has stalled for a generation, this is clearly no more than a tactical pause (the logic of neoliberal capitalism has not changed) that could well be terminated by a stimulus from the left.

Similarly, the UK election debate is already being framed in terms of a centrist consensus (there is no alternative to austerity) under threat from radicals, even though UKIP are a mess and there is nothing radical about either the SNP or the Greens. In the circumstances, it should come as no surprise that there is talk of grand coalitions, and that this idea finds a welcome home at The Guardian. Ian Birrell provides an analysis that borders on parody: "Elections are a form of crowdsourcing, the wisdom of crowds ensuring the result reflects national desire ... a sceptical electorate does not want to hand either party untrammelled control of the country. In keeping with the current mood, a national government would see Cameron remain prime minister and the Tories retain control of the Treasury (replicating how Labour held both posts in 1931). Labour’s leader would be deputy prime minister, with the party overseeing education and health, although presumably it would need to revert to its previous stance on private sector involvement."

You don't need to be a Labourite to recognise the toxicity of invoking the memory of Ramsey MacDonald, nor do you need to be a cynic to question the special pleading over private sector involvement in the NHS (Birrell has long been an advocate of privatisation). Even more amusing is the so-last-decade waffle about crowdsourcing, which equates democracy with fund-raising, and the category-error conflation of this with the wisdom of crowds. A first-past-the-post election is a strategy for selecting a single opinion ("candidate X is the winner"), while the wisdom of crowds seeks to broaden the set of opinions under consideration, being nothing more than the pre-Internet adage that two heads are better than one.

The idea of the centre ground, as the legitimate source of political authority and the meeting-place of coalitions, is an abstraction that has a spatial equivalent in the politics of popular protest. Marches head towards the centre. To physically occupy the central square, particularly in the city that houses the seat of government, is to demand recognition as the legitimate will of the people. Traditionally, this would be resisted and dispersed, or at least robustly controlled in democracies, not least because of the "lessons learnt" from the French Revolution. The problem in the age of mass-media was that the reality of state power - the truncheon, the tear-gas - became more politically costly to exercise, from Prague and Paris in 1968 to Seattle in 1999.

This gradually led to a change in tactics, however the new playbook owed as much to privatisation as conscious design by the authorities. As public spaces were sold off and urban regeneration erased the gaps of postwar cities, the idea that civic buildings were public (regardless of actual legal status) also receded, hence the routine violence of security guards clearing campus building occupations today. As the locus of power became ever more diffuse, the traditional modes of protest - marching towards power, occupying buildings symbolic of power - gave way to the passive-aggressive occupying of public squares (Zuccotti Park and St Paul's were feeble in comparison to Greenham Common). Now that the squares are increasingly being fenced off, it can only be a matter of time before some enlightened government builds a protest pen, for our safety and convenience.

To occupy a public square increasingly means to willingly corral protest for the convenience of the state (kettling assumes that protestors can be herded). Once you reach your destination, there will be no further progress. By the time of the Occupy movement, it became obvious that the state's best strategy was to patiently wait for the protestors to lose heart, alienate the wider public via unsympathetic media (TV still reaches more than Twitter), or drift away in the face of bad weather. The persistent occupation of public space, with tents and soup kitchens, is an act of defiance but not one of strength. As the days pass, the protest cannot but help take on the appearance of a refugee camp.

This is a lesson that the Chinese appear to have learnt well, as they showed in Hong Kong. Even Russia - where the occupation of space has long been seen as the monopoly of authority and even an art form, from Red Square marches to Putin's stage-managed gatherings of music fans and bikers - has largely opted for containment of its intermittent protests since 2011. It's worth remembering that Russia's affront at the Maidan protestors in Kiev owed much to the assumed breaking of unwritten rules, namely storming government buildings. Similarly, the Egyptian "revolution" was arguably a case of the (deep) state being willing to patiently sit out the protests until the Muslim Brotherhood's naivety presented the opportunity for a coup. In Greece and Spain, much of the emotional strength of the left arises from the over-reaction of the police to the "indignant" protests of 2010-12. They've probably hired consultants from the Met since then.

We seem to have reached a stage where public protests and indignation are no longer seen as unusual or surprising, and where the state seems willing to stand by so long as private property is not threatened. Perhaps 2003, and the worldwide protests against the Iraq war, was the point when the neoliberal order realised it could safely ignore popular protest. Protest has become socially normalised and commoditised, with its physical sites multiplied and its virtual sites, from online petitions to Twitter-storms, seemingly without limit. It's worth noting how the Occupy movement originated as a meme (i.e. a commodity), and how it was quickly franchised and institutionalised.

Just as the central square has evolved from a field of liberty to a field of control, so the centre ground of politics is now held to be as irate as the flanks. The "angry centre" is no longer an oxymoron, even if the "radical centre" remains a nonsense. Apparently, the centre demands fewer immigrants, more health spending, higher wages and lower taxes all at the same time. Of course, this is actually a construct. By personifying "the electorate" (like "the people" or "the nation"), we create a monster of apparent contradiction. This allows the political "realists" to patronisingly dismiss democracy as regrettably incoherent, which they have been doing ever since the French reactionary Joseph de Maistre coined the maxim "Every nation gets the government it deserves" in 1811. Thus Ian Birrell flattens the plurality of the "wisdom of crowds" and insists that the singular electorate is really determined on a grand coalition, which, as in 1931, means a leading role for the party of order.

This attitude serves not only to diminish democracy, but to obscure what Birrell terms "national desire". The truth is that the centre, in the sense of popular opinion, has always been to the left of the political consensus when it comes to the material issues of life, such as jobs, wages and welfare, not to mention more doctrinal issues such as nationalisation and foreign affairs. Much of the supposed incoherence is a projection that arises from the manipulation of common attitudes (a distaste for waste and a fear of personal debt) into political prejudices (a hatred of scroungers and a fear of public debt). Most of this incoherence evaporates when individuals register the relevant facts, such as that unemployment benefits are miserly and the public debt is small by historic standards. Public opinion and the opinion of the public are not the same thing.

The less flattering nickname of the centre grouping in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791 was Le Marias, the marsh. The present-day centre ground increasingly looks like a narcissistic quagmire. I doubt Tony Blair appreciates the irony.


  1. My experience of participating in demonstrations is that you get a brief high of solidarity, followed by the inevitable comedown as you realise either that the demo has been ignored by the media, or that you are regarded as an oddball rather than a threat to state power.

    Riots, on the other hand, have a decided impact and get all the right people panicking, as we witnessed in 2011. Unfortunately, on the one hand they tend to peter out quickly, and participation is rather limited by the increased chance of retribution.

    I'm approaching the forthcoming election campaign like a child watching a horror film. The whole thing is both frightening and ridiculous at the same time, but as an old student and follower of politics in its wider sense, I just can't help peering out from underneath the covers. If only a 'grand coalition' was possible. That would kill the Westminster establishment for good.

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction5 January 2015 at 17:38

    I would word it differently; the centre has always been well to the right. To put it in a diagrammatically:

    Right - - - - - -Centre- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -Left.

    The point is that the battle for what the centre is is as much a battle as the battle for the centre ground.
    By simply accepting whatever the centre is and only fighting on the centre ground as it exists you basically hand over victory on a plate to your opponents. The real victory is to win the battle over what the centre is, because even if you then lose the battle for that centre you have actually won because your opponent now occupies your ground and not theirs! This is why the Tories win every election whether they win or not!

    On the point about social democracy, the fact is that if enough pressure was brought to bear neo liberalism would be dropped in a day and replaced with social democracy. Neo liberalism is simply a reflection of massive working class defeats rather than a reflection that social democracy is somehow incompatible with modernity. The right do a very thorough job of presenting social democracy as an extravagance that would lead to mass immiseration – fear has always been their primary weapon.

    Perceptive article though!

    1. I'd argue that 'social democracy' in present circumstances is neither practical or especially desirable, for three main reasons.

      Politically, it usually depends on the influence of a strong organised working class, which is notably lacking at the moment.

      Economically, it 'piggybacks' capitalism and tends to follow the vagaries of economic cycles. Thus high social spending in booms is accompanied by a slightly greater equality of sacrifice during hard times.

      Socially, it is often accompanied by increased technocratic and bureaucratic state organisation and interference, features that were already becoming unpopular by the 1960s and 1970s.

      Radical responses really need to transcend social democracy in a more libertarian style, seeking to reduce the power of capitalism and the state. Thus basic income is better than a job guarantee, and so on....

  3. I have to agree with Igor that social democracy is irrelevant in the current era, though I'd point to technology as the chief cause of this. Social democracy belonged to the pre-datacoms age.

    Though the Tories took great pleasure in beating down organised labour in the 80s, they were actually taking advantage of fundamental material changes that would have occurred whatever the stripe of government. This is why neoliberalism advanced under Mitterand as well as Thatcher.

    Social democracy was always "socialism in one country", in that it depended both on an organised labour movement that could deliver national agreements and an interventionist state that could corral national capitalists. It is a paradox that while SD was emotionally internationalist, it's practice was wholly parochial (hence Labour's divisions over the Common Market).

    Technology enabled the emergence of global financial markets after 1971 and the dismantling of capital controls. It also enabled the emergence of operational multinationals (i.e. not just remitting profits), international supply-chains and offshoring.

    Dominant big capital went global, while organised labour didn't. Ultimately, this failure was down to "differentials". While SD could achieve a level-playing field in terms of wages nationally, it was powerless to achieve this internationally once capital and the movement of commodities became global.

    1. In your opinion, is the rise of neoliberalism and the decline of First-World organized labour a vindication of the Maoist/Third-Worldist view that essentially all First-World workers are "labour aristocracy"?

    2. No, not in the slightest. Firstly, I don't subscribe to the idea that the world can be divided into homogeneous blocs, whether based on ideological alignment or stages of economic development. To fall for this "statist" view of the world is to marginalise class and to ignore the supra-national nature of modern capitalism.

    3. "Social democracy was always "socialism in one country", in that it depended both on an organised labour movement that could deliver national agreements and an interventionist state that could corral national capitalists."

      That might be the case somewhere like France, but would it be true of Scandinavia?

    4. Yes. The postwar Nordic Model depended on high labour union participation (usually encouraged by union control of unemployment benefits), and on industry-wide co-determination (i.e. tripartite agreements between unions, employers and government). These features have been eroded by neoliberal reforms since the 90s, but union membership remains higher and co-determination more common than in the UK, France or Germany.

  4. Herbie Causes Extinction6 January 2015 at 17:43

    Per hour, workers produce more output now that at any time in history, this doesn't make social democracy less achievable but far more achievable.

    Many notable bourgeois economists are against neo liberalism, and generally economics stands to the left of politics. So technically economists don't see that Social Democracy is incompatible with modern capitalism. The only lesson to draw is that without a strong labour movement social democracy will become eroded.

    I don't accept that Thatcherism was so widespread in the 1980's. I think Thatcherism is every bit as parochial as social democracy is or was.

    I am not convinced that the free movement of capital is a recent phenomena, for example, the USA and Japan invested heavily in Taiwan after the first world war. In fact from the 1970's protectionism was actually the policy in order to create an industrial economy, along the strategy employed by China.

    I do accept that globalisation has contributed to the spread of neo liberalism via the dominance of the US empire and I accept that neo liberalism was partly a response to the failures and outcomes of ' and owes more to ideology and politics.

    Basically I think I 100% disagree with both Igor and your comments.

    1. I think the confusion is caused by the fact that you are discussing Social Democracy and Neoliberalism as ideologies that are 'applied' to society, whereas I judge them as political phenomena that are connected to and stem from concrete interests and circumstances. Your Social Democracy seems rather woolly and vague, not unlike Blair's new Clause 4.

    2. Herbie, I don't see the connection between increased productivity and the applicability of social democracy. What is the mechanism here?

      Being against (or sceptical of) neoliberalism doesn't mean you are necessarily in favour of social democracy. I think you are interpreting SD broadly as "leftish", rather than a historically-specific political phenomenon. I, like Igor, see it as the latter, and thus as redundant as classical liberalism.

      Thatcherism was limited to the UK (and The Falklands), but it was a combination of neoliberalism (an international phenomenon) and traditional Tory class interests (a parochial concern). My point is that the Tories rode a wave that hit all developed nations, to varying degrees, which was mainly due to technological change.

      There has always been capital movement. Before the US and Japan started investing in Taiwan, the UK was investing in South America. My point is that the scale of movement was relatively low between 1914-71, initially because of war and depression, and later because of the Bretton Woods system. After the Nixon Shock of 1971, we saw massive flows of capital between nations, which led to financial crises in emerging economies in the 90s and the subprime crisis in the 00s (as global funds rushed into real estate).

      Protectionism is separate from capital controls. You can have high tariffs on goods and services, or even export bans (the US still employs both), while allowing free movement of capital.

  5. Herbie Causes Extinction7 January 2015 at 17:34

    "I don't see the connection between increased productivity and the applicability of social democracy."

    I am not saying there is a connection, just opposing your view that says technology is behind the rise of neo liberalism. Though I would point out that nations with high government spending and comprehensive welfare systems tend to be the more advanced nations. And socialism and abundance have long been linked. Now I know social democracy is not abundance but i would have thought it obvious that the more productive society is the more can be directed to what could be termed unproductive expenditure. I certainly don't accept the view that technology invalidates social democracy and underpins neo liberalism.

    I would argue the strength of the labour movement is correlated to the level of social democracy.

    I think we need to see Thatcherism is historical terms, Britain has always been more neo liberal than continental Europe, and it has always been an Anglo Saxon version of capitalism. Accepted this has been punctuated by spurts of social democracy, which has been driven by necessity. I suspect that drive will be with us once again. You can’t simply put all your eggs into the private sector and hope the infrastructure will keep pace. Sooner or later social democratic policies will become a necessity, no matter what technological changes you imagine have made this improbable.

    For example Britain chose opt out of the certain workers right within the EU while European nations signed up to them. They have also been reprimanded by the EU commission over Zero hour contracts.

    I think there is an issue when comparing capital movement under what was effectively a colonial relationship with capital movements in what is a more integrated imperialist system. I am less than convinced that neo liberalism can be tied in so neatly with globalisation. I certainly find the whole concept of capital controls within a colonial relationship highly problematic! I don’t really accept your historical sketch.

    I certainly reject the argument that capitalism can no longer accommodate social democracy and that a new organisation of capitalism has replaced it, namely neo liberalism. For one thing, neo liberalism is older than social democracy!!

    "I think the confusion is caused by the fact that you are discussing Social Democracy and Neoliberalism as ideologies that are 'applied' to society, whereas I judge them as political phenomena that are connected to and stem from concrete interests and circumstances. "

    Sorry Igor but this is just as vague as anything you imagine I believe.