The TV news coverage of the Labour Party Conference has been so clumsily antagonistic that I momentarily wondered on Monday if it wasn't a plot by "sleeper pinkos" to force a reverse-ferret through the power of irony. It's more likely that 20 years of Blairite conditioning has left them incapable of asking probing questions of an interviewee who, for once, is willing to open-up rather than close-down a debate. For all their bleats about politicians' spin, the reality is that TV's political "heavyweights" are now far more comfortable with the cosmetic than the substantive, including the comedy turns of Michael Crick, showing how much the incestuous relations of the "caste" have coarsened democracy. Laura "sneer" Kuenssberg of the BBC asking John McDonnell why he isn't overthrowing capitalism might be dismissed as a lack of imagination, but Jon "skunk" Snow of Channel 4 demanding to know what he would do on "day one" (i.e. a Friday in late May 2020) is no more evidence of intelligent life than Martian brine-stains.
In contrast, it looks like the neoliberal fightback has begun in earnest in the print media, and this is nowhere more evident than in the New Statesman. Peter Kellner's warning that Corbyn's opponents (that's "modernisers" not Tories, obvs) are "running out of road" is the centrepiece. Having already produced some comical propaganda via his YouGov opinion-formation machine (I did a fisk here), he attempts to divorce the new party leader from the history of social democracy, continuing a theme launched last week by Martin Kettle in the Guardian. For Kellner, the "Corbyn insurgency" has "opened up a doctrinal chasm on the left" between those who think "the best way to build a good society is for workers and elected politicians, not company shareholders, to take the big decisions in the business world" and the vast bulk of Labour MPs who are pro-capitalism: "They like its dynamism. They regard it as the best way to invent, develop and supply most goods and services. They have no wish to replace it, even as a long-term objective". This "proper spheres of influence" cartoon (which has nothing to say about business people interfering in education or politics, natch) suggests that the neoliberal revanche currently lacks intellectual subtlety.
In amongst the tosh, including a lament that Clause IV was replaced with pabulum rather than a full-throated commitment to capitalism, Kellner makes the valuable point that Labour's original constitution advocated common ownership (a capacious term that covers everything from a workers' collective to the BBC), not nationalisation specifically. For him this is evidence of the pragmatic ambiguity of a Fabian-managed party that "owes more to Merthodism than Marxism" (as an aside, more party members will have read the Communist Manifesto than Wesley's Sermons, and the cultural impact of Catholicism has been just as great - the phrase survives because of alliteration, not insight). The Attlee administration is damned with faint praise (a Blairite trope): "True, his government nationalised the mines and the railways; but given how badly these had been run before the war, one could make a perfectly pragmatic, non-ideological case for taking them over". It seems to escape Kellner that Corbyn is making a similarly pragmatic case in respect of railways, energy companies and banks today. John McDonnell's insistence that Labour are not deficit-deniers, that they will pursue balanced budgets, and that "People's QE" is a tactic for abnormal times all point to the pragmatic basis of the emerging Corbyn programme, and thus its social democratic credentials.
This tour through Labour's history serves to tee up Kellner's central argument about the consequences of pragmatism and creative ambiguity: "Thinking with the wisdom of hindsight, we should not be surprised that the anti-capitalist left has revived. The hard truth is that it was never defeated because it was never properly engaged. It was simply thrust to the margins, where it bided its time ... Could things have worked out differently? Could Labour have done more than hold the left at bay: could it have won a head-on doctrinal battle?" (You'll notice that this "left" is, by definition, alien to Labour). It might appear odd that a man who earns a living by offering supposedly neutral and empirically-based opinion polling should be such a determined idealist, but this simply reveals the Manichean basis of much neoliberal thinking, particularly in its Blairite incarnation. While Corbyn preaches a plurality of opinion and respect for nonconformism, Kellner insists on the one true church, and a church militant at that (I could make some laboured jokes here about apostolic succession and the Inquisition, but I think you get the point).
To elaborate his thesis, Kellner turns to the history of the German SPD and specifically the pivot in 1959 towards support for the social market economy. For Kellner, this process was the continuation of an older project: "In a way, the SPD in the 1950s applied the tenets of the Enlightenment to itself. It approached its problems empirically. It pondered the evidence and concluded that Marxist socialism did not work, while properly regulated market capitalism did. Labour has never engaged in any such Enlightenment-style debate." Amusingly, Tuesday's Guardian carried a long piece by John Harris which indirectly confirmed that Marxism Today was the site of that debate, though it turned out to be an exchange in which neoliberalism successfully colonised and neutered a left that had become fascinated by the opportunities of post-Fordism and postmodernism (there was a Maoist masochism to the MT that led many of its leading lights to become state apparatchiks or propagandists in later life). The appeal to the Enlightenment serves to distract from the historic situation of the SPD during the Wirtschaftswunder years. The "pondering" of 1959 was not the result of some dispassionate search for knowledge but the need to adjust once the Marshall Plan and Allied political support for conservative politicians had neutralised the postwar economic critique of the SPD and embedded Ordoliberalism in German political culture.
The key passage on the economy that Kellner quotes from the SPD's Godesberg Program makes the Ordoliberal influence clear: "The autonomy of trade unions and employers' associations in collective bargaining is an important feature of a free society. Totalitarian control of the economy destroys freedom. The Social Democratic Party therefore favours a free market wherever free competition really exists. Where a market is dominated by individuals or groups, however, all manner of steps must be taken to protect freedom in the economic sphere. As much competition as possible – as much planning as necessary." The economic divergence of the two Germanys during the 50s, and the Federal Republic's integration into the nascent EEC, also undermined the policy of the SPD for reunification as a neutral state (the CDU/CSU were insistent on remaining in NATO, putting the kybosh on unification), which required it to flex its stance on international relations as much as on the economy. Oddly, Kellner passes up the opportunity to cast Ostpolitik, the policy championed by the later SPD administration under Willy Brandt of a rapprochement with the GDR combined with fealty to NATO and the EEC, as proto-triangulation.
Kellner is urging doctrinal struggle by the mass of MPs who "think Corbyn’s politics are bonkers", but ... "I fear that the quiet life will win the day, that Corbyn will become entrenched, and that a head-on doctrinal dispute will, as always, be avoided. For a century, fudging the issue has occasionally allowed Labour to build an election-winning, big-tent coalition of progressive voters. Today, that approach guarantees disaster. It will leave Corbyn free to promote his electorally toxic and economically destructive brand of left-wing politics. If that is what happens, Labour’s tent will become a lot smaller and the party will cease to be fit for purpose." The irony is that the Godesberg Program signalled the moment at which the SPD decided to turn away from doctrinal struggle and instead appeal to the electorate on an ethical basis, thereby cleaving to the more pragmatic tradition that Kellner bemoans in respect of Labour. The SPD also accepted the hegemony of Ordoliberalism, much as the self-aware Gramscians at Marxism Today ended up accepting neoliberalism's "liberation theology" as an antidote to the venom of Thatcherism.
In contrast to Kellner, Nick Pearce of the IPPR, writing about Labour's "valley of death", is intellectually honest enough to concede that Blairism is a busted flush, leaving the party "trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism". However, he continues the project to put clear blue water between Corbyn and social democracy: "While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future". In 2003 the "modernisers" ignored millions on the street; now they consider the absence of popular struggle as evidence of a lack of legitimacy. Hegemony is characterised not only by shameless contradiction (the emperor's new clothes) but by the sense of outrage when the impermissible (or "improbable") enters the public domain. This is emotionalism, not empiricism.
Unlike Kellner, Pearce is prepared to draw a line under the Blairite phase: "The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life ... Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages". What he is less prepared to concede is that these economic trends, which were plain for all to see at the time, meant that Blairism was always doomed to fail once growth was interrupted and capital inequality had passed a point of no (easy) return. Far from being empirically-based or even ethically-grounded, Blairism was distinguished by nothing more than whistling to keep one's spirits up ("Things can only get better", indeed).
John Gray is not a neoliberal but a pessimistic conservative who considers Corbyn's optimism to be pernicious. As such he categorises it under "the delusions of progress" arsing from Enlightenment thinking, in pointed contrast to Kellner. What they (and Pearce) share is an expectation of catastrophe. Gray at least has some credentials in this department because he was one of those who spotted the direction of travel in the 80s and 90s (notably in False Dawn): "Looking back, it becomes clear that Corbyn is one of the by-products of a project of marketisation, begun in Britain by Thatcher and continued during the era of New Labour, which has been pursued in different forms in many countries. Corbyn is one of the unintended consequences of this project and its recurrent crises ... the social disruption that goes with the spread of the market has actually produced a plethora of illiberal and fundamentalist movements." Despite the Spenglerian hell-in-a-handcart vibe, Gray does have some sensible things to say and is a notably better reader of postwar German history than Kellner: "Ordoliberals have in common with neoliberals a commitment to placing economic policy beyond the reach of democratic politics ... The effect of imposing this German ideology on the eurozone has been to cede popular legitimacy to radical new movements".
But Gray's tendency to view the world through the grim prism of Schopenhauer means that his writings often spiral off into gloomy hyperbole: "The ruling ideology on the bien-pensant left was a version of what George Orwell in 1945 called catastrophic gradualism – the theory that nothing can be achieved in politics without bloodshed, tyranny, lies and injustice; the only way to a better future is by sacrificing the current generation of human beings. This was never the predominant view in the Labour Party, but for many years something like it permeated the left intelligentsia". From this Gray proceeds to accuse "sections of the left" of association with "groups that harbour active terrorists, homophobes and Holocaust deniers". From there it is a short walk to the conclusion that "For the first time in its history, a serious question must be asked as to whether Labour can be trusted to promote civilised values". And you thought Corbyn was just being criticised for not singing God Save the Queen. For the record, Nelson Mandela was an active terrorist, many current Tories are homophobes, and Corbyn is not a Holocaust denier.
To cap it all, "In its shift towards becoming an extra-parliamentary party, Labour may already have ceased to be a party of government. By electing Corbyn, Labour may have passed a point from which it will be unable to return". If an "extra-parliamentary" Labour party (the "social movement" that Nick Pearce claims does not exist) is now unelectable, does that mean the progressive cause in 2020 will be taken up by the reinvigorated Liberal Democrats or a post-referendum UKIP? Labour will still be the only realistic challenger to the Tories in 5 years time, and the party's chances of success will depend largely on Tory errors and the popular mood, rather than doctrinal matters, which is why Corbyn & co are emphasising dull reliability and common decency now. The modest reality of "new old Labour" was revealed by the makeup of its economic advisory committee. Accepting that this is perhaps as much gestural as practical, the names are hardly radical: Stiglitz, Piketty, Pettifor, Nesvetailova, Wren-Lewis, Mazzucato, Blanchflower. These are mainstream, Keynesian economists who only look unorthodox if you believe that "expansionary fiscal contraction" is common sense.
A paradox of media bias is that the near invisibility of Corbyn and McDonnell over the years means that the average voter is currently open-minded about them. The crude caricatures about wanting to abolish the army aren't meant to convince so much as fill a void. More sophisticated attacks will emerge, once developing policy can be spun as internally-divisive, irresponsible or an attack on our hallowed liberties. For the moment, the hysteria of the "quality press" reflects the lack of a substantive basis for a critique, obliging them to fall back on ad hominem attacks and lurid predictions of doctrinal terror. For all the efforts of Kettle, Kellner and Pearce, Corbyn and McDonnell are doing a better job of reclaiming social democracy than the Blairite remnants; and for all the media shouts of "chaos", they have done more to challenge popular perceptions about the Labour Party in two weeks than Ed Miliband managed over 5 years.