Monday, 21 December 2015


The word terrorism originates in the Terror of 1793-4 in France. Despite its modern use in respect of non-state actors, the idea begins with the organised violence of the state. As Robespierre put it, "Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible". There was nothing novel in state violence as such, even directed against beliefs rather than social or territorial groups (e.g. the religious wars of the 16th century). What was novel was the assumption that the state, rather than the monarch, embodied the will of the nation and that its internal enemies were therefore traitors by definition (you can trace the lineage of this trope down to the First Order of Stars Wars VII). Though the word "terrorist" would come to be applied to those who violently challenged the state, both in the name of the "people" and "national self-determination", the consistent feature was the claim to legitimacy. One consequence of this is that any struggle over political legitimacy is fought in "terrorist" terms, even if the violence is merely rhetorical.

Natalie Nougayrede espies the terrorist mindset in those, of both right and left, who indulge in conspiracy theories: "Dissenting voices will be expelled, and 'traitors' hounded out – all in the name of 'the people'. The French historian François Furet has written about how the genesis of conspiracy theories in Europe was the French revolution: genuine popular aspirations against absolute monarchy veered into a phase of terror and war because some of the leaders believed they not only led but embodied 'the people' – and so were entitled to physically eliminate any obstacle. This is not to say democratic revolutions are poisoned as such – nor to say today’s democracies have no failings. But it points to the dangers when protest movements come with theories of plots that need to be foiled and critics who need to be squeezed out". It should hardly need saying that she is targeting the left more than the right here, with her equivalence of the Front National and Podemos intended to smear the latter by association. The unspoken subtext (this is the Guardian) is that the tweeting Corbynistas are latter-day tricoteuses.

Nougayrede's slippery "veered" ignores that the war of 1792 was the product of Austrian and Prussian hostility as much as French paranoia, and that the armed revolts against the revolution, notably the Vendée in 1793, were genuine existential threats, even if brutally suppressed. Furet's controversial claim (in 1978's Penser la Révolution Française) was that the revolutionary government's response was less circumstantial than an ideological commitment to "man's regeneration" and thus a proto-totalitarian mode of thought. Though Furet sought to establish a link between the Jacobins and Stalin, his purpose was less to advance a reactionary position (though he inevitably did so) than to recuperate liberalism from its bloody birth and dismiss the terror as a perversion by a sanctimonious "left". For Furet, in Perry Anderson's words, the revolution "had been 'blown off course' (dérapée) in 1792 by a series of tragic accidents, destroying the liberal order at which it had originally aimed, and ushering in Jacobin dictatorship and the Terror instead".

The point is that the belief that a particular political caste can legitimately claim to represent the people in its entirety is a liberal construct, not the preserve of the "extremes" that Nougayrede seeks to isolate. The Montagnards (the hardcore Jacobins) no less than the Girondins were economic and social liberals, even if the two groups were antagonistic in terms of contemporary politics, essentially reflecting a stylistic division between bourgeois representatives of Paris and the provinces that historians have found to be as ideologically vague as the Blair-Brown rivalry. Both groups were pro-free trade and enterprise, unwilling to allow women the vote, and highly sentimental. If he were alive today and a British MP, Maximillien Robespierre would be voting to cut working tax credits and bomb Syria.

Coming from the same stable as Nougayrede, Peter Hyman is the latest to insist that the Labour Party may have to split, essentially to preserve the integrity of the revolution, otherwise known as "the project": "There are two strands, two parties if you like, that will never be happy bedfellows even in the broadest of broad church parties. So either the current Corbyn party will at some point need a home outside the Labour party or the mainstream of the Labour party will need to make common cause with others to forge a new party". It takes chutzpah to suggest that the "mainstream" of the Labour party is not represented by Corbyn, particularly as Hyman's position was implicitly endorsed (in the person of Liz Kendall) by less than 5% of party members. What Hyman really means is that the Labour right represents the wider "people", rather than the party membership, which has become a theme of the PLP since September. It's that legitimacy thing again.

Hyman looks to the future: "Today, there is a need more than ever before for a modern, progressive, values-driven party: a new 'project' that does not try to recreate New Labour, because the world has moved on, but learns from it". Despite that grudging "moved on", his policy prescriptions are Blairism 1.0, proving that Labour's neoliberals remain unreconstructed and are as prone to evangelical language as ever: "At its heart would be a renewed sense of moral purpose – a commitment to social mobility – breaking down all barriers to people getting on in life. It would believe in a leaner, more agile, empowering state that supports social entrepreneurs in the building of strong, diverse and democratic communities. This would be in sharp relief to the cuts of the Tories and the big state solutions of the traditional left".

The invocation of "social entrepreneurs" is no more substantive than Robespierre invoking the Supreme Being, while reform of the economy is once more reduced to banalities and the silver bullet of education: "This project would need to come up with fresh thinking about how to shape a growing, creative, greener economy and schools that prepare young people properly with the knowledge, skills and character to thrive in this economy". This is unreflective posturing that ignores the evidence of the last 35 years (a charge routinely levelled at Corbyn & co), insisting that failure requires us to redouble our efforts: "Instead of just attacking the current reforms to welfare, the project would need to champion the overhaul of the welfare state to provide a more modern contributory system and new institutions such as a National Care Service for the elderly to run alongside the NHS".

The central flaw in Hyman's vision is the belief that social mobility is simply a matter of "commitment" and thus a form of positive thinking. The practicalities are reduced to the implication that a few more academies might cause the economy to automatically rebalance (there's some special pleading here as Hyman is now head of a free school). What he seems determined to ignore, with his calls for a "leaner" state, is that the postwar growth of the public sector was a major contributor to the social mobility of the second half of the century. It was the demand for more teachers and doctors, as much as more whitecollar workers, that provided the opportunity for working-class kids to climb the ladder. A decent education (and a full college grant) was an enabler, but the driver was private and public sector demand. What we're seeing now is the reversion to a historic norm in which opportunity is limited as the private sector reinforces nepotism and bias and the public sector constrains headcount.

A consequence is the increasing marginalisation of the redundant working class, caught between the pincer of fewer skilled jobs and less mobility. According to the sociologist Mike Savage, "Until the 1960s most white working-class boys expected to learn manual skills from their older peers, often through apprenticeships or on-the-job training. There was a strong sense of male pride and self-respect, often exemplified in loyal membership of trade unions. And a degree of respect was also accorded more generally to the 'hardy souls of toil'. Coalminers, engine drivers, shipbuilders and the like had a heroic resonance which was recognised – sometimes grudgingly – throughout British society. This was a world in which young white men could feel self-respect and a sense that they were subordinate to no one. Alan Sillitoe’s classic 1950s novels Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner perfectly exemplify this image of a rugged, dogged, cussed – but also resilient – masculinity".

This is liberal romanticism (it's been a week marked by maudlin think-pieces on the death of coal) and thus as much an exercise in imagining the national community as the work of Nougayrede and Hyman. Alan Sillitoe's work was less about working class pride and more about young men chafing against the constraints of society at large, which meant parochial working class culture as much as the boss class. Arthur Seaton and the runner Smith were the awkward squad, not the aristocracy of labour. The social upheaval marked by Sillitoe's work reflected the double-edged nature of social mobility in the postwar years. Thatcherism, in the popular sense of selfish ambition and social climbing, was incipient in the work of the 50s Angry Young Men, most obviously the rightwing John Braine (Room at the Top) but also in more "leftish" writers such as Sillitoe and David Storey.

The claim of popular legitimacy assumes a consistency among the people as much as it assumes the integrity of its representatives. Thus "white working-class boys" can be treated as homogeneous, while rightwing Labour MPs can imagine an army of "moderates" in the country as well as a nest of vipers on Twitter. In other words, the mindset that Furet identified is (contra Nougayrede) as present in the political centre as at the extremes. A paradox of liberalism is that its commitment to personal liberty and plurality translates in practice into narrow-mindedness and conformity. Nougayrede's attempt to suggest that anyone who doesn't cleave to a centrist position is prone to paranoia, conspiracy theories and ultimately terrorism is a silly slur, but it is merely the other side of the coin to Peter Hyman's impossibly pure Blairism in which ideological consistency requires purges and splits.


  1. I'm trying to remember which blog has likened the unreformed Blairites to a cult (it may be yourself) - Hyman certainly displays all the signs of a "true believer" in his piece - one of the Observer's now routine spreads.

    Somebody also pointed out that Nougayrede's obsession with conspiracy theories also elaborated its own conspiracy theory.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment21 December 2015 at 18:18

    Hyman is a PR consultant; he simply wants to rebrand the product, which is already obsolete.

    This was the case in Spain. The ruling class and the establishment looked at Greece and asked, how can we challenge this movement? The answer let us rebrand the centre left but change nothing of its character. In the West socialist party now means a barrier to progressive movements. The last roadblock of the establishment. It has come to replace fascism as the protector of last choice. Of course in a society where branding is a cultural norm, this will probably have some initial success.

    Social mobility will be the rise of the developing nations in relation to the advanced ones. Instead of the average Western consumer spending 20% of his income on food, while the average Chinese or Indian spends 70% on food, the % will re-balance, converge.

    In the West social mobility simply means how tossed off your job is or which job will you be tied to for life, the cushy one or the one requiring lots of hard effort! I like the communist idea of people a challenge to the division of labour, not so much social mobility as social fluidity, I need a PR person to come up with a better term!

    By the end of the article I kind of lost where this linked to terrorism but this is another word for the PR men.

    1. The link is that terrorism depends on the invention of a "people" whose interests legitimise the actions of the terrorists, and this is found in the centre as much as at the political "extremes".

      The current centrist trope of the "moderate mainstream" is as much an invention as the "silent majority" or the "respectable working class". The latter has enjoyed a sentimental revival recently as a way of regretting the slowing of social mobility while carefully avoiding the role of centrist politicians in bringing it about (e.g. the failure of the PLP to support the miners).

  3. @HDTE - Correct about PR. Hyman's piece was typically Blairite in its use of vacuous feelgood phraseology and utterly devoid of meaningful policies. Rather like the Anybody-But-Corbyn candidates. They still seem to think that this is enough - a bit of random airbrushing.

  4. Not wanting to take over, but just to add, Paul Mason has some interesting things to say. In particular:

    "If you accept this, the question becomes: what would a non-neoliberal centrist socialism look like? But it’s a question few in the core socialist parties of Europe are prepared to ask. It challenges not only the leaders, but the footsoldiers – the apparatchiks who quit Labour HQ over Corbyn; the Blairite journalists mobilised across the newsrooms of Britain to do him down; the councillors who would rather he did not exist."

    1. Mason is prone to romanticise social movements (so the SNP get a free pass despite being neoliberal chancers), but I think he is spot on in suggesting that it is the centre that is currently vulnerable to fragmentation and realignment. He doesn't mention it, but the LibDem wipeout is as significant as the decline of Pasok and the attempt by Spanish neoliberals to inflate the Ciudadanos life-raft.

      I suspect this is one of the many factors currently driving the "hysteria of the moderates". Of equal pyschological import is the growing despair among those of a similar vintage to Corbyn, such as Polly Toynbee, at the realisation that the scruffy upstart has a better claim to embody their nostalgic social democracy than the besuited PLP, and that the latter are now so flaky you couldn't rule out a "Reg Prentice".

  5. When mainstream political analysis is so superficial and the opportunity of political change so remote, it is inevitable that even the least inquiring minds will resort to conspiracy theories to explain the current status quo.

    On the cultural side, you're quite right that Arthur Seaton and Joe Lampton are hardly representative of working people, and are effectively the more selfish side of the rebellious 'Angry Young Men' of the 1950s literary scene. On the other side of that there is Vic Brown of 'A Kind of Loving', who is frustrated by the parochial mores of small-town Yorkshire, but rejects his draughtsman's career to take on an insecure, low-paid job in a local shop where he can pursue his love of music and independence from routine and hierarchy. That's even before we bring the likes of Billy Casper into the equation...

    I suppose the question is whether the working-class will actually die out before working-class cliches do??!!!!