Zero-Sum Progressivism

What would have happened? What should happen now?

Looking back…

This should be the end of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was too compromised by far. Aside from the teenage-angst that came through in his political interviews towards the end and which threatened his ‘friendly old man’ persona, something else was also tugging-at-the-mask…

Anti-Semitism. Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of action on allegations has brought the party into eye-watering disrepute, so much so that The Equality and Human Rights Committee have launched an investigation into the Labour party – the only other political party to have been investigated? – the facist BNP.

But Corbyn’s exit, as long as it does come, will set the stage for a new firebrand progressive. Whether Labour has the personnel to fill this vacancy remains to be seen, (and there are some duds to be avoided), but it should be relatively simple for Labour to find the right person given that what this mostly involves is just not picking the wrong one again. Tony Blair’s criticisms of Labour were often bang-on, but he did pick-up the annoying habit of poo-pooing polls which showed Labour’s policies to be popular. There is no reason why a version of the same manifesto Labour held up during this election should not continue to be supported from the frontbenches, even as Corbyn retreats to the backbenches.

For the young voters of Generation Z, the threat Corbyn posed wasn’t strong enough to deter them from voting for him. The argument that the UK needed change was a strong one. A young voter could point to the direct impact that Labour winning this election could have had on their life chances, when the data shows that real earnings fell twice as fast between 2006 and 2014 for those under 30 than for those in their 50s. And then there were all the other issues young people care more about as well. Climate change, for example. This issue was a Labour one. “The time for action was now,” Gen Z said. “We needed a Labour victory.”

However, for all the optimism surrounding this Labour manifesto, Labour would not have been able to deliver on these manifesto points. The reason the manifesto was undeliverable was not because of the policies themselves, but rather because of the election itself: the glaring political realities of our approaching 2020.

Let us enter for a moment into a parallel universe in which Labour did win. It turns out that this would have been the worst time for Generation Z to find out what winning looks like. The Labour manifesto offered an unrealistic timeline to finalise Brexit: only six months to get a new deal and put it to the people. For this to happen in six months would mean having to legislate immediately upon gaining office and sidestep the Electoral Commission (and this is dependant on a large unhealthy assumption: that Labour would have a majority, which, if without, would mean spending more time eliciting support or forging coalitions). On top of this, the UK government would then need to renegotiate a new deal with an EU who doesn’t want to renegotiate a new deal, with a Labour party not united on the issue, and with a leader pretending to remain neutral.

None of this, of course, is plausible, and it follows from this that a Labour government would have become Brexit-entangled and would have been unable to move on their platform of radical change. Successfully changing the structure of British society is the result of serious legislation, which is the result of serious politics, and this takes time and attention. Because of the political realities of 2020, it seems likely that a victorious Corbyn/Labour would have ticked-off manifesto pledges by resorting to some of the manifesto’s low-hanging handouts. As promised, £58 billion would have been given to the WASPI women – the women who had had their fixed pension ages moved in the 1950s. Gen Z, those younger voters who would have voted Corbyn into power in this parallel universe, would have been neglected. The future problems facing the younger generation are the most important and difficult and solvable issues the UK faces. If Liberal capitalism can be said to have failed in any one place, it has failed here. Between 2014-2016, £941 billion was held in additional properties and second homes, which is almost one-sixth of the value of all property in the UK. The younger generation cannot get onto the housing ladder. The Generational wealth gap is one of the most serious inequalities of our time; something you can only escape through inheritance.

Both the IFS and the IFG reported that neither Labour’s nor the Tories’ manifesto were actionable, but I think the consequences of Labour not delivering on their radical manifesto would have been particularly bad. This is principally because of how much was promised, but also because the fallout of not delivering on manifesto promises is different in the UK than it is in the US. In the context of the US, something like Medicare-for-all cannot be achieved within a four-year term – so what Bernie’s manifesto does in advocating for this change is signal to the Supreme Court that the country has given this radical relative agenda the green light. Only by setting out an initial bargaining position can Bernie expect movement in the system, because in the US not to haggle is to accept that your policy will be diluted to the point of inefficacy, as proven by Obama Care. By contrast, a good UK manifesto leans more towards telling people what you will do, rather than what you wish to do (which might be why a ‘costed’ manifesto seems more important in the UK). There is no codified constitution in the UK, the House of Lords rarely poses an obstacle, and the FPTP voting system makes it possible to quickly drive home real change – all you need is a majority. Given this, a manifesto does not act as a sales pitch like it does in the USA, and even having the excuse of a coalition will not save you from a sold promise. The Lib Dems found this out when they reneged on tuition fees.

Labour’s manifesto was not too radical for normal times; it’s just that these were not normal times.

So we have Boris Johnson. Boris is an auctioneer. He bangs the gavel hard, and has the charisma to keep people watching and putting up their hands, but really it’s all flapdoodle and he only cares about the highest bidder. The one promising thing about his tenure is that Dominic Cummings will be working in the background, and already has all the media outlets talking about what he will do to reform the Lords and overhaul the MoD, and, if you spend the time, he has a few other interesting ideas too. But will he tackle inequality? Progressive taxation might do that.

Boris isn’t really interested in tackling inequality, even though the votes he owes to places like Stoke-on-Trent will change back if they don’t see real change in their communities. If the Tories do not adopt a more progressive tax system, then revitalising the northern powerhouse will be essential to their success. However, this will require borrowing, and in this regard ideological reluctance in the Tory party could lead to a lumpen five-year term.

If inequality worsens, then the majority the Tories ended up with might come back to haunt them (when there are no Lib-Dems to pass the buck to, and no DUP to use as an excuse). This election win might turn out to be a pyrrhic one. There is a very real risk that the Tories have won five years which they will spend sorting Brexit out rather than addressing the needs of the country. Whichever party had won this election would have faced the same problem, and should be worried about the next election in five years time.


Looking forward…


Whatever next?

The problem of this election was that people seemed to think that you could put anti-Semitism ‘to one side’, or even ‘on the shelf’, and vote for Corbyn regardless. “Well, that fight was always there anyway, and we’ll fight it the day after the election.” I’ve used such arguments myself, but have come to think of them as shallow. There is no compromise here. You cannot vote for a party which is demonstrably anti-Semitic on the basis that there are degrees to this thing; that they aren’t yet anti-Semitic enough to not vote for them.

You can’t call yourself a progressive and do that, anyway.

Conscientious Objector – Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

What Millay is talking about in this poem, is courage. This speaks not just to the courage of wartime, but of the courage of peacetime. I think that the reason the Labour party have become so unelectable is that people are not being courageous, and are instead choosing to ‘shelve’ the debate. Questions about anti-Semitism were shelved again and again, and Corbyn led the way. In the majority of cases, the reason this happens is not because people are anti-Semitic, but because they fail to talk precisely about what they mean when they say they are against something or that they are for something. It is a failure to understand the implications of taken positions, and that there are arguments on the other side of the political divide that should be reckoned with before they can be ridiculed. Read long pieces like this if you lean left, or like this if you lean right (or read both, especially pertinent for those of you who politically identify one way in order to more sanctimoniously hold views that run the other way – an increasingly common strategy it seems). To be progressive means being courageous enough to click on these links more frequently, and seek out that which genuinely doesn’t mesh with our narrative.

Remember back when Extinction Rebellion activists clambered onto a London train  during rush-hour? This is an example of a progressive movement lurching in an unsettling direction. A statement released by Extinction said that the protest movement remained fully committed to nonviolence and that they would learn from this event, before going on to say: “The climate and ecological emergency is the biggest threat facing us all today, and it is unfortunate that something like this has to happen for this to become ‘newsworthy’.” This was a halfway-house apology, and it reflects the political landscape most progressives are now fighting in. To fight right-wing propaganda, they feel like they have to return in kind: with a soundbite-strategy that assumes the general decline of public discourse.

It should be no surprise that when the left makes no attempt to bring people with them, nobody comes with them, but what is particularly depressing about this kind of tactical grandstanding is that it repels the very people who would have been with them anyway. There are people, for example, who manage to question the accuracy of climate science models while simultaneously calling for more radical action on climate change. To say that the hard-right will use a self-critical question and distort it to the detriment of the left-wing cause, is not only to misunderstand the hard right (who would do this anyway), but is also to cede objectivity. And the adverse effects of leaving objectivity slumped and smoking by the wayside is that entire causes are overlooked.

This consequence is put into focus by a comparison of two progressive causes.

1.) The Palestinian cause.

2.) The Sahrawi cause.

These causes receive disparate amounts of international attention. One-hundred-and-thirty-eight states recognise Palestine. Thirty-five states recognise the Sahrawi Republic. The UN status of Palestine is that that of observer status, whereas the UN status of Western Sahara is that of a non-self-governing territory. This comes as no surprise, though, given that only one of these causes is on the left’s agenda. BDS, or ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction’, has one principal: to oppose Israel and to support Palestine. BDS is perhaps the left’s biggest movement, and has the endorsement of intellectuals such as Judith Butler; has whole academic boards such as the American Anthropologist Association passing pro-academic-boycott resolutions; has grassroots support through student bodies who organise student protests and marches; and has, in the wider-culture, the backing of pop stars such as Roger Walters. Palestine is in the spotlight. It has an International Day of Solidarity. Western Sahara isn’t. It doesn’t.

And yet these two left-wing causes are fundamentally the same. Both causes are about the dispossession from and the right to land. Both causes have colonial histories attached to them, with Palestine partitioned by the departing British and Western Sahara sold-out to Morocco by the departing Spanish. Both causes have been characterised by human rights abuses, such as unlawful killings, abusive detention, reckless violence, and bombing campaigns. Both causes have remarkable physical similarities too, with both the Palestinian and the Sahrawi populations split, with roughly half in exile and half not. This separation is maintained by physical barriers: the Israel-Gaza security barrier and the Moroccan earthen berm with accompanying landmines.

Western Sahara is the last colony in Africa. If, in 2019, a Western nation controlled Western Sahara and was committing human rights abuses, then the left would have something to say about it. But it can’t just be the ‘bigotry of low expectations’ which lets Morocco off, because in fact Western nations are still involved. The status-quo in both regions is maintained at least in part by the world’s great powers. The hundreds of millions of British arms sales to Israel is completely dwarfed by US arms sales to Israel, who supply Israel to the tune of billions. US arms sales to Morocco are overshadowed only by France, who supply Morocco to the tune of billions. And still, despite these open flanks for the left to attack, nothing gets said about one and everything gets said about the other.

I think there are three main reasons as to why a cause like the Sahrawi one gets forgotten.

First, a plethora of newer left-wing causes have crowded-out some of the older left-wing ones. The left now has a lot to say on a lot of topics: climate change as well as class struggle, trans rights as well as racial justice, and with the introduction of intersectionality each topic can be recombined over and over, so that feminism becomes black feminism, becomes queer black feminism, becomes anti-ableism queer black feminism, etc etc. In practice, this means is that these issues blend. And when the Guardian says that Extinction might have a race problem, eventually progressives just end up talking amongst themselves about one big interconnected macro-injustice. The point of stating this is not to say that social justice isn’t important – rather, it’s to insist that 178,000 people stranded in 55-degree desert for the last forty years might also be important. An authoritarian right-wing regime drove the Sahrawis from their homeland. Yet, when Judith Butler isn’t connecting the gender pay gap to the macro-injustice of the patriarchy, she’s talking about Hamas as part of a global left, rather than the Sahrawis.

Second, there are two historical hangovers that go some way to explaining this tendency on the left: pacifism, and anti-Semitism.

When Jeremy Corbyn was a backbench politician he spoke up for the Sahrawi cause, but if he had won the election in the UK, and had the economic and military strengths that come with power, would he have acted on behalf of the Sahrawis? He is, after all, a self-proclaimed pacifist. On page 52 of the Labour manifesto: “We will uphold the human rights of the people of West Papua and recognise the rights of the people of Western Sahara.” We can’t know for sure what a Corbyn government would have done for the Sahrawis, but whether anything other than diplomatic grandstanding would have occured seems questionable given that he spoke only about Palestine during the campaign. Why did he speak only about Palestine? Because the Israel-Palestine issue is seen as insoluble. Israel is a nuclear power, and so Corbyn does not really set high foreign policy expectations by being brazen. Morocco is not a nuclear power, and so there is a risk of setting expectations that would one day stretch his pacifist credentials. Polisario, the Sahrawi government in-exile, are no pacifists. They are an anti-colonial organization who led their people through decades of war and all the while championed literacy rates and the active role of women in society. ‘First education, then liberation’, was one of the slogans first launched by Polisario in 1973. Pacifism leaves those who fight the good fight to die. It should be condemned, as Orwell did, as being objectively pro-fascist.

And then there’s the problem of anti-Semitism. Apparently, for example, Corbyn thinks Hamas and Hezbollah are “bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.” Such a statement suggests at the very least an ideological handicap preventing Corbyn from drawing proper distinctions. The Palestinian cause and the Sahrawi cause are similar, but there are differences. Where the Sahrawis cause is edified by Polisario, the Palestinian cause is burdened by Hamas and their incendiary charter. Broader distinctions matter too. There has been no concerted effort by surrounding countries to annihilate Morocco, and there has been with Israel, and from this the Israeli siege-mentality can be explained even if it can never be condoned. It goes without saying that anti-Semitism can be condemned, along with pacifism, as being objectively pro-fascist.

Third, however, are tactics. Intellectuals of the left once managed to find the time to defend the Sahrawis. Noam Chomsky once argued that the dismantlement of Sahrawi protest camps at Gdeim Izuk in 2010 should be considered the original spark of the Arab Spring. But when it comes to focusing on Israel, even Chomsky makes claims accusing Israel of the ‘systematic carpet bombing of an entire population’. What do we do with this? – a claim that is unworthy of objective scholarship when compared to real cases of ‘systematic carpet bombing of an entire population’. Dresden, 1945. Cambodia, 1969.

Chomsky’s clearly no anti-Semite. What he is doing here is building a straw villain because objectivity is not a priority in the face overwhelming injustice. To do this is to give up on the details. Edward Said once said of the Palestine-Israeli conflict, that:

Perhaps […] there is no neutrality, there can be no neutrality or objectivity about Palestine. This is not to say, on the other hand, that all positions are equal, or that all perspectives are as heavily or as lightly invested. But it is to say that so ideologically saturated is the question of Palestine, so manifestly present is it to most people who come to deal with it, that even a superficial or cursory apprehension of it involves a position taken, an interest defended, a claim or a right asserted. There is no indifference, no objectivity, no neutrality because there is simply no room for them in a space that is as crowded and overdetermined as this one.

Intellectuals on the left make no attempt at framing a Sahrawi-Palestinian comparison, because there is simply no room for them to do so. ‘What would be the point?’ – might come the baffled response, or, more suspiciously – ‘Just what point are you trying to make?’ We must be less self-obsessed and more self-critical, and resist the potential infighting that comes with this change. The alternative is to persist with a blinkered intellectual attitude that says no to indifference, no to objectivity, and no to neutrality. And this alternative will apparently say no to all these things not just on the issue of Palestine but on other political issues as well, even though these other issues are not overdetermined like Palestine. What we are seeing is a chosen polemical attitude that manifests with a middle-class white man screeching from the top of a London train.

Against a backdrop of contemporary psychoses and historical hangovers, this chosen tactic is closing-down opportunities for conversation. If these really are just tactical disagreements, and people can’t be convinced to be more progressive, then so be it. But maybe conversations are being dismissed because conversations don’t change the world quickly enough, even for issues far less time-intensive than climate change, and this mindset has led to one of the worst Labour defeats ever.

It is the responsibility of intellectuals on the left to temper the impatience of those who think like this, and they can start by talking about important causes with a sense of proportion, not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s true, and because we do not compromise on the truth, not once we recognise a political question to be zero-sum.




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