Subscribe to Salvage and receive two print issues per year, plus digital access including audio and back issue PDFs

Pessimism after Corbyn

by | September 14, 2015

Anyone, of any politics, who does not start by acknowledging the profundity of this shock is a bullshitter. For the first time since George Lansbury, the Labour Party has a leader who is both a socialist and an experienced activist. He did not win by the skin of his teeth, nor by fluke: his crushing 59.5% first-round win – coupled with a miserable 4.5% for the hard Blairite Liz Kendall – is a demolition job on the entrenched Labour elite. Nor is his win merely due to support in the unions, or from the influx of registered supporters – though he won 57.6% and 83.8% of these votes respectively – he also gained 49.6% of votes from full members; a full 26.9% ahead of his nearest rival. In a few short months, Corbyn has radically shifted the balance of power that has obtained in the Labour Party since the end of the Miners’ Strike.

This is not a shallow electoral victory. It was evident after the first month of the Corbyn campaign that something was up. The crowds he drew, the social media buzz, suggested that he might make a heroic attempt not to end last. By the time of the first poll, he was in first place. The second poll had him winning by almost as handsome a margin as he ultimately achieved. As he zig-zagged across the country to address packed halls, his stunned rivals struggled and failed to reclaim the initiative, their empty babble attesting to the ideological vacuity and political enervation of the New Labour project and its various progeny.

For now, we dine on #blairitetears. We savour the astonishing victory, even as the Blairite media rabble incontinently deluges us with bitterness, spite and panic. We glory in the dismay of the political class and its media circuit, from the feeble right-wing fearmongering (‘Corbyn scary man woooo’) to the mannered liberal drollery attempting to devalue the outcome by means of a stolen and bowdlerised anti-oppression politics. We see you, Blairites, crying crocodile tears over ‘brocialism’, and you do not fool us.

We stand with Labour Party members who, sick of the contempt of their betters, of being treated as an inconvenience to be shushed while the grown-ups are talking, have hit the undemocratic, managerial caste running their party squarely where it hurts. We unstintingly celebrate this ‘Oxi’ to austerity, to triangulation, to managed politics, to Project Fear, to the neoliberal consensus. In a political field engineered for the endless recursion of the same, where any surprise stands out, this is an actual victory.

However, as the reference to ‘Oxi’ implies, this is also a moment for sobriety. We will not be equal to the challenges to come if we once again lurch from despondency to bad hope – we have seen where this ends. Salvage’s answer to such unproductive careening remains a hard-won pessimism. This is neither cynicism nor hopelessness: it is about our clear-sighted analysis – of capitalism, of the class system, of the centrality of this antagonism to our lives – that we refuse to gloss over the scale of the difficulties we continue to face. Our pessimism, far from the libidinised wallowing in despair that characterises the emos of the ultra-left, 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. And it is grounded in a recognition of the influence of neoliberalism on popular ideology. These factors have not disappeared, even if they are obscured by the magnitude of Corbyn’s victory.

There is war coming in the Labour Party. Already, the bad-faith resignations and rumour-mongering of leading right-wingers signals the scale of resistance Corbyn will face. And that struggle will refract through its own institutional and ideological character the conflict that cleaves society as a whole, that between exploiter and exploited, between oppressor and oppressed. And the odds in that conflict remain stacked heavily in favour of the habitual victors. The Labour right have been caught off-guard, exhausted, and weakened by the loss of a major bastion of their power the size of Scotland. Ironically, the very processes of Pasokification that threaten the survival of Labourism as a serious force are also responsible for the chinks in the armour of the old guard, which have allowed Corbyn and his allies to make this audacious dash for power. But, also ironically, Corbyn’s very victory, in its shattering of their complacent, internalised claim that There Is No Alternative (to them and their project), will galvanise the Labour right. They will not forgive this humiliation. Numb inertia is no longer their instrument: they will have to remember how to fight again. And remember they very soon will.

When their onslaught begins in earnest, they will be fighting with the party machinery at their disposal. They will be fighting with the press on their side, with the Tories as tacit allies, with business at their backs. They will have the support of the civil service and the state apparatuses. They will undoubtedly benefit from Clockwork Orange-style deep-state intrigue. But, far more fundamentally, they will benefit from the fact that Corbyn is obliged to work with a parliamentary party that is overwhelmingly hostile to what he wishes to achieve, and is apt either to force him to make damaging compromises, or to engineer habitual crises for him, or both. For his part Corbyn, being committed to the ‘broad church’ conception of the party, has already signalled through his cabinet appointments that he is aware of this balance of forces and the relative isolation of he and his allies in the places where it counts.

The task that Corbyn and his supporters face, like that which faces the Left more generally, is not just a question of taking advantage of the occasional opportunities that present themselves, as important as they are, but is a matter of having a realistic appraisal of the overwhelming forces arrayed against us, our historical weakness, and our need to tenaciously and patiently reconstruct the forces of the working-class movement from the grassroots up. The weakening of the representative link and the erosion of traditional forms of political control in neoliberalised democracies will occasionally – and unexpectedly – give rise to unique opportunities for weakly rooted forces to make dramatic advances – as with Syriza, as with Podemos, as with Corbyn. But the ground for these occasional leaps must be prepared, in order that they be sustainable. In Greece we are witnessing what happens when that is not the case.

It is natural and healthy that, having been apprised of the Left’s supposed death since 1989 – ‘End of History’ and all that – many on the Left are anxious to break the coffin lid. But one of the worst aspects of traditional Left boosterism is that, in failing to acknowledge the scale of our previous defeats and their legacy, it prepares every hopeful new recruit not for years of patient work, but for rapid burn-out and demoralisation. At such moments of real victory, the philistine and panicked ‘optimism’ of the unreflective Left, the Bad Hope that, in its moralized hyperactivism, so often enables the very short-cuts that undermine the necessary work, is prone to instant phase-shift into Bad Despair. There is no point in surging to life, only to fall back more permanently and numerously into the sepulchres.

Salvage cleaves to the necessity of a pessimism that is not a nostrum but a result of analysis, and urges others on the left to approach this battle with the same sober caution. Aspiring to such rigour is not merely a responsibility in these circumstances, it is energising. Salvage counsels a pessimism that has the humility to be surprised, to celebrate the shocks of our victories without surrendering the caution we – all – need. And we proceed in the utter and committed desire – the Sehnsucht – to be proven wrong.

The Editors, 14th September 2015