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Comrades, This is Madness: Salvage Perspectives #8

by | June 8, 2020

Every issue of Salvage is accompanied by a pamphlet wherein the Editorial Collective presents a synoptic overview of certain key aspects of the political conjuncture as we see it – our perspectives. The below is the editorial perspectives essay that accompanies Salvage #8: Comrades, This is Madness.

Issue 8 went to press a lifetime ago, in early May, and in myriad ways, events have already overtaken the below. During the pandemic, we have also been putting out a series of online-exclusive editorials.

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Just in time for a deadly pandemic and the biggest crunch in capitalism’s history, the unlikely institutional beach-head of the Left in Britain, the Labour leadership, collapsed. Not the sole, but the central cause of the leadership’s slow-motion defeat, visible well before the December general election, and its devastating denouement – though easy enough to deny to ourselves as we were caught up in the swell of enthusiasm of campaigning – was the Brexit culture wars. Animating and unifying the Tory vote (for all the deep schisms on the issue in the upper echelons of the party machinery and indeed the ruling class itself), splitting, confusing and demoralising the Labour vote, the culture wars also produced an uncharacteristic lack of vigour and combativity in Team Corbyn. 

The Corbyn leadership ceased to lead. On the most important issue of the day, Labour had no coherent agenda of its own. It should be reiterated, as Salvage has stressed in all its writings on this issue, before and after the fall, that it would be facile to pretend that there was any straightforward approach available to socialists. Even allowing that, and the necessity of pursuing least-bad options, some such option precisely needed pursuing. Corbyn and his team, by contrast, seemed to know only how to block the government’s plans, using the parliamentary stalemate produced by Corbyn’s surge in the 2017 general election. It took refuge in bromides. Corbyn himself was reduced to an approximation of his own worst caricature when he waffled about ‘bringing the country’ together, in the absence of any evidence that it wished to be brought together. Rather than lead, the leadership office ended up improvising a series of fudges, hesitantly seeking the lowest common denominator around which Labour factions could unite. 

Nor, importantly, was the weakness just Corbyn’s or those in his immediate circle. Of course, the opportunism of MPs and union leaders, as illustrated by the haste with which they urged Corbyn to bin ‘free movement’ after the Brexit vote, can be taken for granted. However, the real weakness was in the pro-Corbyn wing of the party. Momentum, notwithstanding its outstanding electoral work in 2017, did not contribute to developing a coherent agenda, or even coherent propaganda, on this issue. Under Laura Parker, it appears to have become something of an outpost for Remainer fixations, of a variably left cast, which may in part help to explain its catastrophic London-focused campaigning strategy in 2019. Other party and friendly outlets, like the regrettable Skwawkbox, focused on producing puerile clickbait. Most Momentum members were passively loyal to Corbyn, and/but tended toward ‘Europeanism’, ranging in flavour from critical and radical ‘Another Europe is Possible’-ism, to a far less considered and more rote left-liberal enthusiasm. The centre of gravity tended clearly towards the latter, and, crucially, members were never seriously challenged or engaged on these issues. One does not have to sign up to the nostalgic workerist vulgarity that ‘Lexit’ was the ‘true’ ‘class position’ to believe that, strategically if nothing else, such challenges would have been vital to increase Labour’s electoral chances. 

The hesitancy around Brexit was all of a piece with Labourism’s historic weakness on national and constitutional questions: Corbynism, whatever Corbyn’s own predilections or strengths, was no more effectual on Scotland than on Europe. In the absence of trenchant positions on such questions has come a typical harvest of defeat. Nothing, sadly, was more predictable than that about half of the Corbyn base, including prominent figures such as Paul Mason and Laura Parker, should hopelessly collapse into illusions in Sir Keir Starmer after so crushing a blow. Indeed, even before his accession to the position of leader, the left campaign to keep the leadership, under candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey, was extraordinarily weak and half-hearted, squandering a brief front-runner status not so much by mishap as absence. 

Mere weeks too late to save the Left, coronavirus has now thrown into sharp relief everything that matters more than Brexit – indeed, emphasising much of what the Labour campaign precisely tried to make the December election about, and validating their positions thereon: healthcare, social care, living standards, economic reform. It transpires that, amid a pandemic in which healthcare workers are at a premium, the government must even temporarily forego tapping the motherlode of racist spite that they have helped lay down and beg migrant workers to stick around for a while. Many have pointed out the irony in the sudden shift. Workers deemed, back in the antediluvian Brexit era, to be ‘unskilled’ – warehouse workers, farmworkers, delivery drivers – and thus set to lose their right to work in the UK, are suddenly re-named ‘key workers’, and required to stay at work and risk their lives on the frontlines. Even the Daily Mail engaged in a coarsely hypocritical salute to the foreign workers it usually so enjoys attacking: ‘Romanians To The Rescue’. Given the scale of economic collapse, and the unprecedented economic interventions necessary to forestall the worst, any hope the government had that Brexit would allow it to define an agenda for British capitalism, is absolutely over. 

As yet, it is totally unclear what the government’s plan is for a post-lockdown recovery. There is a strong faction in the government, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson apparently prominent among them, eager to withdraw economic supports as swiftly as possible, and get the economy ‘back to normal’. Yet that would, by all plausible accounts, result in the swift and merciless destruction of a glut of capital, even as the data giants emerged stronger. Unemployment would soar, and a social crisis of a kind that the Conservatives have not faced since the 1930s would appear.

As this document is written, Sunak has – confounding some expectations, and his own flagged preferences – announced that the government’s unprecedented furlough scheme is to be extended to October, with no changes to it until at least July. This implies that in the clash between the continuity neoliberals and newly emboldened, and indeed new, right-Keynesians and top-down technocrat population-managers, the former are – unsurprisingly, given the scale of the economic crisis – on the defensive. The BBC has already reported some Conservative thinkers suggesting – if as yet privately – that some version of the furlough scheme might be made ‘semi-permanent’. Whatever Sunak’s personal desiderata, policy looks set to play out the jostling between these disputatious right-wing tendencies for some time. We are unlikely to see ‘a resolution’ in the government’s actions, but rather jostling strains of these distinct and contradictory strategic logics, with austerian business-as-usual-ism unlikely to win out.

Going to press in the throes of the pandemic – unconvincing talk of peaks being passed notwithstanding – this issue of Salvage includes several speculations on the new viral landscape in culture, politics, subjectivity and economics, from Camila Valle, Maya Osborne, Matt Broomfield and others. Opening the issue is an extended editorial essay by the Salvage editorial collective, building on and extending the dispatches Salvage has been releasing online every two weeks. Therein we attempt, in more detail than in this perspectival overview, to diagnose and read the tea leaves of a pandemic and post-pandemic world. Richard Seymour and Sivamohan Valluvan both examine the outlines of and prospects for the Right, including what Seymour calls ‘disaster nationalism’, and their catastrophe-mongering politics, while Gregor Gall conversely assesses prospects for workers’ militancy. Here we will only stress that the situation, certainly in the UK, is wide open for decisive intervention. There is a premium, given not only the scale of the crisis but the clear splits in and deep uncertainties of the ruling class, on aggressive, punctual opposition. 

And yet, the shadow front bench is tripping over itself to express due deference to the government. In a one-way non-aggression pact, Starmer and his shadow team – largely consisting of figures from the FBPE (‘follow back pro-EU’) ‘soft left’ – have hesitated to inconvenience the Johnson administration over its lethal foot-dragging in implementing lockdown, its austerian culpability for the lack of PPE equipment and pandemic preparedness, or the gaping inadequacies in its economic support programme, outlined in more detail in the pages of this issue. Even within its own terms, the government’s measures and methods are risible. It has just announced that its slogan is changing from the widely observed ‘Stay at Home’ to the bafflingly vague ‘Stay Alert’. This announcement was immediately widely condemned as so confusing as to practically guarantee a second deadly wave of infections, prompting doctors to make desperate appeals in the press for people to continue to stay at home, and that skillful political troll Nicola Sturgeon to declare it incomprehensible, and assure Scotland it would be faced with no such nebulous injunction. Faced with it, and the opening it left for an attack both principled and effective, our Leader of the Opposition used his historic opportunity to intervene to valiantly declare that Johnson’s announcement ‘raises more questions than it answers’. Which questions the announcement did answer – ‘Are you willing to sacrifice workers on the altar of profit?’, perhaps? – Sir Starmer neglected to say. 

Labour, of course, has refrained from pushing for a rent holiday, or universal basic income, or any other policy that would be both left-wing and popular in these circumstances. Far from shaping the agenda, Labour is offering itself as a courteous flunky offering critical, ‘forensic’ advice without ever overstepping: a solicitous Jeeves to the government’s Bertie Wooster. Much good it has done them – Starmer remains unknown amongst large swathes of electorate, and Labour’s poll ratings worse than the actual vote it achieved in December, let alone the high mid-40s that accrued to the combative, insurgent Corbyn-led party of the summer of 2017.

A sour undertone to the new regime is the leaked revelation that several senior figures in Labour, including the person who was Starmer’s favourite to be general secretary of the party, conspired to ruin any chance of success under Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer, with obvious reluctance, has been compelled – not least by the justified incandescence and disgust of Labour members – to call an inquiry into the report, though with as much emphasis on the circumstances of it being leaked as on its content. 

That leading figures in the party apparatus, from general secretary Iain McNicol down the chain to junior apparatchiks, were repelled by Corbyn’s success in 2017 is no surprise. That they operated in a hyper-factional way to sabotage the leadership is, likewise, to be expected: it is the tribute that the mediocre pay to their betters. That the ‘adults in the room’ called for Corbyn to be hanged and shot, denounced mild reformist policies as ‘Trot’ obsessions, and giggled and snorted like primary school infants about black female MPs, even going so far as to try to set up Diane Abbott for a nasty encounter with Channel 4’s Michael Crick after she was found crying in the toilets over the foul racist abuse she had received, is further evidence of the degeneration of the apparatus in the New Labour era. Even their treacherous attempt to sabotage the 2017 general election wouldn’t astonish anyone who was paying attention. 

What is particularly egregious in the revelations, however, is this faction’s role in Labour’s antisemitism controversy. For it was these saboteurs from the Labour Right who, for most of Corbyn’s leadership, had control of the largely ad-hoc complaints system. The system was wide open to abuse, dominated by a completely unprofessional culture, and selectively used to deal with factional rivals (as in the hounding of Syed Siddiqui) while protecting others (as in the security blanket wrapped around the Labour First activist Ian McKenzie). Friends of friends were informally protected (as when a complaint against the sozzled Rod Liddle, dim purveyor of unending racist blather, was briefly stalled because he was ‘chummy with Ian Austin’). As much as anything else, the Chakrabarti report and subsequent reforms were about modernising the Labour Party’s complaints process. However, it is clear that, deliberately or not, those reforms were obstructed. And party staff showed no interest in dealing with complaints of antisemitism once they started to appear, despite the leadership’s concern that this be dealt with (at least bureaucratically) with maximum haste.

During the 2016 leadership election, the report points out, the disputes staff expanded dramatically in the hunt to weed out ‘Trots’ and other likely supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. The Governance and Legal Unit (GLU) was able to process information on 11,250 individuals, of whom thousands were suspended or ‘auto-excluded’. None of that prosecutorial zeal was available in the months from November 2016 to February 2018, in which the GLU managed to suspend just ten individuals, and issue twenty-four Notices of Investigation (NOI) in relation to antisemitism. ‘This was not’, the report points out ‘due to a lack of complaints’. It was due to a lack of action – not from Corbyn and his supporters but from those who most despised them, and who would attack them in these terms. The inbox used for receiving complaints was left unattended. Many complaints that were directly drawn to the attention of the GLU staff were not even logged as complaints, even those involving the most garish, nasty and potentially violent antisemitism. Nothing was done. Disputes personnel often only acted on the few cases that they did due to chasing by MPs, NEC members, or staff from the leadership office itself. 

Which persistence was rewarded with slander. With the arrogance of their cadre, many of those responsible for the mishandling, misinformation and downright obstruction, later appeared on a BBC Panorama documentary – a characteristically unbalanced polemic by John Ware, usually known for his diatribes against Muslims and Muslim organisations – to insist that up was in fact down, denouncing the Corbyn leadership for impeding them. Even on the most generous interpretation of the documentary evidence contained in the leaked report, they systematically reversed and distorted the facts, occluding their own role in the debacle. Their evidence, utterly misleading as it was, then formed part of the basis for many of the allegations presented to the EHRC for its investigation into Labour’s antisemitism.

This puts an interesting new light on allegations of institutional racism, on the one hand, and of witch-hunts on the other. For, yes, it is absolutely clear that many ordinary Labour members were witch-hunted, both by the tabloids, and their Guido-assisted campaigns of personal destruction (the Jewish Chronicle’s financial crisis owes itself in some part to its libeling of Labour activists), and by the party apparatus. At the same time, hundreds of antisemitism complaints were, in fact, ignored or fudged. Of the cases that the report names and discusses, it is impossible to see how some complaints were not well-founded – indeed, distressing and  cases of antisemitism. It was an odd sort of ‘witch-hunt’ that ignored the actual ‘witches’ and pursued factional grudges. This sociopathically instrumentalist attitude to antisemitism is an insult to the principles of antiracism. Indeed, the perversity of Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists being left alone, while Glyn Secker, Moshé Machover and Marc Wadsworth were hung out to dry by the disciplinary apparatus, is the sort of outcome that deserves to be called ‘institutional racism’. 

Throughout the Corbyn leadership, Labour was subject to a hateful, untrue and increasingly unhinged campaign to represent it – and, synecdochically, the Labour left in general and Corbyn in particular – as the main institutional vector of antisemitism in British society, even an ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish people. Labour members have had, in the face of this medieval monstering, to maintain some degree of equanimity while struggling for the full complexity of the truth. That the claim was an utter fairy tale is not up for serious debate, as its comprehensive demolition by Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Schlosberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller in their devastating Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, the Party and Public Belief makes clear. Unfortunately, they also show the impact of this repulsive smear campaign. It became conventional for Labour members to insist that one could ‘walk and chew gum’, both acknowledging the real cases of antisemitism while opposing their instrumentalisation by the right, and the media’s breathtaking distortions. Yet, the difficulty, the tension between defiance and appeasement, between denial and capitulation, between self-accusation and self-defence, between sectarian ‘hard-headedness’ and moralistic virtue-signalling, was always more insidious than such formulations suggest. 

To now discover, too late to prevent its dire effects, the extent to which this campaign of demonisation, sabotage and demoralisation was waged from within the party, even the extent to which pure incompetence, factional idiocy and institutional failure left the party wide open to such assaults, at the very least, not to speak of malice and more deliberate cynical smearing, ought to enrage the Left. 

Corbyn and his closest allies can be faulted. As with so many issues facing a principled socialist leadership, the situation was hardly propitious, and there was no engagement possible that would not have been assailed and embattled. Nonetheless, they were not helped by their refusal to engage with the politics of antisemitism and antiracism in relation to Israel, Zionism, imperialism and globalisation (certainly a challenge to outline in a popular political culture of institutional amnesia, one demanding and rewarding sanctimony, myth and bullshit). The Labour leadership preferred to hive it off into bureaucratic responses. An understandable reluctance, but ultimately devastating, and certainly not effective as avoidance.

If nothing else, let this report forever destroy the myth that the Left, disproportionately, let alone uniquely, is responsible for antisemitism in British society. Let there be no further accommodation to that slander.

The US left seems to have crashed into an even uglier dilemma. The Sanders campaign was initially astonishingly successful, energising, to the point of giddiness, a radical movement unused to anything like traction in the arena of official politics (or, indeed, most anywhere). It was, however, already unravelling, at a dismaying speed, before the pandemic became a major public issue in the United States. Obama’s intervention sealed the unity of a previously disunited Democratic establishment around Biden, the fractured nature of which had been a source of Bernie Sanders’ strength, setting off a string of endorsements and candidate withdrawals just in time for the South Carolina primary, and triggering a process in which Sanders’ previous polling lead was reversed almost overnight. From then on, primary voters backed Biden, certainly not because they agreed with his policies, but because they were relentlessly informed, and some believed, that he was the most electable candidate. However, the nature of the pandemic did not stop the Biden campaign or the Democratic leadership from leveraging it to finish off the insurgency. By insisting on primary votes going ahead during what ought to have been a nationwide lockdown, thus helping spread the virus, they anticipated that the low turnout would hand Biden a series of landslides, which it did.

By uniting around Biden, Democrats threw the election. Looking for the ideal ‘Stop Bernie’ candidate, they found him in Donald Trump. They threw the election, to finish off Sanders, Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, free tuition, rent controls and the whole liberal reform agenda. 

This is not to say that it is impossible that Biden may not edge it, come November (and the pandemic will be an agent of chaos in this calculation, as everywhere). It is, however, to say that one does not fancy his chances – and nor do the decision-makers in his party. It is to say that the Democrat leadership knowingly insisted on obeisance to a candidate far less likely to win against Trump than was Sanders. That they rallied to a cause they know at the very least has an excellent chance of being lost. It is to say that four more years of Trump is, for them, a price worth paying. That they would rather have Trump than universal healthcare. 

If you mean to win an election, you don’t make Biden your candidate. It is not merely that Biden is a far less gifted orator, debater and pugilist than Sanders – or, indeed, in his own unique, unlikely and effective idiom, than Trump. It is not just that Biden’s vacuous bipartisan message is no match for Trump’s ruthless racist kulturkampf. It is not just that Biden was always a dozen #metoo cases waiting to happen, up to his neck in a sea of allegations of harassment, groping and sexual assault. It is not just that Biden can scarcely recall his lines these days, let alone formulate a coherent, completed sentence. It is that neither Biden nor anyone around him shows any sign of having understood why and how they were defeated in 2016. Or, indeed, of understanding why the Republicans keep winning elections despite running on a deeply unpopular programme. Even if they were particularly interested in raising turnout among working-class voters, countering the spread of voter-suppression laws, rebuilding the union movement which provides critical funds and voter mobilisation for Democratic candidates, Team Biden would have no idea how to do it. Biden’s supporters appear to believe in the polls giving him a consistent lead over Trump. The lead is real; but Clinton led by larger margins. And Clinton was far more skilled, far more lucid, than Biden is today (admittedly a low bar). Meanwhile, Trump’s support base and approval ratings are far more solid than in 2016, while this time around, the GOP apparatuses, populated with Trump allies, have rallied around their candidate, further legitimising his previously outsider message – particularly for that shored-up base.

The Democrats threw the election, just in time for Trump to be in charge of handling a major pandemic that his first instinct was to describe as a ‘hoax’. A pandemic in which he has repeatedly filled the airwaves with medical disinformation. In which he and his allies have attempted to both dismiss the pandemic and blame it on a Chinese laboratory. In which no coherent plan for disease-suppression – no nationwide social distancing strategy, no mass expansion of PPE production, no sustained expansion of testing and contact-tracing capacity, no federal clinical guidelines – has emerged. In which, with every state intervention coming reluctantly and late, US death rates is the highest in the world, while unemployment has climbed at an unprecedented rate, by over 30 million in two months. 

While Sanders has converted his campaign into a pressure group to steer policy toward a people’s bailout during the pandemic, what has been the official Democratic response to the crisis? To block, at first, the idea of sending cash payments to Americans, only to accede to it after the Trump administration backed it, Nancy Pelosi’s telling justification being that she didn’t want rich people getting checks, a line always used by the right to oppose universal programmes. It has been to propose payment plans that never went beyond those that Republicans like Mitt Romney proposed. To cut Medicaid further: while there has been much talk, and condemnation, of Republican governors cutting state Medicaid programmes, Andrew Cuomo – the prince of austerian Democrats – led the way by slashing spending in New York even as the death toll was still reaching its peak. To scold Trump for failing to hold China accountable for the pandemic, as Biden did, in yet another attempt to score a cheap and sleazy point on Trump’s cheap and sleazy nationalist terrain. To offer no coherent opposition even on the immediate issues of pandemic preparedness.

Thus, then, we are entering a global crisis just after the dead centre has buried its leftist rival, only to prove itself utterly unequal to the situation. 

In both the UK and the US, the nationalist right has been visibly thrown off its agenda by this pandemic. It has reacted warily, in contradictory and usually incompetent fashion. Yet in both cases, it has been protected by the collapse of an as-yet-underdeveloped, institutionally weak left, without strong underlying civic ties. Leaving the right opposed by the forces of self-righteous and answerless institutional liberalism – that is, effectively unopposed. 

The dangers of this situation can hardly be overstated. This is particularly so given the cataclysm toward which the global economy is headed. On a conservative estimate, the world economy is set to contract by 3 per cent over the next year, a far larger dip than in 2008. The OECD countries are expected to lose 2 per cent GDP growth for every month of lockdown. The EU expects to shrink by 7.5 per cent in 2020. The Office for Budgetary Responsibility expects the UK economy to contract by 12.8 per cent, but even this is based on the assumption of a drastic recovery after a 35 per cent crunch in the second quarter. The US economy already shrank by 4.8 per cent in the first quarter of this year, before the worst of the crisis set in. The investment bank, PIMCO, expects it to contract by 30 per cent in the second quarter (though, once again, it blithely anticipates a massive rebound in subsequent quarters, sufficient to bring total growth to minus 5 per cent). The collapse has provoked a frenzy of orthographic speculation in the business press. Will there be a rapid ‘V-shaped recovery’; a more extended ‘U’; an exotic ‘W’; or, the limit-case that terrifies state managers and capital alike, a moribund ‘L’? 

Much depends on what bourgeois commentators, extending the capital-as-body metaphor, refer to as ‘scarring’: the long-term effects of the crisis on unemployment and consumer demand. Now that it suits them, certain proponents of reopening economic activity have discovered the argument made by the Left about austerity: that unemployment, deflationary measures and the lack of wages cause excess deaths just as much as viruses do. Yet the calculus employed here is not that economic activity ought to be reconsidered from the point of view of human life but rather than there is some saddle point at which deaths caused by economic lockdown outweigh those caused by Covid: as if it were not eminently possible to continue the lockdown by, say, monetising the debt incurred by it either for future repayment through a levy on the useless rich – how many hedge-fund traders have proved the equal of one single cleaner in the crisis? – or a general debt amnesty.

It seems unlikely that, even if forced back to producing value in their capacity as workers, citizens will return to the levels of consumption required to power the envisaged ‘V’-shaped trajectory. In a country like the United States, where healthcare is dependent on employment status and more than 30 million have become unemployed, who will be able to? Even in the UK, once the furlough scheme is ended, the psychological impact of the virus is likely to remain.

The consequences of the pandemic and the shutdown will reconfigure the world and its political economy on a scale not seen in our lifetimes. That our enemies are discombobulated is little comfort: they are less so than are the forces of the Left. All of the data released so far suggests that even the most nihilistic predictions may underestimate the scale of the crisis. 

Nothing is foreordained, and pessimism is never any reason to abandon the field of battle: sometimes very much the opposite. In recent times, Salvage has delighted in expressing surprise at a rekindling sense of political hope. The present now unfolding suggests that time of glimmering is done. For the foreseeable future, the battles are likely to be rearguard and ugly. And they are vital.