Five (Bad) Habits of Nearly Successful Political Projects

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The following is an extract from Futures of Socialism: The Pandemic and the Post-Corbyn Era, available now from Verso.

Don’t say: legitimate concerns; firm and fair; traditional voters or families or communities; law and order; towns.

Do say: never again; defund; abolish; re-imagine; together.

I should say at the outset that the framing of the question is unsettling. One of the problems about asking about the future of socialism is that it does not sound so promising for fun, for warmth, for lascivious laughter and unbridled hilarity, for sex, for togetherness, for the heady silly seriousness of lives well lived.

Why? Perhaps one problem is that it seems to frame the conversation as a problem to be solved, for and through instrumental means. At worst, it sounds no more than a plan to seize something – the state perhaps, an election maybe – and to postpone all progress until this capture has taken place. Of course, this murmur of desperate instrumentalism is most pronounced where I live – in Britain – where ‘socialism’ is all too often code for ‘winning a first-past-the-post election to sneak in some redistribution without scaring the middle ground’.

There is a gap between the energetic and varied attempts to build Jerusalem here on earth and the often much more bad-tempered attempts to think about the future of the Labour Party. As so many others have said, the Corbyn moment brought these two largely separate projects together, briefly. And fractiously. And perhaps always impossibly.

However, this was the first time in my life when electoral politics was not presented as a necessary lowering of our expectations.

Whatever else we say to each other, perhaps we could hold on to this point? Perhaps reframing grown-up politics as asking for less, perhaps even training ourselves to want less, may quieten the monstering by popular media, but it is unlikely to serve as a model for transforming society. It probably is not even a model for winning elections. Socialism must be more and better than this. In this spirit of trying not to fight each other to the death, I offer here a few thoughts on what the British left, if such a thing exists, has been doing wrong, framed in a manner designed to be enraging to all sides.

Bad habit no. 1: too much talk about ‘the media’

It is hard for those who witnessed the behaviour of the British media during the 2019 election and in the years of the Corbyn leadership to downplay the role of the media in political life. Clearly, and unlike in the 2017 election, the continuous onslaught of character assassination and outright lies shaped the extent of the Labour defeat. Yet the fascination with the mainstream media also works against the development of our political imaginations. For some, it reveals a deep wish to go back to 1997. For others, it chimes with a political training that focuses almost exclusively on ‘controlling the narrative ’. Socialism must be about more than this, surely. Perhaps we might park our concerns about the media until we have worked out what might be required for us all to stay alive in this next period. The future of socialism might depend more on the second bad habit than the first.

Bad habit no. 2: too much focus on capturing the state and assuming all will then be well

Electoral politics demands some attempt to win elections. Even I understand this. But the creation of electoral machines in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has helped to discredit mainstream politics. Perhaps popular culture refracts this better in the US, with the disaffection with both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seen in popular films and TV series such as Primary Colors, The Ides of March and The Politician. But Britain is far from immune to the ‘none of the above, they are all crooks’ approach to political engagement.

In response, we have tended to return to the view that ‘we’ have better ideas and the only hurdle is persuading the electorate to let us try them out. I wonder if this merits more scrutiny. Often, we don’t seem to have much more imagination than our opponents, and certainly are no more adept at communicating our world-changing ideas to others. Of course, we like to claim a monopoly on fairness and justice, but these are old refrains without much excitement in the telling. We often don’t seem very interested in how big conceptual objectives might be operationalised, or in the challenges associated with trying to operationalise policy ideas in our highly dispersed, overly surveilled times. Perhaps it would help to think more about how hard it is to do these things and to acknowledge more openly the additional and more recent challenges to doing anything through the established practices of politics. I doubt that anyone will believe what we say unless we do this.

Bad habit no. 3: too little attention to how people are living – barely

I did not expect to live to see the results of the grinding hardship that has become unremarkable in Britain today. But here it is: widespread food insecurity, including for children; a housing crisis that forces more people onto the streets and their friends’ sofas, and which consigns many more to inadequate, health-destroying and sometimes downright scary places to live; a benefits system designed to punish, which has led to the deaths of some of the most vulnerable; an all-round lowering of expectations so that the entire economy comes to resemble the mixture of hustle, violence and just-getting-by of war societies, with the most unscrupulous making a killing and everyone else borrowing to keep afloat.

We have learned that many do not believe any policy intervention can make things better for them. Distrust of the political class and, perhaps more importantly, painful experiences of interacting with the agents of the state from birth onwards can suffocate hopes of transformation through political institutions. As this deadening of hope has been employed as an active technique of austerity, the presentation of an alternative state-led machinery of poverty reduction appears implausible. After decades of being trained to expect less and less from formal institutions of government – a training achieved through a combination of political rhetoric and active impoverishment – the belief in the ability of political programmes to deliver something better has been broken. At the very least, perhaps we should devote some attention to the manner in which active impoverishment has been deployed as a tool to dismantle popular belief in democracy.

Bad habit no. 4: too great a belief that socialism has been done before in Britain

This idea cuts to the heart of generational divides in political imagination. Much – perhaps too much – talk about socialism in this country rests on a not-so-hidden assumption that something like socialism has been done here before. Mainly, I think this is regarded as no more than the NHS and the welfare state. Sometimes it might also include a wider nostalgia for social democracy. What it misses is the variableness of supposedly universal access, the violence and disenfranchisement built into the distribution of social goods even when access to such goods has been relatively buoyant, and the punitive character of the state in more recent interactions.

Perhaps we need more disruption and less continuity. When we think of people as nostalgic, perhaps they are just fed up.

Bad habit no. 5: too little attention to how things might get done

This problem is not only an electoral concern – although clearly it is that as well. Not only is state support inadequate for many, even in times when the welfare state has been broader and deeper, but it is also an unconvincing vehicle for the tasks we must achieve together in this most unpredictable and alarming of presents. I realise I am dangerously close to sounding like the disrupter boys of the right, but perhaps there is something in their instincts. The British left, which remains tied to electoral aims, has translated this concern into a question of marketing. We want to do good – so we must persuade the voters that we can be trusted sufficiently with the budgets and the bureaucracy to deliver that good.

But perhaps we do not know how to make things happen – and the uncertainty and nerviness caused by this half-articulated realisation haunts political possibility in our time.

Could we make new habits?

Instead of dwelling on ‘electoral’ or ‘self-organised’, perhaps it is more useful to think about the world we are entering and how we might imagine mutuality, survival and justice there. We are entering a world more frightening and dangerous than any I have experienced. A global economic crash beyond anything in modern history. A continuing pandemic met with increasingly militarised and repressive methods of behaviour management, all refracted through resurrected and revamped biologism and racist essentialism.

The socialism we imagine for this era must address a widespread longing for safety without resorting to carcerality or militarisation, or the policing of everything. It is a socialism that must grapple with the likelihood that those under forty imagine the state as police violence – maybe also as healthcare and taxation and public provision, but always the uneven dispensation of violence.

It demands a re-imagining of economic life – which may well require us to institute a refreshed, if not totally new, language. So perhaps – instead of our habitual talk about equality and distribution that has been so successfully turned against us, with the violence of racialised and other divisions used to delimit who can access ‘equality’ and where the pool of those receiving any (re)distribution might lie – we might think again.

Previously our language of ‘values’ also implied, or spoke overtly of, modes of operation. Equality not only signalled an aspiration and attitude to the value of all human life, it also informed a set of practices about how to organise the world and how to model institutions that registered the inherent equality of all people.

Although equality retains its emotional and ethical appeal, I don’t think we can rely on this framing to communicate an effective broader practice. The misuse of the word, including through shallow bureaucratic practices and the cruelties of austerity, combined with the growth of an everyday consciousness (among the young at least) that ‘equality’ for some has masked dehumanisation for others, means that our championing of this principle no longer differentiates us from others. More than this, the claim of pursuing equality has lost much of its operationalising credibility. People are painfully aware that formal equality is implemented in ways that feel like punishment for many – while the underside of formal equality via bureaucracy has resulted in exclusion, destitution and abandonment for those deemed beyond the reach of such measures.

The rush of solidarity in movements against state racism and police violence, as well as the earlier shift towards practical migrant solidarity, the resurgence of feminisms that resist carcerality and the significant turn away from dull compulsory heterosexuality among the young all indicate a lived critique of equality as an enforced (if fantastical) homogenisation. At the very least, we need to adjust our language of political dreaming to fit the world that those longing for freedom seek to build. This goes beyond articulating aspiration – although that would not hurt – and requires us to enter the zone of practice, of how we make ideas into ways of doing.

I realise there is a gap between this way of thinking and the demands of electoral politics. Key elements of our collective survival, such as the attempt to reconcile the need for employment with the threat of environmental destruction under the terms of a Green New Deal, seem impossible without the most top-down of policy formulations. Other urgent questions – around social care, health provision, education – seem impossible to address unless we promise to buoy up the crumbling systems of almostprovision.The electoral left is saddled with the failures of state practice even when they are not our failures – perhaps then most of all, because our alternative is so easily regarded as more of the same.

However, and despite our habits and the relentless time pressure of electoral preparation (because another exam is always just around the corner), perhaps we might think again about the language we use to bridge values, aspirations and operationalisation: those key words that bring people around, both to seeing what we want and to glimpsing how that world might be made.

My suggested starting point is to revisit our values through the lenses of mutuality, survival and repair, not only as affective languages – although, of course, these offer important indications of how the future might feel – but also as a reframing of economic and social life. Mutuality – meaning how we are in thrall to and interdependent with each other – always and in all things. Survival as both a recognition of the catastrophic threat to life on the planet and the fact that this catastrophe has been business as usual for much of the world long before this. Repair as a reckoning with what is owed and to whom – and what can never be repaid but which must be repaired if we are ever to achieve mutuality and survival.

Each of the three terms suggests both ethics and action: techniques for collective well-being and methods of re-making collective practice. I suggest these only because there are already experiments in building and sustaining decent lives in harsh times that make use of these terms, as both values and operational practices, ways of thinking but also ways of doing. What might it mean to build a socialist project around these familiar yet different value/practice terms?

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