Its that time of the season again where a prominent left-wing party or candidate looks like they might just get close to winning an election, and the question is asked, “what if ….”. This time it is Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in the UK, but this comes only a few weeks after Jean-Luc Mélenchon was not so far away from the 2nd round (and some say probable eventual victory had he reached that far). And with the failure of the extra-parliamentary, non-institutionalist left-led wave of struggle from 2009-2013 or there abouts, and with the racist right riding a wave at the moment, can you really blame people for getting enthusiastic about something that looks a little bit hopeful for a change?
The thing is though, if elected, Corbyn won’t implement any radical policies, and he will have a hard time implementing even moderate reforms. But I’m not going to argue this like the usual anti-state anarchist cut-and-paste denouncement of any effort to effect change through the state or political parties. Actually, I would ask people in the UK to vote Labour and maybe even join and become active members in their local Party branches. But before all that, let’s take a look at some trends leading us here.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the general capitalist crisis that followed it was so deep that neoliberalism really faced a legitimacy crisis for a while. But instead of trying to save its image the dominant response from governments right or left of centre was to mount a class struggle assault and to undo gains won from below in previous bouts – something so galling that by 2011 the movements of the squares unleashed the most visible ever (at least in Europe and North America) extra-parliamentary extra-institutionalist movement (of which the M15 or Occupy were only the most well known instances of a more general trend of extra-parliamentary and extra-institutional struggles kicking off everywhere), that explicitly said Fuck You to the entire political Class, in the process bringing in thousands of people who had never been active in any political way before.
But in the end, we failed. Even to get minimum objectives. Although the left-led wave of anti-austerity struggle did articulate visions of a radically different type of economy, there were plenty of other non-revolutionary solutions that we would have been happy with. For instance, Keynesianism is far from anti-capitalist and the capitalist class would have been ok with this as a peace-treaty had we forced it on them. A plane ordinary stimulus solution is even less anti-capitalist. But while capitalism should have been entirely discredited, not only did it survive, but it actually led an assault and pushed beyond the previous peace-lines. The fact is that nowhere has anybody – autonomist left, institutional left, or reactionary right (who regardless of posturing obviously aren’t going to challenge neoliberalism, what with their business leaders support) – was able to win anything: not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity.
In 2012 we saw Syriza jump from 4.6% to 12% of the vote. But with Golden Dawn making a frightening jump (from a lower starting level of support), and with the general movement still going strong, this was kind of forgotten about. But then, not so long later, as 2014 drew to a close, it looked like this party was likely to win in the election in January. This was certainly different from the movement of the squares, and it was one of the first times a Party that made significant anti-austerity noises had been in a position that they might have a chance of winning. So naturally people across Europe started asking the question: ‘What if…”
Well we soon found out what happened.
But I’m not the type to write-off any prospects for an institutionalist solution just because it didn’t work once. There are any number of reasons why what happened to Syriza would not necessarily happen elsewhere. For example, they were the first openly challenging austerity politics to get to a position where they could technically do something about it. So the Greek and European establishments rallied to prevent it. It is by no means certain such an alliance could hold out indefinitely and wait out the legitimacy crisis if faced with a series of similar situations in country after country (although obviously an unrealistic ‘if’). It was also Greece, the hardest hit of the austerity laboratories, and as a test case the neoliberal cadre has a lot invested in seeing how far they can push this one. It might have been easier to extract concessions if the Syriza phenomenon had taken place in, say, Portugal or Ireland (again, and unrealistic ‘if’).
But these hypotheticals aside, looking at what has happened since, I still say a Corbyn government will not be able to deliver, not revolution, not return to Keynesianism, not an end to austerity. It is generally accepted that Mélenchon would not have been able to do much with a presidency despite the unique circumstances, reflective of a general legitimacy crisis in politics in France, where all you need is 20% to win. But because the support of a similarly diverse parliament is required, only a candidate of the establishment could actually do anything. This of course served to support Fillon or Macron, but Mélenchon or Le Pen would only have survived in the presidency if they made the right compromises. That is leaving aside whether Mélenchon would have actually beaten Le Pen in a second round run-off. Because while the Mélenchon campaign were criticised (correctly in my opinion – but more on that further below) for not showing unambiguously enough a Republican Front stance and instructing their voters to vote against Le Pen, I actually have serious doubts whether Fillon or Macron would have directed their supporters to do the same, because it is quite possible that the Capitalist class would prefer a racist fascist to a communist.
Looking at Labour, the two-round system and the separation of the executive and legislature are not a factor in the Uk and so the challenge for Corbyn is not in institutional structure. But look at what he has faced since being proposed as a candidate for party leadership in 2015: an incredibly hostile media (even including the historically progressive Guardian), and a Party elite which has tried every dirty trick to undermine him and has shown contempt for the internal democratic party process. And they have done this without fear of of negative media coverage, indicating a widespread establishment alliance to get rid of him. This alliance will only get stronger and more determined in that event that Labour wins a majority. And if in the very unlikely event that some radical or even moderately reformist measure was put to vote, it is almost certain that the right-wing Labour MPs will side with the Tories and vote against it.
But earlier in this post I did say that I would ask Uk-based people to vote Labour. After all this criticism, that hardly seems logical. The reason is because an anti-austerity campaign needs a strong and organised movement. Labour in government will not do that. But Labour narrowly missing out on government, with a confident militant grassroots of activists (which I think is Corbyn’s biggest achievements) would be far more effective in defending communities and extracting concessions from the Tories than would a Labour government.
In France, the << ni ni >> campaign (neither Macron nor Le Pen) scored an important victory (although at the time I was against it: Fascism is too dark to gamble with). Although their ‘candidate’ did not get elected, the campaign, and the election results, made it very publicly known that Macron did not win the Presidency – people voted against Le Pen. This makes Macron a much weaker opponent for the French left to extract concessions from than a hypothetical Mélenchon presidency needing the support of a centrist parliament.
And similarly, looking ahead, the Corbyn-inspired grassroots activism in the Labour party is probably the most significant and engaging level of political activism in Europe since the 15M movement and the equivalents in Greece moved out of the city-centres and into the neighbourhoods. Whatever about short term policy changes that may or may not (probably not) be achieved by a government, this kind of mass and sustained activism is what is needed – both to achieve short-term anti-austerity victories here and ther, and also for building community-based militancy capable of pushing for more in the medium to longer term. Unfortunately this is currently being realised through a political party. And when I say unfortunately I’m not talking about because it generate false hopes in a parliamentary solution, but because despite the level and radicalism of involvement, all this energy is always under risk of being co-opted or extinguished by a party hierarchy (whether involving a compromised Corbyn or the Labour right-wing after another one of their coups). What is needed is further movement-building and democratisation of the movement to be able to to resist, or eventually become independent of, the party. And both things can only come from a narrow Corbyn defeat.