We Lost Because We Weren’t Big Enough (the Left in the UK and the US)

By Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory, and a writer, researcher and activist based at the University of East London. Originally published at Open Democracy.

In the UK, the book-length post-mortems of the Corbyn moment are starting to be trailed. My own analysis was published online in January. In the US, the analytical dissection of the Bernie Sanders movement is well under way.

No doubt everyone who was even tangentially involved in the Corbyn and Sanders projects has their own account of what went wrong; and why it wouldn’t have gone wrong, if only they had been listened to. My account of Corbynism was certainly relentless in this regard.

But at moments like these, it’s important not to blame events that are shaped by broad forces on details of history. Of course, it matters if the people running a campaign are good at their jobs. Of course, it matters if a candidate is charismatic, and has the ‘common touch’. Of course, no historical outcome is ever entirely pre-determined. Of course, to a certain extent, anything could happen, and anything could have.

But the profound similarities between the trajectories of the Corbyn and Sanders movements, and the similar situations that their failure has given rise to, suggest that something broader is going on.

For example, many of us on the UK Left were frustrated by Corbyn’s inability to match Sanders’ rhetoric. It seems likely that the establishment had to stop Sanders before he got the Democratic nomination rather than after, because if he’d got it, it would have been too late: he would have won. But stop him they did, just as they stopped Corbyn. Which suggests that whatever tactical mistakes their teams did or didn’t make, there were bigger things going on that made their tasks almost impossible.

On either side of the Atlantic, a remarkably similar situation now faces the democratic left. In each case, between 2015 and 2020, a mass movement was mobilised behind the leadership of a previously obscure politician who had been a young adult in the 1960s. In each case, the core of the movement was made up of disillusioned millennial graduates. Both movements met with apparently terminal defeat between December 2019 and April 2020.

The forces ranged against these movements were almost identical: an entrenched centrist political class on the one hand, an upsurge of Right-wing nativism on the other.

This combination of forces ultimately made it impossible for either movement to build a broad enough coalition to win. In each context, the politics of race and class are central to the dynamics of the situation. And for both the British and American Lefts, a bizarre and unrepresentative electoral system only makes their task much more difficult at every stage.

Transatlantic Defeat

In the UK, Dawn Butler, a Black, female Left-leaning Labour MP – was recently stopped and questioned by the London Metropolitan Police. While the police have claimed this incident was entirely the result of human error, the fact is that being randomly stopped and questioned by police is a daily fact of life for Black Londoners. Butler herself certainly didn’t believe that the episode was an innocent random mistake.

Twenty-fours hours later, Labour leader Keir Starmer had yet to comment on the incident, to the astonishment of members on the party’s Left. Rightly or wrongly, this was widely interpreted as a snub to the Corbynite wing of the party, and to Black voters and party members. This followed on from the treatment of another Corbynite Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, just weeks earlier: fired from the shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with her constituent, the actress Maxine Peake, that contained one line of anti-Israel propaganda. It also followed Starmer’s clumsy attempts to row back from an apparent public dismissal of the Black Lives Matter movement a few weeks earlier.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the first Black woman was nominated as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate. But this was not perceived as any kind of victory by Left-wing Democrats: instead, the selection of Kamala Harris was understood as a final defeat for the Bernie Sanders movement. Like Joe Biden, Harris is not seen as being on the Left of the party or of American public opinion. She was associated with a highly punitive judiciary regime during her tenure as Attorney General for California, and generally advocates for a policy agenda that is continuous with the Clintons and Obama.

This all follows directly from the Democratic platform committee having rejected the signature policy of the pro-Sanders movement – ‘medicare for all’ just a couple of weeks earlier – despite Biden’s promise to include Sanders and some of his advisers in developing his programme for this November’s election. For those of us in the UK, this all feels very familiar.

Firstly, the established professional political class, and the interests that it represents (primarily, finance capital and Big Tech) have successfully defended their institutional privileges against a democratic assault.

They have done so mainly by convincing a layer of affluent, middle-aged professionals that the Left ultimately represents a threat to their most cherished social values: meritocratic, individualistic, cosmopolitan liberalism. In the US, this perceived threat has mainly taken the form of a repeated insistence (against absolutely all psephological evidence) that a Sanders candidacy would inevitably lose to Trump, thereby extending the life of his cartoonishly villainous regime. This same threat was used to convince older Black Democratic voters in the South that the defence of centrist liberalism was the only alternative to a perpetuation of Trumpian white supremacism. In the UK, the same effect was achieved by convincing a small but strategically crucial section of middle-class voters that Jeremy Corbyn was an advocate for Brexit and an antisemite, and that voters should instead lend support to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens (or abstain).

Secondly, again in each case, a nationalist, and increasingly irrationalist, populism on the Right has attracted enough support from some of the social constituencies who we might have hoped would unite around a radical social democratic agenda to make it impossible for that programme to win a majority. In the UK this was the constituency which voted for Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’. In the US, Trump’s economic nationalism and nativist populism mobilised lots of his base.

His failure to deliver on any of his promises (either to build a wall on the Mexican border or to bring jobs back to the rust belt) has undermined much of his credibility with that section, which is partly why increasingly deranged conspiracy theories are circulating among his die-hard supporters. There isn’t much reason left to vote for Trump, if you didn’t benefit from his tax cuts, or don’t believe he’s engaged in a secret war with the ‘deep state’.

The Biden Plan

Trump didn’t win in 2016 because of any significant surge in support for White supremacy or the Republicans, but because millions of Democrat-leaning voters would not vote for Hillary Clinton. It’s these people that Biden must excite.

At the same time, if he is to overcome Trump’s resources and his own limitations, he will need money from the financial and business interests that traditionally bankroll Democratic campaigns. Harris’ nomination is as much about securing their support as enthusing Black and women voters. Presumably this will free Biden somewhat to woo those older, white, mainly working-class voters who were attracted to Trump by his economic populism but often expressed enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.

We don’t know if the campaign will feel much need to appeal to the young urban Left that was Sanders’ core base. In many places, that constituency faces exactly the same problem as its British counterpart: it tends to be concentrated in urban areas in ‘blue’ states where there is little doubt about the electoral outcome, however they vote. Much like the UK system, the electoral college discounts everyone except swing voters in swing states. But the presence of both urban and rural areas in most states means that in those which do swing, the enthusiasm of young urban voters is as important as anyone’s in influencing national outcomes.

Biden himself, in his rare moments of lucidity, sometimes gives the impression of being a figure that we really haven’t seen before in either country: a fully paid-up member of the neoliberal political class who actually realises that the historical moment has changed, demanding a radical divergence from the policy norms of the past quarter-century (Macron, perhaps, could also be characterised in these terms). There’s no reason why a cynical and pragmatic politician couldn’t draw that conclusion for themselves without any ideological conversion, and it’s a remarkable testimony to the power of ideology that so few seem to have done so, in the face of the obvious historical reality on either side of the Atlantic.

As if to illustrate that power, the one minute’s speaking time accorded to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez at the Democratic National Convention this year – compared with the 4+ minutes accorded to Republican former Governor of Ohio, John Kasich – suggests that the party establishment itself is still stuck in exactly the same mindset that lost them the 2016 election: chasing the ‘moderate Republican’ vote that so dramatically failed to materialise in that year.

It’s hard to say how real this constituency is. A significant tendency of recent American Left commentary has been to assume that it isn’t. From this perspective, the ritual evocation of a ‘moderate Republican’ constituency can best be understood as an expression of class solidarity amongst members of the professional and managerial elite. To say ‘moderate Republicans’ exist and declare them natural allies is, in effect, to argue for a unity and ideological coherence among members of the suburban upper-middle class that would transcend mere partisan identification. But it was always doomed to fail as an electoral strategy.

But while there was little evidence of this constituency coming out to vote for Clinton in 2016, recent research by Matt Karp suggests that affluent suburban ex-Republicans have in fact swarmed into the Democratic selectorate in key districts over the past four years, playing a decisive role in denying the nomination to Sanders. Solidarity works, it would seem. Karp’s important article also demonstrates the extent to which the hostility of Democratic party officials to the Sanders movements played a key role in blocking the possibility of his nomination campaign achieving its goals. Once again, the parallels between the UK and US situations is more than striking. One of the most contentious issues inside the Labour Party this year has been a leaked internal report demonstrating the extent to which powerful networks of party officials were actively hostile to any prospect of a Labour victory under Corbyn in 2017. Not that this should have come as any surprise. Anyone who had been active in the Labour Party for any length of time prior to 2015 knew that the Right-wing of the party was deeply embedded in its bureaucratic structures and power-networks, while remaining ruthlessly contemptuous of any kind of socialist politics, and any idea of respect for party democracy.

This all leaves socialists in a difficult position, as lots of anguished commentary has acknowledged. The strategic question is: how best, and how far, can the Left leverage its limited but significant popularity and organisational capacity, in order to put genuine pressure on a Biden presidency (and the congressional Democrats)? By loyally campaigning for him, or refusing to do so? By contesting primaries or running independent socialist candidates? By organising in communities and workplaces only? By returning to the dream of an American Labor Party? It’s hard to see any of the answers being proffered as definitive. If anything, radicals need to organise in ways that keep all of these options open.

Labour’s Strategy

Despite the gulf between the radical Left and Kamala Harris, it’s notable that the convergence of pressure from Black Lives Matter and the expectations of a self-consciously cosmopolitan professional class created a situation in which Biden had to nominate a woman of colour. The Labour leadership is subject to very similar pressures, but the professional class in the UK has different priorities, having little sustained interest in the problem of anti-Black racism. Starmer’s treatment of Butler and Long-Bailey has led to charges of seeming to recognise a ‘hierarchy of racisms’: prioritising zero-tolerance for antisemitism (which appears to include much criticism of Israel) over any serious political critique of anti-Black (or anti-Traveller) racism.

This understanding of the situation is contested. Starmer’s supporters insist he was wise to avoid commenting on Dawn Butler’s case and alienating socially authoritarian older voters; while Long-Bailey breached the party’s ‘zero-tolerance’ policy on antisemitism. Few on the Left are convinced. Starmer’s apparent reluctance to endorse Black Lives Matter earlier this summer lingers.

I don’t think Starmer is a racist, or entirely indifferent to the institutionalised anti-Black racism in the UK. But there seems little doubt that his statements on all of these issues are being calibrated according to a specific political strategy, responding to the specific issues raised by Labour’s defeat in December. That strategy seems, understandably enough, to be focussed on winning back the two key sets of voters Labour lost between 2017 and 2019.

I’ve already mentioned the first such constituency: middle-class centrists, who were put off Labour by relentless portrayal of Corbyn as somehow contravening cosmopolitan liberal values, with his supposed tacit endorsements for Brexit and for antisemitism. These are mostly middle class, middle-aged ‘generation X’ voters who, since the 1990s, have largely been protected from most of the things that other sets of voters have become very angry about. They haven’t suffered the sense of cultural displacement and political disempowerment experienced by older voters everywhere, and by all age groups in the post-industrial regions. They haven’t experienced the frustration and permanent economic insecurity that has become the norm for so many millennials. Consequently, they don’t understand why the golden age of Blairism ever had to end, and they blame everyone except Blair and themselves for the fact that it did.

For them, the 2008 crisis and its aftermath was largely something that happened to other people: primarily because historically low interest rates ensured that the majority of them who are homeowners never experienced much interruption in their perpetual capacity to consume. In the US, their equivalent cohort are highly likely to have voted in Democratic primaries, and highly unlikely to have voted for Bernie Sanders.

Back in the UK, Corbyn and his supporters always made these people uncomfortable, with their old-fashioned language of ‘socialism’ and apparent insistence that things weren’t going great for many people. So these middle-aged voters have been only too happy to be told that the reason the Corbynites irritated them wasn’t because the things they said were true, but because they were racists and xenophobes.

Starmer already has huge credibility with this cohort, being, in effect, their ideal image of a professional politician, and being closely associated with Labour’s most aggressively pro-Remain wing . But to retain their support, he must signal strongly that he endorses the narrative according to which Corbyn’s Labour was institutionally antisemitic: which became the key story this constituency used to justify to themselves their alienation from Corbyn and his supporters.

But while the loss of these centrist votes was numerically significant in December 2019, it didn’t decide the result. The UK, it can never be forgotten, has an absurdly unrepresentative electoral system. First-past-the-post, combined with the fact that younger, non-White and more highly educated voters all tend to be more concentrated in urban centres, results in a situation whereby a tiny number of swing voters in marginal constituencies determine every election. Those voters are disproportionately suburban and middle-aged. There are very clear parallels with the US electoral college.

There is a widespread assumption among party members that Starmer calibrates every single public statement, intervention and policy announcement entirely to pander to the perceived prejudices of this group. This may or may not be true. What is true is that his head of policy, Claire Ainsley, published a book a couple of years ago called The New Working Class. Despite its title, this really isn’t an attempt at a sociological analysis of the identity or class composition of contemporary workers. It is a precise and careful analysis of recent data on social attitudes, particularly as that data appears to tell us something about the opinions, prejudices and preferences of low-income voters, and specifically with reference to what policies a political party might offer that would directly reflect those preferences and prejudices.

The book makes an honest and serious argument that by offering such policies, a party would actually be helping to restore trust in democracy, by giving the people what they actually want. Of course, at no point does the book address the question of why people – especially older people with little education and a high level of trust in the print media – might want what they want. It’s not that kind of book.

In fact this is very close to the justifications given by early New Labour ideologues for their reliance on focus-groups and opinion polls to make policy. This was notably the attitude of Blair’s strategist Philip Gould, himself an acolyte of Bill Clinton’s strategy team. But in the 1990s, the voters that Labour were chasing were quite different: they were southern, aspirational, and upwardly-mobile (although ironically they belonged to more-or-less the same generation as many of the northern voters that Starmer is chasing now). Ainsley’s method may be entirely New Labour, but her conclusions are decidedly ‘Blue Labour’: arguing for a policy agenda that is partially redistributive, but also authoritarian and socially-conservative, taking an entirely instrumental attitude to education and a relatively punitive approach to welfare.

If these are to be the major coordinates of the Starmer project, then he and his advisors can hardly be blamed. This is, after all, the most rational response to the realities of Labour’s electoral situation. Any such course is likely to provoke a mass defection of the younger voters and supporters who flocked to Corbyn’s Labour after 2015 (as well as a significant portion of Ainsley’s ‘new working class: those ‘emerging service workers’ that Ainsley and her sources all identify as having very different attitudes to the rest of that putative social grouping).

Unfortunately, under First Past the Post, this hardly matters at all: most of those voters live in urban constituencies where Labour already enjoys enormous majorities. At least, that is very likely to be the calculation made by Starmer and his team. Whether that assumption survives the next couple of years – which are very likely to see significant increases in support for the Greens and the Liberal Democrats amidst growing panic about climate change amongst the younger middle classes – we will have to see. The fact that Scotland is already a lost cause for Labour, and will probably leave the UK within the foreseeable future, doesn’t seem to figure in Starmer’s calculations one way or another.

The problem with such an approach, even if it proves to be electorally viable, is that it will not address any of the fundamental social problems facing the country or the world. Let’s take the problem exemplified by Dawn Butler’s harassment by the police.

What possible solution can be imagined to institutionalised racism that would avoid challenging the prejudices and assumptions of both of these key constituencies to whom Starmer is apparently orienting his project? The whole point of the Black Lives Matter movement is to highlight a precise set of issues that both the liberal ideology of the ‘centrist dads’ and the social conservatism of Ainsley’s ‘new working class’ simply cannot allow themselves even to perceive clearly: never mind propose realistic solutions to them.

It’s worth considering these two ideologies and the different ways in which they cannot admit to any serious analysis of structural racism. It’s also worth noting that the two exist in quite different institutional spaces, although between them, the institutions in question cover almost the entirety of the mainstream media, both in the US and in the UK.

On the one hand, the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism to which middle-class centrist voters remain so attached is still the default common-sense of the managerial class in both countries, including senior managers of public institutions, large and medium-sized businesses, and most broadcast media professionals. On the other hand, all evidence suggests that the world-view of older voters with low-education is heavily shaped by the power of the tabloid press and its ideological allies online in the UK; by the media constellation organised around Fox News in the US. On either side of the Atlantic, both of these sets of institutions, and the ideologies that they propagate, remain major obstacles for any project that would seek to actually address the fundamental social questions raised by the fight against structural racism (or against rampant economic inequality, or against climate catastrophe). Let’s think about the limits of liberal anti-racism first.

An Age of Progress?

Anglo-American liberalism likes to tell itself a story. According to that story, the years since the 1950s have encompassed a great era of progress. Despite the inconvenient intercession of events like the Iraq war, or conservative attempts to suppress LGBTQ equality, the past few decades are generally seen in a positive light: a steady march from the darkness of post-war social conformity, into the light of a diverse and tolerant twenty-first century culture.

None of this is simply untrue. Many people now inhabit societies that tolerate a diversity of lifestyles, beliefs, identities and customs that has no historic precedent in the history of human civilisation. For some of us, opportunities for self-expression and self-fulfilment have expanded almost beyond the most utopian dreams of earlier generations. But these opportunities have not been widely shared. In fact they have been denied to growing numbers of the poorest people, with ever-more appalling flagrancy, as the institutions of post-war social-democracy have retreated.

That is why the greatest uprising against racial injustice of recent times has come just three and a half years after the first Black President of the USA left office. The same history that made possible the emergence and consolidation of a Black middle class, that made a Black head of state seem possible in America, did nothing to weaken the tendency for municipal police forces to treat Black communities like subjugated people under military occupation. In fact that history only made the situation worse.

Several things are simultaneously true. Today, if you have a degree and a professional salary, then your chances of being held back because of your gender, your sexual orientation or the colour of your skin have never been lower. That doesn’t mean you won’t be held back at all, or that you won’t continue to suffer indignity and harassment in many quarters. At the same time, if you don’t enjoy those economic advantages, then the freedoms apparently granted to you by this brave new liberal world are of very little use: and this is more true every year, as inequality intensifies, as real wages stagnate, as the power of unions and local urban communities continues its 40-year decline.

The twentieth-century labour movement and the institutions of the welfare state were notoriously racist and misogynistic, at their worst. But they also afforded a degree of basic economic protection for the poorest workers that has been systematically stripped away since the 1970s. For poor white workers, especially straight men, the decline in the value accorded to their cultural status as straight white men has coincided with a decline in their economic and political power. In some, this provokes intense resentment of an increasingly cosmopolitan political elite that drives support for a far-Right agenda.

The Nationalist Right

It’s these resentments that push so many voters – alienated from the culture of the cosmopolitan elite – into the arms of the nationalist Right. In the UK as in the US, the second most powerful section of the mass media after the neoliberal technocrats who still control the BBC and other major broadcasters – is committed to a clear ideology of authoritarian nationalism. In fact this has been the case since the early 1970s, and throughout that time has posed a major strategic dilemma that the labour movement and its allies has simply failed to address. It’s crucial to note here that the real core of support for that nationalist Right in both countries is not ‘the white working class’: it is, in fact, as it has always been, the classic ‘petit-bourgeoisie’: affluent, ageing property-owners, employers in long-established economic sectors, landlords and senior private-sector managers. But when it is confined to that social base, the nationalist Right never gets anywhere and never causes problems for anybody. The problems arise when they manage to recruit enough of the working class to their cause to leave any potential progressive or socialist coalition too weak to succeed. The mechanisms by which they achieve this are not hard to identify.

In the UK, notably, an influential section of the English press remains committed to an extremely Right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist/imperialist politics. This isn’t a new situation, and has obtained to some degree for as long as there has been a British popular press. But this tendency was at its weakest in the 40s, 50s and 60s when the Sun (launched in 1964) was Labour, the Daily Mirror the most popular paper in the world and even the communist Daily Worker enjoyed mass circulation. It’s no accident that this was Labour’s period of greatest political success. Similarly in the US, the extent and reach of the Right-wing media ecology has never been greater than it is today, and nor has the willingness of Right-wing spokespeople to disseminate narratives without the slightest connection to objective reality.

Nationalist authoritarianism has always played a powerful role in popular politics. Philosophers from Plato to Hobbes to Freud, not to mention many contemporary theorists of ‘populism’, have seen the desire of crowds to follow leaders while excluding foreigners as direct expressions of the most basic psychic impulses informing all social life. Indeed, at a philosophical level, one of the key objectives of radical, democratic and socialist theory has always been to show that this is not the only basis upon which social life can be organised: that people in large numbers can also express tendencies towards solidarity, egalitarianism and a genuine love of shared freedom.

Perhaps because it is, ultimately, the expression of inchoate and malleable emotional forces, nationalism can become attached to various political projects and tendencies. Its most extreme manifestation may have been in the murderous modernity of mid-twentieth century fascism, but the New Right of Thatcher and Reagan also managed to convince xenophobes and nationalists that they were on their side, willing to endorse racist and militarist projects as long as they also got to sell off public utilities and slash taxes for the rich. So the discourse of nationalist authoritarianism has proven remarkably flexible over the years, being used to justify everything from imperialist war to the destruction of the British coal industry. But the purpose that conservative nationalism always serves is to provide alternative explanations for historical events to those that would inform a progressive response: blaming unemployment on immigration; blaming union unrest on unpatriotic militant workers; blaming crime on the supposed moral degeneracy of ethnic minorities.

In the UK, the most recent and powerful iteration of this narrative was the Right-wing argument for Brexit. The Brexit story offers a compelling and plausible account of almost all of the cultural, social, political and economic changes of recent decades that many UK citizens have cause to regret, while promising an easy remedy to them. The weakening of our democratic institutions, the collapse of manufacturing industry and the consequent loss of secure employment in many places, the changing cultural composition of our cities and other communities: all could be laid at the door of EU membership. Of course a few of the people who voted Leave did so out of a hard-headed Left-wing understanding of the EU as an institution committed to the implementation of neoliberalism. Of course almost everyone who took such a view was a committed supporter of lifelong anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn. But absolutely every relevant survey suggests that the proportion of leavers who were motivated by this view, free from any nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ or restoring cultural purity, was statistically negligible. A certain section of the American Left loves the idea that Brexit was in fact a vote against neoliberal policy rather than the reactionary form taken by dismay at some of its effect. The truth is, for most of its supporters and opponents, a vote for or against Brexit was the precise symbolic equivalent of a vote for or against Trump’s border wall.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

90 comments

  1. km

    The Left isn’t mean enough.

    Compare how Blairites more or less openly worked to ensure that Corbyn lost and lost big, while Sanders and his ilk lick the hands that cheated them and beg their supporters to settle for whatever crumbs Biden chooses to toss.

    Sorry for the metaphors.

    Reply
    1. John A

      Agreed. When Corbyn was elected, he sought to appease the Blairites and include them. Contrast establishment blue eyed boy Starmer, who immediately purged the Corbynites. Now the left of the Labour party is being told that they must support Starmer if Labour are ever to get elected. The Blairites were never told to be loyal, they plotted non-stop against Corbyn and cheered and were mightily relieved when he just failed to win th election in 2017.

      Reply
      1. Mel

        I’m really coming to believe it: When people who believe in concentrating power fight against people who believe in distributing power, the concentraters will overpower the distributers.

        Reply
    2. hunkerdown

      Nailed it. Politics is about creating enemies. For one, every single leftist elected to an office needs to end the careers of the liberal members of their staffs, as the very first order of business. These are the purges, writ small, that Ian Welsh puts forth as a rule for a highly effective left.

      Reply
    3. Ignacio

      I am not sure that some kind of, to say it in a wildly exaggerated way, Stalinism is exactly what the Left needs (if you allow me indulging in such liberal translation of your ‘mean’). As I read the article what I find lacking in the Labour is and expanded base that does not forget the rural areas and small towns where many are totally unable to connect with the classical approaches of Socialist Parties. No large factories, or factories/farms which are employing illegal migrants with no right to vote, and lots of ‘deplorables’ with not a future in sight, at least nothing encouraging, except may be enjoying an excellent beer in the sleaziest pub in some forgotten Yorkshire municipality or a suburb near Baltimore. I think these would not have problems being mean to blairites and the like. The difficulty would be conciliating the defence of social rights such as in BLM or LGBTI and the rights of women for at least equal salaries with the views and the rights of people that too feel their needs are forgotten and might see those collectives as competitors for jobs and the remains of social welfare.

      Reply
      1. a different chris

        Ugh I had the same thought but came up with Castro. Sigh.

        I don’t think human nature, red in tooth and for the masses bank account, can behave well enough to do anything different.

        Reply
      2. km

        That is a false dichotomy. There are choices besides Stalinism and limp accommodationism.

        The centrists play to win. Leftists have no choice but either to do likewise, or to start liking it when they are used and abused.

        So what exactly do you propose?

        Reply
        1. Ludus57

          Just a slight modification.
          Centrists do play to win, but for their own interests. In the Labour Party, the centrists tend overwhelmingly to be careerists who, whether in opposition or government, draw good pay. To rock the boat means no sinecures that good upholders of the Establishment can reasonably expect, when their electoral life gives way to retirement.

          Reply
      3. fwe'zy

        Stalinism quickly brought a huge landmass of utterly destitute peasants into modernity – the space age, to be honest! – paying a heavy price but hard to say, compared with Victorian industrialization and of course the Triangle Trade.

        Work and society already /are/ changing overnight, only not in the direction many of us like. Amazon and other scammionaires. Trouble is, their greed (sorry, scammionnaire angst is just not as big a problem for me as hunger in a land of hyperplenty) is so efficient that it has dragged us to this unthinkable crossroads of #Hellfire2020.

        I think the masses are perfectly capable of knowing what we do and don’t want. I don’t think we are in a fair contest with savvy, cynical, high stakes beakwetters and West Wing pro manipulators with high stakes clientele and infrastructure.

        Reply
      4. Annus Horribilis

        Between 1917 and 1953 — the “Stalinshchina” — Stalin orchestrated the deaths of 20 million people. For comparison, one million children died in the Holocaust. In 1933 alone, three million Ukrainian children died in Stalin’s terror-famine. Collectivization accounts for 11 million dead. In 1937, when the census-takers counted 163 million souls, Stalin had the entire census board arrested and shot. Stalin rounded up the figure to 170 million, shaving off 7 million murders. Stalin murdered the family of his closest advisors. Stalin did give Lazar Kaganovich a chance to telephone his brother, Mikhail, ahead of his arrest so that Mikhail could shoot himself. Both Kagonvich’s were good Bolsheviks since 1905. [Read Robert Conquest’s “Harvest of Sorrow”.] Stalin crippled the entire Homo Sapiens species. Give the far-left in America a Stalin for breakfast, and the left will be in lime pits before Ellen DeGeneres comes on.

        So why can’t Corbyn and Sanders gain any traction? Because their misspent youth seems so foolish now. Piety is unattractive, piety to a fatuous mythology, doubly so. Devoted to a myth, not to science. Karl Marx couldn’t be bothered to include the law of diminishing marginal utility in his psychodrama, Das Kapital. Marx could not integrate this, by 1867, well-understood phenomenon into his work. Marginal utility indefinitely postponed volumes II and III. Engels just ignored it. Marx did give license to generations of bandits in leather jackets, revolvers tucked into belts, to call themselves professional revolutionaries, answering every question with a corpse.

        Reply
        1. Fireship

          I think it’s cool so that an awesome intellect like Glenn Beck posts Here. Sir, I await your next post with bated breath.

          Reply
            1. hunkerdown

              Only losers engage with the enemy on the enemy’s terms. They want you to engage with their bullshit; it gives them power. Debunking the obviously false arguments of neolibcons is a waste of time that could be spent attacking their project, their aims, and their careers. THey’re liars, they know it, and when you look them deep in the eyes and propose that lying to others should be a capital crime, they get nervous. Their fear is delicious.

              The game of the “marketplace of ideas” is revealed around p21-22: https://www.ineteconomics.org/uploads/papers/Mirowski-Hell-is-Truth-Seen-Too-Late.pdf

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        2. berit

          Annus Horribilis The Brits were pretty effective killing millions in the Far East conquering, plundering and governing India by the privately owned East India Company, expanding war, trade and colonial power to China, Australia, America and Africa. Tens of millions died of war and hunger. Just business.

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      5. tempestteacup

        Ironically, many of those closest to Corbyn came more or less directly from a Stalinist background in the CPGB or the left-wing trade union milieu (Seumas Milne, Andrew Fisher etc.)

        It is important to be precise about the meaning of terms. Stalinism here really refers to 2 things, both of which were embodied in Corbyn’s disastrous leadership of the LP and go a long way to helping us understand what went wrong:

        1) excessive faith in and dependence on established bureaucracies whether in the party, or trade unions, or the broader British left. Thus the overweening policy-influence of long-term Stalinists like Milne or perennial figures on the Labour left like Jon Lansman. And thus, also, the way that Corbyn so frequently was seen to lead from behind on key issues of party democracy or even, in other instances, to totally abandon the concerns/travails of actual party members.

        2) a pronounced tendency to solve complex socio-economic problems by retreating into the comfort zone of nation-state socialism. This is, of course, the absolute bedrock of Stalinism since the man himself first dipped his hands in the blood of his unfortunate (and often brilliant) adversaries. Despite the occasional contribution of genuinely bright economic and social thinkers to the rejuvenated LP under Corbyn, too often he and those close to him cleaved to the security of lightweight socialist bromides from the middle of the 20th century. And in the 21st century, that was always going to create as many problems – both practical and theoretical – as they appeared to solve. It is in this context that we can dissect the terrible condition he got himself in over Brexit and immigration.

        None of which, incidentally, is to say that Corbyn didn’t face the concerted efforts of the entire British media (including the increasingly execrable Guardian) or the vastly overrepresented Labour right in parliament. But his institutional loyalty left him more conciliatory to a few hundred enemies with seats in the houses of parliament than he was to the several hundred thousand members who had mobilised to elect him twice. His stalinist advisers preferred the backroom fix to the conference-led programme of change. He retreated on Israel, NATO, a viable Brexit plan, the purge of the party left, mandatory selection of MPs, Trident, Russia, and all the rest. He effectively demobilised his own support through a combination of pusillanimity and political poverty.

        But back to Stalinism. What it means, to me and also I think historically, is economic nationalism combined with cultivation of and dependence on a more or less permanent bureaucracy or party cadres to ‘represent’ the will of members/the people. Corbyn and his advisers unfortunately embodied both.

        Sanders is, of course, different. He talks a lot about Eugene Debs but in reality he is little better than a poor man’s William Jennings Bryan – the latest in a long, long line of national American politicians whose popularity depends on precisely the mass current of discontent and despair they work so hard to misdirect, confound and ultimately bury.

        Reply
        1. Ersf

          “permanent bureaucracy or party cadres”.

          Youre mixing your anti communist tropes. “Civil service has taken over the USSR” and “Communist totalitarians are ruling the USSR” are two separate and contradictory narratives. Just count the percent of the communist party jailed or executed in 1936-7 and then tell me more about ” cultivation amd dependence”. As for “economic nationalist” – the country was blockaded from the world economy and especially capital markets, there was no second option besides more military expeditions.

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    4. Carolinian

      The left isn’t brave enough. Sanders stumped for a revolution while still clinging to his ties to the Ancien Regime. Corbyn, by the accounts I’ve read, failed to stand up and call foul against the antisemitism smears which were largely based on a made up definition of antisemitism (i.e. criticism of Israel and its policies is antisemitic). No guts no glory and you aren’t going to win over voters with timidity. FDR “welcomed their hatred.” Our current US left is obsessed with Safe Spaces.

      If “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” then our current lefty politicians have way too much at stake to be brave and mean. They just want to be liked.

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      1. John Wright

        Sanders didn’t even go with the actuary tables that could have pushed him to the nomination. By dropping out early, if Biden were removed for health reasons prior to the election, Sanders was not in the “on deck” position.

        He made it even more difficult for the next leftist to follow in his footsteps as he raised $108 million and then fell in behind “my friend” Joe Biden.

        One can wonder what “Safe Space” was sold to Bernie.

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        1. The Rev Kev

          What happens if next year Bernie announces that he is running for the Presidency in 2024? You think that Charlie Brown would be ready to try to kick Lucy’s football again?

          Reply
          1. km

            How old will Sanders be in 2024?

            If Biden wins, will Sanders run against the incumbent?

            Bernie ain’t the one you’re looking for.

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          2. Acacia

            Sanders has amply demonstrated that he hasn’t got what it takes to go up against the party machine, and that’s the charitable reading of what happened.

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    5. Matthew G. Saroff

      The first thing that Tony Blur did when he took over Labour was to purge everyone from staff who wasn’t 100% with him.

      Corbyn should have done the same.

      Reply
  2. Edward Downie

    However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.
    George Washington
    https://www.azquotes.com/author/15324-George_Washington/tag/political-parties

    Reply
  3. polecat

    Yeah. ‘Georger’s Curse’
    He was right, and here we are!
    Oh, the irony of the students of the day, tearing down statues and canceling the very one’s, who in THEIR day, made a successful attempt at forming a somewhat equitable writ of laws, helping along the creation of a new ‘sovereigny’

    Are we at the creative destruction phase of our society, or just the destruction part?

    The difference then, being that they were a smaller population, had a what seemed a ‘workable’ constitution .. and lots of resources to begin their journey … whilst now, we have the inverse, ending OUR’S!

    Reply
  4. Clive

    I can’t speak for the US situation vis-a-vis Trump, but for the British popularism left, this article (and a slew of others like it) is thoroughly disheartening.

    Open Democracy — they’re not alone, far from it, unfortunately — keeps churning out this kind of thing apparently by the yard. It’s all a variation on a theme. Which is, Open Democracy saying to the working class: “u r doin’ it wrong”.

    What the working class is doing wrong — you can almost sense the frustrating bubbling in the author at the working class’ persistent and apparently incurable obstinacy here — is repeatedly failing to appreciate the apparently obvious wisdom of internationalism. Hankering, as the working class in the UK is lamentably prone to doing in its unenlightened “reactionary” (to use the author’s word) way to be allowed to indulge in “nationalist fantasies of ‘recovering sovereignty’ ” is the problem. As is being seemingly caught in the car headlights, rabbit like, by “extremely Right-wing, authoritarian and nationalist/imperialist politics” spread by that age-old bogeyman for of-the-left types, the media.

    The same-old same-old from Open Democracy, then: always denying the working class agency. And then wondering why the left abandons the left (or, maybe more specifically and accurately, the of-the-left)

    I’m not sure how anyone is to get through to the author and their ilk that the problem isn’t the voters somehow misunderstanding their situation or applying the wrong solutions to it. The problem (and I’m sorry to single them out, they’re not especially uniquely culpable but they are the prose which has been put in front of us) is Open Democracy and their many imitators with their incessant wagging of their fingers and sighing at the awful mess the working class is, supposedly, making of everything.

    Reply
    1. a different chris

      Did this bug you a bit? Or is it true?

      >while promising an easy remedy

      I never got the impression that the voters, Trumpites or Leave, were (except for the most fringe idiots) thinking everything would just return to Eisenhower America in a month or so.

      Heck, Trump’s strung them out for 4 years now and they still believe. Yes he’s blamed the same people they thought were in charge but they seem to understand that things wouldn’t change overnight.

      But it’s easier to look down on your opponents than to actually engage with them, I guess.

      Reply
      1. Clive

        Yes, it did bug me and no, I don’t think it’s true, the piece contained more straw men than I’ve seen since the last Worzel Gummidge look-a-like competition, so I had to concentrate on the main niggles. Of-the-left Remain supporters telling Brexit Leave voters why they voted the way they did, what they thought, what they assumed, what they believed or didn’t believe and so forth — is problematic at the best of times when told by people who didn’t, themselves, vote Leave.

        For of-the left agitators like Open Democracy to be telling those same voters in a disparaging way not only what they are supposed to have thought but also dissing them for thinking it and then expecting them to still vote for left parties seems a tad (choosing my words carefully) not particularly self-aware.

        The left has one purpose: to represent the working class. If you start not representing what the working class wants but, rather, move to a position where you are “educating”, “explaining”, “helping”, “influencing”, “advising”, “correcting” or even just plain-old bossing around the working class and telling them what they should be doing (or thinking, or believing), you are not the left. You are of-the-left. The working class understands its problems all-too-well and has a fairly good idea of what the solutions are as it perceives them to be. If you don’t, personally, like the solutions the working class are advancing, then that’s fine. Certainly in the UK, there’s plenty of other political groupings you can align to.

        But just don’t expect, having abandoned the working class, for it to follow you around nodding-dog-like, ideologically-speaking. Or vote for you.

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        1. Left in Wisconsin

          The left has one purpose: to represent the working class

          I completely agree with this meta-claim but, sadly, on the two biggest issues of the present/future, it is not clear what practical policies would best do so. On climate, it seems obvious to me that some version of a Green New Deal is appropriate policy yet this is hugely divisive within the working class. Similarly, on nationalism/internationalism, the internationalists refuse to admit that the working class has only ever been politically organized nationally and that pro-immigration and pro-globalization policies are anathema to large sections of the working class (for good reason) while the nationalists refuse to admit that their ostensible business allies/interlocutors have completely abandoned them such that there is no longer a national economy for “XXX-first”ers to reinvigorate.

          I fear we are in a Gramscian interregnum (the past refusing to die, the future unable to be born) for quite some time.

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        2. Jabbawocky

          Can this be true when the working class vote for the Right? Is whether an idea is Left or Right defined by the class of those that had the idea? Bold assertions.

          That said I broadly agree with your sentiment, whilst being curious about what the solutions you refer actually are that the working class are supposedly proposing.

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          1. Clive

            In simple terms, if the left wing party or parties abandon the working class, the working class may see no reason why they shouldn’t vote for the right wing party or parties.

            Depending on how bad the of-the-left has become and how much damage it has inflicted on the left-leaning party or parties (and see some of Open Democracy’s output for just how bad it can become), voting for the right may well end up being the working class’s least-worst option.

            Reply
            1. No it was not, apparently

              No, that’s not it at all, sorry, Clive.

              It’s parts of the upper (“middle”) class non-woke left that refuse to put up with them and have have bailed (sometimes to the right – to the liberals, greens, etc.,).

              The actual lower class mostly no longer vote, they can neither make any sense of the “culture-left” woke messaging, nor can they detect any policy promise that would be of actual use to them.

              Hence half of the population no longer votes.

              The left could have had a massive super-majority had they subdued the liberals and culture-leftists to material-economy leftism (i.e. actual socialism).

              But then, socialism is, as always, beyond the pale, especially for the neo-liberal “new” left.

              Reply
        3. drumlin woodchuckles

          I have for some time thought we could speak of two lefts . . . . a Political-Economy ( PE) left versus a Coalition Of Wokeness ( COW) left. Sanders sought to represent the tattered remnants and remains of the PE left as well as see if PE leftism might attract non-left working-class-income-level people. Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, the college Social Justice Warriors, the inventors of the White Privilege and White Fragility concepts represent and/or compose the COW left.

          Could the PE left be somewhat analogous to Clive’s ” THE left”? Could the COW left be somewhat analogous to Clive’s ” of-the-left”?

          Of course, any once and future PE lefts are weakened and disabled by government suppression. In our own day, the early OWS movement might have become a modern-day PE left. The Obama Administration suppressed it to make sure it wouldn’t.

          Whereas the COW left gets all kinds of support and assistance. Including from clever academic intellectuals who invent new words and dare you not to use them. Latinx is one such loyalty-obedience test word. Any left which demands that people who work for a living confess to the Original Sin of Original Racism if they decline to refer to Latinos as ” Latinxes”
          is a left which will repel and disgust many “working class” people.

          Reply
      2. Starry Gordon

        Trump’s adherents will stick to him because most of the American electorate (and the general population) is politically tribal rather than ideological or rational, and they see Trump as one of their own. To me, this seems like the natural result of identity politics, The Democrats have carefully walked themselves off the plank.

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        1. Adam1

          That’s because Trump is offering them what they think they need. The liberals just keep telling them what they need and it doesn’t deliver. It’s about making peoples lives better and delivering; not fake promises decade in and decade out. Even if it’s scraps and rotten meat, Trumps delivering something.

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          1. fwe'zy

            If Eviction Moratorium and $1200 are rotting meat …
            All I know is, the 2008 foreclosure mess didn’t just ruin those upstarts who got 2 extra income properties before they were ready. There were also a lot of working class families with children, who lost their homes.

            To what end? So those homes could be swept up and made into income properties? Many are left vacant, as NC commenters have told us, because market forces demand that. Meanwhile, the evicted families are shifted to public support in shelters etc. By the way, the Eviction Moratorium has led to a slowdown in shelters’ intakes and there are even some isolated vacancies.

            Evictions are central to the homelessness crisis. Honestly, small landlords are not really off the hook, despite my reluctance to blame reg’lar folk. The whole table needs flipping.

            Reply
        2. polecat

          James Kunstler, on his latest blog post this mo(u)rning, pretty much laid out the current, and upcoming DemolitionCrat Modus operandi vr. ‘craycray’ …. Check it out.

          I think he’s spot on!

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        3. Misplaced Platitudes

          Ona recent drive through the Minnesota rural areas, I noticed a disturbing tendency for Trump signs. Weighed against a similar number of Biden signs, this might not be so concerning. The ratio was 10-1 or more. The farm vote is not enamored of NeoLiberalism. They recognize they are screwed regardless, but will not abide the DNC even in a geriatric Grandpa with pervy tendencies toward children.

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          1. km

            You must have visited a hippie commune or something.

            In my recent trip through rural MN two weeks ago, it was way more than 10-1 for Trump.

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    2. Carolinian

      Thanks. I recall you saying that the real working class beef with Corbyn was that he wouldn’t just make up his mind about Brexit. Similarly Sanders simply couldn’t seem to bring himself to take on the Democratic party and all its corruption–which is the real problem many of us feel.

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    3. David

      Yes, it read a bit like a stream-of-consciousness monologue by someone who was trying to get his head around an issue he couldn’t quite understand, and I got bored towards the end. He completely fails to understand what the Brexit “leave” vote was actually about, and seems obsessed with the treatment of one Labour MP by the police. (MPs are part of the elite, you can’t have the police stopping them – that’s only for ordinary people).
      There’s no mystery to this. The Left (not Clinton, Blair etc etc etc) will win when it wants to win, when it is prepared to get nasty and kick the Right in the goolies, and not before. Until then, frankly, leave out the Brechtian attempt to sack the work class and replace it with another, and stop wasting my time, pundits of this sort.

      Reply
      1. km

        “The Left (not Clinton, Blair etc etc etc) will win when it wants to win, when it is prepared to get nasty and kick the Right in the goolies, and not before.”

        Yea, verily. The Left needs to start by kicking centrist third-way types right in the goolies, hard and often. If that means that the Right will win some elections along the way, so be it.

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        1. sierra7

          I can’t see and haven’t seen any semblance of any “left” in the US. No historical memory of how a true “leftist” movement worked and died “on the bricks” for decades to build the middle class. There is too much affluence still even in the lowest economic parts of the country. Too much social support. The true “left” only emerges when all other options are used up. When most of the general population is destitute and almost ready for any demagogue. The labor movement has been co-opted by the objectives of the MIC especially since its involvement in the WW2 business in Europe when the communists especially in Italy refused to unload US military supply ships. It then teamed with the newly born CIA and entered into agreements to help destroy foreign labor organizations in many parts of the world. The labor International assisted in the crushing of organized labor here in the US and other parts of the world. This is all well documented. There are “militant” union locals across this country but the national leadership is made up of outright political cowards. Where are the John L. Lewisis? The Reuther brothers?????
          It’s all about having a seat at the international table and the left has no place there.
          Until more suffer from economic chaos, most support monies are cut off, the homeless become the new middle class there will be no “left” here in America.
          We have no understanding of what a “left” movement is.

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      2. Eric Patton

        The Left (not Clinton, Blair etc etc etc) will win when it wants to win

        I completely agree with this. I would add, however, this also explains (and this is the point Jimmy Dore has made repeatedly) why Bernie lost: Obama’s “Night of Long Knives” had nothing to do with it. Bernie simply did not want to win. Therefore, he should never have run in the first place. (And he certainly should not have bilked poor and working-class people out of literally hundreds of millions of dollars selling them false promises — a literally unforgivable act.)

        The same logic applies to the current great source of left-wing vapors: AOC (who has done nothing but support Pelosi her entire brief time in office).

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      3. No it was not, apparently

        “The Left (not Clinton, Blair etc etc etc) will win when it wants to win”

        And I completely disagree.

        For starters, Clinton, Blair, and the rest of “New Left” have won, because they had support of the capital owning classes and their minions in the various industries (not just the media) and in the government institutions where extreme right was massively employed in the Raygun-Thatcha regime.

        Outside of the west, the victories came from international support of the right-wing regimes, coupled with the lack of any international socialists system that would enable a socialist government to actually proceed with left wing policies without being instantly punished by “market” forces.

        This last effect is also how all Warsaw Pact and Non-aligned countries ended up in Western alliances – it was the only way not to find ourselves (partially, and where it hurt) excluded from international trade, without the Soviet union to provide the backbone of an alternative economic system, liberalism/capitalism/fascism was the only way to go.

        So, to understand what must be done, we need to walk the list of powers/abilities a sovereign system (that lefties would like to construct, or so they claim,) must have.

        The actual left, has to – in order to make meaningful changes – gain control in the following sectors simultaneously:

        – Real Power: military/police units or alternative organisations must be available to provide protection to left org hierarchy, members and project operations.

        Upper classes will immediately use violence when they realise propaganda has failed, since their assets happen to be international, they can commit to nearly unlimited violence and damage; a competent left-wing combat force can prevent much of the violence, spare key personnel from death and prevent facility and infrastructure destruction.

        – Power of Production: any operational plan will instantly be met with capital strike, if the left relies on private (i.e. right-wing) production capability it will just find itself in a lock.bind with no progress being made for the duration of the mandate.

        Existing State capabilities in countries with prolong neo-liberal regime induced deformations and personnel may also be of no use.

        Actual left may need to commit to a complete economic system overhaul, and be fully prepared for it before taking power.

        – Power of Imagination: Private media serve exclusively upper class (i.e. hard-right) interests, even when they appear to be promulgating left ideology.

        To mobilize the lower classes and the class traitors from above and successfully coordinate their activities, the left must have a completely separate media system and they must fight tooth and nail to keep people in it and away from right-wing propaganda.

        Remembers, upper classes succeed even if they just manage to waste time (and thus energy) of the workers with nonsense, even if said nonsense cannot convince anyone of anything (hollywood mostly does this, also sports, etc.,).

        – Power of Legitimacy: This last element, is a ritualistic sub-system (or, if you will, an effect) of the Power of Imagination, it mostly comes after, not simultaneously with the first three powers; its role is to provide psychological structure of “proper-ness” to the population and the ability to state elites to self protect from foreign media attacks.

        Elections (with the right, nay, left guys winning) are part of this, notice how they come last and they are least important.

        I hope the readership can come to an understanding why electoral drama cannot change anything – it, by and of itself, is just a post victory ritual.

        Reply
  5. Roquentin

    This was a really good analysis of the political situation in both countries, even if I don’t have much more than a surface level understanding of UK politics. The core argument, that Sanders and Corbyn (and more bleakly, any similar politician) couldn’t succeed because there were vast and powerful structural forces working together to make it impossible is spot on. I don’t know where it leaves movement towards social democracy in the US or the UK, but it certainly doesn’t look good.

    There’s that famous old Walter Benjamin quote that “Behind every fascism lies a failed revolution.” I think that applies directly to our current situation. Urban PMC neoliberals may have defeated Sanders and Corbyn within the Democratic and Labor parties respectively, but it was a Faustian bargain which produces the exact sort of environment nationalist demagogues thrive in. When I look at the current leadership of the Democratic party and the demographics which support them, what I mostly see is an increasingly desperate elite, willing to do whatever it takes to maintain the frail grip they have on what little power they have left. They bang the drum so hard on gender and race issues in a transparently superficial and cynical way because that’s about the only decent card they have left to play in their hands. They want to sell people on the idea our society is still some kind of meritocracy, that people are rich because they deserve it, and making it seem that anyone can win in that economy…someone of any race, sexual orientation, or gender furthers that ideology.

    The political moment right now is the bleakest and darkest I’ve ever experienced. It’s worse than Bush getting re-elected in 2004.

    Reply
  6. PlutoniumKun

    Sadly, in the past few months I’ve come to the conclusion that in pretty much all the developed world, the genuine progressive left seems to top out at around one third of the electorate. Only in very specific situations has it been able to get power, and then usually only by its fingernails, and usually helped by a self-immolation of one form or another of the traditional right wing. I don’t think this will get better as the climate and economy gets worse – all evidence suggests that the far right will drain off sufficient support from the working and petite bourgeous classes to stop the left.

    As the writer suggests, it would seem that the only hope for genuine change, especially in the US/UK, and maybe other countries too, is an FDR figure. A mainstream politician who sees sense, and realises that deep change is in everyones interest, including the upper middle classes, and maybe even the billionaire class too, who may be too mired in their own little bubbles to see the nooses hanging from the streetlamps. There are some signs of this in various forms in other countires – Moon in South Korea, for example, seems to be pushing through policies and reforms significantly more radical than his soft centre left party was elected on. Even the CDP in Germany seems to be increasingly open to more radical policies and is less and less patient with the old style austerians in charge in countries like Austria and the Netherlands. The traditionally right wing parties in Ireland have notably stopped talking about austerity and cut backs and are increasingly keen (out of necessity) in direct economic and social measures.

    Its possible Starmer falls into this category, although my suspicion is that even if he is, the inner circles of Labour would stop him. Biden certainly isn’t, although a younger and more cognatively alert version of him could have been. Impossible to believe that Harris would ever have a change of heart.

    Reply
    1. Adam1

      At least in the US too many progressives/left people just assume they should be voting/supporting liberal politicians when a “true” progressive isn’t on the ballot. And then they wonder why we can’t elect progressives. I’ve lived all over Upstate NY. Rural areas and urban areas and most everyone is fairly conservative socially and mostly working class or of working class background. It’s no surprise that nearly every county Bernie Sanders won in 2016 primary also went to Trump in 2016. The working class people in most of the region (rural and urban) are desperate for relief – scraps or meaningful. Liberal / identity politics doesn’t put food on the table or money in your pocket for most people so there should be no surprise where the votes go. The left HAS to abandon the CORRUPT liberal elite (including mega unions; the tops of most unions are as full of corrupt individuals as most political machine groups) if it is going to win anything beyond niche markets. As it is progressive are just the saps the keep liberals in the running for power. Why did FDR get elected? Because the alternative was some unknown who’d give the people what they needed/wanted. It was the liberals/elite who willingly bit their tongues, but today progressives keep biting their tongues because of crazies like Bush and Trump vs. Clintons and Biden’s. And then they wonder why they can’t get the change they want and why working class people won’t vote for their second choice picks like Biden.

      Reply
      1. Starry Gordon

        There is a kind of contradiction in the heart of Left electoral politics which may help explain its poor outcomes. One of the cardinal principles of the Left is equality, but electoral politics on the scale where it is practiced (in the US, at least) is a contest for power, domination, and, often, material payoffs, all of which are antagonistic to equality. Hence the calls for the Left to become ‘tough’ or ‘nasty’, that is, to practice the politics of domination, because that is what ‘works’ in the sense of succeeding in the limited domains where it is exercised — even as it destroys the goals to which it was supposed to be directed. One might want to consider revolution from below, since revolution and even progress from on high does not seem to get very far.

        Reply
        1. Left in Wisconsin

          I don’t think the problem is equality. Every working class person knows that working class power is an essential prerequisite to any semblance of equality. The problem is merit. The PMC left is wedded to a worldview in which rewards are determined by merit, and the politics of merit is not a politics of power. To be clear, the PMC is well-acquainted with power in its sh1tty and trivial forms – backstabbing at the office, undermining economic leftists within the DP, etc. But they don’t have a politics of power, because merit is ostensibly an alternative to power.

          Reply
    2. vlade

      The problem I have seen again and again (and you can see it in comments on this post too) is the attitude: “We’re right, so they should be voting for us”. That’s the attitude that lost the brexit vote, got Johnson elected etc. etc.

      Even if you are right (and, you know, you might not be), it doesn’t mean the rest of the population _has to_ be on the same team, or be stupid.

      The right, from 70s onwards figure out that with a right propaganda they can get turkeys voting for Christmas, and has been using it ever since. The left, on the other hand, is still mostly in the mode I described above. For example, there’s still hatred of Blair.

      Yep, he run Bush’s poodle with Iraq’s war. But he also introduced national minimum wage, substantially increased benefits, halved child powerty, got GFA etc. etc. As far as Labour government went, if he didn’t have the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war, he would have been a pretty damn good.

      Is Blair a sleaze box? Sure he is. But he was still way better than we got ever since, and for a long time before.

      If I was to sum the main difference between left and right – the Right wants power. The Left wants to be right (with a lowercase r).

      No-one will really persuade me that Corbyn wanted to be the PM, to exercise all the power of the government. Sanders has been an exception in this, he did want power, and knew what he would do with it. And he did try to persuade. But overturning the 50 years of turkeys-for-Xmas PR in four years would be a minor miracle – and he actually came much closer than I expected.

      Reply
      1. PlutoniumKun

        This is where, I think, it gets complicated. I do believe that the left has been its own worse enemy at times in applying purity tests which preclude ever becoming a general mass movement. The left has always succeeded historically when its sunk its ideological differences and focused on uniting workers (not just blue collar workers, all salaried workers) along with students and the dispossessed – at least to some degree.

        And yes, the focus should always be on getting power. Far too many leftists prefer to virtue signal from the sidelines rather than actually do whats needed to take the reigns. The right – whether mainstream centre right or far right – have always understood that the first priority of politics is to get into power, everything else flows from that. If that means sacrificing some long desired policies, then so be it.

        But in specific countries – particularly in the US, you have a problem that the ‘left’ structures are so infested with people who are by any reasonable definition right wing, that even winning power is not enough. The Third Way (or whatever you want to call them) are so entrenched that they will take two steps backwards for every one step forward. I agree that its easy to overlook the genuine progress that was made in some areas under Blair (and even under the Clintons in the US) – but it can’t also be ignored that Blairites, not Conservatives, planted and/or tended many of the rotting seeds that are now blooming under the Tories – particularly marketisation and over centralisation right through the public sector in the UK and the over-financialising of the economy.

        So I honestly don’t know the answer to this. I used to wonder why on earth leftists stayed with the Democrats in the US, but (thanks to NC) I’ve quickly come to see how the system is gamed to make third parties unviable. It’s similar, if not quite as bad, in the UK. In most of Europe of course, better electoral systems means that a sizeable Green/Left movement can genuinely act as a counterforce, even if it can’t win power entirely. Here in Ireland the Green Party has worked its way into government – it will probably take a lot of the blame for problems caused by the right, but at least they can make some difference.

        So all I can conclude really is that you have to be pragmatic according to the cards that are dealt. In the US that means trying hard to pull the Democrats left. In the UK that means prising the control of the right over the levers within the Labour party seems to be the key (of course, we should note that Corbyn tried, and failed). Thats why I think the least-worst option for the anglo sphere is for leftists to feint right when necessary for the sake of power, and actually implement left policies when they get there. This is what you see now in countries like South Korea and Taiwan where ‘soft’ left parties are actually getting things done on the ground in the face of fierce establishment resistance. But in both those cases they have been aided by circumstances – in both cases establishment right parties that overstepped the mark and destroyed themselves electorally.

        Reply
        1. Bruno

          what’s all this nonsense about “power?” state power, for any progressive, let alone radical, purpose, has never been gained, cannot ever be gained, in an “election,” under established rules where the capitalist state has not been overthrown, not even one that puts a progressive like Blum or Bevin or Allende or Palme or Lula or Chavez into governmental office. Huey Long would have won election as president in 1936, JFK in 1964, either Martin King or Bobby Kennedy in 1968, and we all know what became of them. To hold power even for a few years Lenin and Trotsky had to dissolve an elected constituent assembly!

          Reply
  7. harry

    I thought it a useful piece which made a number if excellent observations.

    I don’t have much to add, other than i took a particular fierce dislike of being accused of antisemitism by those on the Labour right who didn’t like my views. I am unlikely to forgive and forget and i will never vote for a Blue Labour candidate. Not now. Not ever.

    I am more likely to shiv them in a prison shower.

    Reply
  8. Yik Wong

    Isn’t anyone going to point out this writer and his associated platforms are all funded by George Soros organizations?

    Reply
      1. Clive

        Oh, for goodness’s sakes, it’s on Wikipedia (which, while it is the cesspit of lies, it’s pretty robustly footnote’ed):

        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDemocracy

        openDemocracy is owned and published through a non-profit foundation. It has been funded by a number of philanthropic organisations, including George Soros’ Open Society Initiative for Europe, the Mott Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Ford Foundation, David and Elaine Potter Foundation, Lush, Andrew Wainwright Trust and the Network for Social Change.

        But, to Yik, as drumlin woodchuckles (try typing that at this hour in the morning) rightly said above, “so what?”. This comment was written by some twit in England who thinks tea and cake should be regularly given free to anyone who needs it, it would be a great boon to human endeavour and end a lot of suffering, in my opinion. Call round to my house and I provide it, unbidden, to all and sundry. That is just my worldview and I’m entitled to proffer it. If you don’t like it, don’t eat my cake and don’t drink my tea. But that counterpoint says nothing about the quality, or otherwise, of my tea and home baking.

        I can — and at the drop of a hat, do — take issue with Open Democracy for, well, their dislike of democracy. But that’s a substance issue and I have to make that point based on what Open Democracy publish and the arguments they raise. Just because the people who make Quality Street Christmas chocolate selection tins (amongst other funders) paid for the publication doesn’t mean I’m spared from that responsibly to make my case out with credibility.

        Reply
  9. Watt4Bob

    One must remember that during almost the entire period for which the American liberals want credit for making ‘progress’, the white working class was first stagnating, then falling behind, and that has lasted decades.

    Even though that ‘progress’ was slight, slow, and mostly around the edges, the American liberal establishment has long sold its base on the illusion that it was hard-fought, and a real accomplishment, for which it is due loyalty and thanks.

    In a sad and ironic way, it is the white working class who believes most strongly in the myth of ‘progress‘ as concerns racism, sexism, gender, and immigration. And what they believe, is that while their lives grow ever harder, stagnant wages and job off-shoring, for example, the ‘liberals‘ have been ‘working hard‘ for the benefit of everyone accept them.

    So, as the traditional base of the democratic party has been divided up into various special interest silos whose leadership enjoys nice offices and the ability to afford nice homes and automobiles, but whose rank and file don’t get much more than lip-service, the white working-class, believing the ‘liberal, PMC’s‘ hype, come to the conclusion that not only are they left behind, but that they’re being replaced.

    I want everyone to understand clearly, that the democrats, aka ‘Liberals‘, haven’t really helped anyone other than themselves for at least 40 years, you might say as little as possible, and that both national parties have, over time, done mostly the bidding of the rich, who have no interest in the needs of the working-class, be they white, black, brown, male, female, or LGBT.

    America has become an oligarchy, and as such, exhibit the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and it’s this systemic self-defense behavior that accounts for the defenestration of both Sanders and Corbyn.

    Neither of the traditional party’s bases, fully understand that they’ve been duped, and Trump isn’t treating the white working-class portion of his base any better than the rest of the republican party.

    I have a hard time even imagining a scale upon which we might measure progress toward working-class solidarity, but that is what is necessary.

    And considering that we’ve now started shooting each other, it seems more and more improbable.

    Reply
    1. DJG

      + + + Agreed. Thanks, Watt4Bob

      I think that the article (and it may be that it’s simply too English-centric) made as assumption that progress for LGBTfolk or women is coming at the expense of others, which is then the source of the resentments running rampant in the U. S. of A. The problem is that these so-called cultural issues are distractions in U.S. politics–everyone knows that, which is why so many young people made wickedly funny comments about Mayor Pete, who is an Eisenhower Republican who happens to have his own husband.

      It is possible for us to have one big idea: Class. It is possible for us as Americans to recognize that race is often a proxy for class and a source of divisions within classes. I think that most Americans get that–you wouldn’t have Tammy Baldwin as senator from Wisconsin if oh-so-flyover-land were truly worried about the progress of LGBT politics.

      Reply
  10. Sound of the Suburbs

    Liberals were perplexed by the rise of nationalism and populism.
    Some extremely bright liberals decided to go and talk to some people lower down the scale to see what the problem was.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1siwk4TauwM&t=355s
    Normally they just discuss it amongst themselves and can’t work out what the problem is.

    This talking to people lower down the scale approach revealed all sorts of things.
    The full integration of Eastern Europe into the EU allowed firms in Western Europe to take full advantage of cheap East European labour.
    Wages began to stagnate in Western Europe and things started to get worse for the average person in Western Europe.
    They grew more disenchanted with the EU.

    What was the main problem?
    They found that western liberalism wasn’t delivering the goods to ordinary people.
    Their lives seemed to be getting worse rather than better.

    Reply
    1. tanktruman

      When I was a boy, growing up in Appalachian America my uneducated father was talking to friends, Republicans, all. Re the Democrats; ” Adalai Stephenson was the smartest man to run for President Repubican or Democrat. People don’t vote for you cause you’re smart, that vote for you cause they don’t like the sonofabitch you’re running against” In the new age they vote for the best entertainer.

      Reply
      1. Sound of the Suburbs

        They don’t really have any good policies to vote for.
        What else is there?

        I have always voted in the UK before, but a choice between Kier Starmer and Boris is a non starter.
        Who else is there?

        It’s strange actually.
        In my mis-spent youth I used to spend a lot of time in a local public bar, which was predominantly working class. To a man, and they were nearly all men in the public bar, they all voted Conservative.
        They all thought the left would be after their money and they would be better off with the right. This is what the UK media does tell them.
        The only left leaning people in there were from a more lower, middle class background, like myself, and we were a small minority.

        Reply
      2. John Anthony La Pietra

        And it was Stevenson who supposedly answered a supporter’s claim that “All thinking people will vote for you” by saying, “That’s not enough, madam, I need a majority.”

        Reply
  11. George Phillies

    “But the presence of both urban and rural areas in most states means that in those which do swing, the enthusiasm of young urban voters is as important as anyone’s in influencing national outcomes. ”

    Readers who believe this sentence are encouraged to read Sean Trende’s detailed analysis from 2017. Clinton in total did not carry cities with under one million people, let alone towns and rural areas. You can read it in five parts at

    PART ONE realclearpolitics $$DOT$$ com/articles/2017/01/16/how_trump_won_the_south_132796.html

    PART FIVE realclearpolitics $$DOT$$ com/articles/2017/01/20/how_trump_won_–_conclusions_132846.html

    You have to re-edit $$DOT$$ to a dot to avoid the local superb spam defenses, for which NakedCapitalism is much to be complimented.

    Reply
  12. Sound of the Suburbs

    I am probably one of the statistically negligible minority.
    I used to think the EU provided a left wing balance for a naturally right wing UK.
    After 2008, the EU revealed itself in the way it treated countries at the periphery, meeting out harsh austerity and forcing expensive taxpayer bailouts.
    I voted leave; I didn’t like what I saw.

    Reply
  13. Trisha

    Having engaged in political and non-profit “leftist” campaigns in the U.S. (CA and OR) for 20+ years, it is clear me to why little is ever accomplished, as progressives:

    > fundamentally resist organization and hierarchy
    > dislike money and have little clue either as to how to raise or spend it
    > have a million ideas and “identities” but lack focus, or are too narrowly focused
    > are infiltrated by dysfunctional folks with plenty of time of their hands and disruptive agendas
    > have trouble sustaining action over strategic time periods
    > can’t consistently accomplish productive work

    It’s my observation that conservatives generally get these things right, and so accomplish their agendas, while progressives flounder endlessly.

    Reply
    1. Left in Wisconsin

      That is my experience also. But I think it all originates from a worldview that (erroneously) doesn’t see working-class power as an essential prerequisite to everything else it would like to accomplish.

      I have known a fair number of right-wing activists. Most of them aren’t very smart or politically talented. What the right has that the left doesn’t is a very clear understanding of the program, which drives all the activity – the politics, the fake research, the judicial strategy, the lawsuits. The “left” is a disorganized mess.

      To fwe’zy: From what I can see, unlike the “left” the right infrastructure has a (paid) spot for virtually every modestly talented rightwing young person, of which there aren’t all that many. But the paid left is as bad or worse than the volunteer left – completely co-opted by funders, brutal internal hierarchies, endless bullsh1t of a somewhat different sort but no more productive of real social change.

      Reply
      1. fwe'zy

        The paid “left” is horrible. They are the ones who love to use volunteer labor to hog the money/ credit for themselves, as well as to maintain plausible deniability when the volunteer “business model” inevitably collapses. It’s a very squalid scene.

        Reply
        1. Trisha

          I’m a paid staffer of a progressive political party responsible for operations like database management, fundraising, website tech support and security, etc. I can’t think of any progressive organization in my area – Eugene Oregon – that has more than one (and several have none) paid staff, at or below minimum wage.

          That said, at the top of the food chain of massive progressive 501C3 organizations like the Sierra Club, 350.org, ACLU, etc, are directors and staff who get paid fairly serious $. But locally we’re at the bottom of the food chain.

          Reply
      2. hunkerdown

        Wealth is inherently right-wing due to the endowment effect. “I’m going to use my power to degrade power itself” is a good way to find CP on one’s computer. Just ask Paul Krugman.

        If theirs is simple, ours needs to be simpler: every master is the enemy, and every taboo that enables the master class needs to be broken. That includes woke, btw.

        Reply
    2. km

      A lot of the problem is aesthetics.

      Many progressives love Humanity but have little use for people; they love The Workers but don’t like working class people, especially once they find out that those working class sorts are frequently fat, love Jesus and have bad taste.

      Far more pleasant to retreat into a world of one’s own kind, where one is free to engage in enlightened discourse about how many LGTBQXZYPDQ can dance on the head of a pin or whatever it is that the overeducated do in their leisure time.

      Another problem is responsibility. Getting power and wielding that power means that you have to make tough choices, set priorities, cut deals with people you don’t necessarily want to associate with, build coalitions and deliver real world results.

      Reply
  14. CuriosityConcern

    I enjoyed this analysis and think it’s mostly accurate. My little nitpick pertains to the Sanders axis. My belief, and it might be lingering hero worship, is that Sanders saw how Biden was willing to feed primary voters into the gaping maw of COVID and he backed off on his fight. Don’t get me wrong, I think N.o.t.L.K. gave him a wounding, and the 5:1 gang up before that wounded him, but i think he still had a chance until COVID. I think he couldn’t countenance getting his supporters to the polls in the face of an unknown pandemic and he abdicated the fight deliberately.

    Reply
  15. Red

    I blame the voters. In the USA it’s not a hard choice between Sanders and biden. Voters chose to display their ignorance and stupidity. In the UK voters chose to go with their feudal finance masters. Sometimes we gotta blame the voters.

    Reply
  16. eg

    What part does the very large number of non-voters play in this dynamic?

    Aren’t they reliably themselves mostly lower class?

    If so, how can they be motivated/mobilized to vote?

    Reply
    1. Kurt Sperry

      If so, how can they be motivated/mobilized to vote?

      Simple: concrete material benefits, or in the lexicon of the reactionary right, “free stuff”. Less highfalutin’ talk; more action.

      Reply
      1. km

        Echo that, 100%. And drop the IdPol and stop talking down to lower class voters like the high school valedictorian on his way to Antioch, lecturing the kid who is mostly taking auto shop classes or the girl in home ec.

        Reply

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