Building a Corbyn majority: interview with Richard Seymour

My podcast interview with Richard Seymour on the roots and prospects of Corbynism appeared in Jacobin last week.

While the United Kingdom has been reeling from political crisis to political crisis in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Jeremy Corbyn has never looked stronger. He showed his principles in apologizing for a war he opposed from the very beginning, he has consistently made an argument for an anti-austerity, antiracist politics that can fight for all sections of the working class, and he so far appears to have survived a coup attempton his leadership.

In fact, Jeremy Corbyn, a survivor of “lifeboat socialism,” now finds himself at the helm of what is likely Europe’s largest social-democratic party. Several hundred thousand new members have joined Labour in the past two weeks, largely to support Corbyn against the on-again, off-again coup effort led by a powerful faction centered within Labour’s parliamentary caucus. Yet despite these efforts, Corbyn is one of the few party leaders left standing after the referendum.

I recently sat down with Richard Seymour to talk about his new book, Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics. Situating the acute short-term crisis, he provides both a background to the Corbyn phenomenon and looks at its long-term chances of success.

Michal Rozworski: I’ve been meaning to interview you about your new book on Jeremy Corbyn for a while and in the meantime, a lot has happened. Before we get to the latest news, quickly lay out the main argument of your book. How do you see the Corbyn phenomenon, and its chances for success?

Richard Seymour: Okay, well the question that the book starts out with is: how can it be that the Labour Party has, for the first time in its history, a radical socialist leader, when it has never had that before, even when the Left has been in a much stronger position.

Right now, the Left is historically weak. The labor movement is historically weak. Strike rates are at an all-time low and union density falls year by year. The membership of left-wing organizations has been falling for decades. The evidence for dramatically increased left-wing militancy is nil.

Yet Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership by attracting hundreds of thousands of new members to the Labour Party, both full members and supporters, by attracting the support of all the major union leaders, or at least most of them, by getting just enough nominations from the parliamentary party, and by attracting a raft of celebrity support.

When I talk about celebrity support, I’m not talking about the types of people who turn up at left-wing events. I’m talking about Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter, people like that. It’s quite a strange range of people.

Basically, there was a unique kind of moment: a feeling that Labour had not done the job against the Conservatives, and it needed to do something radical and different.

Broadly speaking, New Labour was the first attempt to remedy this crisis from the right, by changing the cultural and political habits of Labourism, by becoming more market-oriented, more business-minded, more media-savvy.

It shifted Labour very sharply to the center, even to the center-right. That was the first attempt to resolve Labour’s crisis. The result of it was, briefly, a reconstitution of the Labour vote, but actually a much deeper rot in the long term.

By the time we get to 2010, Labour has lost five million largely working-class votes. At this point, Ed Miliband is elected leader. He’s someone from the soft left, someone who the Blairites despise because they thought it was their turn. They thought that after the deviation of Gordon Brown, they were going to get the leadership again, and Miliband talks about regaining those working-class voters.

Miliband’s leadership ends up beholden to the party’s right wing to a great deal. That means that while he does reconstitute some of the Labour Party’s vote in England, and Wales, he, for example, loses a huge amount of the vote in Scotland due to the collaboration with the Conservatives in the Scottish independence referendum.

There’s no distinctively Labour position, no “critical together” position, deepening social democracy, and all the rest of it. Labour undercuts their own support, and they dramatically lose Scotland in the 2015 election. By 2015, all parts of the Labour Party are fed up; by now, they have tried everything.

This was a unique situation, but you have to contextualize it in a broader decline of parliamentary democracy, because for years now, we’ve been seeing political participation going down. Electoral turnout going down. Party membership going down. Party identification going down.

And concomitantly, at the same time, the leading actors within the dominant political parties retreating into the state, becoming more and more dependent on the state and its patronage and privileges for their power rather than on their representative functions — on winning votes.

Essentially, there’s this growing disconnect between the mass of the population and the organization of the state, its representative functions, and relatedly, the media, in its function as the representation of representation. That is, the media brings us a picture of what we, condensed within Parliament, are supposed to look like.

It tells us what the arguments are about our public life and policies, and the values that dominate our public life. We’re supposed to recognize ourselves in that reflection. More and more people, however, don’t.

Corbyn intelligently exploited these crises in politics and in representation. His campaign used social media very intelligently to tap into people’s distrust of the mainstream media, so that when the mainstream media went on the attack against Jeremy Corbyn, when they said, “Oh, he’s an old radical. He’s always been on the protest. He’s always been on the picket lines,” they were able to turn it into a positive.

They produced memes, showing that, in fact, yes, Jeremy Corbyn is an old radical, he has indeed been on the picket lines. Look, here he is at the anti-apartheid demonstration; here he is on a strike picket line. They were able to make a virtue out of that. And if the press made some stuff up about him, both official and unofficial social media accounts would contest it.

When you look at the vote for the Labour Party leadership, 57 percent of those who voted depended on social media for their news. It’s not the Britain of today, but that is the Britain of the future.

Corbyn’s team intelligently exploited a series of problems and crises in order to project influence way above and beyond the actual social depth, cohesion, and organization of the radical left.

What you describe is a decades-long crisis, and now we have a very acute political crisis in the United Kingdom after the Brexit referendum and the vote to leave. Will Corbyn be as adept in exploiting this dual crisis, meaning both the crisis in the United Kingdom and the crisis within the Labour Party?

First of all, I think it’s important to say that the Left had very little input into either the outcome or character of the Brexit referendum and the crisis around it. In principle, you could argue for what some people called a “left Brexit,” but that was otherworldly, because the Left wasn’t anywhere in this debate.

It didn’t run either of the campaigns. It wasn’t leading the argument. Nobody heard the arguments for a left exit. The overwhelming argument was, “let’s get the immigrants out, let’s pull up the drawbridge.” It was a very nationalist, parochial, and racist campaign.

In terms of its economic aspiration, you have to come up with some sort of alternative to Europe if you are going to grow British capitalism. Half of the trade of the UK economy is with Europe, so what are you going to do? The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the hard right of the Conservative Party, both have an answer to this.

They say, let’s crawl into bed with the United States. If we could, we would join NAFTA. If we could, we’d become the fifty-first state. But let’s, as a first step, get into TTIP and form those connections, and maybe form some client relationships with the former colonies, today’s Commonwealth countries. That’s not a solution that the Left wants to support.

Obviously, the Left is in a very difficult position. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticized since the outcome for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about Europe and therefore undermining the referendum campaign to remain.

If you remember, his position was a critical Remain. It was Remain, but reform. The European Union is flawed: it’s a free-market club and it’s not sufficiently democratic, but we want to stay in to preserve the basic rights that we got and to preserve freedom of movement for labor. These are good things.

The thing about this is that Corbyn was elected on that agenda. He told people that was his position when he stood for the leadership of the Labour Party. But there’s always been a sullen, truculent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, probably about four-fifths, about the same number that gave him a no-confidence vote recently, who have been trying to make life difficult for him from the start.

A few weeks before the referendum, I was talking to Labour Party activists up in Middlesbrough. They knew that this coup was coming. They weren’t the first to mention it, but they were the ones who had the most detailed analysis. They knew a coup was coming, no matter what the referendum result was.

I said, “Surely not. That would be mad.” They don’t have a sufficient argument against him; it’s premature. There isn’t a crisis of his leadership. He’s not been doing too badly. But they were right!

The coup, however, has been premature. The plotters don’t have a strategy. They haven’t got a candidate they agree on. They don’t have any policies they’re agreed on. The only thing they’re agreed on is they want to get Corbyn out. They’ve used this argument about Brexit, about Corbyn not being sastifactorily pro-Remain, to justify the coup.

In essence, though, this too is contradictory, because they claimed that Corbyn will not allow them to make critical comments about immigration. If you’re for EU membership, and if you want to say you’re euphoric about the European Union, you cannot come out against immigration, because the whole point of the European Union, or at least one of its major points, is that it is a block in which there is a free movement of capital and a free movement of labor.

You can’t be anti-immigration if you’re in favor of the European Union. The only way you can do it is to be rhetorically anti-immigration, and what that does is it fuels the far right, because it pushes their obsessions and concerns up the agenda. It legitimizes them without doing anything about them. Obviously, that’s contradictory.

Their case against Corbyn doesn’t add up, but that’s essentially what they want. They want to try to woo working-class voters by being a bit more racist. They think that’s what will win them over. Obviously, it hasn’t worked before, they’ve tried it for years. Ed Miliband tried it, the Blairites tried it.

It’s never worked before, because people know when they’re being patronized, and people know when they’re being lied to, and people don’t like it. What they prefer is the real Armani. So if they want racism, they can go to UKIP or they can go to the Tories. They don’t need the Labour Party to offer them that agenda.

Jeremy Corbyn has done the best he could with a very, very weak hand. Like I say, he was propelled to power without there being a very strong left wing surrounding the party, or surrounding him. He’s done the best he could. He’s been surrounded by a belligerent opposition from the start.

He’s now in a situation where the best he can do is to reason it out. To essentially say to the coup plotters, “If you want to get me out, stand somebody. Find a candidate, agree on an agenda, and stand against me, because you’re not going to win.”

That may be complacent, because they might actually find a way to win. They might cause sufficient demoralization and despair among rank-and-file members, and among sections of the soft left, which is already beginning to happen to some extent.

They might do that, but at the moment, all the signs are that they don’t want to stand against him because they’re frightened they’re going to lose, and that’s why they’re in the papers every day, begging him to do the right thing for the party and stand down. As if they might not do the right thing for party and shut the fuck up.

It really seems like a lot of what the coup plotters have done has sort of fizzled. Do you see Corbyn at the head of the Labour Party in six months?

It kind of depends on how successful Project Despair is. Project Despair is basically, keep it stringing out, keep the chaos to the maximum, and ensure that Labour Party members begin to despair.

They know it’s unfair, they know Corbyn’s doing his best, but they just decide it’s not working and it can’t work. “What are we supposed to do? We better get somebody else instead, some sort of compromise candidate.” That only has to affect maybe 10 percent of the party membership for it to tilt the balance. It’s not impossible that they could oust him, but at the moment, they are looking pretty clueless.

They are vacillating between claiming that they’re going to stand someone against him, claiming that they don’t have to stand someone against him because they can keep him off the ballot, claiming that actually he just wants to resign and his mean old staff are preventing him from doing so, but they’re going to get him to resign.

They’re all over the place at the moment. At the moment, I’m slightly inclined to think that he’ll stick it out, and if he does, the Left will come out of it much stronger.

The other possibility, one you mention in your book as well, is a decomposition of the political scene. At some point during this hectic week, it’s seemed like there might be moves towards a split inside Labour. Could you talk a bit about how this fits in with what’s happening on the continent and the political crisis there? Is there an instability to the two-party system, that’s been around for a century? Would a Corbynite Labour accelerate a process towards smaller parties that draw on smaller constituencies or is there a chance for Corbyn to actually “de-Pasokify” Labour, and keep it as a sizable force on the Left?

One of the reasons why Britain doesn’t have a radical left party like an equivalent to Syriza, or Podemos, or Die Linke, or any of these organizations, is the electoral system, which doesn’t favor smaller parties and makes it very difficult. A deeper reason, however, is a structural reason.

It’s a historical and contextual reason. The British left and the labor movement underwent a far more traumatizing and deep-going series of defeats in the 1980s than any other left wing and any other labor movement on the European continent.

It was comprehensive: whether it was municipal socialism, the Greater London Council, the militant councils, or the militant labor movement. Every quarter of leftist strength and every quarter of labor potency was smashed to pieces by the Thatcher administration. The result was the most right-wing leadership in social democracy anywhere in the world, led by Tony Blair.

At the start, that leadership had some attractive qualities for younger people who were sick to death of the cultural habits and the political habits of the old hard left. You can understand that, but the thing about it is that it also lowered expectations to a very considerable extent, such that by the time Labour got back into office, there was no space for any kind of crisis of expectations.

The main lines of policies were set, so that even when Tony Blairdisappointed people by adopting the agenda of his opponents, like Private Finance Initiatives, marketization of the public sector, bashing welfare even, there’s no disappointment. Or there is disappointment, but no real crisis of expectations, because people knew that he was leading a right-wing government.

People knew that he was committed to free markets, and low taxes for businesses. There wasn’t really any stimulus for a split. People had been so crushed and demoralized over the years, they’d come to believe that Britain was such a right-wing country, that Blair was the best they were going to get, so they put up with it.

Rather than having a recomposition or realignment of forces, what you saw was a hemorrhaging of the Labour Party’s base. Members drifted away and voters drifted away. There were a few small parties that tried to occupy this space to the left of social democracy; Socialist Alliance, Respect, Left Unity, and so on, but none of them really got off the ground very much.

By 2015, there was only the Labour Party. People had experimented with the Greens, people had experimented with the Liberal Democrats. If you were in Scotland, you could vote for the Scottish nationalists, but in England and Wales, the Labour Party was the unifying instance.

And Corbyn was the unique sort of personality, by not being a massive ego, or anything like that, by being broad enough and secular enough in his politics, that he could draw in people who were Greens, who were recovering Trotskyists, who were old Labour, who were trade unionists, and fuse them all together into a big block.

That does mean that, uniquely and quite unexpectedly, there is a chance, and no more than that, that if the right wing were to split away, as they’ve been advertising that they would do, you would end up with quite a large labor-based left-wing party, with significant parliamentary representation.

It would be bad in various ways, because it would also mean that the electoral terrain in a first-past-the-post system, would continue to be dominated by the Right, but it would create a situation in which the Left had far more power than it had previously had. It’s a strange situation, and it’s coming out of weakness.

You have a long-term vision in your book, one that leads you to argue that Corbyn’s success not only isn’t guaranteed, it is at best the start of a long march. A march not so much through the institutions of the state but through those organizations like unions, grassroots movements, and others that can shape a new ideology. How do Corbyn’s current travails, and his attempt to build an anti-austerity, antiracist coalition in the wake of Brexit, fit into this vision?

That’s always been a problem for Corbyn, because he has to balance several contradictory tasks, working on several different timelines.

You’ve got the short-term need to fire-fight, to manage crises, to have some sort of control over the headlines, to manage news cycles, to keep the parliamentary party from disintegrating, to get some sort of shadow cabinet together, and to make sure it works. He has to oppose the government on a day-to-day basis.

All of that is very short-term, and things that you need to do to keep that going are not the same sort of things as you need to do to enthuse activists, to build up social movements, and to change fundamentally the ideology of the whole country.

Changing the ideology of the country means you start by arguing from a minority position, and you try to build a majority. That takes time, and it means you have to maybe put up with some election losses and some bad results.

The interesting thing about Corbyn is that his election results haven’t been anywhere near as dire as predicted. They aren’t brilliant, but given the scale of crisis that Labour is in, they’re okay. He’s in a position of working on several different timelines.

In a way, the sensible thing would be to have a division of labor. You can have Corbyn and John McDonnell trying to do the standard tasks of leadership, pushing it as far to the left as they can — which is not very far. The agenda they’re talking about is Wilsonite, but it’s further than the mainstream is prepared to put up with.

At the same time, you could have the grassroots, the rank-and-file trying to push the argument further and being willing to criticize the leadership from the left.

They could be going out into the communities and workplaces, winning the argument for radical change, winning the argument for taxing the rich and nationalizing major industries, winning the argument for extensive public democratic control of the economy, and winning the argument against anti-immigrant racism. These are all things that Corbyn can only push so far on, and that would be a sensible way to handle it.

My concern has always been that too much of the Labour left is deferential, and that’s in part just because it’s very weak, in part because the majority of its supporters are quite passive, and they essentially look to Jeremy Corbyn to do things for them.

There’s a reluctance to do anything to put Corbyn, who they know is in a weak position, in any kind of difficulties. There’s a reluctance to criticize him or make him look bad. As understandable as that is, that is also a weakness, because sometimes they’ll have to be willing to take a slightly more left stance than Corbyn is able to.

Say, for example, a local council, say it’s a Labour council, decides to implement spending cuts. The laws here are extremely severe. The government gives them a certain amount of money and they have to set a legal budget. If they try to set a budget that’s not legal, and get into a huge deficit, then they’re in trouble.

Jeremy Corbyn says, “Don’t set an illegal budget. Work for a Labour government and we will reverse these policies, so put up with it for now.”

The trouble is if local Labour activists are seen to be going along with that, then they start to lose a bit of credibility, because people will say, “We’ve lost our library, we’ve lost our local parks, we’ve lost local community, and this has all happened under a local Labour government. You’re telling us to vote Labour, but it’s a Labour council that’s implemented it.”

It would make sense to have activists who are willing to go against the Labour Party leadership and be a bit more radical and push the argument further. That would be a way of handling the discrepancies and the mutual contradictory tasks and different timelines in which they have to operate.

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