Friday, 1 July 2016

Politics as Managerialism: the self-denying, sublimated, ideology of New Labour

Labour Party divisions are basically between the managerialists and those who come out of the labour movement and who continue to see their role as first and foremost to represent working people, and society's poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Then there are the opportunists who simply want to back a winner.

The managerialists are responsible for where we are now, because when they controlled the party from the mid-nineties until very recently they effectively deserted the labour movement and workers, leaving many localised vacuums for the right to exploit: when you're ignored, someone appearing to listen to you, represent you and articulate (& re-package) your anxieties can seem like your friend; they can seem like they've got your back.

So, with their burgundy ties, well cut suits, backgrounds as parliamentary advisers, and with neutral accents softened by trained, considered use of contractions like 'gonna', the managerialists and their wannabe acolytes readjusted their focus, away from the core vote base and onto the periphery: the PR-company-fabled Mondeo man; the floating voter who could, if won over to New Labour, keep them in office beyond a single term. 

The thought seemed to be that the core was always going to be the core, so it could be left alone, while the periphery got all the attention.

So, what do you do to court this peripheral demographic which only ever seems to have voted for you, as opposed to the Tories, as a protest at Tory mismanagement? Well, you speak their language, fit in with their hopes, desires and prejudices. Do some focus groups, and employ some people to engage in perception management. 

Basically: give up the ideological battle, where what was being fought over were the rules by which we play the game of government. Instead, claim to be post-ideological and start to play the game by the Tory rules. 

Of course, you're not post-ideological, you've embraced the dominant ideology, the one your party was founded to challenge. You can't acknowledge this is what you've done, so you explicitly deny you're ideological, and talk of this being post-ideological politics: your ideology is sublimated to become management.

And this was the problem. Those Tory rules that were embraced rigged the game in favour of certain players, which was after all why, historically, political movements on the left had emerged to challenge them. Those rules really did and do need challenging, not embracing and following by anyone representing the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. 

But then this didn't present a problem for the managerialists, because they didn't represent the working class anymore, or even the poorest and most vulnerable, but rather they represented "hard working families", which was code for: people who are good at playing the game. Lose at the game and the managerialists are not interested in you. Losing is your fault. Complain about the rules of the game and you're perceptions need re-calibrating: perhaps work unpaid at Poundland, this will give you the social capital required to acknowledge the rules, follow them and be manageable.

So, to some working class people finding themselves in a vacuum of representation, looking for people to question the rules of the game, which seemed so stacked against them, the right seemed to do this questioning, and that is what makes this such a destructive disaster.

Disastrously, sadly, and with real dangerous consequences, some people embraced the right wing racist narrative.
Now we're in an almighty mess, decades in the making. This isn't just a political mess of interest to the commentators, but a mess that will impoverish the lives of people already struggling, people who were tricked in to thinking this was the answer to their problems; It's a mess that has violence, racist violence, as part of it.

This is a failure of the Labour party, which I have a strong suspicion it cannot overcome.

Jeremy Corbyn's surprising but overwhelmingly large election win to become leader in 2015 to some extent slowed what had seemed to me the terminal degeneration of Labour as a party which was supposed to challenge the rules of a game which was rigged to the perpetual disadvantage of Britain's poorest and most vulnerable social groups. But it is too late, the essence, the core, of the party has already become so irreversibly managerialist that even a large democratic mandate and well-argued re-positioning of party priorities cannot serve to effect a reversal. 

Corbyn's election as leader did not mark an end to the degeneration of the Labour Party but instead showed us that there was hunger for genuine left representation among many of those the managerialists had deserted.

The Labour party is the final stages of a terminal degeneration. It is, in effect, a zombie party, or perhaps a reanimated corpse. Some recognise it as the old guy they once knew, but in reality everything that made him that guy is gone. The managerialists killed him and now they fight for the right to continue to try to reanimate the corpse to fight one more election. 

Maybe this also marks a near-terminal staging post for the old left politics. The World is a radically different place to what it was in the 100 year period between 1850-1950, arguably the golden age of traditional modern left wing thinking, theorising and political gains. We need to be aware that the categories one learns from that golden age might not be appropriate to, speak to, or be the most optimal for making sense of our age: think of the 20th century revolution in modern medicine, the progress made in thinking about sex and gender, how we now understand the centrality of thinking ecologically (limits to growth, climate change, soil depletion, biodiversity collapse, etc.), and how different early 21st century global geopolitics is. Just perhaps we need new categories. 

Perhaps Labour is beyond saving, but maybe that is not a bad thing. Let's leave it to the managerialists and their PR consultancies. Those of us who believe passionately in the political project of challenging the rules of this rigged, socially and ecologically destructive, game should join with others and set about building new global grassroots movements which are responsive to the challenges we now face.

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