Platform or Party?

Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb has written a response to my earlier post about saving the Liberal party, at a price.

I argued in my original piece that breaking the Coalition was a priority, in part because of the damage that it is doing to the economy and the social fabric, in part because an early election would compel the Labour party to campaign on terms that acknowledge their role in causing the economic crisis and that present a coherent alternative.

Seymour is against the idea of throwing a lifeline to the Liberal MPs, for two reasons.

Firstly, he doubts that Vince Cable would ever take up the mantle of radical liberalism. Cable is a privatizer and an Orange Book liberal and has no interest in reviving the 1908 tradition of land reform, localism, and the rest. More generally, he argues that Liberal MPs cannot be persuaded to adopt a popular platform. They are careerists and ‘political careerism in this era means, above all, clinging doggedly to unpopular orthodoxy (“principle”) and representing it as the only game in town (“realism”)’.

Seymour believes that elected representatives are effectively insulated from the population and are motivated instead by the carrots of plutocratic advancement and the sticks of party discipline.

Secondly, Seymour believes that we are in the throes of a profound political realignment. The triumph of the SNP and the collapse of the Liberal vote are parts of the same process – the playing out of what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’.

According to Gramsci, in such a crisis social classes become detached from their traditional political parties, ‘either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking […] or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity’.

In such circumstances, according to Seymour, the end of the Liberal party would be welcome – ‘the destruction of the Liberals would be an aspect of our advance’.

I am not at all sure. The destruction of the Liberal party would benefit the Labour party and – at the current time, in much of the country – leave them as the only plausible alternative to the Conservatives. The way would be open for Labour to follow the ‘New Democrat’ (and New Labour) strategy of giving progressive forces nothing except a thankless contribution to the work of keeping the ‘forces of conservatism’ out of government.

I agree with Seymour that we are now in a period of crisis, and not only in this country. The popular mobilizations in Southern Europe and the Middle East, too, are framed as rejections of an unresponsive and essentially collusive political system. In Spain traditional notions of conservative and liberal are being challenged, quite deliberately. Similarly in the United States affiliations to political parties are breaking down in the aftermath of the economic crisis. Kucinich + Paul 2012!

My disagreement with Seymour centres on how we think that this crisis relates to political organization. Like me, Seymour wants to see ‘a fundamental, enduring and self-perpetuating realignment of leftist, labour and oppositional forces’ – since only such a realignment can compel capital to make significant concessions.

But the fact that the governing consensus is in disarray makes elected representatives available to popular pressure in a way that simply was not the case before 2007. Orthodox economic policy stands exposed as a kind of fantasy. Indeed, this is the heart of the crisis; there is no longer any reason to think that the ruling class knows what it is doing.

Politicians have no technocratic authority left. And given the scale of elite failure – the fact that the mainstream ‘left’ and ‘right’ are equally implicated in the neoliberal model of economic organization, above all – it isn’t clear what it means to talk about a centre ground at the moment. Many liberal voters are to the left of Labour in important respects; the party rank and file are, to some extent, caught up in the drama of belonging. But they too are unhappy about the Coalition for reasons that aren’t simply careerist.

Perhaps Seymour is right, and that Cable will stick to his free market, neoliberal principles. In which case there will be an opening for other Liberals to embrace the reality principle and argue for a left-wing programme that has some substance and that will resonate with the party’s electoral base and a wider constituency of petit-bourgeois intellectuals and others. Co-ops, mutuals, the alignment of investment decisions with human priorities, re-nationalization of the NHS, constitutional reform, and so on.

On the other hand, perhaps Seymour is right, and Cable doesn’t really have any principles. In which case he is well placed to lead a rejection of the Coalition. After all, he has acknowledged that the financialized growth model has comprehensively broken down, and so he is at the extreme left of mainstream political opinion. He can say that he did his best to work with the Conservatives in the national interest and can no longer do so. Economic salvation cannot be found with the Conservatives in government. A matter of deep regret, etc., etc.

The Green party will rightly point out that the Liberals are stealing their clothes. Well, Movement support need not necessarily extend beyond the core of MPs who agree to abandon the Coalition. This Movement of politicised masses, petit- bourgeois intellectuals and others will impose a program on the Liberals and will decide, constituency-by-constituency, whether to support an incumbent or a challenge.

An anti-cuts Movement that becomes the articulator of a platform and that organizes at constituency level to support candidates that sign up to that platform offers us the chance both to break the Coalition and begin the process of securing radical change.

There have recently been some high-profile criticisms of non-hierarchical and participatory political organizations. The best way the emerging mass of petit-bourgeois intellectuals and others can answer back is by turning their unblinking attention to the structures of representative democracy. Large groups united by the logic of platform offer us the means to convert the energy and idealism of occupations and demonstrations into a wider social transformation. But only if we manage to cease looking for psychological satisfaction – the thrill of replacing one set of shifty rascals with another – and start looking for structural change.

To support Liberal MPs – a group that cannot plausibly attempt the seductions of  ‘a new kind of politics’ – advertises the end of representation and the beginning of participation as the governing principle of the age.

And if the Liberals refuse to accept a program for reconstruction that has some hope of working?

These networks, having tried in good faith to save them this year, will be well placed to replace them wholesale in 2015, with candidates who aren’t witless supporters of a broken economic and social model.

So, organize around platform, not party and put calculated pressure on elected representatives. If it works then it works. If it doesn’t work it will form the basis for a future, successful mobilization. After all, cold-hearted efforts to engage in the political process as self-governing actors do not run the risk of ‘disillusionment’ in the way that faith in party and leader does.

At the very least a horizontally organized, non-hierarchical effort to change the direction of the country by democratic means will prove Adam Curtis wrong.

UPDATE, June 7, 2011: Cable has made it very difficult to reinvent himself as a radical tribune of the people with this recent speech.


8 thoughts on “Platform or Party?”

  1. So, the grass roots, anti-cuts movement, which is similar in many ways to agitations globally should abandon it’s distinctiveness as a political platform outside the dry wastelands of parliamentary democracy in order to prove some BBC documentary maker, who basically said a load on ill informed nonsense showing a distinct lack of solidarity alongside it, wrong? A documentary maker whose argument for the lack of success of revolutions runs back casually to botany – not, say, lack of arms and military strength? What a weird position! Why should we they give a damn what he has to say when he is both wrong and contributing nothing to active or even intellectual resistance except the snark of the beautiful soul?

    “After all, he has acknowledged that the financialized growth model has comprehensively broken down, and so he is at the extreme left of mainstream political opinion.”

    Unfortunately, entirely false. Read the Conservative party manifesto or any of their papers that preceded it. It is completely clear they admit there was too much reliance on financial services in the past and seek to rebalance the economy, in the words of David Cameron himself. There is nothing to save about Vince Cable.

    1. Er, no. I am suggesting that networks created to resist the cuts agenda apply pressure on the Liberal component of the Coalition, to hasten its demise and start a conversation in the context of an election about the kinds of reform necessary if we are to have high levels of employment, a just distribution of wealth and so on.

      Proving Adam Curtis wrong is a bonus, really, important though that is.

      The Conservatives did make noises about rebalancing the economy away from finance. As you might have noticed this has translated into an attempt to ‘rebalance’ the economy away from public spending while leaving the prerogatives of the financial sector untouched. This won’t work because it accepts the outlines of the New Labour approach to economic management – get the banks to start lending again and all will be well.

      Economic renewal is only possible through social transformation.

      Maybe the Liberals can be persuaded to see the force of that, maybe they can’t.

      I am saying it is worth trying. Right now.

  2. I doubt that the Liberal imposion leaves “Labour to follow the ‘New Democrat’ (and New Labour) strategy of giving progressive forces nothing except a thankless contribution to the work of keeping the ‘forces of conservatism’ out of government”

    Here’s why: the rhetoric of the incumbent Labour leadership about refounding a movement, orienting towards community organising and mutuality, may only be that. But consider that the above New Democrat strategy played out during the 90s in specific economic conditions – what Freeman calls the “great doubling” of the labour market, the triumphalism of the capitalist class at the collapse of the only extant alternative to their system. Then, there was no crisis across Europe and Third Way governments formed across Europe. Now, there is a crisis, and the assumptions of New Labour have given way to Next Labour:

    1. hi, James,

      You might be right. I hope you are. But the Labour party can’t bring down the Coalition in Parliament. The Liberals can.

      And the best way to ensure that the Labour party takes a decisive turn away from neoliberalism is to build a left opposition that is not subordinated to the party, that will support candidates on the basis of platform rather than party loyalty.

      I have every faith that the Labour party will do the decent thing, once it has been prevented from pursuing any other option.


      1. Dan, I agree that the Opposition can’t break the coalition in parliament, that’s something either of the coalition parties could do. But I’ve a problem with this: “the best way to ensure that the Labour party takes a decisive turn away from neoliberalism is to build a left opposition that is not subordinated to the party, that will support candidates on the basis of platform rather than party loyalty.”

        Now, I’ve a problem with the whole “left/centre/right” terminology, which I won’t bore you with here, but this is pretty much the kind of argument which circulated throughout Labour’s recent period in office, starting before with the formation of Scargil’s Socialist Labour Party. But neither it nor the Socialist Alliance, Respect, or TUSC, could either gain sufficient electoral traction under the disproportionate voting system (and, it has to be said, the lack of enthusiasm in electoral politics on the part of many activists).

        Not that representation would necessarily alter the internal politics of the opposition – if we look elsewhere in Europe, the formation of movement-aligned political parties (e.g. Die Linke in Germany) does not have the impact of pushing partes of labour to revise their assumptions about the neo-liberal model, but rather leads to a distancing from radical ideas and a refusal to engage in electoral coalitions. In Ireland’s recent general election, the Irish Labour Party’s electoral campaign involved distancing the party from its more natural allies (Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party, etc.)

  3. I think there is only one sensible response: do it!

    To be effective it would need some organisation. A small committee that spends time targeting these MPs; doing the propaganda, organising the meetings, running the campaigns; making it into both a local and a national affair. Volunteering?

    (You might be interested in my post: Arbitration. An extended discussion on the disagreements between yourself and Lenin’s Tomb.)

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