Written 28 July
I enjoy podcasts and have tuned in occasionally to Aufhebunga Bunga, the “global politics podcast at the end of the end of history”, so I thought I’d pick up the book which has just recently been released by its founders. The podcast sets its stall out pretty clearly: it’s on the old-fashioned Left and against the Neoliberal settlement that started in the West in the late 1970s and has since conquered the world, so I wasn’t expecting a balanced take on politics.
The book is easy to read (it’s only about 200 pages long) and for someone who moved away from the Left many years ago I found it refreshing. The authors all have backgrounds in academia and political science and probably find themselves rather in the minority in the circles they move in (Philip Cunliffe is a big supporter of Brexit for example). The authors’ background in academia does come through in dwelling on distinctions between post-politics and anti-politics and being a bit theoretical in places where I rather lost the thread: I could have read it again more slowly and gone over it but for my purposes this sort of thing just doesn’t add much and the book can be read perfectly well by those of us happy not to be political scientists.
I think that as a critique of what has happened in politics over the last half a century, and the politics of the Left in particular in that time, it hits pretty close to the mark. It correctly identifies the alignment of the Left with the Neoliberal order built up over many years, and that this order has been breaking down starting in 2008 with the Global Financial crisis, confirmed in 2016 with the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. Covid is the nail in the coffin. The authors identify as Leftists (probably revolutionary Leftists) and put forward a convincing case that almost all of what is currently described as the Left is in reality nothing of the sort: they describe the takeover and transformation of the Left’s institutions (in the UK the Labour Party and the Unions) into things that are at best working for Technocratic Progressivism but with little to do with advancing the interests of the working class. I find this sort of analysis pretty compelling, with strong echoes of Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour (though much less gentle in tone).
Themes run through: the working class being regarded not as the subject of politics but its object. The Professional Managerial Class populating the Civil Service, Quangos, NGOs, law and think tanks who run the Left being wholly devoid of ideas and clinging close to Neoliberalism, regarding the working class as a thing to be managed and whose political instincts are feral and dangerous. Technocratic Progressivism being entirely paternalistic in character, the working class being owed everything except self-determination etc etc.
The Chapter on Neoliberal Order Breakdown System (NOBS) is a real zinger, absolutely nailing how and why the Technocratic Progressives are all at sea, being unable to accept, explain or respond to what is happening in the world. The symptoms of “nostalgia for the recent past” combined with infantilism, hysteria and an “elite persecution complex” exhibited in well worn cliches of the 2012 London opening ceremony epitomising some sort of paradise. A profound lack of political seriousness is all that has been on offer in opposing, or more commonly trying to reverse or ignore, the Brexit vote in 2016. It is something people with a lifetime invested in a world that has gone can not actually engage with at all.
Various other areas are touched on: Fully Automated Luxury Communism, citizens’ assemblies, a basic income and a host of other things are dismissed as fundamentally at odds with what the aims of the Left should be: to win power, not just participation, to direct society and progress not just enjoy its benefits. The aim is not to enjoy the fruits of progress by eliminating barriers and friction (a “politics of ease”), but to be in charge. It would make Bob Crow proud (I don’t mean that as an insult, I had a bit of a soft spot for the old Trot, at least he wanted to actually change things).
The closing chapter looks forward to what a post-Covid world might hold for the Left. Can it generate the ideas necessary to challenge developments in a rapidly changing world? Unsurprisingly the authors are not hopeful: the Technocratic Progressives have no ideas other than tweaks within the Neoliberal order that they don’t really oppose and whose passing they mourn. Having done so well under it for so long, all their instincts will be to devote themselves to a misconceived rear guard action rather than fighting for a plausible alternative to decades of centre-right government that has already nationalised the railways. One can imagine an elderly Peter Mandelson regaling his acolytes with tales of how it could all have been so different; we could have had David Miliband as a Commissioner in Brussels crafting the latest directive on Foreign Aid financed by a Financial Transactions Tax if only the working class hadn’t been so bloody stupid and difficult.
Interestingly, events of recent weeks serve to illustrate the points made in the book very well. Rather than see the recent shortage of lorry drivers and retail staff as something that could be in the interests of workers, the response of the Technocratic Progressives has been to retweet lines from the Road Haulage Association and Supermarket CEOs that what is needed is more cheap labour from Eastern Europe to avert the disaster of having fewer varieties of cheese available. It’s some workers’ paradise with these people on your side! For myself, I’m not returning to the Left any time soon and this book hasn’t changed my mind on that. I often wonder what a revitalised radical politics might look like and for what it’s worth I’d find a country run along the lines proposed by these authors more palatable in many ways than some sort of reheated Blairism. It would certainly be more honest. Not that that’s saying much! But ultimately I think a genuine radicalism for the twenty first century is as different from the vision of the authors as it is from the paternalistic technocracy we are hopefully seeing the back of now.
In the end this book is worth picking up for a good insight into what the hell has gone wrong with politics and especially the Left over a period of decades. As an analysis and distillation of all that has made the Left so ineffective and unappetising it gets pretty close and a few nails are hit squarely on the head.