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Losing Momentum: A Warning from the Fracturing British Left

In mid-November 2018, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez issued a rallying cry that was not given sufficient attention. She called on left-wing activists to take over the Democratic Party. Her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti went one step further, openly calling on left-wingers to primary sitting Democrats. Together with YouTube personalities Cenk Uyger and Kyle Kulinski, Chakrabarti is cofounder of a group called Justice Democrats. Justice Democrats are quite open about their intentions and describe themselves on their website as “a unified campaign to replace every corporate-backed member of Congress and rebuild the Democratic Party from scratch.”

From across the pond in the United Kingdom, these political developments look familiar. Four weeks after left-winger Jeremy Corbyn won the campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party, political activists formed a group called Momentum. Since then Momentum has grown into one of the largest forces in British politics, with over 170 local groups and 40,000 members. In some ways Momentum is less radical than the Justice Democrats. Many centrist Labour MPs were worried that they were going to be ousted by the newcomers. But Momentum made clear that they had no intention of doing so—in the open, at least. Nevertheless, many Labour MPs fear, probably rightly, that the new guard is gunning for their positions.

Momentum is now three years old, going on four. It is therefore old enough to judge on its own terms. In what follows, I will give my own impressions of the Momentum movement as a visitor from the periphery of Europe. While I have never been an active member of the organization, I was an early sympathizer and have spent time around the movement.

The Old Left

The most striking thing about the Momentum movement and its political allies is the silent division that exists within it. From the outside looking in, this is hard to notice. The movement seems like a solid alliance, and all the energy that might be spent on infighting seems directed at the enemy. But in my experience, all is not what it seems. There are in fact significant ideological divisions between the old leftists in the party and its younger, more liberal members. Some of these differences are merely squabbles over shades of emphasis. But others involve matters of importance.

The leadership of the Labour Party is currently dominated by figures who came of age within the postwar British leftist tradition, long before Tony Blair took over Labour in the 1990s. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are old allies of the famous Labour Party leftist Tony Benn. Benn’s style might be described today as “Left populist.” It was patriotic—Benn was an RAF pilot during World War II—even a little nostalgic, and heavily focused on workers. It was a British sort of leftism not unlike the one described by George Orwell in his famous essay “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941):

A Socialist Party which genuinely wished to achieve anything would have started by facing several facts which to this day are considered unmentionable in left-wing circles. It would have recognized . . . that the British workers have a great deal to lose besides their chains, and that the differences in outlook and habits between class and class are rapidly diminishing.1

While the current Labour leadership does not share Benn’s intellectual or military background, a lot of these sentiments seem to have rubbed off on them.

One place where this mentality shows itself is in debates over the European Union and migration. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn stated that he was “not wedded” to freedom of movement, specifically when it came to the EU, clarifying a position that he had expressed in the past. This attitude seems consistent with his Bennite roots. Tony Benn himself was a lead campaigner against Britain joining the EU in the early 1970s. He went so far as to call the EU a “capitalist club” and highlighted the fact that it facilitated the free movement of capital and labor, which would undermine the position of workers in Britain.

In general, the old leftists tend to be fairly realistic about governing. They recognize that most decisions involve difficult tradeoffs, and that political conflicts tend to be driven more by interests than by morality. They know that utopia cannot be built in a day, and sometimes sacrifices have to be made in the present in order to ensure better outcomes in the future.

The New Left

The Momentum activists who grew up in the 1990s have a very different mindset. For one, they come across as far more moralistic in a narrow, middle-class schoolteacher or human resources sort of way. While the veteran leftists are very much against racism, the younger factions of Momentum seem to focus almost all of their energy on identity politics, and in a manner that is increasingly fractious. More and more, it seems their only goal is to create division by reaching for increasingly fringe positions to defend. Internal Momentum debates frequently descend into these sorts of tolerance competitions. At best this sort of moralizing comes across as a waste of energy; at worst it looks like a nauseating power play by people who want to feel superior to others.

These growing fissures within Momentum appear most pronounced in debates over immigration. Those sympathetic to the Bennites view open borders as a capitalistic and right-libertarian policy. Open borders allow capital to move where labor is cheap, or to import cheaper labor, undermining unions and worker organizations. But the new leftists see the whole issue in moralistic terms. They do not see the inherent conflicts between capital and labor around the world as much as they see these issues as questions of “compassion.” They believe in a policy of open borders simply because they think that such an approach shows compassion toward migrants, regardless of the concrete effects.

The new leftists also seem allergic to any sense of national identity or interests. It seems doubtful that they have read Orwell’s reflections on British socialism. They equate patriotism and national identity with racism and xenophobia and are convinced that anyone who discusses issues of national sovereignty must be a member of the Far Right. In practical terms, this makes it very difficult to appeal to the general population, which remains quite patriotic. But more importantly, this tendency strengthens the position of global neoliberalism and plays into the hands of multinational corporations and the interests of capital. Given the neoliberal cast of globalization today, national states are often the only institutions capable of resisting and correcting the forces of global markets.

On the other hand, the new leftists are typically very comfortable with the fashions and enthusiasms of the upper middle class and tech elites. One book that has become popular with this group is Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (2018).2 The book is so popular that its title is now used as a semi-ironic phrase by the hipster Left. But these ideas are not leftist in any meaningful sense of the term. They are the bohemian inclinations of late-capitalist consumerism, put together by relatively privileged grad students and academics. They attempt to circumvent real political-economic problems by spinning fantasies about technological innovation, similar to the programs of neoliberal technocrats.

These sorts of ideas are foreign to workerist leftists who recognize the centrality of productive labor to human dignity. They also come across as naïve and silly to people who have studied economics and the actual history of socialism. To take the “fully automated” idea as just one example, serious leftists know that capital is very good at eliminating workers whenever it can, since labor is often a major cost. If the economy could simply be “fully automated,” capital would have already achieved that. Even the redistribution programs that these bohemians put forward seem very neoliberal. They argue that, instead of working, everyone should receive a universal basic income so that they can buy more cheap imports. It would be hard to find many Silicon Valley libertarians who would have serious objections to this vision of society.

Shifts in the Electorate

The split among Labour party members is also reflected in the emerging divides among potential party voters. The sociologist Paula Surridge recently analyzed data from the British Election Survey and observed stark changes in the opinions of the left-wing electorate.3

Those polled were first screened for their Left-Right economic opinions. They were asked about redistribution, trade unions, private enterprise, and so on. Those holding left-wing views on economics were then asked a series of questions on “values.” These included questions on traditional values, “unconventional lifestyles,” censorship, “the death penalty,” and so forth. From these results, Surridge identified three groups (with rather loaded terms): liberals, centrists, and authoritarians. The composition of the British Left, according to her study, is shown in the chart below.

What is striking is the substantial increase in “liberals” since 2010. This group seems to have value systems that look quite similar to those described above as “new Left.”

The “authoritarians” are a very interesting group. One gets the sense from the survey that they would have made up an important constituency of the old Left. They support some form of socialist economics along with some combination of “traditional values” and “nationalism.” While the likes of Tony Benn may not have perfectly overlapped with this group, he probably would have appealed to them.

Today, however, this group seems completely disaffected and unrepresented. When asked to respond to the statement that “Politicians don’t care what people like me think,” 50 percent of centrists and an enormous 71 percent of authoritarians agreed, while only 36 percent of liberals agreed. The statement “People like me have no say in what government does” received similar responses. These results suggest that the further people who lean left on economic matters stray from liberal social views, the more alienated they become.

Moreover, although the liberals have increased in number since 2010, they do not dominate the Left. They still make up less than 30 percent of the left-wing voting base. The largest group remains the authoritarians. The liberals tend to be younger people with college degrees, while the authoritarians tend to be older members of the working class. This can be seen in the chart below.

One spin on these numbers is that generational dynamics favor liberals, but this may be a misreading. Many in this cohort may end up abandoning the Left as they age, for reasons of self-interest and because they rethink the implications of liberal ideology as they grow older, as discussed in the next section of this essay. In other words, what these statistics may be saying is simply that a liberal Left can only attract younger people.

These trends might also say something about the changing markers of class status. As Orwell noted in 1941, “the differences in outlook and habits between class and class are rapidly diminishing.” Today, this largely holds true when it comes to economic class: in twenty-first century Britain, it is rare to be judged for having a light working class accent. But not when it comes to social class. Social class today is rigidly hierarchical, and anyone who does not strictly adhere to bourgeois views on everything from immigration to religion is dismissed as a knuckle-dragger and a bigot. There is little doubt where liberal-left class allegiances lie in this regard.

In short, it is hard to disagree with Surridge’s conclusion that the Left electorate is “fragmenting.” But we should go further. The British Left is currently becoming dominated by a new generation of liberals. It is no wonder that its value system increasingly reflects that.

It’s the Individualism, Stupid

In his 2002 documentary The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis showed how the principal transformation wrought by Thatcherism (and Reaganism in the United States) was to place individual consumer desires at the center of politics. Tony Blair’s Labour Party (and Bill Clinton’s Democrats) continued this legacy in all important respects.

Today’s young members of Momentum may imagine their movement to be the diametric opposite of Blair’s New Labour. But, as the rise of “liberals” on the left implies, many seem even more committed to Blairism’s individualist underpinnings, even if they reject some of its policies. Hence the younger members’ fundamental alignment with Blair on issues of globalization, always articulated in the language of personal compassion. The embrace of globalism effectively functions to liberate them from their obligations to any tangible political collective, under the guise of some personal morality, which they perceive as paramount. Their opposition to other aspects of Blair’s platform, in many cases, seems to be motivated not by a rejection of its underlying individualism, but rather by an annoyance at New Labour’s failure to achieve the “fully automated” consumer utopia that it promised. Today’s new Left would prefer universal basic income over a tax cut, but ultimately they have the same vision of what the ends of politics should be.

Liberal ideology may be surging among college kids who are convinced that state-sanctioned individual agency should be at the forefront of their lives, but this does not mean that liberalism itself is capable of producing a good society. It is certainly dissolving the sort of communitarian society, upheld by a strong state, that old leftists supported. Instead, it is creating a society where the market and the neoliberal state manage disconnected individuals, who are increasingly just seen as consumers.

“Liberal society” is not really a society but a term for the technocratic management of atomized consumers. The market does this through data collection and by subtly nudging people to make choices that maximize profit. Meanwhile, the state uses the same techniques to ensure popular compliance with market outcomes. In liberal societies, the market and the state manipulate people precisely through the promotion of ideas about individual choice. This is exactly the sort of control mechanism first highlighted by the often-misunderstood philosopher Michel Foucault in the late 1970s, when aggressively individualistic liberalism began to emerge.4

The Left was once against this sort of individualism. It used to be in favor of an ordered society dedicated to securing collective material needs and political dignity. Old leftism had an element of sacrifice embedded in it. Each person was not seen as an individual but rather as one person among many working for a better world. The goal was not the increase in nominal freedom mediated by technocrats and the market. Rather it was a society in which people would be less “alienated” from their environment, from their peers, and from the means of production.

The new Left buys into the dream of the liberal individualists. They talk all the time about “rights” but little about sacrifice. They talk about “movements” rather than missions or parties. They seem to reject any sense of collective duty or direction. They just want autonomy. The only real difference between left-liberals and right-liberals is that left-liberals want a sort of imaginary, apolitical technocracy to mediate their consumer autonomy, and the right-liberals want the existing global market to mediate their consumer autonomy.

But their politics are both geared toward some sort of vague, individualist utopia. Reading Orwell’s essay as I attempted to understand the British Left, the following passage stood out:

During the past twenty years the negative, fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm. It would have been harmful even if we had been living in the squashy League of Nations universe that these people imagined. In an age of fuehrers and bombing planes it was a disaster. However little we may like it, toughness is the price of survival. A nation trained to think hedonistically cannot survive amid peoples who work like slaves and breed like rabbits, and whose chief national industry is war.

Orwell is poking fun at a certain type of bohemianism and idleness that he saw in the prewar Left. Today it is hard not to see the same thing among many of the new leftists (as well as many on the right). Orwell’s “squashy League of Nations universe” sounds very like the current setup of the European Union or the “liberal international order.” While mass warfare is probably not on the horizon, it does seem likely that the next generation will face a series of political crises more severe than anything experienced in the last thirty years. And it is hard to see how the “hedonistic attitude” will be able to meet these challenges.

Revolution or Rebranding?

Standing amidst the Momentum movement it is very difficult to see any of this changing. The movement seems to be populated by few deep thinkers or courageous leaders. There is an awful lot of groupthink and posturing and an unwillingness to discuss difficult issues. At times it looks more like a social club than a serious political organization.

What is happening on the British left seems in many ways comparable to the developments that took place on the Greek left in the recent past. When Syriza began its rise to prominence, I noticed a difference between the more liberal side of the party and the more leftist side. This difference eventually became important when the liberal side got the upper hand during the standoff with the EU. The party backed down and accepted austerity. Since then, Syriza has mainly pursued symbolic “cultural” policies, such as the education minister’s removal of some Greek classical texts from the school curriculum in 2016. I do not believe that the leftist side of the party that was sidelined after austerity would have prioritized these sorts of measures, which were divisive and unpopular yet accomplished nothing to improve the situation in Greece or change existing power dynamics.

What does all this mean for Americans who are looking at similar developments taking place in their own country? While I am not as acquainted with American grassroots politics, it is striking that there is no real old Left in America. Apart from a few heroic figures like Bernie Sanders, this tradition seems completely absent. For this reason, Americans are likely to see the new liberal leftism enter the mainstream of political discourse more quickly than it has in Britain. There is no firewall, in the form of an old Left leadership, to prevent the new liberalism from dominating the American left-wing parties once the activists take them over.

It is actually somewhat surprising that these ideas are not already embraced by the neoliberal Democratic Party establishment. One suspects that much of the conflict is personal: the aging boomer Democrats are not quite ready to give up power yet. It would, of course, be unfair to call the new leftists actual neoliberals. They certainly oppose some elements of that ideology, especially fiscal austerity and financialization. When it comes to building the global individualist consumer utopia, however, their disagreements appear to be over means, not ends. “Fully automated luxury communism,” presumably administered by some post-political technocratic institutions, is really just Clintonism for millennials. And the educated urban consumers it appeals to more and more seem to play the role of the precious “suburban voters” of the 1990s. If that is the case, the hoped-for revolution will end up as little more than a rebranding.

These are questions that serious people on the American left have to ask. From across the Atlantic, it seems that liberals and leftists have merged under the #Resistance movement, and few are willing to step out of line or question the current unity. But if that is not done, these movements will lose both their radicalism and their relevance sooner than anyone expects.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 1 (Spring 2019): 161–71.

Notes

George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, vol. 2, My Country Right or Left, 1940–1943, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968).

Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, 2018).

Paula Surridge, “The Fragmentation of the Electoral Left Since 2010,” Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy 26, no. 4 (2018): 69–78.

See Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2010).

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