Taking responsibility

The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope — the therapeutics need no doctrines, only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies already deconverted in all but name (p.16).

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideas in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith (p.16–17).

Pretending that the Corbyn leadership will magically create the kind of social and political solidarities amongst groups of citizens who currently feel not just that they have nothing in common but who now actively oppose the others’ interests — as a result of a hegemony of the right only reinforced by the financial crisis and now a security crisis — is simply wishful thinking.

We live in an age of — to use Anthony Giddens’ term — of deep ‘ontological security’, much deeper than that of 30 years ago. As I explored a little while ago, the question of what’s wrong with our politics can and perhaps should be recast as a (Rieffian) question about what is so wrong with all of us.

In such insecure times, Doreen’s [the late Doreen Massey’s] vision of an end to the “retail politics” of New Labour and a switch to a “notion of campaigning to change what the electorate might want, to argue for values, and understandings of the world, that may not be popular now but are what the party (says it) stands for” (p.7), reflects a well-meant but hopelessly outdated concept of false consciousness amongst the masses, which can be overcome through a series of courageous political acts and educational endeavours.

I think Corbyn, and Corbynism, do constitute a great moment of opportunity for the left — just not the kind of opportunity either Corbyn or most of the Corbynistas are currently aware of, mostly because they’ve not read enough books, like what I have. I think the opportunities are much greater than the Gramscians think, but it will take a wholesale revolution in British leftwing thinking (and consequent action) if we are to seize them.

Old-style, war-of-position politics, dominated on the British left (and the right, less knowingly) by Gramscian and sub-Gramscian thought cannot deal with this ‘new, kinder politics’, and of course Corbyn’s conduct is itself out of kilter with a vocal minority of so-called Corbynistas, for whom the same old gaining of internal terrain within the same old Labour party remains the same old ‘struggle’.

But there is a strong, coherent, and in some respects remarkably successful leftwing intellectual tradition which does explain not just the ‘kinder politics’ of Corbynism, but also explains why it proved so attractive to both new and old members of the Labour party that it brought Corbyn 60% of leadership votes, and why (perhaps more arguably) the polls about Corbyn’s early days are so conflicting.

This intellectual tradition……has not to date had any traction with the British left, is the Habermasian tradition — a tradition which has had a subtle but powerful influence on German political culture since at least the 1980s and is…….a significant factor not just in Germany’s economic success but also its social cohesion and openness (at least relative to the UK).

We knew, this thing at least we knew, — the worth
Of life: this was our secret learned at birth.
We knew that Force the world has deified,
How weak it is. We spoke not, so men died.
Upon a world down-trampled, blood-defiled,
Fearing that men should praise us less, we smiled.

Margaret Sackville (1961)

Corbyn’s 2015 victory in the leadership election caused a problem for outlets on the Left that has never adequately been solved. How do you give an avidly Corbynite readership the avidly Corbynite writing they want, without losing the scepticism that is fundamental to journalism? The answer seemed to be to junk the scepticism, and take an increasing chunk of their commentary from the “outriders” who blurred the line between journalism and activism.

Today we live with an inalienable right to participation.

The non-communist Left has no reason to be downhearted [and must adapt to the challenge of] transforming socialist ideas into the radically reformist self-criticism of a capitalist society, which, in the form of a constitutional democracy with universal suffrage and a welfare state, has developed not only weaknesses but also strengths. With the bankruptcy of state socialism, this is the eye of the needle through which everything must pass, (The Rectifying Revolution, New Left Review, 1990)

when the structure of a social system allows fewer possibilities for problem solving than are necessary to the continued existence of the system (p.2).

Only when members of a society experience structural alterations as critical for continued existence and feel their social identity threatened can we speak of crisis (p.3).



Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.

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