On the 30th of June, 1871, a 55-year old poet and communarde penned a song that would come to define the communist movement for at least the next century. ‘La raison tonne en son cratére’, wrote Eugéne Pottier, ‘C’est l’éruption de la fin’.
English translations rendered these lines increasingly confusing, in the name of rhyme, rhythm, and national ideological interests. ‘For justice thunders condemnation, A better world’s in birth!’, the IWW hazarded, while others proposed ‘Man’s reason thunders from its crater, ‘Tis th’ eruption naught can daunt.’ The first English translation, by Eleanor Marx, is not easy to locate, but regardless, the rather uninspiring rendition the English-speaking world has ended up with is ‘For reason in revolt now thunders, and at last ends the age of cant.’
Socialists’ unease as to how to treat this line about ‘reason’ is typical of a movement caught uncomfortably between science, dialectics and relativism-cum-postmodernism. The more literal translation, that ‘Reason thunders in its volcano, it’s the final eruption’ is fiendishly theoretically unclear, and anarchically, unreasonably, violent. Indeed, in Britain, the parliamentary character of our socialist movement has resulted in agreement across the spectrum of Left and Right that reason is calm, collected, objective truth. Reason does not thunder in volcanoes, it does not erupt; reason purrs the subheading structure of IFS reports and stills stormy debate with briefings from experts. The soft Right say that reason dictates privatisation and low taxes, in the interest of all; the soft Left say that reason, of a Spirit Level variety, tells us that good public services and progressive taxation benefit everyone, from the millions to the millionaires.
All conspire to present an objective, non-partial view of the world. This becomes most obvious in electoral events like referendums, where orthodox ‘expertise’ is offered to the public from both sides, about which route is objectively ‘best for the nation’. It must never be admitted that certain political decisions might benefit some people more than others, or lend legitimacy and drive to social movements of the left and right. And in an era of short-term market interest, it must never be admitted that the future is unpredictable – experts are prophets, and if the people believe them, the markets have certainty and will fulfil the prophecy. But the technocratic understanding of politics-as-management has been pummelled by the elemental pyroclastics of popular discontent: against the reason of the expert, the journalist, and the professional politician is ranged the molten, destructive, volcanic reason of the mob – flowing underground while the experts fiddle with their seismographs, now bursting through the surface as they watch awestruck from afar.
Michael Gove, the former minister for stopped clocks, was obviously right when he said that ‘the British people have had enough of experts.’ Academics, economists, newspaper editorials and most of the political establishment warned of an apocalypse should Britain vote to leave the EU. These experts then had to face the humiliating prospect of a majority of the population showing how little they cared for such expertise. The fact that individuals held positions of power and influence in business, banking, government, and the world of celebrity, did not, in the public mindset, mean that they were the bearers of indisputable Right-Reason.
It is not only in the arena of the referendum that technocratic objectivity has perished; within the Labour Party the expertise of the PLP is being consistently undermined by a party membership that does not pay heed to their protestations that they are ordained by reason. Labour’s anti-Corbyn clique appeal to their own ‘expertise’ at their peril. To many partisans of the new movement, their shady shadow-cabinet experience and their ‘reasonable’ capitulations to the right by voting with Blair and Miliband’s whip simply make them feeble. Their insistence that there is one, objective and reasonable how-to-win-elections handbook that must be referred to by all sensible 21st century politicians, with guidance on how to be media-savvy and how to practice the dark arts of triangulation and message discipline, appears to them to be the ultimate form of common sense. Unfortunately for them, common sense belongs to the commons, and it is shifting under their feet.
Rather than trying to understand and sympathise with the volcanic reason underpinning Corbyn’s support, the plotters have patronised and pathologised huge swathes of party members and supporters as childish, ignorant or just downright insane. There is little indication that self-styled moderates and Reasonable People on the left and right have any awareness of the lava-flows that are devouring the legitimacy of their supposed expertise, and their long-lost college-based internal electoral system. Instead, they’re loudly castigating the volcano for having the temerity to erupt.
The crisis of elite political reason has been a long time coming. Managerialism in the ‘national interest’ has been the dominant way of discussing governance in Britain since at least the 17th century, but this verbal game gained its left party credentials during the boom years after World War Two. With outright anti-capitalist politics largely written off thanks to the solidification of Cold War loyalties and capital’s recovery from the war, technocrats from the upper classes like Keynes and his infinite and insatiable band of followers tinkered sensibly with a general political-economic structure – capitalism – that was based on Principles of Pure Reason, mined from the Eternal Truths of human action and psychology. It was tacitly assumed that history (driven by ‘the markets’ or ‘the economy’) could only ever be something which happened to us, not something we collectively plan and create, and the purpose of government was to adapt to change as rationally as possible.
These experts were considered to be above class or sectional motivation, their elite reason granting them rare access to the national interest itself. When the end of the war led to booming population growth, a huge influx of American dollars through the Marshall Plan, and plenty of necessary infrastructure work to keep employment and demand high, ‘experts’ were credited for their impeccable management of the situation. But the expert construction of the social state was predicated on and enabled by a postwar economic expansion of unprecedented length, creating enough jobs, capital and tax revenue for wages, profits and public services to grow in tandem.
There was nothing eternal or necessary about the experts’ ability to appear to create ‘national prosperity’ from economic conditions, as would quickly become clear when those economic conditions took a turn for the worse, and those same experts had to rebrand with a new image of sensible state-steerers whose game was to avoid imminent and sure disaster. Rather than creating ‘national wealth’ their job became the making of ‘tough choices’. Unfortunately for them, and for the capitalist interests they smooth the ground for, this rebranding does not seem to have been wholly successful.
Elite expertise was also legitimised through the predominance of a mass party structure explicitly designed so that the party would service the experts, giving them the mass support necessary for parliamentary politics, and distributing their ideology in party activists’ communities. Both Labour and the Conservatives boasted a far higher proportion of the population as party members than today, at least in the mid-1950s. (Party membership data for the era is notoriously unreliable: Labour’s institution of ‘minimum’ membership thresholds as high as 1000 for Constituency Labour Parties led to widespread exaggeration of figures, but the sheer size of the ‘minimum’ is nevertheless testament to the levels of engagement which were generally expected). It was likely that of the people we all trust the most – friends and family – a decent handful would have been active in a political party. Those at the helm of the party and/or in government benefited from a sort of transferred trust-by-proxy, and relative to today party politics was seen as a normal, worthwhile activity.
Through these community, familial or friendship networks, millions beyond the membership were drawn into a sense of common political endeavour and direction; votes were cast in a strategic sense, for a set of distinct values and principles that would be translated into policy by the appropriate members of the elite once in power. Volcanic political reason is more appropriate to the chaotic world of the present – it is opportunistic, spontaneous and spurns convention, the kind of thing we describe as a ‘roch wind’ in our book Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland. If the ‘Yes’ campaign was Scotland’s roch wind, full of the newly politically engaged who were thrilled by rude and cathartic defiance of expert advice, then Corbynism is Labour’s. But whether it can be more than that – mair nor a roch wind, as Hamish Henderson put it – is still unclear.
Today, the postwar economic growth on which the elite’s legitimacy was constructed – and its farcical tribute act, the ‘privatised Keynesianism’ of the late-1990s and early 2000s – is clearly over and done with. Every effort to counteract the gravitational forces which pull profit rates downwards seems spent: military spending, fossil fuel exploitation and financial deregulation all ended in crises of sovereign debt, private debt, climate crisis and various other maladies. The mass party has suffered accordingly, with the array of experts on offer seeming increasingly dusty and inadequate, their reformist politics less and less able to deliver the goods for most people.
The recent growth of Labour’s membership, which may approach mass levels again, has been little consolation to those yearning for a return to expert party management. New critiques of Corbynism have condemned the relative inactivity of new members, as the old moderate doorstep enthusiasts have been supplanted by left-wing touchscreen fondlers in both the public eye and on many CLP membership lists. But ‘the doorstep’ is only one particular form of activism, necessary in a party system reliant on the loyal distribution of top-down lines, literature and – increasingly, and particularly in Scotland – apologies-to-the-people. The mass party may have helped to give the electorate a sense of strategic direction, but the strategy and the victory was always disproportionately set by and delivered to the very technocrats in whom those masses placed so much trust. There is more than one way to mobilise huge numbers of party members; Corbyn and Momentum have a machine at their disposal with as yet unknown powers.
Corbyn’s ‘new politics’ is certainly not a rejuvenation of the old forms. But as Cailean Gallagher and Matt Bolton have written recently, the ‘new politics’ renounces established expertise (assembling a team of ‘experts’ only to ignore and eventually lose them after Brexit) only to replace it with a sort of spiritual certainty. It understands itself not as a movement with clear material and societal transformation in mind, but as something propelled by moral means, with a vaguely more moral world as its end. It is the product of a sort of dual nostalgia: on the one hand, it yearns for a more principled and mythologised ‘Old Labour’, defending what’s left of welfare and the NHS; and on the other, it renounces the rose-tinted image of Blair as master electioneer. In this way the fundamental continuity between Old and New Labour, each characterised by the predominance of elite, managerial reason applied to different material circumstances, is glossed over.
The result is still unclear, but Corbyn’s latest leadership launch was hardly promising. The central focus of his campaign seems to be a return to the founding principles of the welfare state, with Corbyn identifying “the five ills of 21st century Britain” in a dull attempt to update 1942’s Beveridge report. The image of the politician as a sort of social doctor is precisely the kind of top-down approach to combating social ‘sickness’ that left Labour so unprepared for recent political upheavals. It presents society as a unified body in need of disinterested care, rather than a set of conflicting and self-interested forces within which we must pick a side. Poverty’s not a sickness, it’s a symptom caused by the rich. The whole tenor of Corbynism is becoming increasingly and understandably defensive, but its early strength – demonstrated by the PLP’s total unpreparedness for his success last year – was its ability to draw on forces that elites both inside and outside the Labour Party simply cannot assimilate. Social democracy has collapsed and it’s not coming back. Now is not the time for the Labour left to mistake a sinkhole for a trench.
The focus need not be on putting together committees of academics to write better policy, or developing better branding that tricks people into voting for socialism. It should be on finding ways – predominantly outside parliament – of shaking the earth under the feet of the ruling class, rattling loose those parts of society whose loyalty to their bosses and lawmakers hangs by a thread. Corbyn and his supporters should be discovering and encouraging alternatives to the elite form of reason which is collapsing so violently in front of our eyes. The left should certainly not be afraid of the new popular scepticism towards expertise and traditional forms of legitimacy: the working class need appeal to no legitimacy but their own. We shouldn’t accept any old replacement either, and particularly not the impotent spiritual uplift of the ‘new politics’. Gilles Deleuze, observing the changes wrought by the end of the postwar consensus, wrote: ‘there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.’ Corbynism, for all of its limitations, represents the only part of the party sufficiently independent from the ruling class to understand and attempt that search.
What kind of weapon is Owen Smith? The collapse of trust in ‘reasonable’ politics which has led to both Brexit and the enduring popularity of Corbyn is part of a massive shift in social, economic and political tectonics, moved by molten underground forces that the Parliamentary Labour Party used to think they understood. Their response to that shift should leave no doubt about the ideological character of the coup against Corbyn. These people are conservatives in the classical mode, characterised by William F. Buckley as those who ‘stand athwart history, yelling Stop.’ They’ve chosen Owen Smith as their saviour, a man who thinks all that Labour is lacking is the expert salesmanship of a PR guy from the pharmaceuticals industry; who thinks Labour should respond to losing the EU referendum by simply Having Another One; and who thinks he gained crucial insights into the nature of social inequality by living in Surrey. This isn’t just a coup against Corbyn. It’s a coup against reality. Like volcanologists in denial, ‘moderates’ are still standing on the slopes fiddling with their instruments; socialists should be down in the crater, siding with the eruption.