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The New Statesman recently published a piece with an arresting title, “To combat left anti-semitism, Corbynism must change the way it sees the world”. The piece, by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, quickly started wracking up shares on Facebook and Twitter.
As a supporter of the Corbyn project, the past week has proved variously upsetting and confusing. After several faltering starts, the comments from the Party leadership point us towards a constructive way forward.
But there remain many unconstructive paths we could go down, ones that would do nothing either to combat anti-semitism or to advance the cause of the left.
Bolton and Pitts’ article goes down just such a path.
Their piece suggests that the “deep seated theoretical underpinnings of left critique of capitalism” have “anti-semitism as their logical consequence.” Corbyn, meanwhile, is supposedly blind to these consequences and instead continues to condemn a “rigged system.”
The answer, according to Bolton and Pitts, is to move away from “personalised critiques” focused on the “machinations of the 1%”. Instead, we should adopt a reading of Marx focused on how “capitalist social relations fundamentally shape the way in which we live.”
This dichotomy, though, is utterly false.
Leaving aside crude readings of Marx, there is nothing inconsistent about a critique that appreciates both the fundamental inequalities built into capitalist social relations and the role of elite power in making those inequalities worse.
Conspiracy theories about Jewish bankers are disgusting, obscurantist and obviously false. Elite power is not a matter of a religious/ethnic minority secretly orchestrating global finance – that implication has had murderous consequences. But in pushing back against racist stereotypes, we should not cast aside entirely the vital point that people with power and wealth try and defend that power and wealth, and that has a huge impact on global politics. Conspiratorial tropes are not the same as criticism of an elite concentration of wealth and power, or of its implications for our democracy.
If conspiracy and critique were the same, then it wouldn’t just be Jeremy Corbyn or left-wing cranks who had something to answer for. Many of the leading journals in sociology and political science would also be in the dock.
Indeed, the high-ranking journal, Perspectives on Politics, in 2014 published a widely-cited article indicating that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have a significant impact on US government policy. Average citizens and mass-based groups, meanwhile, have little to none. These results, according to authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Princeton and Northwestern University respectively, present a major challenge to much-touted theories of US democracy as majoritarian and inclusive.
Another top-ranking journal, the American Political Science Review, in 2009 published an article demonstrating how Conservative MPs in post-war Britain profited after leaving office largely through lucrative outside employment they acquired due to their political connections.
This is the “rigged system” peer reviewed and published.
But it isn’t just that an analysis of elite power can pass academic muster. We clearly don’t need experts to tell us what the Occupy movement was perfectly capable of discerning for itself in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
What’s so critical—and refreshing—about a left critique of elite power is that it’s properly political.
Yes, a capitalist system will itself generate certain automatic and inegalitarian outcomes. But that analysis is not enough. We also need to understand past and present struggles to “tame” capitalism, or indeed, attempts to unleash it and let it run wild.
This is fundamentally a story about political organisation and influence, and over the 20th century, it’s a story of truly great transformations, to borrow from the brilliant Mark Blyth.
In industrialised democracies, we saw various coalitions first mobilise to construct the welfare state, to push for more progressive taxation, a more stringent regulatory regime, and the like. We then saw, especially since the 1970s, a different business-centred coalition consolidate and roll back those earlier gains, using their political influence to improve their ability to accumulate, unfettered (or often abetted) by the State itself.
Back to “Corbynism”, whose mission it is to bring about nothing short of the next great transformation.
It certainly does not ignore problems to do with a capitalist system, for instance, through policies advocated in Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership report.
It also does not shy away from the political realism needed to recognise that, yes, in many ways our system is rigged. How else, as revealed last week and condemned by Corbyn, could Google pay a UK tax bill of only £50m despite nearly £6b of sales in the country?
So, returning now to Bolton and Pitts, do they just have a strange reading of Marx? Possibly, but that alone wouldn’t matter very much.
What matters is that, by conflating left critiques of power with anti-semitic conspiracy, they collapse boundaries and help further delegitimate a kind of left analysis that is already widely viewed as suspect. Hence the routine attacks on Corbyn as populist, pandering, even Trumpian (as in the Bolton and Pitts piece).
But we need Corbyn’s “rigged system” narrative for the left to be politically effective. Because, yes, political and economic elites wield disproportionate and largely self-serving influence. And yes, that influence comes from pouring immense resources into political organising, lobbying, and the purposeful undermining of left interest groups like unions.
If we abandon that perspective, it wouldn’t just be Corbyn changing his worldview. We’d lose the power of the Corbyn project – its willingness to hold elites to account.