Tony Blair – a warning.

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns.

Last week Tony Blair came to Kings College on the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party to seek to bury it.

Four core points stuck out from a word cloud of vaguely progressive sounding phrases that were otherwise as substantial and hard edged as a bowl of blancmanc.

1) That Labour has only been in power for a quarter of its history.

2) That elections are won “on the centre ground” by “broadening the coalition”.

3) There is a need for a “progressive realignment” with the Liberal Democrats – on an entirely undefined political prospectus.

4) That the current membership of the Labour Party is full of people who are an obstacle to this – because of their commitment to “old fashioned” things like public ownership (and peace) and are therefore a problem.

This is the Third Way greatest hits playlist. He even re-heated his old “gotcha” anecdote about a Party member in the early 90s complaining that Blair’s strategy was to get people who voted Tory to vote Labour – but changed the context and the gender of the member in the retelling, thereby making it about as plausible as David Cameron’s “I met a black man once” story. The laughter that greets this story as the penny drops is designed to obscure the content of the complaint (if there ever was one); that he was aiming to make Labour safe for Tory voters by being as much like the Tories as possible; and that is more of a problem than he seems to think.

His notion that somehow Labour should have been in power far more often reveals that he either does not grasp – or seeks to ignore – the fact that Labour  was set up 120 years ago to give the working class a voice and has therefore always been more of a cross class coalition than either the Liberals or Conservatives; which have always been unambiguously ruling class parties. Even though the currents that seek to be “statesmanlike” and “credible” and “a reliable Party of government” have usually been in the ascendancy, letting Labour into office is therefore a concession by the powers that be that they would really rather never make. Labour is therefore always playing uphill with the wind in its face – even at the most favourable of times.

The key phrase he used here is “you decide first and unite after”. And what he wants unity on is a significant move rightwards. He skids over what this might consist of and just how far right he wants to move so as not to scare the horses in the middle of a leadership election. A way to imagine it is to recall that he put a lot of effort into courting Rupert Murdoch and had the endorsement of the Sun in 1997. Think about what policies you’d have to adopt to get such an endorsement now and that’s your Blair manifesto for 2024.

This is of course entirely consistent with the practice of the right of the Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They did not agree with the decision of the members, so they did not unite; and many of them worked “every single day to bring forward the end of his tenure in Office” Peter Mandelson (1). Given the daily quantities of ordure dropped on Jeremy Corbyn from a great height since 2015 – with such significant sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party declaring him “unfit for office” right up to polling day – its quite miraculous we did as well as we did in the December election. Despite these attacks, Corbyn’s leadership and politics led to our two highest popular votes out of the four general elections held since the the 2008 crash and its important to register that, lest we lose ground in future. It should also be noted that Boris Johnson has given Ian Austen and John Woodcock peerages in eternal gratitude. Peter Mandelson already has one.

What is striking about this speech is the things he misses. He misses out the 2008 crash – and the impact this has had on removing the conditions for his sort of economic and political framework – altogether. He mentions the climate crisis but in an extraordinarily complacent way; as though its all in hand and will be taken care of one way or another by the wealthy and intelligent people (like him) who run the planet. He doesn’t mention the completely catastrophic economic and political course being followed by the United States in sabotaging the Paris process and doubling down on fossil fuels in an attempt to stave off the rise of China – scheduled to have an economy much bigger than the US by 2030 at current rates of growth. Nor that if the US succeeds we’re screwed and if they fail (given the scale of the Chinese investment in renewables) – there’s some hope. Its not surprising that he does this given his “pro western” orientation (which is entirely consistent – it seems- with him offering lucrative advice to the President of Kazakhstan).

His comments on antisemitism are very revealing. The problem he says is not so much antisemitism, but “the world view” of people who are pro Palestinian, or the “hard left” in general.  That world view is opposition to imperialism; which he sees as not “patriotic” and “anti Western”. The distinction between antisemitism and people having a dim view of Israel passes him by because he wants to elide the two. If they were in fact one and the same, the 54% of people in the UK who have a negative view of Israel would translate into a comparable figure for racist attitudes towards Jewish people. It doesn’t – thankfully. The rate for that is 4%. He ducked a question about military interventions – lest we remember what his abject subordination to the United States led to and how many people died as a result.

He uses lots of soothing phrases in a comforting montage of cliches – that all sound good if you like political muzak but have no content. “Modern”. “Future”. “Forward looking”. But on what we’d need to do he has nothing to say apart from negatives. He says the right will respond to the climate crisis and Artificial Intelligence in the wrong way, but doesn’t spell out how, nor what the correct way might be. The left way forward – the colossal state investment in the green transition that’s being done in China, and was being done in Bolivia until the coup – he dismisses as old fashioned stateism that the “public” is bound to reject. The close election result in 2017 passed him by it seems. The problem with this is that if we never elect a government that will do what needs to be done with democratic consent, and popular mobilisation, to do it, we will end up faced with one that does far more authoritarian things as a matter of necessity when the consequences of inaction are crashing life support systems all around us (and many of us will die as a result). As the The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change report chillingly put it “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” (2)

His notion that there should be an re-alignment of “progressive” forces begs a number of questions about what makes a party “progressive”. The Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories not just because the parliamentary arithmetic stacked up that way but because they were more aligned on economics. Blair would have been aligned that way too – and so would the people who supported his wing of the party – from Alasdair Darling to Chris Lesley. This would not be a “progressive” realignment but a centre right bloc with nowhere to go but austerity and “hard choices” dumping the costs of the crisis on those least able to bear them.

Four key points underline why a Blair is wrong and a “move to the centre” cannot work.

  1. No “return to normalcy” is on the cards and the future looks more like a trap than  a promise

The period we are in is defined by the 2008 crash and its aftermath. The “sweet spot” of the USA’s unipolar moment from 1991 to 2008, with cheap and ever expanding credit, buy now pay (through the nose) later PFI deals, cheap imports allowing governments to be grudgingly tolerated and re-elected with low votes while life slowly got better for most people has gone and won’t come back. People are insecure, pressured, uncertain, more political; but rarely well thought out about it. We  are – perhaps – about to hit another economic crash; with very little prospect of the same methods being viable to get out of it. At that point all sorts of unthinkable things will start to happen.

We also have the climate crisis inexorably becoming more apparent. . It is becoming apparent that we can no longer take our environment for granted as a generally safe space. People are waking up – and not just “woke” people. 

In such circumstances people tend to polarise – to either cling on hard to certainties that used to make sense, dancing ever more frantically to the old failed nationalist tunes, while snatching gratefully after small mercies – or look for answers beyond borders. On a global scale this can be simplified as a retreat into nationalism (America – or Britain – or wherever – First) and a “New Dark Age” (as the Daily Telegraph enthusiastically put it) or Global Green New Deal.

Parties of the  Left have to embrace the latter with policies and campaigns that both pose solutions and develop deeper social roots; so what we are proposals an expression of where our communities are at and overcome the fear of change that freezes them like hedgehogs in headlights waiting to be squashed. 

The Green New Deal must be right at the heart of things – but also posed as – “this is what it will mean for our town, city, neighbourhood”. In the run up to the General election, Labour Local Authorities had been asked – for example – to make plans for home insulation so that an incoming Labour government could hit the ground running and get this done. Putting those plans on the leaflets, citing examples of where such plans had began to be implemented, holding meetings about them in the affected communities could have been very effective in making the prospect of positive change real for people who might be sceptical about it.  

2. There is no individualist “aspirational” solution.

People want life to be better. We want our children to have decent work and security.  This has too often been posed as “aspirational” in the sense of “getting up and out” with “social mobility”. There is virtually no social mobility in the UK. We are the most unequal society in Europe and Brexit will copper bottom that. The individual route up and out is effectively blocked for almost everyone. This will only get worse under Johnson. We either try to organise collective solutions in this pressure cooker situation or people turn on each other with – expertly choreographed – blame games.

3. Neo -liberalism is bust.

Neo-liberalism – in shorthand – is the acceptance of the Thatcherite economic settlement.  It encompasses those strains of thought that argue that politics should be subordinated to a free market economics in which deregulation and privatisation are seen as solutions and the best those at the bottom can hope for is that the prosperity that this channels to the top will “trickle down”. This was a foundation stone for Tony Blair’s governments and made them acceptable to the powers that be. Since 2008 it has survived on life support because it functions very well for the 1%. It does nothing for the rest of us. Life expectancy in the UK is now in decline. As a foundation for a Labour government now it would be sand.

In 2010 part of the problem for Labour was that it embraced austerity almost as strongly as the Tories did in a bid to be “credible”. If you track the opinion polls from the 2010 election, the point at which Labour ceased to be gaining ground on the Tories was when Alasdair Darling announced that the cuts Labour would make would be more severe than Thatcher’s. “Credibility” was not credible with the voters.

To add insult to injury, in  George Osborne’s first budget, when he announced his eye watering £19 billion in cuts, he was at pains to point out that this was £1 billion less than he had been advised to cut by Alasdair Darling.

Had Labour been in office with such a policy – in the “national interest”- the effect would have been catastrophic; not only for the people affected by the cuts but also the Party. 

The fate of the European Social Democratic parties that have imposed such a programme in government, is an eloquent warning for where this leads. 

In Ireland it was not the Irish Labour Party that smashed the old sterile centre right duopoly in the General election this month, but Sinn Fein on an anti austerity programme. Irish Labour, having been in a coalition government with Fine Gael imposing austerity between 2011 and 2016 saw its share of the vote drop to 6% – below the Greens.

In Germany, the SPD, in a terribly responsible middle of the road coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, are currently polling at 14%.

In France, the Parti Socialiste never recovered from Francois Holland’s lacklustre pro austerity Presidency. It now has just 25 of 577 members of the National Assembly, its membership collapsed from 173 000 in 2012 to 40 000 in 2017 and is now polling at just 11%. The realignment of the “progressive centre” advocated by Blair and personified by Emmanuel Macron – which took a substantial slice of SP voters and members with – it has now collided brutally with the French trade unions in a series of bruising general strikes and is shedding both MPs and popular support. His Party, La Republique en Marche, is now polling at 18% with Macron himself having a 30% disapproval rating. (4)

The danger in all this is that opposition to the status quo is ceded to ethno-nationalist currents who blame immigrants – from the Alternative fur Deutschland to the Rassemblement Nationale (or the Brexit Party).

This is where Blair’s course leads.

We should compare this experience that of the Socialist Parties in Portugal and Spain which have opposed austerity in government and have formed governing coalitions with “Hard left” Parties like Podemos or the Portuguese Left bloc for a way ahead that we need to stick to. We have such a coalition already inside the Labour Party. Tony Blair would like to suicidally split it by driving out the left.

4. There are no “national” solutions and the Pax Americana guarantees war

There is an established view of what might be called the “national mission” which is replete with symbols and imagery from WW2 and Empire which holds us back into a nostalgia and fantasies of a “special relationship” with the United States. This has more hold with the old than the young, many of whom can see through it, but going beyond it – which we will need to do – requires us to  not so much live up to our past but live it down, and make up for it too –  as something we are not just doing for ourselves but the world.

This is a crucial issue because the glue that holds the right of the Labour Party together is not so much Europhilia as Atlanticism. Blair has – for now – abandoned any idea of rejoining the EU. This from the man that wanted to join the Euro. Quite what the glue would be to combine Labour with the Lib Dems in this context is unclear, but Atlanticism would be part of it. This is a tricky act to pull off in the age of Trump, who makes no concessions to the vanity of his auxiliaries; and its rather difficult to argue that we should be forever Robin to America’s Batman when Batman is behaving more and more overtly like the Joker: but it won’t stop them trying.  

Being “pro Western”, in the way the Labour right supports, means being signed up to a Pax Americana that’s in crisis. It is not a “safe” option. Not only because the US’s global thrashing around to hold on to its dominance in the face of a level of Chinese growth that will make the Chinese economy half as big again as its own within the decade, nor the prospect of being pulled in Trump’s wake into the international axis for climate change denial, but because of the domestic consequences flowing from Johnson’s projected post Brexit US trade deal. This poses ever deepening national subordination and humiliation at the hands of the Americans as their pharmaceutical companies latch on to the NHS and UK labour regulations are degraded to US levels. To pick two examples. the US is the only developed economy in which there is no guaranteed right to paid maternity leave and US holiday entitlements are half the European average. This will  hit the people who voted for Brexit – thinking that it would return them to a period of decent jobs with decent terms and conditions and less pressured public services – very hard indeed. They don’t know what’s going to hit them. Blair’s commitment to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there” (5) means that Labour would have no realistic framework to resist this.

The US is now smashing up many of the multilateral institutions that have previously mediated its dominance into a series of bilateral relationships that its easier for it to dominate – they are even blocking the selection of new judges for the World Trade Organisation Court because they don’t want to be held accountable to it. So there is no doubt that part of the price of the deal Johnson is lining up with Trump will be ever enthusiastic participation in US interventions, not just being a cheerleader for its destabilisation efforts across the world. The rapidity with which Dominic Raab flipped from calling for de-escalation to dropping right into line on Iran is the shape of things to come with this government. Not following suit is vital for Labour.

All this explains why Blair’s speech had to cover the consequences of following his line with such an easy listening soundtrack of soothing political muzak. He was very clear that a move slightly towards the centre – as with Keir Starmer – would not be enough for the forces he represents. The ruthless logic of recognising that Labour will no longer be tolerated as a safe alternative government by the ruling class so long as it retains a programme that challenges it, a mass membership that supports it, and institutional links to mass working class self organisation in the form of trade unions, leads inexorably in the direction of a Macron type formation jettisoning the left, or a US style Democrat Party without the Sanders/AOC wing. Those who start out on that road thinking that it need not lead so far or require the abandonment of so much have been warned and should take stock. This is a search for office without power. The challenge to us posed by the December result – on the contrary – is to organise to shift power at every level, utilising whatever levers and handles there are to struggle inside and through every level of what Gramsci described as the outworks of the state; so that an election victory represents genuine mobilised support throughout society out of the deep seated resistances to the tumultuous attacks we are about to face.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/21/peter-mandelson-i-try-to-undermine-jeremy-corbyn-every-day
  2. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071105_ageofconsequences.pdf
  3. NLR 120 Nov/Dec 2019. Snipers in the kitchen – State Theory and Latin America’s Left cycle. Juan Carlos Monodero
  4. https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/nov/13/biography.politicalbooks

Tony Blair is living in the past – we need a better future.

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns.

Tony Blair came to Kings College on the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party last week to seek to bury it.

Four core points stuck out from a word cloud of vaguely progressive sounding things that were otherwise as substantial and hard edged as a bowl of blancmanc.

1) That Labour has only been in power for a quarter of its history.

2) That elections are won “on the centre ground” by “broadening the coalition”.

3) There is a need for a “progressive realignment” with the Liberal Democrats – on an entirely undefined political prospectus.

4) That the current membership of the Labour Party is full of people who are an obstacle to this – because of their commitment to “old fashioned” things like public ownership (and peace) and are therefore a problem.

The key phrase he used here is “you decide first and unite after”. And what he wants unity on is a significant move rightwards. He skids over what this might consist of so as not to scare the horses. A way to imagine it is to recall that he put a lot of effort into courting Rupert Murdoch and had the endorsement of the Sun in 1997. Think about what policies you’d have to adopt to get such an endorsement now and that’s your Blair manifesto for 2024.

This is of course entirely consistent with the practice of the right of the Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They did not agree with the decision of the members, so they did not unite; and many of them worked “every single day to bring forward the end of his tenure in Office” Peter Mandelson (1). Given the daily quantities of ordure dropped on Jeremy Corbyn from a great height since 2015 – with such significant sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party throwing in their own faeces right up to polling day – its quite miraculous we did as well as we did in the December election. Despite these attacks, Corbyn’s leadership and politics led to our two highest popular votes out of the four general elections held since the the 2008 crash and its important to register that. It should also be noted that Boris Johnson has given Ian Austen and John Woodcock peerages in eternal gratitude. Peter Mandelson already has one.

This is the Third Way greatest hits playlist. He even re-heated his old “gotcha” anecdote about a Party member in the early 90s complaining that Blair’s strategy was to get people who voted Tory to vote Labour – but changed the context and the gender of the member in the retelling, thereby making it about as plausible as David Cameron’s “I met a black man once” story. The laughter that greets this story as the penny drops is designed to obscure the content of the complaint (if there ever was one); that he was aiming to make Labour safe for Tory voters by being as much like the Tories as possible; and that is more of a problem than he seems to think.

What is striking about this speech is the things he misses. He misses out the 2008 crash – and the impact this has had on removing the conditions for his sort of economic and political framework – altogether. He mentions the climate crisis but in an extraordinarily complacent way; as though its all in hand and will be taken care of one way or another by the wealthy and intelligent people (like him) who run the planet. He doesn’t mention the completely catastrophic economic and political course being followed by the United States in sabotaging the Paris process and doubling down on fossil fuels in an attempt to stave off the rise of China – scheduled to have an economy much bigger than the US by 2030 at current rates of growth. Nor that if the US succeeds we’re screwed and if they fail (given the scale of the Chinese investment in renewables) – there’s some hope. Its not surprising that he does this given his “pro western” orientation (which is entirely consistent – it seems- with him offering lucrative advice to the President of Kazakhstan).

His comments on antisemitism are very revealing. The problem he says is not so much antisemitism, but “the world view” of people who are pro Palestinian, or the “hard left” in general.  That world view is opposition to imperialism; which he sees as not “patriotic” and “anti Western”. The distinction between antisemitism and people having a dim view of Israel passes him by because he wants to elide the two. If they were in fact one and the same, the 54% of people in the UK who have a negative view of Israel would translate into a comparable figure for racist attitudes towards Jewish people. It doesn’t – thankfully. The rate for that is 4%. He ducked a question about military interventions – lest we remember what his abject subordination to the United States led to and how many people died as a result.

He uses lots of soothing phrases in a comforting montage of cliches – that all sound good if you like political muzak but have no content. “Modern”. “Future”. “Forward looking”. But on what we’d need to do he has nothing to say apart from negatives. He says the right will respond to the climate crisis and AI in the wrong way, but doesn’t spell out how, nor what the correct way might be. The left way forward – the colossal state investment in the green transition that’s being done in China, and was being done in Bolivia until the coup – he dismisses as old fashioned stateism that the “public” is bound to reject. The close election result in 2017 passing him by it seems. The problem with this is that if we never elect a government that will do what needs to be done with democratic consent, and popular mobilisation, to do it, we will end up faced with one that does far more authoritarian things as a matter of necessity when the consequences of inaction are crashing life support systems all around us (and many of us will die as a result). As the The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change report chillingly put it “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” (2)

His notion that there should be an re-alignment of “progressive” forces begs a number of questions about what makes a party “progressive”. The Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories not just because the parliamentary arithmetic stacked up that way but because they were more aligned on economics. Blair would have been aligned that way too – and so would the people who supported his wing of the party – from Alasdair Darling to Chris Lesley. This would not be a “progressive” realignment but a centre right bloc with nowhere to go.

Four key points underline why a Blair is wrong and a “move to the centre” cannot work.

  1. No “return to normalcy” is on the cards and the future looks more like a trap than  a promise

The period we are in is defined by the 2008 crash and its aftermath. The “sweet spot” of the USA’s unipolar moment from 1991 to 2008, with cheap and ever expanding credit, buy now pay (through the nose) later PFI deals, cheap imports allowing governments to be grudgingly tolerated and re-elected with low votes while life slowly got better for most people has gone and won’t come back. People are insecure, pressured, uncertain, more political but rarely well thought out about it. We  are – perhaps – about to hit another economic crash; with very little prospect of the same methods being viable to get out of it. At that point all sorts of unthinkable things will start to happen.

We also have the climate crisis inexorably becoming more apparent. . It is becoming apparent that we can no longer take our environment for granted as a generally safe space. People are waking up – and not just “woke” people. 

In such circumstances people tend to polarise – to either cling on hard to certainties that used to make sense, dancing ever more frantically to the old failed nationalist tunes, while snatching gratefully after small mercies – or look for answers beyond borders. On a global scale this can be simplified as a retreat into nationalism (America – or Britain – or wherever – First) and a “New Dark Age” (as the Daily Telegraph enthusiastically put it) or Global Green New Deal.

Parties of the  Left have to embrace the latter with policies and campaigns that both pose solutions and develop deeper social roots; so what we are proposals an expression of where our communities are at and overcome the fear of change that freezes them like hedgehogs in headlights waiting to be squashed. 

The Green New Deal must be right at the heart of things – but also posed as – “this is what it will mean for our town, city, neighbourhood”. In the run up to the General election, Labour Local Authorities had been asked – for example – to make plans for home insulation so that an incoming Labour government could hit the ground running and get this done. Putting those plans on the leaflets, citing examples of where such plans had began to be implemented, holding meetings about them in the affected communities could have been very effective in making the prospect of positive change real for people who might be sceptical about it.  

2. There is no individualist “aspirational” solution.

People want life to be better. We want our children to have decent work and security.  This has too often been posed as “aspirational” in the sense of “getting up and out” with “social mobility”. There is virtually no social mobility in the UK. We are the most unequal society in Europe and Brexit will copper bottom that. The individual route up and out is effectively blocked for almost everyone. This will only get worse under Johnson. We either try to organise collective solutions in this pressure cooker situation or people turn on each other with – expertly choreographed – blame games.

3. Neo -liberalism is bust.

Neo-liberalism – in shorthand – is the acceptance of the Thatcherite economic settlement.  It encompasses those strains of thought that argue that politics should be subordinated to a free market economics in which deregulation and privatisation are seen as solutions and the best those at the bottom can hope for is that the prosperity that this channels to the top will “trickle down”. This was a foundation stone for Tony Blair’s governments and made them acceptable to the powers that be. Since 2008 it has survived on life support because it functions very well for the 1%. It does nothing for the rest of us. Life expectancy in the UK is now in decline.

In 2010 part of the problem for Labour was that it embraced austerity almost as strongly as the Tories did in a bid to be “credible”. If you track the opinion polls from the 2010 election, the point at which Labour ceased to be gaining ground on the Tories was when Alasdair Darling announced that the cuts Labour would make would be more severe than Thatcher’s. “Credibility” was not credible with the voters.

To add insult to injury, in  George Osborne’s first budget, when he announced his eye watering £19 billion in cuts, he was at pains to point out that this was £1 billion less than he had been advised to cut by Alasdair Darling.

Had Labour been in office with such a policy – in the “patriotic” “national interest” that made “hard choices” to dump the costs of recovery on those least able to bear them – the effect would have been catastrophic; not only for the people affected by the cuts but also the Party. 

The fate of the European Social Democratic parties that have imposed such a programme in government, is an eloquent warning for where this leads. 

In Ireland it was not the Irish Labour Party that smashed the old sterile centre right duopoly in the General election this month, but Sinn Fein on an anti austerity programme. Irish Labour, having been in a coalition government with Fine Gael imposing austerity between 2011 and 2016 saw its share of the vote drop to 6% – below the Greens.

In Germany, the SPD, in a terribly responsible middle of the road coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, are currently polling at 14%.

In France, the Parti Socialiste never recovered from Francois Holland’s lacklustre pro austerity Presidency. It now has just 25 of 577 members of the National Assembly, its membership collapsed from 173 000 in 2012 to 40 000 in 2017 and is now polling at just 11%. The realignment of the “progressive centre” advocated by Blair and personified by Emmanuel Macron – which took a substantial slice of SP voters and members with – it has now collided brutally with the French trade unions in a series of bruising general strikes and is shedding both MPs and popular support. His Party, La Republique en Marche, is now polling at 18% with Macron himself having a 30% disapproval rating. (4)

The danger in all this is that opposition to the status quo is ceded to ethno-nationalist currents who blame immigrants – from the Alternative fur Deutschland to the Rassemblement Nationale (or the Brexit Party).

We should compare this experience that of the Socialist Parties in Portugal and Spain which have opposed austerity in government and have formed governing coalitions with “Hard left” Parties like Podemos or the Portuguese Left bloc for a way ahead that we need to stick to. We have such a coalition already inside the Labour Party. Tony Blair would like to suicidally split it.

4. There are no “national” solutions and the Pax Americana guarantees war

There is an established view of what might be called the “national mission” which is replete with symbols and imagery from WW2 and Empire which holds us back into a nostalgia and fantasies of a “special relationship” with the United States that will undo us if we let it. This has more hold with the old, but going beyond it – which we will need to do – requires us to  not so much live up to our past but live it down, and make up for it too – posed as something we are not just doing for ourselves but the world.

This is a crucial issue because the glue that holds the right of the Labour Party together is not so much Europhilia as Atlanticism. Blair has – for now – abandoned any idea of rejoining the EU. This from the man that wanted to join the Euro. Quite what the glue would be to combine Labour with the Lib Dems in this context is unclear, but Atlanticism would be part of it. This is a tricky act to pull off in the age of Trump, who makes no concessions to the vanity of his auxiliaries; and its rather difficult to argue that we should be forever Robin to America’s Batman when Batman is behaving more and more overtly like the Joker: but it won’t stop them trying.  

Being “pro Western”, in the way the Labour right supports, means being signed up to a Pax Americana that’s in crisis. It is not a “safe” option. Not only because the US’s global thrashing around to hold on to its dominance in the face of a level of Chinese growth that will make the Chinese economy half as big again as its own within the decade, nor the prospect of being pulled in Trump’s wake into the international axis for climate change denial, but because of the domestic consequences flowing from Johnson’s projected post Brexit US trade deal. This poses ever deepening national subordination and humiliation at the hands of the Americans as their pharmaceutical companies latch on to the NHS and UK labour regulations are degraded to US levels. To pick two examples. the US is the only developed economy in which there is no guaranteed right to paid maternity leave and US holiday entitlements are half the European average. This will  hit the people who voted for Brexit – thinking that it would return them to a period of decent jobs with decent terms and conditions and less pressured public services – very hard indeed. They don’t know what’s going to hit them. Blair’s commitment to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there” (5) means that Labour would have no framework to resist this.

The US is now smashing up many of the multilateral institutions that have previously mediated its dominance into a series of bilateral relationships that its easier for it to dominate – they are even blocking the selection of new judges for the World Trade Organisation Court because they don’t want to be held accountable to it. So there is no doubt that part of the price of the deal Johnson is lining up with Trump will be ever enthusiastic participation in US interventions, not just being a cheerleader for its destabilisation efforts across the world. The rapidity with which Dominic Raab flipped from calling for de-escalation to dropping right into line on Iran is the shape of things to come with this government. Not following suit is vital for Labour.

All this explains why Blair’s speech had to cover the consequences of following his line with such an easy listening soundtrack of soothing muzak. He was very clear that a move slightly towards the centre – as with Keir Starmer – would not be enough for the forces he represents. The ruthless logic of recognising that Labour will no longer be tolerated as a safe alternative government by the ruling class so long as it retains a programme that challenges it, a mass membership that supports it, institutional links to mass working class self organisation in the form of trade unions leads inexorably in the direction of a Macron type formation jettisoning the left or a US Democrat Party without the Sanders/AOC wing. Those who start out on that road thinking that it need not lead so far or require the abandonment of so much have been warned and should take stock. This is a search for office without power. The challenge to us posed by the December result – on the contrary – is to organise to shift power at every level, utilising whatever levers and handles there are to struggle inside and through every level of what Gramsci described as the outworks of the state; so that an election victory represents genuine mobilised support throughout society out of the deep seated resistances to the tumultuous attacks we are about to face.

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/21/peter-mandelson-i-try-to-undermine-jeremy-corbyn-every-day
  2. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/media/csis/pubs/071105_ageofconsequences.pdf
  3. NLR 120 Nov/Dec 2019. Snipers in the kitchen – State Theory and Latin America’s Left cycle. Juan Carlos Monodero
  4. https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/nov/13/biography.politicalbooks

Climate Crisis – which states are our allies?

Human civilisation is on course for a breakdown in the benign and stable climactic conditions that have been the condition for its development. This is a result of the rapid increase in greenhouse gas emissions generated by human agricultural and industrial activity, particularly since the industrial revolution, and especially in the last twenty years. The scale of this is greater than in any of the natural cycles of warming and cooling that have taken place throughout the holocene period (current interglacial). The last time there was a greater concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as there is today was before human evolution.

The trouble we have stored up for ourselves is becoming increasingly apparent in extreme weather events – hurricanes, floods, droughts, and their consequences, forest fires, unfarmable land, climate refugees, conflicts and wars resulting from the foregoing; alongside related issues like the accelerating loss of biodiversity and mass extinction.

Scenarios to avoid this written by academics are often premised on political conditions that we do not have – a presumption that the world has one political or economic system without significant variation – or a degree of universal understanding and political consensus that we don’t have either. There is no world government capable of re-wilding 50% of the planet or imposing a carbon ration: and if we had one, it would run into a lot of conflict if it tried to do it.

We nevertheless have to get from where we are now to where we need to be. And as quickly as we can.

The first point is that States Matter

In the absence of global governance, what different states do – and whose interests they represent – is of overwhelming importance. Protests are – in the last analysis – an attempt to get the state to do something, or to change a government, or transform it altogether if it does not. In the current state of international state relations, some states are part of the solution and are generally allies of the environmental movement – and some are not.

The Paris Agreement is both essential and inadequate. Countries will make targets and commit to reducing carbon emissions, then ratchet up those targets. If met, the projection is that the current targets would still leave us with 3C of heating by the end of the Century and, if not 4.3 – 4.8C; so the scale of the targets and the speed with which they are implemented need to be scaled up sharply if we are to cut off global heating at 1.5C, or even 2C.

The decisive crisis in this process is that the United States – currently the single wealthiest and most powerful country in the world – is pulling out of the Paris Agreement and pulling other countries – like Brazil – with it. Alongside it are countries like Saudi Arabia, Poland, Australia and Russia, which remain in the Agreement for now, but act to slow it down and impede its progress.

This abdication of global leadership by the US, and its move to actively sabotage what needs to be done, is a stark expression of the decline of the Pax Americana; which can no longer claim to stand as an example for humanity as a whole. Faced with the rise of China (symbolised by  Chinese technology companies edging ahead of US competition in 5G) the USA under Trump is projecting “America First” – breaking up and disrupting multilateral institutions which have hitherto bolstered its global predominance.

Trump and his supporters in the fossil fuel industries have been widely characterised as “climate change deniers”. This is not accurate. When Wells Griffith, Trump’s international energy and climate adviser argued at the Katowice COP that “we” (we, here, meaning the US government) “strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability” he is recognising that the current ways of ensuring prosperity are not sustainable, but will carry on doing it anyway – projecting a future in which the system we have accelerates faster and faster and higher and higher until it runs out of road, crashes and burns and we all burn with it.

Steve Bannon put this more graphically, “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” These guys know what’s happening. The 2007 US think tank report The Age of Consequences – The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change  projects the following “expected scenario” based on IPCC reports- “massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks”. Given that IPCC reports have tended to underplay the pace of developments – with levels of arctic ice melt already at levels not expected until mid century, its likely that the more severe scenario they sketch out is in their minds. In the event of environmental feed back loops getting out of control, instead of gradual degradation that we have time to adapt to, there is a sudden breakdown that overwhelms us, collapsing agricultural and economic systems and states. They state unblinkingly that “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage: deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” Just think about that for a moment and imagine it. Its quite clear who the half of the world that they expect to burn is. And not all of them are on the wrong side of Trump’s wall.

Some of the uber wealthy are seeking to escape the consequences are trying to find themselves bolt holes from this – buying estates in New Zealand, building underground bunker homes, or fantasising about living “off world”. Trump wants to build a wall, making the whole US a gated community. At least Wotan, at the end of Gotterdamerung, having condemned the world to die in flood and fire, has the good grace to sit in Valhalla with his broken spear, waiting patiently to be engulfed, so a new world can be born.

A change of President and change of course away from confrontation and towards a Green New Deal from 2020 is crucial both for the chances of the world meeting its targets and for the US transforming itself into a society with some chance of becoming sustainable. The version of the Green New Deal put forward by the US Green Party – to finance it by cutting US defence spending in half – thereby freeing up just under $350 billion a year- is something of a challenge for US democracy – but has the merit of pointing out that it is a strange version of “defence” to spend as much on armaments as the rest of the world put together, while deploying soldiers, aircraft and ships in “around 600” overseas bases (according to the Pentagon). Any other country doing that would be denounced as an aggressive predator and threat to democracy.

In the Trump trade war with China, which will continue for four more years if he is re-elected next year, the US is doubling down on fossil fuels and locking itself into an outmoded technology: with subsidised petrol (and the fracking and wars for oil that go with it) relaxed emissions standards, overuse of internal flights (no high speed rail) sprawling energy hungry suburbs and crumbling interstates – the American way of life. In so far as it has a vision of the future it is a peculiarly old fashioned one (the present, only more so) that – crucially – requires climate change denial.

The world view of neo-liberalism, which is not confined to Trump and his supporters – that the current form of human relations is natural and eternal, that “there is no alternative” that “business as usual” is “going forward” forever and ever world without end – is unable to take on board the reality of climate change. In its own discourse it reduces it to being an idea among other ideas that can be argued with or denied – not a reality we can see and feel around us and that we have to respond to. It has been pointed out that, while the Chinese government is composed for the most part of scientists and engineers *- people whose whole being is geared to solving real world problems – the highest levels of US government are filled with lawyers – people whose role is trying to cheat the facts and conjure up a deceptive self serving narrative if that’s what it takes to win a case; which works fine in court, but not if you are trying to argue with the laws of physics (which are starting to sit in terrible judgement).

The Chinese – on the other hand – get it . This is symbolised in a startling statistic. Of the 425 000 electric buses in the world, 5 000 of them are not in China. Just think about what that means for a moment. Here are some further contrasts.

  • The US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation, which has brought down the costs of solar panels so far that India and Vietnam – previously committed to  a big expansion of coal plants – are now going solar in a big way – and this is having a global effect even in wealthier countries too. China itself already has double the renewable energy capacity of the US and is still investing in it at a qualitatively greater rate (another £292 billion going in by next year).
  • Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, presumably on the principle that what you don’t know can’t hurt you, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
  • the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, abandoning targets that were already quite lenient, and stands against international co-operation; while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions, are set to achieve their 2030 Paris targets between 5 and 9 years early and will ratchet them up.

None of this implies that China has always got everything right, nor that improvements can’t be made. Its huge tree planting programme – which has significantly increased forest cover – has been widely criticised for lacking biodiversity; creating woods more like Forestry Commission plantations than restored ancient woodland; so projects using diverse native species are now being brought in to address this.

The overall conclusion however is clear. On the most decisive question facing humanity, China is part of the solution while the US is part of the problem; and the environmental movement in the West needs to be very clear about that. The result of this clash – and the fall out from it – will be decisive in determining how much of a future the world has.

Its important to stress this because the news we receive in the UK is heavily filtered through a world view in which the US’s own assessment of itself as a globally progressive guarantor of human rights – as compared with any competing power -is taken as good coin. To argue that China is doing more for humanity than the US has to fight its way past a wall of scepticism. But, just consider this. The US prison system holds seven times as many people per head of population as China does. It even locks up more people in absolute terms (2.1 million in the US to 1.6 million in China) with a population barely a quarter the size. So far, this year, the number of people shot and killed by the police in the US is 614 (Washington Post). In China, its 2 (Wikipedia).

These figures jolt because they invert comfortable settled presumptions about the US’s relative standing that might be expected in most of the media; but they are also the dominant view throughout society and even in some sections of the left and environment movements. This is despite experience to the contrary.

There is therefore a certain vulnerability on the part of these movements to campaigns waged indirectly by the US designed to use us for its own ends. These are usually run through the National Endowment for Democracy. This body is funded by the US Congress to organise “human rights” organisations in countries that the US wishes to destabilise; which usually run very noisy  social media campaigns designed to go straight to people’s emotions. It is important to bear in mind that even where there are concerns that need to be addressed in either the policy or the practice of the states concerned, the aim of the US backed campaign will be directed at portraying everything about the country concerned through this lens, usually in a wildly exaggerated way, with an aim to bring down a regime that is unfavourable to its interests, partly by inoculating public opinion across the world against it. The extent to which “human rights” are a genuine concern can be gauged by the way the US has operated in Latin America almost from its foundation.

An exchange in Congress between Rep Ilhan Omar and Trump’s envoy to Venezuela Elliott Abrams is very revealing. Abrams stated that protecting human rights is “always the policy of the United States.” This is the same Elliott Abrams who was Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Inter American Affairs in the 1980s. In this role he oversaw support for Contra Terrorists in Nicaragua, Death Squads in El Salvador and an anti insurgency campaign in Guatemala that led to the President at the time being charged with genocide by a later government. Yet, the protection of human rights is “always the policy of the United States.”

The intervention of NED activists into the crisis of the Amazon rain forest fires is a warning. Keen to divert attention from the culpability of President Bolsonaro in Brazil – who is in favour of forest clearances in the Amazon to bolster soya production, dismantled the protections brought in by the previous Workers Party governments and even now is only imposing a moratorium on slash and burn fires for 60 days – they sought to divert attention to fires in Boliva – a tiny fraction of those in Brazil – and blame President Evo Morales – a thorn in the US side who is firmly committed to the Paris Agreement – and who is facing an election in November. Morales, declared a national state of emergency and suspended his re-election campaign to fight the fires, sending in 4 000 troops, firefighters and vets and contracting a Boeing 747 supertanker to help douse the flames; with the result that 85% of them were out within eight days. Buying and selling land in the affected areas has been banned to stop profiteers moving in, and his government has been praised by the United Nations for its swift and decisive action. By contrast Bolsonaro was more concerned to claim that NGO’s had deliberately started the fire to discredit him than to find any practical solutions. This was of no concern to the NED activists who focussed entirely on Bolivia and mentioned Bolsonaro not at all. 

So, the environmental movement needs to be very clear about who its allies are at state level in the current global struggle. Recognising that Morales is part of the solution while Bolsonaro is a – big – part of the problem is part of this. Disagreement or criticism of an ally should take a different form from criticism of an enemy and we need to be clear who is who. This is not always easy. In the context of an increasingly delirious form of political discourse – in which exaggerated and unrestrained claims are made and images hyped for emotional impact – it behoves us all to keep a cool head and the overall picture in mind: so we are not stampeded off in a direction that is the opposite of the one we need to be heading.

End of part 1. Part 2 will look at strategy in the UK.

 

*https://gineersnow.com/leadership/chinese-government-dominated-scientists-engineers