Patriotism: Enemy Terrain

Starmer shagging a flag
Dave Brown, Independent

Keir Starmer’s consultants have suggested a focus on ‘flag’ and ‘patriotism’. It’s not just the left criticizing Keith’s focus-group gestures – the commentariat is also recognising how lacking in ideas he is.

The sycophants have a ready answer: Labour has to seem patriotic to win, everyone thought Corbyn hates Britain, ordinary people like the flag, etc, etc. This is beside the point. The trouble is how empty of content this is. This flag-shagging is nothing but a gesture on terrain thoroughly owned by the right.

That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t make any forays on this terrain. Matt Widdowson’s thoughtful article on socialist patriotism argues the need to articulate ‘a genuine love of our country and its people — in opposition to the militarism and imperialism’. I’m still personally uncomfortable with British patriotism while we leach off the third world and so forth, but I can see the need of the narrative in electoral strategy.

The trouble is that nobody I’m aware of has ever came closer to articulating this positive vision than Jeremy Corbyn, and he was lambasted as a Britain-hating nutter despite being a mild socdem. The whole territory of patriotism is occupied by rabid Tory nationalism.

Caring about the nation’s poor – unpatriotic. Wanting our services properly run in-house – unpatriotic. Wanting out of the middle east – unpatriotic. Why? Because he thought people in other countries were also human, dislikes the Empire, etc. Corbyn wasn’t a nationalist, which is why everyone got convinced he wasn’t a patriot. The Tories sell all our stuff off to the lowest bidder and treat our people like shit, but they’re ‘patriotic’ because they love poppies and bombs.

Attempts to articulate progressive patriotism in some form will contradict the nationalist poison inherent in the mainstream view of what patriotism means, and thus be branded Britain-hating. Attempts to hang on the coattails of the symbols will be seen as the empty focus-group tripe it is. Why would flag-shaggers go for fake flag-shaggers when Boris is right there, rutting the thing with wild abandon?

The whole thing is hard, and Keith doesn’t get it. I don’t have an easy answer either. The right has overseen over 100,000 Covid deaths and, before that, similar numbers through austerity. They’re still polling around 40%.

Voters this brainwashed will not go for a watered-down version of revanchist nationalism when the real thing is available. It’s possible to articulate a progressive patriotism, but trying to win the right’s culture war by hanging on the flag’s coattails is a fools’ errand.

Why not go for the people who are reachable, with a meaningful platform to address their material circumstances? The thing that could’ve won in 2017, if it weren’t for backstabbing centrists? By all means have a flag in the background of that speech – but still expect the usual suspects to rant about you hating white people.

Someone will be pissed off regardless, but trying to offend nobody won’t inspire anybody.

Leaked Labour Report

These revelations should end any debate around whether Labour’s senior management team, including McNicol, were serious about a Labour government in 2017. To the contrary what this stunning cache of documents reveals is how McNicol – and a tight, unelected circle around him – made every effort to undermine and denigrate that year’s election campaign, frequently stating how they hoped it would fail while simultaneously planning to replace Jeremy Corbyn from as early as January. – Novara Media

A leaked report makes plain the extent to which anti-Corbyn staffers – including former general secretary McNicol – sabotaged the party, actively undermined it in the 2017 election, targeted those they deemed a ‘trot’ (‘anyone left of Gordon Brown’), and intentionally mishandled antisemitism complaints to tar the leadership with their own failures to properly respond to allegations.

This use of antisemitism as a factional football is, of course, grossly antisemitic. The report refers to a case of holocaust denial being sat on, all to help falsely brand the Corbyn wing as antisemitic.

Here is Novara Media’s selection of extracts regarding the 2017 election.

Here is Emilie Oldknow saying she had Tom Watson delay the expulsion of Ken Livingston (for antisemitism) to embarrass Jeremy Corbyn, despite his demanding a resolution.

Here are Rod Liddle’s (apparently he’s a member?) shameful public statements being ignored due to factional allegiance.

You’ll be able to find the full report, if you can stomach it.

This is a true test of Keir Starmer’s commitment to ‘unity’ and ‘fighting antisemitism’. Anyone complicit in this should have no place in politics.

Of Course We Can Afford It!

Many people are sceptical of the 2019 Labour Manifesto – can we afford it? Where’s the magic money tree?

It’s actually eminently affordable, and would make the economy better for years to come. Here’s how.

It really isn’t that expensive, seriously.

Here’s a graph from The Times (hardly a radical publication!)

Labour manifesto cost graph

Many estimations of the upfront costs are inflated or decontextualised to seem scarier. A few more percent of GDP spent on long-needed investment hardly threatens cataclysm, so stop raving about Venezuela.

We can’t afford to not do this stuff.

Is the economy really working right now? Who for?

Food banks have gone from virtually unknown to a regular feature of life. We have high in-work poverty. Child homelessness has soared by 80%. There are schools asking parents for basic supplies.

I could go on and on. Austerity continues to have a savage toll. It’s not a coincidence that so many things are at a record worst. This didn’t just happen, it was done by the Conservatives (and Lib Dems). It is unnecessary, outrageous, and unforgivable.

Isn’t it curious that when ‘we’ had to tighten our belt, that meant telling an emaciated man to find work but didn’t mean doing anything to slightly inconvenience billionaires?

If we have any pretensions of being a civilised society, we must invest in vital services and support secure work with a living wage. We are supposedly one of the wealthiest nations. We shouldn’t have food banks.

Suppose all this had happened under a Corbyn government. Would you then be talking about ‘socialist bread lines’? Think about that very seriously.

Prof Mariana Mazzucatto says:

[O]verall, the economy is not growing through investment, but private debt-fuelled consumption, putting the ratio of private debt to disposable income back at the level it was before the crisis. And that, not public debt, caused it.

Investment generates returns.

Many sources will compare merely an expected cost (likely an inflated figure) of policies with expected revenue from tax changes. This is tipping the scale – the whole point of investments is to generate some return, whether through savings downstream or growth.

Comparing the economy to household spending – a simple money in, money out – is stupid for many reasons, one of them being that households don’t tend to invest money to gain new income. But this is one of the things public spending should be about (with public welfare being another critical, tragically sidelined priority).

It’s still a flawed analogy, but compare the economy to a business instead. If you run a struggling business, is the only option you have to reduce outgoings? Do you fire all your staff and sell all the chairs? No!

Prof Simon Wren-Lewis concludes:

[A] Labour government implementing all or the major part of this manifesto will mean the economy as a whole will end a decade of low output and wage growth that has stifled UK innovation and productivity growth.

We should ignore the tired old discourse about whether we can pay for it, and focus on the benefits each individual spending increase or investment project might bring, and on the revitalisation of the economy that this manifesto will generate.

And do you realise how wasteful privately owned energy, water, etc is? Nationalising these oligopolies away pays for itself.

Based on intensive empirical research, this paper shows that public ownership of utilities would result in annual savings of just under £8bn – so nationalisation would pay for itself in less than seven years[.]

But the 1970s!’

For heaven’s sake, the 1970s had a specific, complex international context – the fall of Bretton Woods, the OPEC oil embargo… unless you’re prepared to go into the weeds of all this, you simply don’t have an argument. What you have is a tired scare story about the past, when nurses are resorting to food banks today.

A more apt comparison for Labour’s plans would be the modern social democracies – which, far from rerunning the Winter of Discontent, are doing better than us on most meaningful metrics. Many other decent countries have elements of key Labour policies.

Even within the UK, compare Preston’s in-sourcing success to Tory councils almost going bankrupt!

But New Labour ruined the economy!’

1 – This isn’t them any more, thank heavens!

2 – The Tories have had power for a while now – and everything is crumbling.

Ok though, let’s talk about the crash.

Loathe as I am to defend Blair or Brown, let’s acknowledge that the crash was an international crisis that began with US mortgage markets. It would have been difficult to entirely insulate the UK.

Having said that, one of the many big mistakes they made was failing to properly regulate the financial sector. Everybody knows this.

Would the Tories have done it? We know not – if nothing else, they’ve had the reins for a while now and haven’t done so!

As for the ‘no money left’ note: do people not understand what a dark joke is? This is a tradition among leaving ministers.

The only previous example of a similar note being made public came in 1964, when Conservative chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling left a message in his Whitehall office after being forced out by election defeat, telling his Labour replacement James Callaghan: “Good luck, old cock…. Sorry to leave it in such a mess.”

The problem wasn’t ‘spending too much’ (see the social democracies again), the problem was unstable finance and asset price inflation led growth – which only Labour will finally get us out of by investing in the real economy. Reforms such as a financial transactions tax (disincentivising speculative high-frequency trading in favour of real investments) will help fight the exact issues that burst in 2008.

But Dianne Abbott!’

One MP flubbing an interview once is relevant to a manifesto how?

Phillip Hammond got the cost of HS2 wrong by £20bn in an interview. That by itself surely isn’t enough to completely disregard Hammond or the Tories, is it?

(Let’s not pretend we don’t all know exactly what the double standard is about.)

I’ll tell you something that is relevant to a manifesto, though. The entire conservative party wants to convince you that 20,000 is a higher number than 21,732. Is this what credibility looks like?

(Any Tory MPs reading: if you’re confused about how numbers work, here’s a tip from Big Shaq.)

If the manifesto really is so unaffordable, make honest arguments.

If there are good arguments to be made, why not make them instead of setting up a fake ‘labour manifesto’ website to mislead people?

Temporarily rebranding their press account as an independent fact checker, doctoring a video of Keir Starmer… if our policy is so bad, why resort to desperate underhand tricks?

All the right seems to have is falsehood, easily debunkable canards, and hysterical comparisons to Stalin at the prospect of making corporation tax what it was in 2010. I’m simply not seeing much of real substance.

It seems like what scares leading Tories and their friends isn’t the prospect of Labour ‘trashing the economy’, but changing who it works for. It’s great for them if landlords charge exorbitant rents, bosses pay a pittance to zero-hour workers subsidised by insufficient benefits, and the profits all stack up in tax havens. And if they’ve conned you into agreeing with them, they’re laughing all the way to the Caymans.

Links Post 2

Some things I found interesting.

Lyta Gold discussing class – as an element often left out of intersectionality, or just given lip-service without really being considered. E.g., when it gives upper-middle class white liberals an opportunity to get mad at Bernie Sanders for supposedly dismissing identity. While class-reductionism is of course dumb and bad, on the whole it seems class is under-addressed.

Jonas Fossli Gjersø on Corbyn not being a terrifying tankie:

Another moniker Mr Corbyn’s detractors often apply to his policies are that they derive from some so-called extreme of the political spectrum, that they are ‘hard left’ and ergo hopelessly idealistic and unworkable. To a Norwegian observer such as myself I find this characterisation puzzling. Mr Corbyn’s policy-platform, particularly in regard to his domestic policies are largely identical with the Norwegian Labour Party manifesto. Railway nationalisation, partial or full state ownership of key companies or sectors, universal healthcare provisions, state-funded house-building, no tuition fee education, education grants and loans to name but a few, enjoy near universal support among the Norwegian electorate, in fact, they are so mainstream that not even the most right-wing of Norwegian political parties would challenge them.

And this is not only the case in Norway, but has been integral to the social-democratic post-war consensus in all the Nordic countries. Judging by almost any measure of social indicators these policies have been a success, the Nordic region enjoys some of the world’s highest living standards and presumably should be a model to be emulated rather than avoided. Obviously the Nordic region is no earthly paradise and there are cultural, economic and historical differences between the UK and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, but if there is such a thing as a ‘best practice approach’ in public policy the Nordic model would probably be it and, at any measure, a useful benchmark for Britain to move towards.

(Sidenote: within the UK, compare ‘Corbynomic’ Preston‘s success to Tory councils going bankrupt.)

Nathan Robinson, on when conservatives accidentally admit that the free market can restrict freedom:

From every other PragerU video, I would get the impression that corporations cannot be “Big Brother,” because we choose whether to interact with them or not. It’s a free market, and if you don’t like the product on offer, you can go and find another product. […] Say a context where an employee had been fired for handing out a pro-union pamphlet, or a customer had been asked to leave a Walmart for refusing to stop waving a Palestinian flag. I doubt many capitalists would argue that the right to free speech trumps the right of an owner to decide which speech to allow on their property.

When conservatives like Bozell criticize YouTube and Facebook as abridging freedom of speech, then, they implicitly concede that private companies can have the power of governments, that “Big Brother” can be in either the public sector or the private sector. They accept Elizabeth Anderson’s point that corporations are private governments structured as dictatorships. If the gateway to the “public square” is policed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s policed by the state police or the security firm hired by the asset management company that owns the gate. […]

My instinctive reaction here is to roll my eyes and say “Oh, so you’re saying that concentrated power in the hands of unaccountable self-interested private actors can abridge people’s freedom?”

Conservative journalist Peter Oborne – Corbyn’s right on Iran:

Corbyn is right to challenge claims emanating from the White House about Iran. His call for Britain to “act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation,” is common sense.

This is not the first time that the Labour leader has been the voice of caution when the British political class have rushed towards war. He took a brave and lonely stand when the British political establishment followed George W Bush into the Iraq disaster.

He was vindicated by events when he warned against the invasion of Afghanistan. He was one of only a dozen MPs who voted against David Cameron’s terribly misjudged intervention in Libya. […]

It’s only in the UK that expressing alarm about the bellicose Iranian policy of Donald Trump is regarded as unpatriotic. Germany and Japan have both made it clear that they don’t regard the evidence of Iranian involvement produced so far as conclusive.

 

The Mad Lads Only Went And Done It

independent group

7 Tory Labour MPs left the party on Monday, forming the Independent Group.

It’s unclear what they’re standing for. They’re obviously against Corbynism, but their own position seems rather nebulous. As this article says: they’re not actually a party yet, they describe their platform with vague principles rather than policy proposals (‘It is time we dumped this country’s old-fashioned politics and created an alternative that does justice to who we are today’), and, as member Angela Smith said, they’re ‘sensible’ and ‘centrist’.

Thank heavens someone’s finally there for the silent majority of Brits, crying out for a less exhilarating version of the Lib Dems.

Corbyn’s economic and foreign policy is too hard-left: despite it generating a surge in membership and the largest increase in vote share since Attlee, people won’t vote for that! The one policy this fresh new group are probably concrete on – a second referendum – is by their own admission mathematically impossible to get through the Commons. But it must be really popular with the public, because the Lib Dems are at double digits in some of the polls.

Chris Leslie said that Labour had been ‘hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left’. When a party swells to half a million members, who hit the streets door-knocking to help earn you a seat, and increase your majority, speaking of that as hijacking is… a bit churlish? Shouldn’t any politician want their party to be popular? For heaven’s sake, be glad about it and work together against the Tories!

But, in good old democracy when convenient style, the Independent Group are happy to keep the seats Labour voters and members put them into. ‘By-elections are not what are needed right now’, Leslie says. Not needed by who? Not the voters who elected him under a Labour ticket, that’s for sure.

They’ve already torpedoed any moral authority they might have had. It takes some really powerful galaxy-brains to leave a party because a small proportion of its half a million members are racist, and within hours of your launch have one of your seven members describing POC as ‘black or a funny tinge.’ The totally not racist party – well, only 14% of them. And however flawed Labour’s procedures might be, at least it has them!

Well, we’ll see how many votes they scrounge up. And from who.

It’s All Ideology

A few weeks ago Phil Ebersole’s post Is a non-BS economy even possible? discussed the possibility of solving the problem of BS jobs raised by David Graeber.

Phil quoted Obama from The Nation, saying:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have. … Everybody who supports single-payer healthcare says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents 1 million, 2 million, 3 million jobs of people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?”

To me that quote from Obama clearly represented a common way centrists talk about ideology. At the time I commented:

[…]Well, that is ideological, isn’t it? It takes a particular ideological scope to decide what trade-offs are worth or not worth making.

I don’t think those private insurance jobs are worth enough to justify people having to die because they’re poor, ration medicine to save money, choose between health and debt, and so on. Maybe I’m biased as a Brit with the NHS, but Obama sounds very ideologically driven indeed to me there, and I don’t like the ideology.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit more since, because the issue of how we discuss ideology, ‘extremes’, and ‘rational moderates’ strikes me as an important one.

Obama was speaking as though he was free of ideology – that ideologues at the extremes push for particular policies to suit their philosophy, while he disinterestedly follows the data. That is a mistake. All politics is ideological.

I already am eating from the trash can all the time. The name of this trash can is ideology. The material force of ideology makes me not see what I am effectively eating. - Slavoj Zizek

The idea that we can make a politics from pure reason and empiricism sounds nice – certainly it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a better, more rational picture of reality to act from. But in the end, acting on the data requires making choices. Choices to maximise certain things and minimise others, to decide when given trade-offs are acceptable or not, to get towards one vision of society and away from another.

How much do we care about private insurance jobs vs access to affordable healthcare? What society are we trying to make? How do we want to live? It’s not as simple as just ‘maximise GDP’. At some point, principles and value judgements have to get involved: ideology.

You can guess from my blog’s title what I think of Ayn Rand, but there is one quote from her that struck a chord with me when I heard it: ‘As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy.’

Claim to be non-ideological, and you’re making a serious mistake. You have an ideology absorbed from the society around you, and you don’t even know what it is. If you don’t know what it is, you can’t question it. It’s harder to understand or learn from people with different views if you assume that either a) one of you is just wrong about the facts, or b) they’re a crazy ideologue.

Thinking that people at either edge of the political landscape are extremists while the true rational position is somewhere in the middle is itself an ideological position, tied to the status quo. It’s important to remember that the ‘rational centre’ is apt to move over time, and even occupies a different position in different countries.

On the issue of healthcare, a UK centrist wouldn’t consider scrapping the NHS and replacing it with the US system. That is a far-right position to us. In the US, Medicare For All is a hard sell, despite public popularity, and Obama had to fight tooth and nail to get milquetoast reforms pushed through.

This discrepancy should help show how contingent and fluid the idea of the centre is. If the centre for one country is an extreme for another, how can the centre anywhere be so confident in its moderate reasonableness, non-ideological objectivity? Historical perspective raises the issue still further. History is littered with stories of people at the extremes pushing for rightful change, while the moderates called for calm and reason and common sense.

In Letter From a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr wrote:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I’m suspicious when policies or politicians are dismissed solely because they fail to sit on a ‘reasonable, moderate, rational’ middle which is contingent, apt to move, representing an unquestioned status quo.

For example, the narrative of ‘Labour moderates’ (aka, Blairites) vs ‘hard left’ Corbynistas strikes me as dishonest. It isn’t an attempt to critique proposed policies as harmful or misinformed, but because they’re ‘ideological’, as though neoliberalism isn’t. It’s a failure to recognise that the neoliberalism we swim in now is ideological, and open to critique or defence like anything else. It takes the status quo for granted as a natural standard, and its defenders as the only adults in the room.

I’d much rather see attacks on Corbyn that attempt to defend neoliberalism through argument than ones that take it for granted as The Way Things Are. Similarly, critics of Bernie Sanders must reckon with the fact that, not so long ago, Obama would’ve been a moderate Republican and Bernie fairly normal. Mainstream Democrats and Blairites seeking to get others on board should recognise that they have an ideology, and defend it as such.

We aren’t beings of pure intellect who can look at graphs and spew out the objectively ideal way to order society. It’s not that graphs are bad – more facts would be good, more objective data would be good, more rational thought would be good. But we cannot escape from having an ideology. In using our reason and our knowledge, we also have to consider what it is we value, what society and individuals are to us, what sort of world we would like to make.

When moderates claim to be non-ideological they’re treating the status quo as though it’s a natural law which dropped from the sky, when it’s rooted in a specific view of the world just as much as the farthest fringes of the right and left are. We all have an ideology. It’s vital to accept that, and take no view for granted.