Jeremy Corbyn: a Polanyian critique

08 September 2016

Craig Berry - Deputy Director at SPERI

Corbynism represents a ‘fictitious commodity’ in the UK’s political marketplace

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn would be forgiven for assuming that, if one were to assess Corbynism – an admittedly crude term for the perspective of the Labour Party’s current leader and his main allies – through the prism of Karl Polanyi’s dialectical framework, the perspective represents a historical ‘counter-movement’.  As such it aims to re-embed the economy in social relations, in response to a neoliberal ‘first movement’ which sought originally do dis-embed the economic organisation from the social sphere by fetishising the notion of the free market.

This, essentially, is how Polanyi understood the early-mid twentieth century emergence of the welfare state in advanced capitalist economies. Arguably, Corbynism offers a response to the Hayekian undoing of the Keynesian state from the late 1970s onwards, which his predecessors as Labour leader had sought to accommodate rather than challenge.

However, I believe this would be an overly-simplistic account of the politics of Corbynism, and indeed of the application of the Polanyian framework to the present moment. In fact, I think we can see Corbynism as itself a product, or commodity, within the political marketplace, the (partial) dis-embedding of which from social relations can be understood as constitutive of the neoliberal first movement.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, in Polanyian terms, Corbynism represents a ‘fictitious commodity’.

As Colin Hay explored in Why We Hate Politics, the political process itself has become commodified in recent decades, especially in the UK, as centrist politicians compete to ‘sell’ their branded narratives to the median voter, with the business of actually governing becoming ever more remote and technocratic.

But Corbyn is selling something that cannot possibly be traded in any meaningful sense. Polanyi identified as fictitious those commodities, such as financial instruments, which depended on forecasts about a future which could not possibly be known, or land, which depended on a natural environment which was inherently uncontrollable.

Ironically, while self-identifying as the resocialisation of political relations through repeated references to efforts to build a social movement around socialist values, Corbyn is essentially seeking to commodify ‘the social’ as part of his political trademark, selling the idea of a social movement to individual supporters that Corbynism itself appears entirely unable to deliver. Financiers ultimately cannot marketise the future, and the notion that expressing support for an individual political leader equates to the creation of a broad-based social movement is similarly fictitious.

As such, the Corbyn product is a rather shallow version of the social, which promises adherents solidarity without requiring them to demonstrate the embeddedness of their political organisation in actual associational relations. As F.H. Pitts explains, ‘Corbynism summons up a people it has played no such part in piecing together… But the people’s non-existence does not diminish its political effect on the faithful. It rallies supporters around a rhetorical perch on which to rest their laurels.

There is little to suggest therefore that Corbyn’s workers’ revolt has the support of many working-class communities. He claims that the Brexit vote vindicates his ‘remain but reform’ stance on the EU referendum, yet free movement of labour, the key complaint of working-class leavers regarding the EU, is the one area of European policy which he refuses to refute.

Corbyn supporters are instead concentrated among the ‘metropolitan left’, disproportionately based in London. Depending on how this is defined, the metro-left is not necessarily a small, homogenous group – but nor is it a mass movement.  Cultural theorist (and Corbyn supporter) Jeremy Gilbert estimates that it represents around 20-25 per cent of the population.

Gilbert acknowledges, crucially, that the metro-left is not representative of the ‘post-industrial working class’, but argues that it must ‘stop apologising’ for this, and instead concentrate and winning them away from ‘a capitalist class who will continue to try to secure their loyalty through appeals to racism, xenophobia and myths about welfare-claimants’.

Thus the rather crude account of ‘false consciousness’ which lies at the heart of Corbynism is revealed.  It relays a disdain for the way in which working-class groups perceive their own socio-economic circumstances, and serves as the key barrier between Corbynism and a genuine social movement.  Matt Bolton explains that Corbynism is based on a simplistic ‘two campist’ version of early Marxism in which the interests of proletariat (redefined as the 99%) stand at all times in opposition to the capitalist class (or 1%).

Corbyn supporters see themselves as embodying a great awakening of ‘the people’ in this regard. But detached from its industrial beginnings, the proletariat redesignated as ‘the people’ is a fairly shallow form of collective political identity.  As ever, the proletariat by necessity has as much interest in its reproduction as its liberation, leading inevitably to the co-existence of both progressive and reactionary ideals.  Corbynism mistakes this contradiction as false consciousness, to which the only rational response is leadership by an educated socialist vanguard.

The irony is that this vanguard, now finally ascendant within the labour movement, is less connected to the actual working class than might perhaps have been the case at any earlier point in the history of the British labour movement.

For the majority of Corbyn’s middle-class support base – drawn to the idea of a ‘popular uprising’ as an emblem of their opposition to neoliberalism, but unfamiliar, to say the least, with its ideological connotations – their first real political encounter with the working class will come only during the next general election campaign (assuming Corbyn wins and remains leader up to 2020), in which Labour is likely to perform very poorly. Filtered through the distorted lens of Corbynism, this encounter will probably lead to the incorrect conclusion that society’s disadvantaged groups have little interest in genuine socio-economic change, and deepen the flawed belief in false consciousness among Corbyn supporters.

Attaching social movement theory to the Corbyn project is therefore an illusion, and perhaps a dangerous one, insofar as it suggests that Corbynism heralds the emergence of an agenda – that is, of working-class empowerment – that Corbyn is largely indifferent to.

As Bolton argues, Corbynism for most of its supporters is ‘a simulation of a social movement – a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with “what Jeremy stands for”’.  Essentially, Corbynism is built on the back of, and not in opposition to, the individualisation of social, political and economic life.  His supporters consistently report that backing Corbyn simply makes them ‘feel good’.  This is one of the key conclusions of Helen Lewis’ extensive conversations with Corbyn supporters on social media platforms.  Lewis argues that ‘presenting the [Corbyn versus Owen Smith] contest as “principles vs power” flatters [Corbyn] enormously.  No one feels good about casting a vote for power over principles’.

Corbyn’s leadership, for one activist writing in The Guardian, means ‘no more putting a cross in a box next to the lesser of two evils’.  The clear implication is that a vote for Corbyn matters more as a statement of personal conviction than it does as an attempt to change society via the democratic process.  Similarly, Sam Wolfson, editor of left-leaning news website Vice, declares that ‘Owen Smith makes me hate myself’; he realises that Corbyn’s leadership has failed, but is wary of ‘the misery of pragmatism’ that supporting Owen Smith apparently signifies.  ‘Please,’ Wolfson begs, ‘help me find a way to feel good about my vote’.

It is no surprise that the children of Thatcherism (and indeed Blairism) make up such a large proportion of the Corbyn support base. Individualist attitudes are ingrained.  They appear to support radical change in the form of Corbynism, but this does not necessarily translate into the collectivist sentiment that has always underpinned socialism in terms of both an organising ideal and a governing philosophy.

Corbynism clearly lacks the raw intellectual and emotional material from which social movements are made. Like its bête noire Blairism, it is probably more soundly understood as part of a Polanyian first movement, insofar as it perpetuates the dis-embedding of the political marketplace from social relations.  Yet Corbyn is not simply trading a suite of policies that we may – or may not – choose to invest our votes in.  He sells instead the very idea of a Polanyian counter-movement, although Corbynism is, almost by definition, set up in opposition to the notion of re-embedding the political marketplace in the actually-existing social realm, insofar as the working class cannot be trusted to lead the socialist project.  Indeed, by commodifying an untradeable good, the social, Corbynism may not simply be perpetuating the first movement of marketised politics, but also obscuring its intensification.

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