The world through the eyes of a centrist

Michael Calderbank reviews The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master, by Chris Clarke, published by Penguin

You almost feel sorry for Labour centrists. Nothing in their worldview suggested that what happened to the Labour Party from 2015-2019 was remotely possible. From the perspective of the self-proclaimed “moderate” (sic) the radial left had been totally vanquished in the 1980s, and in any case had been left behind by history.  All politicians would have to accept the reality that There Is No Alternative to capitalist globalisation. Everyone surely knew that ‘elections are won from the centre’ and that politics was – at its most ambitious – about making incremental technocratic changes to ameliorate the worst aspects of market-driven societies.    

So just imagine the degree of cognitive dissonance produced when Jeremy Corbyn, a recalcitrant unrepentant socialist of the Bennite left, not only avoided abject humiliation but, incredibly, seized the leadership of the party by a landslide! Thousands of activists surged into the Party, and an assertive left populism began to challenge core dogmas of the Blairite faith. Mind bogglingly, Liz Kendall – who demonstrated the most ‘realistic’ and ‘mature’ grasp of the complex challenges facing policy makers, and understood that great progress made in the Blair years – was left with the support of just 4.7% of the electorate. Suddenly, centrists were in a new and unfamiliar world, in which they were cast as the bad guys. How were they to make sense of all this?

Chris Clarke’s The Dark Knight and the Puppet Master represents an effort, from a position which is avowedly non-Corbynite (though the author prefers the label ‘pluralist’ to ‘centrist’) to understand the political logic behind the rise of a new populism on the left. Populism is here conceived as inherently pathological and dangerous to liberal democratic institutions, based on mythical tropes which can also be put to reactionary ends. However, the arguments are given a framing which ultimately reveals itself to be highly disingenuous.  

The unreliable narrator

The author presents himself as a just a regular guy who has inherited from his family (of which more later) a general identification with the Labour Party and its values.  We learn early on that, prior to Corbyn’s election, Clarke is an English graduate and Norwich City fan, an occasional election volunteer, but far from a factional activist. It’s as though he were just a kind of Labour everyman, not attracted to Corbyn or radical left politics, but otherwise fairly open and interested in a range of viewpoints – the kind of person who might by sympathetic to Open Labour?

The mask begins to slip quite early on.  He describes the breakaway Independent Group/Change UK as momentarily threatening to break the mould in British politics – who actually thought this, with the exception of the delusional splitters themselves?  He objects to the polemical response to the idea that Labour might ever enter a ‘grand coalition’ with the Tories in the national interest. He refers positively to Jess Philips calling for “less heat and more light” in debates, oddly forgetting that she famously shouted expletive-laden abuse to Diane Abbott and threatened to “knife Corbyn in the front”. By the time he refers to a brief stint helping out on Angela Eagle’s botched leadership attempt following the chicken-coup, Clarke’s attempt to present himself as a fair-minded left-pluralist is starting to come under serious question.

By the end, it’s pretty obvious that key information about Clarke’s real position has been withheld, revealing the whole preceding framing to be little more than a fiction (as a literature student Clarke is no doubt familiar with the modernist trope of the unreliable narrator). Only in the concluding chapters does he coyly refer to the fact that his father served in a Labour cabinet. Even then, he doesn’t tell the whole story.

Charles Clarke was not just any Cabinet Minister – he was a longstanding factional right-wing bruiser, and key architect of the undemocratic National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) excluding young socialists from the party’s youth wing.  He was a key lieutenant of Neil Kinnock in the war against the left, and led the charge to introduce student tuition fees under Tony Blair. Of course, the sins of the father can’t necessarily be visited on the son.    But when Clarke Jr attacks Corbyn’s policy of free university tuition, he might have mentioned that his old man was responsible for abolishing the principle of free education.

Despite rhetorical ploys, attacking the key media outriders of Corbynite populism and exonerating individual Corbynites who didn’t know any better, it becomes clear that Clarke is motivated by a great deal more factional animosity than he was prepared to let on. Only towards the end does he reveal that he left the Party after the 2017 election, at the point at which Labour under Corbyn proved it was capable of making electoral headway. This is very telling. Apparently Clarke rejoined the Party after the 2019 defeat, and is optimistic about the possibilities of Starmer getting into power.  

The author neglects to tell us, however, that he “leant his vote to Change UK” in the interim, casting doubt not only on his loyalty to the Party, but also on his judgement.  The acknowledgements page, somewhat unusually, is printed at the back of the book rather than upfront, and you can see why.   Among those credited are former SDP backer and Blair’s advisor on Europe Lord Roger Liddle; former Progress director and Mandelson adviser Patrick Diamond, and staff of the Campaign Company, the outfit set up by General Secretary David Evans. With contacts like this, the author is not exactly the ‘wet-behind-the-ears’ open minded supporter from the Party mainstream that he tries to cultivate.  Of course, none of this necessarily invalidates Clarke’s arguments, which ultimately stand (and for the most part fall) on their own (de)merits.   But it does suggest that his arguments are being presented in bad faith, and should therefore put the reader on guard. 

Reading this book is like putting on a virtual reality headset to see the world through the eyes of a centrist.  At the heart of Clarke’s argument is that Corbyn’s appeal lies in three powerful but ultimately irrational and deceptive fantastic myths – which he terms “The Dark Knight”, “The Puppet Master” and “The Golden Age”. Taken together, these myths seduce otherwise intelligent and reasonable people into positions which mitigate against the ideal procedural ‘justice as fairness’ model he celebrates in the work of late American liberal  philosopher John Rawls as providing a grounding for his own “left-pluralism”.  So let’s take each of these myths in turn.

The Dark Knight

In reality, Clarke claims, society is made up by a complex and differentiated series of outlooks, interests and identities which sometimes come into conflict but are also often compatible or capable of being brought into dialogue. For the most part, people do not engage in debate with venal or selfish motives, but are doing their best to honestly articulate a point of view and express social priorities in good faith.  Regardless of their formal political allegiances, it is claimed, the majority of people hold ideas and values worth engaging with.   If we disagree with Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, it is not because they are ‘bad people’.  People who vote for other parties are not in an enemy camp, and don’t need to self-flagellate themselves for their sinful conduct – they just need to be persuaded that there a reasons they might want to make different choices in future.

The Dark Knight myth is said to substitute a fantasy for this complex reality, in which the world is seen according to a Manichean black-and-white logic where everyone belongs to the camps of either good or evil.  From this point of view, you don’t engage your interlocutor in debate, you seek to demonise them by painting them as ‘beyond the pale’, as evil incarnate, expressions of the most morally contemptible specimens out there. The corollary of this gambit is to pump up your own sense of moral self-worth (of your ‘in-group’) to an ever more grandiose and exaggerated extent, as though to deviate in any respect is to invite violent condemnation and rejection. Following this logic, Labour ‘moderates’ are not just people with some shared values but different views on how to realise them, but Red Tory scum to be exterminated.  It’s ultimately totalitarian: a logic which fuels denunciation, abuse, threats, bullying, contempt and division. 

It’s also presented as inherently self-isolating and self-defeating, as whole categories of people (and indeed the working class) are seen as on the dark side and demonised – readers of the Sun, service families, workers in the arms industry, and more.  Corbynism could appeal to a highly-motivated minority ever more convinced of their own self-righteousness, but only at the expense of alienating whole sections of society who see its advocates as sanctimonious and self-satisfied.

This is the strongest of Clarke’s arguments, as it does capture – albeit to an extreme and exaggerated extent – an element of the left at its worst. The tendency to cry betrayal or see people as backsliding into apostasy can indeed be deeply unhealthy. Clarke cites Owen Jones as for a time the victim of a logic which he himself supposedly deploys against others, but we could also mention the Twitter attacks on “Ramsay McDonnell”.  The attitude of smug self-righteousness was particularly evident among middle class Labour Remainers, including but by no means restricted to activists on the left, who had a tendency to see Brexit voters as irredeemably racist and/or stupid.  Little wonder that sections of the electorate mirrored such contempt right back. But let’s remember that the attacks on Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” came from centrist heroine Hilary Clinton.  The logic of liberal moralising is not unique to Labour’s left.  

The division between in-group and out-group, ourselves and our enemy/opponent is present in all political projects, and indeed – as political theorist and advocate for left populism Chantal Mouffe has previously suggested – the way which conflict is produced and performed is constitutive of the political as such. Liberal democracies are dependent for their very existence upon their ability to sustain agonistic discourses (those which define opposition rather than absolute antagonism) in which people come to feel represented. 

The early Blair, for example, differentiated between the “many, not the few”, perhaps an early iteration of a left populist discourse which could be re-utilised under Corbyn. Later, Blair would seek to pit “forces of conservatism” (taken to include trade unions against his version of public service “modernisation” as well as old institutional hierarchies) to the “forces of progress”. However, the corporate capture of political parties and dead-weight of ideological consensus and convergence around what Tariq Ali described as “the Extreme Centre” with its resulting fall in electoral turnout, meant liberal democracies were faced with a crisis of legitimation, with falling levels of engagement. The financial crisis of 2008 put this situation under unbearable strain and was bound to lead to a return of the repressed into the political arena as more conflictual styles of politics would surge in to fill the void.     

Paradoxically, as critic a left populism, Clarke shares with its post-Marxist advocates like Mouffe a propensity to treat political discourses and opinions as floating free from any conditioning by fundamental class interests with a material basis in the socio-economic structure of capitalist society.  As such, he never entertains the idea that there might be a basis for identifying opposing political interests which isn’t just based on moral judgement, or the idea that opponents of socialism are bad, ill-motivated people. Conservative MPs might engage in good faith, and be entirely genuine in putting forward certain opinions about the world. But the idea that they are just another set of interlocutors with a valid perspective we should try to accommodate, is to ignore the class interests with which their engagement in the world is shot through. 

This is also true of centrists.  Their class interests conflict with those of the organised working class. This is not a mythical construct: it is a fact of social life.   But to the extent that Clarke’s attack points to the need for less liberal moralism on the left and more sober class analysis, it is well taken.

The Puppet Master

Corbyn and his followers, it is alleged, perpetuate a simplistic but remarkably compelling myth that such an agent, one or more hidden Puppet Masters are secretly pulling the strings of society and wielding power over us. The view of a powerful elite ruling the world in secret is alleged to be conspiracist in essence, although it can be expressed with a greater or lesser degree of sophistication. It’s said to be problematic in at least two respects. Firstly, it’s based on a kind irrational paranoia which can be directed at minorities. Particularly, when combined with “Dark Knight” demonisation of Israel or Zionists, there’s alleged to be a confluence of political logic with overt antisemitism.  

Clarke also believes that this Puppet Master myth sets up unrealistic expectations about what it is in the power of elected politicians to deliver in office. Downing Street does not have a room full of levers which allow the Prime Minister to wield absolute power. Much of the time governments find themselves responding to forces which are beyond their control, and trying to negotiate between the different pressures to which they are subjected. To believe that once elected, a socialist PM can put the world to rights tends to give way to the view that they have betrayed the movement and chosen not to do what they promised.   

Do we plead guilty as charged?  By no means, although some sections of the left should do more to repudiate the ‘socialism of fools’, as antisemitism is sometimes described.  Clarke assumes that the reality of capitalist societies today (though he never uses the “c” word and is remarkably reticent to address questions of political economy at all) are for the most part just the contingent results of anarchic market dynamics and relatively weak and powerless national and international state institutions doing their level best to cope with the complexities and challenges which arise. He effectively reproduces the classic Blairite trope that capitalist globalisation is as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the weather, and we just need to learn to adapt as best we can. The operation of power is far more diffuse and overdetermined to allow us to see anything as crude as agents whose actions and decisions are responsible for shaping the way power is exercised. 

This argument fails to recognise the vast scholarly literature (from Polanyi to Mazzucato) demonstrating that the development of contemporary capitalism has by no means proceeded organically, but has been promoted and engineered through a range of state practices and policy choices, including via the creation of transnational institutions. To map and understand this process and the evolving function of such institutions require a comprehensive theorisation of their class nature.   

When global political leaders meet with the mega-rich fund managers, speculators and corporate billionaires in Davos each year, this is not a merely social occasion. To identify such figures as representatives of a ‘global ruling elite’ is not to imagine a coherent hidden monolithic SPECTRE-like conspiracy. But to swing to the opposite pole and suggest that capitalism develops in sublime isolation from any form of human agency whatsoever can only represent a form of apologetics serving to insulate this development from any democratic pressures, and allowing the powerful to avoid any accountability.

The Golden Age

This just leaves the allegation that Corbyn’s supporters are motivated by a backward-looking, romantic desire to restore a past Golden Age, when people were less selfish, communities were stronger and fostered greater bonds of solidarity, and the state acted to protect the poorer and vulnerable. So what, we might ask? Isn’t an attempt to revisit and renew the best traditions of the labour movement for the next generation worth attempting? 

Here Clarke’s argument is that left populists fail to recognise that previous Labour governments – including that of Attlee in 1945 – were pragmatist and realistic, not maximalist and confrontational.  Instead, the pre-Blair social democracy of ‘old’ Labour is misleadingly assumed to be ‘red in tooth and claw’. Not only is Labour’s real history obscured and misappropriated, he alleges, but this is done in the service of a politics which avoids confronting the realities of governance in an age of globalisation. Frankly, though, if a new generation is inspired to revisit the history and importance of the Labour Party – both in its achievements and its limitations – is this a bad thing?  We might even be able to rehabilitate thinking more pertinent to contemporary challenges than defaulting back to Anthony Crosland.  

 It clearly bugs Clarke that Corbyn has left behind the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Blair for all that is ‘modern’, ‘new’, or of the future. Left populists are said to embrace a politics which assumes social decline, and ignores counter-signs of relative social progress (here he relies on the Pollyanna-ish thought of Steven Pinker).  But the world has moved on since 1997 or even 2010.  We were once told we’d see “no return to boom and bust”. Well, the global financial crisis of 2008 put paid to that.  We’re also far more attuned to the threat of climate catastrophe and the public health vulnerabilities arising from globalisation. Clarke still talks the language of meritocracy and equality of opportunity but even liberal social scientists and philosophers are aware that inequality and forms of discrimination have wider structural foundations. Mild tinkering and incremental policy adjustments won’t cut it.  Systematic social transformation is required.    

Conclusion

Clarke attributes all of Labour’s woes to the evils of left populist thinking – taking no serious account of the decline in the working class base under Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband; no real account of how divisions over Brexit divided Labour’s support in 2019; and not even offering a substantial explanation of why these three great myths took hold (except for some blame thrown in Ed’s direction for apparently flirting with Puppet Master tropes himself).  Even by his own admittance, he offers nothing in terms of indicating alternative lines of future policy development, other than to break with Corbynite patterns of thought.  

Though we are treated to an invocation of imperial allegiance to ‘internationalism’, Clarke doesn’t address the collapse in support of many other European social democratic parties, or how Labour can avoid Pasokification under centrist leadership. Nor does he even countenance the idea that the public has rejected the imperialist logic of ‘humanitarian interventionism’. There’s a general feeling that international cooperation is a good thing, and that countries could  build more transnational institutions to address some of the challenges posed by globalisation. But in the absence of a critique of capitalism, he’s effectively left calling for organisations like NATO and the EU to develop progressive policies.       

The world seen through the eyes of a centrist like Clarke is largely empty of ideas, populated only by ghosts of Blairites past and largely mythical demons of their own invention.     

Michael Calderbank is a member of Tottenham CLP and a contributing editor on Socialist Register.

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