Mike Phipps leafs through the latest issue of Socialist Register, published by Merlin
The 2022 edition of Socialist Register is entitled New Polarizations, Old Contradictions: the crisis of centrism. It’s clear that the global rise of neoliberalism has been accompanied by a rise in political authoritarianism. Economic polarization, mapped in Simon Mohun’s analysis of the rising share of income grabbed by the top 1%, is fuelling political polarization.
Ingar Solty’s essay, ‘Market polarization means political polarization: liberal democracy’s eroding centre’, is the centrepiece of this analysis. Traditional liberal democracy is in retreat, he argues, with many catch-all parties like the French Socialists in a state of collapse. In countries with proportional electoral systems, there is widespread fragmentation across political parties, allowing populist authoritarians to posture as the strong solution to coalition chaos. In countries with first past the post systems, authoritarian nationalist forces are growing within traditional conservative parties, as in the US and UK, just as left of centre parties are spawning authentic socialist currents, such as those led by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.
This polarization has undermined centrist liberalism which has shown itself incapable of tackling the problems of economic polarization which it itself allowed to run unchecked. Whether the Biden Administration marks a break from this political collapse is too early to say, but Sam Gindin is hopeful, in ‘American workers and the left after Trump: polarized options’.
He regard Biden’s early months in office as “auspicious… free of the Clinton-ear Third Way baggage of balanced budgets” and favouring massive public investment that widens the meaning of ‘infrastructure’ to include childcare and long-term residential care. But he concedes that Biden’s backsliding has occurred with minimal objections from the left. More recently, the stalling of his reform agenda in Congress and his falling popularity indicate the possibility of a return of Trump – or someone like him – in 2024.
New forms of working class politics will be required to resist this threat. Centrist liberalism will not come to the rescue – a conclusion underlined in the US by Bill Fletcher Jr’s contribution, ‘The rattle on the tail of the rattlesnake: Trump and the danger of right-wing populism in the US’.
There’s evidence of growing polarization elsewhere, for example in Brazil, in a contribution from Ana Garcia, Virginia Frontes and Rejane Hoeveler, and India (Jayati Ghosh). But it may be premature to write off centrist forces just yet, as the arrival of a new centre-left coalition in Germany underlines. While it is true that such forces cannot tackle the fundamental problems facing society, above all climate catastrophe, which require confronting capitalism, this experience may take time to play out – time the left crucially needs to deepen its implantation if it is to challenge the authoritarian right successfully.
Socialist Register makes an unparalleled contribution to our understanding of contemporary politics. One stand-out contribution in the 2022 issue is Walden Bello’s thoughtful essay on the increasingly antagonistic rivalry between the US and China.
But probably the piece of most interest to Labour Hub readers is the 28-page interview with Momentum co-founder and former Corbyn spokesperson James Schneider conducted by Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright.
As you would expect, Schneider draws some important lessons from his experience at the heart of the Project. There was in his view too much focus on the immediate and too little strategic thinking. He distinguishes between the “immediate ameliorative measures” in the Corbyn agenda which have wide appeal and can be achieved using the existing levers of power, and the more fundamental transformative policies that will meet serious opposition and will require the mobilisation of sectors of society beyond Westminster. Working on a ‘mobilisation strategy’ that could knit together the labour, environment, feminist, anti-racist and other movements was not undertaken coherently during the Corbyn leadership, he suggests, largely due to a lack of capacity.
Schneider is frank in his analysis of the weaknesses in Labour’s policymaking process and campaigning. He also advances some positive reasons to stay in the Party – not just to have a vote in important internal elections – but particularly because of what can be achieved at local government level where the rules for selecting local candidates remain very open in many areas. This paves the way for real changes to people’s lives at a local level, enabling activists to map out what a socialist programme might look like and giving them some experience of working in the state.
He’s optimistic too about the spread of left wing ideas, the role of Momentum and the growth of the parliamentary left. He concludes: “The Corbyn project first showed that we weren’t losing because the majority of the population just loved the world as it was; quite the opposite. It’s actually that the common sense in this country has remained broadly progressive, while not having political expression, while its organs were being defeated and crushed. The Jeremy surge has given us new strength and energy that pulls us out from the margins, and out from critique into organizing and proposals. That’s very important. The incline of the left is up, even if the angle may not be very steep. There’s a lot of rebuilding and new work that’s going on.”
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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