Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Tribune, “The Centre Cannot Save Democracy” But Moderate Constitutional Reform Can.

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Democratic Left: Whippet Party Demands Northern Independence.

The American, left populist review Jacobin, owned ‘Tribune’ is a curious animal. Since the collapse of left populism, the Bernie Sander’s campaign that had got nowhere fast, the Spanish Podemos’ welcome of political reality and government alliance with the Partido Socialista Obrero Españo (PSOE), Corbyn’s defeat, and the realisation that in France Jean-Luc Mélenchon is going to be stumped in the charismatic Leader’s third attempt at running for President in 2020 they have lost direction. For its critics the principal target of the self-identifying left magazine seems to be Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.

Into this political void had stepped a new voice. New being a relative term. Revived might be a better one. The old tunes are the best ones. Tribune has now turned to the themes of the past, hollowed out democracy, ‘post-democracy’, the ‘political centre’ or, what political confusionniste Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’. (The Extreme Centre: A Warning. 2015)

These were themes popular in the late 1990s, with the writings of Jacques Rancière“Post-democracy is the government practice and conceptual legitimisation of a democracy after the demos, a democracy that has eliminated the appearance, miscount, and dispute of the people and is thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests.” (La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie, 1995) And Colin Crouch, “A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell. The energy and innovative drive pass away from the democratic arena and into small circles of a politico-economic elite.”( Coping with Post-Democracy. 2000)

Students of politics always had a hard time getting to grips with the idea that societies where elections take place, different political parties run for office, there were hard battles over voting, getting people elected as representatives to national bodies right down to local, even parish councils, were ‘post’ democratic. Many were struck by the way that ‘alternatives’ to this state of affairs appeared to centre on forms of ‘populism’ that mobilised the ‘people’ against the ‘elite’. The best known case of populism that had got elected, national populism, was Trump and MAGA. That did not look very democratic at all…

Most people had forgotten about the original debates from another era.

Enter Tribune,

The Centre Can’t Save Democracy. Grace Blakely.

Blakeley argues that ‘post democracy’, that is liberal led government stopped political decision making influencing the way the economy is run – a curious claim one would think in the light of how governments have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. Almost entirely limiting her international scope to the country of the owners of Tribune and the UK, she declares, “The neoliberals achieved with technocracy what classical liberals had achieved with limited suffrage: insulating management of the economy from popular pressure.” After a bit Carl Schmitt and the ominously titled Globalists by Quinn Slobodian she declares,

when it came to the realm of dominium — that is, the realm of the economy, conceived as entirely separate from that of politics — the influence of the masses had to be limited. Democratic governance of the economy always generated the danger of ‘economic nationalism’, in which the narrow, short-term class interests of the masses would be placed above the general interest, which entailed constructing and maintaining an efficient and stable market system.

The Tribune article continues,

The justification for the hollowing-out of democracy that has taken place in recent years was always that technocratic governance would support the efficient operation of the market. Central bank independence, for instance, would prevent the ‘politicisation’ of monetary policy by placing these decisions in the hands of independent economists. But this change has simply placed far more power in the hands of the ruling class — central bankers now heed the whims of financial lobbyists as much as politicians in their decision making.

The message of this squib is that real democracy cannot be furthered by the post-populist revival of the centre.

The political centre has seen its fortunes revive both in Britain, with Keir Starmer, and more particularly in America, with Joe Biden, not because it has any particular answer to this dynamic — but because it persuades people that it can be ignored. Faced with the disaster of Boris Johnson and Trumpism, it does not promise to make things better, only to prevent them from getting worse. And this, for many people, is enough. But it cannot last in the long term.

Instead we need a socialist take on democracy. Like the enthusiasts for Charter 88 several decades ago, and indeed the very liberal-minded Will Hutton, The State We’re in: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It (1995), Blakeley declares that,

“In the UK, constitutional reform — from removing the House of Lords, to dissolving the City of London Corporation, to a substantive local and national devolution agenda — would amplify the voices of working people within the British state. Deepening economic democracy — by reviving the trade union movement, expanding democratic public ownership, and building new democratic, publicly-owned financial institutions — would assist organised labour in its struggle with capital and help us to mitigate the effects of climate breakdown.”

It is hard to disagree with this programme. If we cannot revive the trade union movement by good intentions other reforms are welcome. Will Hutton and others around Charter 88 have argued for this democratic platform aligned to financial reforms for many years. Perhaps Tribune could add “stakeholding” (codetermination of companies) to the list. Hutton still promotes the cause.

Nevertheless this approach has got off on a wrong foot from he start. It ignores two important aspects of how politics and economics have developed in the new millenium.

The first is that Blakeley is fighting yesterday’s wars against ‘globalists’. What is the dominant feature of politics at present is the rise of national neo-liberalism. This is not just in its populist form, now apparently out of the way with Trump’s defeat, but in the shape practised by the Johnson government. Used by Paul Mason in Clear Bright Future (2019) the term is fleshed out by French economist Jean-François Bayart (Sur le national-libéralisme, une conversation avec Jean-François Bayart 2017). In the UK the present government practices a mixture of economic liberalism, that is the marketisation of state functions, private sector dominance, free trade, with the promotion of national identity and nationalist ideology.

The second issue is summed up by Jon Bloomfield and David Edgar

“In responding to the nationalist populist challenge there should be no triangulation. Blue Labour is a dangerous dead end that will only split progressive alliances. At the same time, absolutist positions must be avoided. Too often within contemporary social movements a narrow kind of identity politics is promoted, where solidarity is impossible because only personal experience is said to count. Similarly, there are still Remainers so incensed by the EU referendum result that they insist only a reversal of the decision will suffice. No element—liberal, progressive, socialist—can afford these indulgences. In opposing the illiberal, nationalist right the crucial lesson from the 1930s is crystal clear: unite against the main enemy.” (The populist delusion. The right has won the early battles, but the left can still win the war. Prospect. March 2021.)

In other words, identity politics, of the right (Blue Labour, Spiked, and the Tory ‘Common Sense’ faction) the identity politics of the actually existing liberal meritocratic US inspired left, are real political problems. Political liberalism which defends liberty can be an ally of the left. A central unifying issue is the defence of pluralism, and we need the centre to defend that, democratic diversity, and what Claude Lefort called the development of rights promoting movements. The right against national neo-liberalism, and national populism, means that without formal alliances we still need to recognise that on the issues these create there is a wider opposition within which the left, the internationalist left, needs to work.

Blakeley misses these issues altogether, clutching at straws she concludes,

Party reform is, of course, the sine qua non of this entire agenda. As long as social democratic parties continue to act as the voice of the liberal portion of the ruling class, and not of the working class, they will remain unable and unwilling to fix the deep divides that plague their societies. One of the biggest missed opportunities of Corbynism was the failure to democratise the Labour Party: that goal might be off the cards for now, but the Left needs to be fighting to defend the gains that were made and to prevent a further slide towards cartelisation.

And they wonder why the influence of magazines like Tribune is negligible.

6 Responses

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  1. “One of the biggest missed opportunities of Corbynism was the failure to democratise the Labour Party…”

    But Democracy was alive and well in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn, he was democratically elected as Leader – twice!


    April 18, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    • Exactly, this article is full of poorly thought out ideas like that Trev. – being charitable and assuming she does not mean by democratising getting ride of anybody who disagrees with her and Tribune’s views.

      In the 1990s I and a mate went to a whole series of conferences at Congress House organised by Unions 21 (note this, “DL campaigned on modernising unions, including Unions21, “Democratic Left was a post-communist political organisation in the United Kingdom during the 1990s, growing out of the Eurocommunist strand within the Communist Party of Great Britain and its magazine Marxism Today (which closed around the same time).

      The programme advocated was more than similar to the ideas Blakeley comes out with.

      It got nowhere for the very obvious reasons that without government power you are not in a position to reform the constitution, and once you have it you are not going to open possibilities that your legislation will be frustrated or your opponents are going to be able to exploit opportunities to get themselves more power (devolution). As for the City of London, without a mass popular movement, how are going to muster the backing to reform that?

      Andrew Coates

      April 18, 2021 at 5:39 pm

  2. Never understood the high profile of Blakely. Her writing is like the political equivalent of flared trousers and nylon shirts. When she was on a recent Owen Jones podcast she came across across as the stereotypical Posh Trot of the 1980s. A “Dave Spart” parody almost.

    Is it because she is Oxbridge and photogenic?


    April 18, 2021 at 9:23 pm

  3. Amazing and depressing that Ian Lavery is still considered a credible figure, given the way he helped himself to the Northumberland NUM pension fund, and then went on to promote himself as a representative of the “white working class.”

    But the likes of Lavery and Blakely, who as a matter of course repeat the myth that Labour’s “traditional working-class supporters” overwhelmingly need to define what they mean by the “working class”.

    There is only one coherent definition of working class: people in work. And according to the Ashcroft polls: “A majority of those working full-time or part-time voted to remain in the EU; most of those not working voted to leave. More than half of those retired on a private pension voted to leave, as did two thirds of those retired on a state pension.”

    So the evidence is that the majority of the working class voted to remain, but were outvoted on this occasion by non-working class and retired ex-working class people.

    Lavery, Blakely & co need to understand that the working class is no longer mainly white people living in small English towns, working in the old industries: it is racially and culturally diverse, based in the cities and employed in a range of white collar and service industry jobs, many of which are low-paid and precarious.

    These fake-left “Lexiteers” appaer to just not get it.

    Jim Denham

    April 18, 2021 at 10:53 pm

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