Against bad things
Richard Seymour Against austerity: How we can fix the crisis they made? Pluto Press, 2014, pp198, £11.50
Some readers are going to need to have their memories jogged. There was this bloke who used to hang around the left a while ago called Richard Seymour, who cuts a lonely political figure now. Having left the Socialist Workers Party, he then left the International Socialist Network he had helped set up because he made a comment about race and sexual bondage that was considered non-PC. Then even a group as boring as Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century rejected his membership application out of sheer prudishness.
Now he has written up some thoughts about where we have been going wrong in his book, Against austerity, which some commentators have been absolutely raving about. Alan Sears from Canada calls it a “crucial reference point for the left”, an “unflinching and insightful analysis of the current situation in which the radical left finds itself”.1 Mark Perryman sees the book as continuing “the important line of thinking” of the late Stuart Hall and Alan O’Shea in the Kilburn manifesto.2 Louis Proyect over on Counterpunch says: “At the risk of inflating the young man’s ego, I regard him as the most compelling prose stylist on the left since Alexander Cockburn in his heyday and Christopher Hitchens before he turned into Mr Hyde.”3
It seems like high praise from some quarters for a book that must have the dullest title the leftwing publisher, Pluto Press, could have chosen. A bit like a headline in The Socialist. So what is the author’s main line of reasoning? Well, after five to six years of the great recession that began in 2008, Seymour has noticed that the left has not advanced very far.
He is disappointed, and we can see why if we look back at his oeuvre from before his split with the SWP. Back then, as James Heartfield has pointed out on Spiked, he had higher expectations.4 He was heaping praise on the “wave of radical leaderships” in the unions in 20065 - he said on his blog: “The picket lines are out, and more than a million workers will not be crossing them today. I had a sneaking suspicion that the atmosphere of the Winter of Discontent would be evoked.”6
It is worth quoting the feelings that were stirred in comrade Seymour in 2011 by the March 26 march called by the TUC. I remember us all trudging to Hyde Park to listen to Ed Miliband, but for Seymour this was a profoundly transformative moment:
It was something that I haven’t really seen en masse before. It was something that some people had written off. They said was a bit old hat, doomed to a slow, dwindling death, if it even really existed. It was the working class. Not the working class in the shitty, nostalgic, culturally regressive sense that people invoke, not the deus ex machina mobilised to berate black people and gays for being too assertive of their legitimate rights. It was the working class as an agent of its own interests; it was a class for itself. It was the labour movement, every bit the multicultural entity that Cameron reviles. And that movement, comprising several millions of people, having lain dormant for years, is now looking decidedly up for a fight. If you’re a socialist in one of those workplaces on Monday morning, you should have an easier job arguing for militant strike action now, because people now know what they could not be sure of before: that we are many, and they are few.7
Yes! So what happened? Where did it all go wrong? I think it is safe to say that the fact he left the SWP had something to do with it. Not being in that perpetually optimistic echo chamber has had something of a come-down effect for him. In any case, the fact that comrade Seymour has started to use his own eyes again is great news for the rest of us. That means he is now looking at austerity in a whole new light. It is a class project, he says, which is just the latest part in a decades-long strategy by our political elites. He has been reading Foucault, and he has now decided that austerity is a project to redesign western capitalism at a cellular level. But it will take a generation to rebuild the left to a point where it can have any real clout again.
He should obviously be praised for his new sense of realism. But many of the observations he makes on the state of our class and its ideology are predictable enough. These subjects are obviously shot through with Eurocommunist-type allusions to Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, which he squirts through the pages a bit like an octopus uses ink. Perhaps it is not surprising that the experience of the decay of the SWP from the inside should lead someone who had been one of its most prominent supporters in the blogosphere to take inspiration from the same decay that took place in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1980s.
Like them, however, instead of developing enough insight to actually stop this necrosis, comrade Seymour is in fact the manifestation of it - the liquidating tendency itself. He is the product of the very narrowest form of economism that was prevalent in the SWP, the relentless drive to tail the “radical union leaders”, with wave after wave of young activists taught to have a disdain for ‘divisive’ and ‘sectarian’ politics.
In a sycophantic interview with James Butler on Novara, he compared his own use of intersectionality theory to the economism of the traditional Leninist left, which he defined as the pursuit of a pure, class-based struggle between workers on the one side and capitalists on the other.8 So he is fairly ignorant of the actual ideas of his own ‘Leninist’ background, but this is hardly a surprise: it is a reflection of what he learnt and believed in for many years in the SWP.
If there is one failure you would want to address on the left today, I would say it is the total incomprehension of economism. It is not about a fixation on pure, class-based struggle at all. It is, of course, the downgrading of politics, not least the importance of democracy, and instead elevating, say, the everyday struggle between worker and capitalist as the means by which socialist consciousness will be heightened.
Intersectionality, in a sense, is similar to economism. For Seymour, “Identity politics is a ‘politics of location’ … But where one is situated in the social formation has consequences for how far you can see. Such is the basic proposition of feminist intersectionality” (p175). This is an anti-political proposition in itself.
Objecting to it has got nothing to do with denying the reality of oppression, or the overlapping nature of oppressions. Oppression in itself does not make the political pronouncements of the oppressed any more rational, or any more far-seeing. The desire to get someone else’s foot off your neck can be expressed in a nationalist, socialist, fascist, sectarian or virtually any other way. Rationality is the key to socialist politics, because it is amenable to democracy, to discussion and collective decision-making, where identity is not.
As the SWP and its offshoots have decayed, they have dreamt up broad front after broad front. But all of them are anti-political at the core - their only project being to ‘unite the resistance’ in a hall for a few hours, where they can be ‘inspired’ by Owen Jones. Contributions from the floor are limited (in the sense of both time and content), and feature the usual banalities - we need more strikes, we need to oppose austerity.
So I was not surprised when I went to Housmans bookshop in London recently and found comrade Seymour ladling out more of the above, as he talked up the prospects of the People’s Assembly. We need a broad coalition, he was saying. The Trotskyist left has failed, has gone nowhere, and in fact never even really existed properly in this country. What was his answer though? More broad coalitions?
Comrade Seymour is to be praised for his role in opposing the leadership’s bureaucratic centralism towards the end of his membership of the SWP. (He says he wanted to stay and fight, but blames us at the Weekly Worker for revealing crucial information at the wrong moment.) But, while he finally woke up to the nature of bureaucratic centralism, he has yet to grasp the connection between the SWP’s non-democracy and its political method. When it comes to political practice, there is no real difference between his positions then and now, except that now they are a lot more pessimistic - a trait that comrade Seymour appears to relish in this book: “It is pessimistic: get over it” (p2).
This is the problem that this book simply fails to overcome. It does not answer the question in its subtitle: “How we can fix the crisis they made?” Seymour’s analysis of the trends in neoliberalism that eventually produced austerity as an agenda are OK in themselves. I found the discussion in its three main chapters interesting enough. He asks us to accept things like the inner rationality of austerity as a class strategy, to see the increase in state repression as not simply a stop-gap for a loss of consent, but as an essential corollary.
But the political underpinnings are reformist. As comrade Seymour has himself said, today we are all reformists in practical terms. Because of his deeply ingrained economism inherited from the ‘IS tradition’, the revolution vs reform distinction is virtually non-existent. The idea of consciously fighting for your real politics is an anathema.
This entails a massive shrinkage in our political horizons. All we can possibly unite around today is reformism, and therefore that has to be the politics we actively promote for tomorrow. To do anything else is to be ‘subculturalised’:
The fragments of the old socialist left in Britain sustain a facade of ostentatious ‘normality’ by consuming copious amounts of alcohol and evincing an interest in sport. But get them in a room together and watch them reveal their real, alien selves, as they talk about ‘the class’ and hold forth on ‘the dialectic’. I know. I am one of those people (p4).
The sense you get reading this is of someone who has become really alienated from the things which inspired him, inspired us all, to be involved in politics in the first place. You want to ask, why do we all get out of bed in the morning, Richard? What is this all for? Why are we all doing this?
Actually, we love talking about politics, drink copious amounts of alcohol and evince interest in sport because we are normal people. It’s called life, and it’s great. Most people love those or similar things and do them all the time. The reason we talk about “the class”, Marxism, materialism - Hegel even, at a stretch - is because those things are exciting, and give us a realistic hope of a better, kinder world. It has got nothing to do with “retreating behind dogma” (p28).
It is a tragedy that the SWP has been so effective at teaching enthusiastic activists to dislike themselves, and to hide what they are from ‘normal people’ out of some bizarre self-loathing. It results in the sort of total demoralisation which is destroying the left. Instead of his vision of another world shining out in the midst of capitalist decay, Seymour wants us to keep doling out this bland sub-reformism, which has very little hope of actually winning any reforms. No wonder no-one is interested.
He vaguely grasps at the notion of the centrality of political ideas, as the book draws to a close:
We need an approach that takes ideology seriously, and registers the ways in which slow, long-term ideological struggle shapes the terrain and situates people with respect to emerging battles. This has perhaps been the most serious dereliction so far, and partially accounts for the short-termism - the constant over-optimism over the latest flashpoint of struggle, followed by demoralisation, in which only the most hardened activists remain - that leaves us flailing every time (p188).
How could we disagree? But, sadly, comrade Seymour’s self-eviscerating Marxism is not up to the job.