Abuse of a corpse
We should not be blind to the corruption at the heart of bourgeois politics, argues Paul Demarty
We must begin with the obvious: the assassination of Jo Cox MP by the fascist lunatic, Thomas Mair, is to be roundly condemned.
Cox’s political record is sketchy, but, even if she had been a rightwing extremist, and even if the shooter had not been an individual of Mair’s type, but an adventurist leftist, this would not justify shooting her to death in the street. We are not pacifists - but we prefer peaceful means for a reason. They are more convincing, to more people. They allow us the high ground of common humanity. They allow more open and accountable modes of organisation (military struggle requires military secrecy and discipline). This preference is deep in the DNA of Marxism. All reasonable people would like to imagine themselves behaving like Bernard Carter-Kenny, the pensioner who attempted to stop the murder, rather than the man with the gun.
Yet, for the umpteenth time recently, the reaction to a high-profile death has left us a little bemused. It was a grisly death, for sure; but the picture painted of the deceased is bizarrely hagiographic, as if she were some kind of cross between Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, a singular prophet of world peace and universal harmony, cruelly martyred to her mission.
The overall effect is something like the cult teen film Heathers, in which the mass-hysterical response to a series of faked youth suicides serves only to emphasise how alienated the adult world is from its adolescent children. Cox’s death somehow sanctifies her (and they call Islamic State a ‘death cult’!), while at the same time obliterating anything about her that was particular at all to her. How many notables have told us, in the last week, in essence that we must pay tribute to poor Jo by fighting evil, and doing good? Let’s be honest: did Hillary Clinton (who told us to “honour Jo Cox - by rejecting bigotry in all its forms, and instead embracing, as she always did, everything that binds us together”) really know who she was before some aide looked her up on Wikipedia?
Well, for what it is worth, one person who did know who she was before last Thursday is your humble correspondent. For it fell to me to deal, in these pages, with the late Ms Cox’s decision not only to rebel against Labour’s conference-mandated opposition to bombing Syria, but further to co-write an op-ed with Tory Andrew Mitchell, urging military action. My opinion then was that this “treacherous decision ... should be remembered for some years hence” - and, frankly, that remains my opinion, however Mair-esque accusing Cox of treachery sounds today. In a more just world, Cox would be alive today, but outside the ranks of the Labour Party.
The picture emerges, really, of an honest Blairite - a do-gooder with a long history of do-goodery, in politics and in the charity sector. Despite her enthusiasm for military action in Syria, she was a member of Labour Friends of Palestine; she nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, but voted for the Blairite goblin, Liz Kendall. Her sympathy for the plight of Syrian and Libyan refugees was plainly genuine. Her last recorded interventions, according to the website They Work for You, see her heckling pro-Saudi Tories in a debate on arms sales to the theocracy. A contradictory figure, then: and - whether you are a Blairite or a communist - a flawed one, neither saintly nor Satanic.
Meaning of death
The advantage of emptying Cox of all personal specificity, of course, is that her death can mean pretty much whatever you want.
So what does it mean? For some, it is primarily a warning about the apparently ever-present danger of fascist violence - a line we find peddled, to no surprise whatsoever, by Sadie Robinson in Socialist Worker, for whom Jo Cox was merely somebody who was nice to refugees and opposed anti-migrant ‘racism’. “We need to keep resisting this hatred and stand against attempts to divide us,” is the lesson.1 We suspect that similar sentiments presently reverberate in the minds of softer elements of the left as well. And in the end, this is the same line peddled by Hillary Clinton (compare comrade Sadie’s r-r-revolutionary conclusions to HRC’s aforementioned line about “rejecting bigotry” and “embracing ... everything that binds us together”).
A common response is less banal, and more telling: it is probably best exemplified in a piece by Jonathan Freedland, until recently TheGuardian’s comment editor and still one of its more obnoxious columnists. “If you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, somebody will get sick,” he soberly informs us, continuing:
MPs have been depicted as a form of pond life, routinely placed on the lowest rung of the ladder of esteem, trusted less than estate agents and journalists, the butt of every panel show gag, casually assumed to be venal, mendacious, vain, stupid or malevolent.
But then we are confronted with the fate, and the life, of Jo Cox. We learn that she was a devoted mother of two young children. We see the pictures of her putting shoes on her daughter’s tiny feet [this gloop continues at tedious length - PD] ... And none of that quite fits with what we thought ‘politician’ meant. Yet the funny thing is, this is what most of them are actually like. It’s the dirty little secret of political life: that, yes, there are some politicians who are all about ego and vanity and hogging the camera; but there are countless more who get and seek little public attention, who toil away, knocking on doors ... and who are rewarded by little thanks - and often a downpour of abuse.2
Freedland then proceeds to construct a monstrous amalgam worthy of a Hammer horror film, skipping dexterously from American conservative disdain for ‘big government’ to misogynistic internet trolls, to Timothy McVeigh, to English football casuals on the rampage in France, to ... the Brexiteers. It is altogether a master class in paranoid, non-sequitur pseudo-logic, from which the likes of Thomas Mair could learn a trick or two.
It is also straightforwardly inconsistent with reality. The hypothesis proposed by Freedland’s incoherent rant - such as it is - is that cynicism about politicians is somehow causative of Jo Cox’s murder. If this were the case, then we would expect the particular character of Thomas Mair to be an incidental detail. Mair, remember, is someone of shaky-at-best mental health, and possessed of a terroristic fascist political outlook. So we would expect a general uptick in violence against elected politicians, by people who were not both of those things. Otherwise, Occam’s razor intervenes: Jo Cox’s murder can be explained as an effect of Thomas Mair’s particular personality (with the caveat that no personality springs out of just nowhere).
Freedland’s hypothesis is rather counterintuitive in another respect. The sort of cynicism about politicians Freedland cites - “they’re all in it for themselves”, “they’re all the same” - most immediately begets not fascist violence, but nihilism and abstention from politics altogether. It is measurable, to be sure, in the long-term decline in membership of the two main parties in Britain (sharply reversed by the Corbyn phenomenon last year, but we shall see how long that lasts); and, indeed, in ever-dwindling electoral turnout figures.
There is also the “dirty little secret” that Freedland acknowledges in passing but dismisses quickly, in order to make his point: people are right to be cynical about politicians. (It is unfortunate that this means also being cynical about politics, but that is where we are.) Parliament is riven with people whose dealings with corporate lobbyists are non-transparent at best, who say one thing and mean another, who routinely tell bare-faced lies. All told, believing politicians is not an evolutionary advantage. Those who still pay attention to Tony Blair must acknowledge his lucrative ‘consultancy fees’ from plutocrats and despots or otherwise be wilfully dense.
A serious understanding of politics must take account of the contest of real material interests at the level of the state, which, however, cannot be accomplished without attention to the real material interests of the politicians themselves. In this day and age, you would really have to be blind not to see at least that those interests exist.
Back to current, grubby politics. The Labour Party leadership has been quite assiduous throughout this referendum campaign: support the ‘remain’ side they may, but Corbyn and his immediate allies, Tom Watson and other loyalist Labour centrists, have refused to share platforms with David Cameron and his coterie. Good: not just from the point of view of political principle, but also of elementary survival. Ed Miliband and Alastair Darling made their party into Tory handmaidens in the Scottish referendum, as a result of which the Labour Party has been obliterated in Scotland. Corbyn and his allies had at least the sense to shrink from all that.
Alas! What Cox stood for in life - finding common ground with Tories - she has, in death, imposed on her party. The last week of this very sensitive campaign turned out to be the week that Cameron and Corbyn could be in the same shot, laying flowers (as if Cox had not knifed Corbyn in the back less than a year ago). They were finally an odd couple, on the same side in an election. Let us honour her memory, by binding ourselves together!
Now let us say that you are somebody cynical about politics: you think that ‘they are all in it together’, ‘they’re all the same’, and so on. Here is what you see: two politicians, notionally on different sides, mourning together a third member of their little club. Will that scene convince you of the error of your ways?
Not bloody likely.
2. The Guardian June 18 2016.