Dear Eileen, on British politics, history, nationalism, &c.

Dear Eileen,

First of all thank you for your question about Corbyn, it prompted a lot of thoughts on a wider range of subjects. I apologise for the length of my ranting response and hope it contains enough insights to interest you and other curious readers. I’m an amateur in most of what I discuss, an avid amateur perhaps, but an amateur nonetheless. Prone to mistakes and simplifications, and worst of all to narrativisation. I welcome critique from anybody, although I may not be able to address all of what’s said in response. That might be vain though, as I will probably get almost no response to a blog of over three and a half thousand words!

Suffice to start, there’s a hell of a lot to say. On most matters I broadly agree with your friend Martin, but I would make other points and corrections. However, I want to initiate by acknowledging that Martin is right about  the potential political shifts in the UK after five more years of deepening austerity. There is also the chance of another global recession. But, I disagree that people are broadly satisfied with the conservative’s fiscal policies to date. Polling shows that support for austerity is superficial. And Thatcher’s legacy cannot be summarised so sweepingly as Martin attempts; she is so divisive a figure in the UK that after her death Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead topped music charts, which, however distasteful, symbolises her symbolic value. And she was evil, not only in the way she destroyed unions, increased homelessness, decimated manufacturing, &c. but even in her unconscionable support for the murderous tyrant Pinochet. There shouldn’t be any controversy on this; Thatcher is one of the most vile politicians of recent western history.

To begin let me get some simple untruths out of the way. Rumours that Labour is being filled with entryists are nonsense; I like the Trotskyites, but they don’t wield that much support (I wish they did!) and some whom I know quite well would not join the Labour party out of principle, or even touch it with a ten foot barge poll. And for good reasons as will become apparent. Additionally, those with other party affiliations cannot easily join and existing members outweigh those few who might get in. Moreover, the majority of the Labour Party’s union members support Corbyn and if it were just up to these people, as it should be for a democratic union based party, Corbyn would be a shoe-in; as things stand it could go either way. Nor do I accept Martin’s claim that the Guardian is hyping Corbyn; evidence suggests the opposite, they’re systematically undermining his campaign. They just happen to suck at agitprop.

A lot have been said about shy Tories, closeted Tories, &c. in the last GE, and while quiet Tories may be a reality, the full truth of that awful election is more complex. When you discount non-voters, only 66.1 of people voted in one of the least representative elections of post-enfranchised British parliamentary history. Intelligent conservatives are aware of this fact, and they’re scared of the risk of authentic popularism. Only 24.3 of eligible voters picked the Conservatives, and that’s still not including people who either can’t or didn’t register! The reason there seems to be so few Tories is that there are few Tories; closeted Tories are a minor factor. It’s also wrong to say the electorate has consistently rejected the left, if anything the left-right binary has been consistently ignored.

This myth of rightwing supremacy in the UK is largely predicated on three errors: 1) Thatcher’s ‘victories‘. 2) Blair’s victories, as a centre-right Labour PM. 3) Miliband’s defeat. Reason 3) is the easiest to attack when you learn, not only all that I have said about the Tories above, but also what I am going to say about UKIP. It is also wrong because of two more facts. First, Miliband represented austerity, only slightly more tempered than the Tories, which is why he lost Scotland. And second, Miliband increased his support over Gordon Brown despite loosing the election. There were also the Greens to contend with, who presented a more stridently anti-austerity agenda, although less leftwing than sometimes advertised. They mopped up a lot of the left student vote with 3.8 of the electorate supporting them. That isn’t game changer on account of the Greens poor leadership, but it does reveal the leftwing distrust of Miliband.

Reason 1) ignore how Thatcher’s victories, which never persuaded even half of the electorate and saw a declining majority, came about through various factors; her contrived grossly-patriotic Falkland’s war, Labour’s self-mutilating expulsion of it’s hard left (Militant) and suppression of its soft left reformists (the Bennites, which is Corbyn’s tradition) and the damage caused by the Labour centre-right Social Democratic Party (SDP) splinter, which came about from within the American Tendency of the Labour Parliamentary Party (PLP). With respect to this SDP history, some ‘Labour’ supporters in the media currently undermining the Labour left, like Polly Toynbee, were members of the SDP who helped Thatcher secure and retain power. Robin Ramsey looks at this in his The Rise of New Labour. Toynbee is also a critic of Trotskyism, and generally opposed to real leftwing power.

Reason 2) to discount rightwing popular hegemony is more tricky.  Blair won after the abject failure of the Thatcherite consensus on a tidal wave of trust and hope. That was quickly betrayed when Blair strengthened Thatcher’s policies, first by abolishing Clause IV, that central plank of the Labour movement: ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’ Blair’s popularity also dwindled during his tenure, as the Iraq war, soft privatization (through failed economic policies like PFIs in the health-service) and so on pushed him more and more to the right.

New Labour, the so-called third way in politics, combines the advantages of a socially left government with the wealth of a freed up market. This ideology, partly inspired by Clintonism, liked to purport to be post-ideological. It is now completely dead in the water. The Tories, who matched Labour spending and supported bank deregulation, never substantively opposed the third way. But after the 2008 recession, when Brown was shown to be wrong for predicting an end to booms and busts, both the Blairites and the Tories have surrendered on the idea of combining the best of socialism and capitalism, and become more inclined to market fundamentalism under the guise of austerity. Corbyn challenges that narrative, but even he won’t bring back Clause IV and he is an incredibly moderate socialist. And much like Labour socialists of the past I don’t imagine Corbyn will welcome the likes of Militant into the new-old Labour family.

If the current media picture is to be accepted, Labour per se are doomed because they would need to be more leftwing than the SNP to win in Scotland and more rightwing than the Tories to win in England and Wales, and cannot win without making gains everywhere. There are reasons to discount this narrative, however welcome it might be to an anti-reformist. It is true that just over half of those who voted in the 2015 GE chose traditionally rightwing parties: Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP, the last of which are a quasi-fascist Irish unionist party, beneficiaries of protestant oppression in Ireland and the 1688 Dutch invasion. However, only 36.9 of those chose Tories (30.4 picked Labour), 12.6 chose UKIP and a poll shows the majority of UKIP supporters (wrongly) believe the party is to the left of the Tories. Even more damning for the Tories, their victory was predicated on serial lying so chronic it is shocking even by the standards of our party politics, which is cynical to its Labour-Tory entrails.

UKIP only won one MP on 3,881,099 votes, but they increased their vote share everywhere except Scotland. And, defying predictions and the belief that UKIP only posed a risk to the Tories, Labour support bled into UKIP. As contradictory as it seems for an internationalist socialist to be appealing to the supporters of a nationalist capitalist party, Corbyn is the most popular Labour candidate with UKIP voters out of all the Labour leadership contenders. This indicates what I have believed for a while, which is that the undeniable xenophobia of UKIP is really a symptom of economic malaise and that these people, many of whom once supported Labour, can be brought back to socialism. This is a controversial claim, because many on the left just want to shun nationalists completely. It’s an understandable stance, but it’s a mistake. However, let’s take an important, semi-autbiographical digression on my politics and British nationalism.

In my long political journey I have always been anti-nationalist. As a Christian Socialist nationalism offended my belief in the community of Christ; as a brief rightwing libertarian in my early teens nationalism offended my blind faith in laissez-faire, invisible hand of the market nonsense; as a secular socialist it offended my egalitarianism; I ended flirtations with anarchism precisely because I saw how many of them ended supporting tribal politics and my attraction to Marxism was partly rooted in its internationalism. And even the weird heterodox Christian universalism of Slavoj Žižek, who seems to have fallen out of vogue lately.

UKIP in every sense represent my polar-opposites. The love of my life is foreign to Britain and so their ideas are personally offensive, but we nonetheless need to win them back to a universalist ethics of the left. Still, we need to do so without capitulating to nationalism, which is the desired path of New Labour careerists ever on the look out for the pragmatic centre ground. Just to take the example of my place of birth, it is obvious the nation-state is a grotesque historical fabrication that should be outright opposed, without any hesitation.

The British Union is an entity borne out of waves of oppression directed at Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland, including the linguistic imperialism (also seen in France with Brittany) that helped produce the birth of compulsory schooling to suppress regional languages through a campaign of child abuse and the wholesale destruction of communities. The rarefied identity of even England, however, is not a benevolent one; no ratification ever is benevolent. It has its origins in the Roman conquest of AD 43. After Rome retreated we had the invasion and settlement of the Anglo Saxons and England was divided into separate kingdoms, the Heptarchy; most of those divisions (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex) endure in some form, especially in the split between North England and South England, but also in the splits along a lot of the coast.

England proper was beginning to come into being in the Norman conquest of 1066 and it was much later solidified in the already mentioned Dutch invasion of 1688, which bolstered the legacy of Norman rule against the threat of the Catholic Jacobites and their support for the unquestionably legitimate King, if one allows that any monarch has legitimacy. The Hundred Years War, WWI, WWII, British Empire all played their loathsome parts in the formation of rightwing identitarianism. And the British aristocracy has always been radically opposed to democracy and essentially fascistic in its composition. The birth of British fascism, indeed, is an awakening of the squirearchy (the landed rich) to its real interests. Keep in mind that after suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the poll tax riot of its day, King Richard II later opined:

You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which you want to follow.

The leader of the first British fascist group, the British Fascisti, was Rotha Lintorn-Orman, as Wikipedia notes, ‘Born as Rotha Beryl Orman in Kensington London, she was the daughter of Charles Edward Orman, a Major from the Essex Regiment, and his wife, Blanch Lintorn, née Simmons. Her maternal grandfather was Field Marshal Sir John Lintorn Arabin Simmons.’  Other senior members included Neil Francis Hawkins, Maxwell Knight and Arnold Leese, who were all upperclass. Meanwhile in Spain, Italy and elsewhere fascism was arising with the backing of various desperate aristocracies. The great exceptions are the agrarian Romanian Iron Guard, which was a literally crazy, cannibalistic organisation of Gnostics (not an exaggeration) and Germany, where radical movements gave birth to the bizarre chimera that is Nazism.

Nazism needs to be distinguished in many respects, as Sebastian Haffner perfectly puts it in The Meaning of Hitler, ‘Nothing is more misleading than to call Hitler a fascist. Fascism is upper-class rule buttressed by artificially manufactured mass enthusiasm. Certainly Hitler roused masses to enthusiasm, but never in order to buttress an upper-class.’ This is pretty much my whole thesis about English fascism; it’s not middle-class or working-class, it’s the second estate. Admittedly, much like popularist Bonapartism and Nazism it takes heavily from the lumpenproletariat and dissatisfied lower working class support, but unlike even Bonapartism (let alone Nazism) its ideas are all purely Ancien Régime in origin.

By far the most famous historical fascist in the UK was Oswald Mosley, or, to use his full name, Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet. Now here’s where things get weird, because Mosley’s British Union of Fascists drew heavily from the generally white upperclass Suffragettes like Norah Elam too. And as is evident in even Shelley’s book The Last Man, many of the best of this first wave of feminism (unjustly used to attack the supposedly bad contemporary feminists) had a natural inclination towards reactionary sentiments despite professing a thin egalitarianism. More contemporaneously, Nick Griffin (Oxbridge educated) was, ‘The son of former Conservative councillor Edgar Griffin and his wife Jean’. Nigel Farage, whose brand of right-popularism is something a bit different again, a sort of fascist, hawk-libertarian cocktail of crazy, is also upperclass in origin, ‘Farage was born on 3 April 1964 at Downe, near Sevenoaks in Kent, to Barbara née Stevens and Guy Justus Oscar Farage’ and ‘was educated at Dulwich College, a public school in south London.’

This is even reflected in current voting, as was proved by the Henley by-election in Oxfordshire. And amongst working class people with strong nationalist sympathies, like Enoch Powell, the ideology of the English aristocracy is completely in evidence. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Powell’s ambition to be Viceroy of India crumbled in February 1947, when Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that Indian independence was imminent. Powell was so shocked by the change of policy that he spent the whole night after it was announced walking the streets of London.’ Before modern fascism William Cobbett perfectly understood this emerging ideology when he wrote in defence of medieval welfare:

The fact is that the endowment [to the Church] was made upon the condition that the priest should expand a fourth in his own way; a fourth was to go to the Bishop of the diocese; a fourth was to maintain the edifice of the church; and a fourth was to maintain the poor. For a long while there was no general law for the yielding of tithes; but when that change was legally imposed on all the lands, the poor were, of course, everywhere entitled to this fourth part. Villeinage being at this time greatly diminished, it was proper to provide a resource for helplessness other than that of the tables of the lords, and, therefore, this species of hospitality was transferred to the Church, from which the poor had a right to demand maintenance, and from which they received it, too, until the robbery of the poor (which has been called a robbery of the church) took place under the reign of King Henry the Eighth.

So why, in the light of all of this, do I think it is one of Corbyn’s most redeeming features that he appeals to UKIP support? Firstly, precisely because fascism is properly an aristocratic ideology, parasitical in its origins and nature; it should and can be cured in the body politic. I want to illustrate this point with an anecdote. One of my neighbours was, right up to the 2015 GE, a die-hard fan of UKIP. Then he had an abrupt change of mind. What caused this? Simply the fact that Farage said he might support a coalition with the Tories. This man is from an old mining community, hatred of the Tories is in his DNA. And so secondly, because UKIP supporters are not Tories, they are not apart of what I call the Whiggish consensus of the upperclasses in the UK; they are therefore theoretically amenable to radical change. Because the truth is that the rightwing, capitalist drift of the Labour party is just a rehashing of the prior liberal, capitalist drift of the Tory party. There may be some confusion as to what I mean by liberal here as that ideology is so monstrously successful that it represents a plethora of competing tendencies. A quote from Walter E. Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind (thanks for that recommendation) is quickly informative:

In the new liberal theory all men were free, politically and economically, owing no one any service beyond the fulfilment of legal contracts; and society was simply a collection of individuals, each motivated—naturally and rightly—by self-interest. The result was described by Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh: “Call ye that a society,” he cries again, “where there is no longer any Social Idea extant; not so much as the idea of a common Home, but only of a common over-crowded Lodging-house? Where each, isolated, regardless of his neighbour, turned against his neighbour, clutches what he can get, and cries ‘Mine!’”

Toryism was originally the ideology of Catholic and Jacobite sympathisers, but in lieu of effective Jacobite militarism, Toryism lost its raison d’être. Its reinvention was its Whiggification, in which the forces of capitalist change disguised their ‘creative’ destruction, or the primitive accumulation of atrocities like the Enclosures Act, behind the veneer of pseudo-traditionalism; nobody is more responsible for that obfuscation than Edmund Burke, now the great hero of Tory intellectuals and increasingly the reactionary go-to guy of pseudo-communist China. That is why we no longer have a Whig party in the UK; not because they lost, but because they completely won. The Labour Party is a Whig party; the LibDems are a Whig party, the Conservatives are definitely a Whig party and even many Whig assumptions about the market have found a home in UKIP and the Greens.

We are a one-ideology state, There Is No Alternative (TINA) if you will. High Toryism, the conservatives prior to the contradictory conservative alliance with the capitalistic middle-class, is not an ideology I like at all. Nonetheless, this conservatism is nothing like what we now call conservatism, either in the States (or Canada, Australia) or in the UK. And the new conservatism was created by Whig infiltrators of the Tory party; Chatham, the aforementioned Burke and additionally, kind of, Malthus, who was among the first to find pseudo-scientific, demographic justifications for vilifying the poor. Here G. K. Chesterton’s A Short History of England is very instructive:

if anybody deduces, from the fact that the Whig aristocrats were Whigs, any doubt about whether the Whig aristocrats were aristocrats, there is one practical test and reply. It might be tested in many ways: by the game laws and enclosure laws they passed, or by the strict code of the duel and the definition of honour on which they all insisted. But if it be really questioned whether I am right in calling their whole world an aristocracy, and the very reverse of it a democracy, the true historical test is this: that when republicanism entered the world, they instantly waged two great wars with it—or (if the view be preferred) it instantly waged two great wars with them.

To return to your actual question: some of the fear over Corbyn is sincerely about electability, which is a long shot under any prospective leader. But many senior figures, especially Blair, have said this is only a secondary consideration and they object to the Left in principle not merely in viability. Despite claims to the contrary, the pseudo-left media like the Guardian (who supported the rightwing Liberal Democrats in 2010 and helped the Lib-Con Coalition into power) and the Independent (who even supported the Tories against Miliband) are genuinely against a revival of the old reformist left. This is unsurprising as the fourth estate is mostly a sinecurist dumping ground for the less intelligent children of the upperclasses, that squirearchy again, torn between fascism on the one hand and Whiggism on the other, who attain their status and wealth via connections, unpaid internships and advantageous tax laws. People like Toynbee whine about what the Tories do to our country, but they fear socialism more.

Where does this leave us in predicting what happens next? Precisely nowhere. Some macro events can be vaguely foreseen. A lot of people outside of the economic orthodoxy foresaw an inevitable recession: post-Keynesian Dean Baker, Marxists like Nick Beams and César Uco and people of a more Austrian bent, like political maverick Ron Paul. That is because these huge events are always overdetermined, but even then prediction is far from an exact science. Small events, like the rise of Corbyn and, now, whether or not he will succeed, what that even means, are utterly beyond human powers of insight. So much so I am convinced even people who get it right are broadly just lucky gamblers. And in any event, what does a Corbyn victory mean?

Perhaps nothing. Corbyn is a reformist, and in my opinion does not go anywhere near to correcting the economic woes of our country. Nor would state power grant him the ability to correct the economic woes of the world, whatever ideology is professed about said problems. Corbyn is still undoubtedly hostile to the hard left, albeit slightly more inclusive. And Corbyn will be opposed by most of the PLP, pretty much the entirety of the media and, were he to become PM, by the majority of Britain’s ‘key’ allies too, including the USA who would be appalled were we to (I believe justly) disband the Trident nuclear weapons system, the cost of which would be expulsion from NATO.

Again, thank you for your question on Facebook. I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you in my reply.

Your friend,


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2 Responses to Dear Eileen, on British politics, history, nationalism, &c.

  1. Eileen Smyth says:

    Thank you, Rowan, this is fascinating most especially for the odd mix of similarities and dissimilarities to the American predicament, some of which grow out of the perceived ambiguities of our class structure.

    There is certainly quite a bit here to consider and I would like to address many more points than I practically can at the moment, but let me just start with a tangent on Žižek, about whom I ought to know much more.

    Žižek is an interesting figure, particularly in his critique of postmodernist thinking and inertia. Yet I have heard him on YouTube recommending a course of action that very much resembles the mechanical effects of the New Deal and the continuation of such policies in the post-war period. He speaks of slowly chipping away at Capital’s power while Capital is looking the other way until one day it suddenly looks down and realizes it’s been castrated. I found the “looking the other way” bit very puzzling since no such thing had happened between the elections of FDR and Ronald Reagan (well, really, Jimmy Carter). Certainly, their power over distribution of wealth had drastically declined but not because they were looking the other way, but rather because their counter-efforts were overwhelmed by very particular domestic and international circumstances, which are today almost utterly extinct. And I think this is a point entirely missed by the average liberal-on-the-street in America today, the result being that because they misunderstand the material reasons for mid-20th century economics, they also don’t understand why they can’t recreate that success simply through a well-worded call for return to mid-20th century policies.

    There’s so much more to respond to here than my time allows at the moment but I will just say briefly that I personally don’t believe there is a political solution to the problem of lingering aristocracy. If there is a solution to be had, it will come in the form of technological innovation, which has on occasion truly up-ended the social order by rendering the foundations of the elite obsolete (though they have also generally shown great tenacity in finding ways to hang on and, despite their inherent conservatism, adapt to the new reality). It’s quite possible that the combination of ever more radical automation (as journalist Hugh Samson has pointed out to me, self-driving vehicles alone have the potential to put huge numbers of working-class people out of work) and drastic changes in manufacture (in the form of universally-available 3-D printing, for example) is about to smash economic life as we know it to smithereens.

    There are of course both utopian and dystopian fantasies to be built on this vision but I agree with you that real prognostication is as impossible for us as it was for neolithic man at the dawn of agriculture or medieval man on the threshold of modern banking systems, or the Roman Church in the north, about to be broadsided by the revolutions made possible through mass printing.

    • incomingpast says:

      That’s a fantastic response and I don’t think I can find any point of real disagreement, which will make this reply to your reply a little predictable.

      My interest in Žižek is odd because I actually like about him what many of his Marxist admirers find an annoying aside, which is his overlap with radical traditionalists like the Catholic ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre (who stresses the need to return to something like Aristotelian virtue ethics), Perennialist authors like Seyyed Hossein Nasr (who stresses the need to recover premodern metaphysics) and political outsider theologians like John Milbank (who stresses the need for premodern political solutions). Strictly, I’m neither a wholesale traditionalist nor a Žižekian, but their understanding not only of our economic difficulties, but our moral quandaries, has shaped and informed many of my views. The criticism that Žižek is essentially a reformist affecting the rhetoric of an unreconstructed Leninist is a good one, however. And, indeed, it is because he adopts this weak position that he has been able to get space on the Guardian, as our mutual Marxist acquaintance on FB has often opined.

      The change will definitely be technological and Hugh Samson is absolutely correct about what Marxists call the increasing Organic Composition of Capital, a key part of the tendency of profits to decline. I have read (links below) about the increasing threat technology poses to even professional employment (doctors and lawyers) as well as Chinese factories replacing 90% of their labour with machines. I have also read about how this impacts on your own profession, with what Marxist historian of education has called eliminationism. It is obvious that capitalism cannot function forever under such changing conditions, but as the historical example of the luddites shows us, it can do tremendous damage as it dies. And, as you rightly say, it can be replaced with something worse as well as something better.


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