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The left needs to give up hope

No hope

Some years ago I got into one of those online spats that can never be resolved with just 280 characters.  It was in response to someone who, in November 2016, claimed that “conservatives just cannot get over the fact that we [the left] keep winning the arguments.”  This, I suggested, was a strange way of looking at the world since, as far as I could see, Britain had elected a majority Tory government in 2015 which had delivered a resounding vote to leave the EU in June 2016; Donald Trump had just been elected President of the USA; and a wave of right-wing populism was sweeping across Europe.

Things have not improved for the left since then.  European proportional electoral systems have prevented the hard right from running riot; but the populist right is not going away.  In the UK, the better than expected result for Labour in the 2017 election turned out to be a blip which was allowed to obscure the fact that Labour had lost and that May could still govern with the backing of the DUP.  In the USA, various Democrat procedural attempts to overturn the 2016 result have failed to win public support in the states that matter, making a second term for Trump almost a formality with just 320 days to go before the 2020 election.

Last week’s UK election result served to underscore the ascendancy of the political right and the disarray of the political left.  One symptom of this was the way a mass of activists were drafted to campaign in the seats of prominent Tories – Johnson and Duncan Smith – and in metropolitan seats that were already secure, while key seats that Labour had to hold in the Midlands and the North were left almost undefended.

Whether more bodies on the ground in the 50 “red wall” seats that Labour lost to the Tories would have made any difference is a moot point.  The alienation from Labour began decades ago, and was unlikely to be reversed in the course of a few weeks.  In any case, campaigning often amounted to little more than knocking doors to hand out leaflets and to ask which way someone was thinking of voting.  Little time was available for discussion and persuasion.

The optimism with which high profile campaigns seriously expected to unseat Johnson and Duncan Smith – and the unspoken assumption that they could do this because a Labour victory was assured – together with my online adversary’s belief that the left is somehow “winning the argument” points to an unwarranted degree of hope which has been corrosive of left wing politics for decades.  By “hope,” I mean the unfounded expectation that something will happen despite having little or no agency to bring it about.  “I hope to win the lottery,” “I hope they find a solution to climate change,” or “I hope someone finds a substitute for fossil fuels,” being similar examples of expectations without agency.  The origins of unfounded left wing hope run far deeper, though.  The two strands of thought which coalesced in the foundation of the Labour Party – Methodist Christianity and Marxian political economy – both embraced the post-Enlightenment secular religion of progress.  The Christian strand adopted the liberal belief that technological progress would one day lift people out of poverty and misery and bring about the New Jerusalem; a kind of utopian Heaven on Earth.  The Marxian strand incorporated the evolutionist thinking of Wallace and Darwin into a class-based political economy which argued that history is a process of social evolution in which a more progressive class overthrows the ruling class of an earlier – and more backward – system.  Slavery is supplanted by Feudalism which, in turn is replaced by capitalism.  In future – according to Marx – capitalism would run its course and be overthrown by a Socialism in which there would only be one – proletarian – class.  And with the end of class conflict, an unnecessary state – whose purpose is to enforce the will of the ruling class – would wither away; ushering in a Communist utopia little different to the Christians’ New Jerusalem.

Both of these strands have helped create two of the less pleasant traits of the political left:

  • The belief that we are the good people and our opponents are the bad people, and
  • The belief that our ascent to power is a foregone conclusion.

Both of these erupted in the undignified elitist outbursts last Friday, when leftists took to the streets to protest the election result.  This is hardly new – the same thing happened in 2015 – but it points to a sense of entitlement that is not born out in the result itself.  At its worse, this has descended into counterproductively hurling insults at the electorate itself; driving an even bigger wedge between activists and the electorate they need to win back.

I should point out here that I am not criticising people for being devastated by the result.  I voted Labour myself, and felt emotionally bruised by the results as they came in.  But I see no reason to protest an election result that the Tories – with the support of their Faragist allies – clearly won.  Nor am I suggesting that Britain’s First-Past-The-Post electoral system is not in need of urgent reform.  If the seats had been allocated according to the share of the vote on Friday, the Tories would have needed a coalition with the Brexit Party and the DUP to form a government.  Nevertheless, the same share of the vote in a proportional system would have made it impossible for Labour to form a government anyway.  There is no benefit, then, for the left in protesting either the election result or the electoral system as in some way delivering an illegitimate outcome.    The unplanned European elections were proportional; and they resulted in the Brexit Party becoming the largest party in the European Parliament.  And if the 2015 election had been proportional, Britain would have woken up to a Tory-UKIP coalition. Moreover, the EU referendum was even more proportional than the European elections.  Every vote was equal, irrespective of where in the country you happened to live.  Indeed, this is precisely why so many people who would not normally have bothered to vote chose to vote for Brexit.  It is also why so many supposedly “traditional Labour seats” switched to the Tories last Thursday.  As Mary Harrington at UnHerd explains:

“Johnson’s opponents were handily played. They failed to grasp that the most salient issue for ordinary British voters today is not any one specific policy, but the simple question of whether voting ever changes anything. In the unedifying spectacle of their efforts to block Brexit, culminating in the Benn Act, Parliament’s Remain Alliance set about demonstrating to an appalled public that if it were left to them? No: voting would change nothing, ever…

“The ugly story of elite resistance to the Leave vote after the 2016 referendum has done nothing to reassure electorates that the status quo Cameron so quintessentially represented might be salvageable. Voters have been treated to salvo after salvo from well-funded, well-connected insiders hell-bent on retaining their prime means of evading democratic accountability on favoured policies…

“The brazenness of this effort cut through even to that majority of the electorate which is largely apolitical. It has, rightly, triggered outrage.

“Most people in the UK have no avenues for political influence other than their vote. No seats on quangos, no friends in think tanks, no contacts in the media or in lobbying firms or Parliament. Is it any wonder ordinary voters, even in such obdurately Labour constituencies as Leigh and Bolsover, have handed a thumping majority to the only party that appears willing to do as voters ask?”

In terms of seats, Labour is in a worse position than it had been after the 1983 “suicide note” election.  In terms of votes, the situation is less dire.  A relatively easy two point swing against the government will be enough to return most of the “red wall” seats to Labour provided that Johnson doesn’t secure and build upon the Tory lead.

The left’s problems, however, are far more profound than choosing the correct leader or formulating policies that might be attractive to voters in the deindustrialised regions of the UK.  As at least some leftist commentators have noted, the de-industrial regions that flipped to the Tories last Thursday have been in decline for the best part of four decades.  Some have also observed that the deliberate abandonment of those communities which propelled Blair’s New Labour into government in 1997 was also what sowed the seeds of defeat last week.  But what the left is failing to acknowledge is the nature of the crisis that underpins the decline; and this failure will continue to produce similar outcomes in future.

Marx, in a moment of clarity while writing the Grundrisse (literally the “blueprint” for the 10 volumes of Das Kapital that he had intended writing) conceded that that the classical liberals and he himself had been wrong to see labour power as the sole source of value.  The industrial machinery that had been developed and deployed in massive quantities first across Britain and later Europe and the USA in the course of his lifetime (1818-83) was also a source of value. 

The moment quickly passed, however.  If machinery could be a source of value, then Marx’s entire political philosophy was wrong.  There was nothing inevitable about the proletarian revolution and the eventual communist utopia.  Indeed, such a revolution might even result in the massive destruction of value and usher in a new dark age.  Discordant thoughts like that are difficult to entertain; and Marx never returned to them (although he might have been obliged to if he had lived to write all ten volumes of Capital).

Marx was wrong in any case.  It was not the machines that were generating the massive increase in value in the industrial world that had developed around him.  Rather, it was a property that labour, agriculture and industrial production all share – energy.  Raw labour power – the energy that a human exerts to change something in the environment – had never been the sole source of value.  Humans have exploited animal labour for millennia.  And even before we evolved into modern humans, our ancestors had used external energy – fire – as an essential part of their way of life.  Our large brains, manual dexterity and small teeth and jawbones are all evolutionary products of our unique dependency upon external energy to process food outside our digestive system.

What had made the European enlightenment different to the centuries that preceded it was the massive influx of calories – and several psychotropic substances – from the colonial “triangular” slave trade.  It was the additional calories, together with the stimulant effect of tobacco and coffee that provided Enlightenment thinkers with the means and the energy to philosophise.  Nevertheless, those early Atlantic Empires operated almost entirely on renewable energy; and were thus limited in the degree to which they could expand.

Modern industrial economies are different because they were able to unleash the power of billions of years of solar energy stored beneath the Earth’s surface in the form of coal and later oil and gas.  Without the coal, those machines that Marx briefly conceded might also be a source of value would have lain idle.  Indeed, most of that industrial technology would have been impossible to build without the energy provided by coal.  It was coal that provided Britain with the steam-powered Royal Navy around which it constructed an Empire that spanned a quarter of the Earth’s landmass.  It was the decline in coal output after 1913 that began the unravelling of the Empire and the decline of Britain itself.

The continental oil-based Empires – the USA and USSR – that emerged after 1945, rapidly eclipsed Britain; leaving it increasingly dependent upon the USA.  And when US oil production peaked in 1971, the economic crisis that ensued hit Britain particularly hard.  One bi-product, however, was that the increased price of oil in the 1970s made it economically viable to begin recovering oil from the fields in the North Sea.

The apparent success of neoliberalism owes far less to the economics of globalism that it espoused and far more to the burst of energy from the North Sea, the North Alaskan Slope and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The decade-long boom between 1995 and 2005 which gave the appearance that under Clinton and Blair the neoliberal left had restored the USA and the UK to their former prosperity lasted just as long as oil production from these fields continued to grow.  Once the North Sea peaked in 1999, Britain’s relative decline was inevitable.  By 2005 – the year global conventional oil peaked – the UK had become a net importer of oil and gas and was increasingly dependent upon imported coal, oil, gas and electricity to keep its economy running.

The Thatcher-Blair years (1979-2007) had seen a false prosperity built upon a massive increase in private and public debt; itself underwritten by the returns on the export of oil and gas.  As former Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan recalled in 2015:

“Back then, whoever was running the Government had this amazing ability to spend oil revenues. Governments could afford things.  They didn’t have to worry about where the next few quid was coming from.  The Falklands War was eminently affordable.  Paying the cost of the rocketing unemployment benefit bill, as dole queues doubled, then trebled, wasn’t a problem.”

In effect, the finite reserve of oil beneath the North Sea had been used by both Tory and Labour governments as an alternative to reconstructing the UK economy for a more energy-deprived future.  Income from oil provided governments with the means to allow the de-industrial regions of the UK to slowly decay because the state could use mechanisms like early retirement payments, incapacity benefit and a host of expensive corporate welfare “development programmes” to funnel just enough cash into those areas to placate the population.  Ian Jack writing in the Guardian six years ago pointed to a Potemkin UK that had the appearance of relative prosperity even though it lacked the objective means to justify it:

“I had the idea… when I was walking through a London square around the time of the City’s deregulatory ‘Big Bang’ and Peregrine Worsthorne coining the phrase ‘bourgeois triumphalism’ to describe the brash behaviour of the newly enriched: the boys who wore red braces and swore long and loud in restaurants. Champagne was becoming an unexceptional drink. The miners had been beaten. A little terraced house in an ordinary bit of London would buy 7.5 similar houses in Bradford. In the seven years since 1979, jobs in manufacturing had declined from about seven million to around five million, and more than nine in every 10 of all jobs lost were located north of the diagonal between the Bristol channel and the Wash. And yet it was also true that more people owned more things – tumble dryers and deep freezers – than ever before, and that the average household’s disposable income in 1985 was more than 10% higher than it had been in the last days of Jim Callaghan’s government.”

Britain’s energy fortunes are reflected in one of the most important – and neglected – measures of economic prosperity; energy per capita:

In the years after the Second World War, Britain had utilised ever more energy – the vast bulk of which powered its industry and commerce.  This trend came to an end with the first oil shock in 1973 which underpinned the inflationary crisis of the mid-1970s.  The second oil shock in 1979 was even worse; creating the recession that Thatcher’s and Reagan’s monetarist policies greatly exacerbated.  The growth in North Sea production corresponded to the “Big Bang” banking and finance deregulation that ushered in the debt-based boom of the 1990s and early 2000s.  But that boom was socially and geographically uneven.  Huge swathes of de-industrial Britain missed out on a boom that largely benefitted the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle and the top-tier university towns.  The collapse in energy per capita after 2005 merely meant that a growing number of people in the few areas of Britain that had benefited from the oil-debt bubble found themselves in a similar position to communities in de-industrial Britain by the time the Tories returned in 2010.

Like Thatcher’s monetarism, Tory/LibDem austerity exacerbated an already difficult economic situation. By diverting currency away from ordinary people and into the hands of asset speculators, the government was able to shore up the stock market, the banking and finance sector and the property market; but only at the expense of declining incomes for around 80 percent of the UK population.

Energy per capita may seem a somewhat distant economic measure; but this is only because economics is as ignorant of the central role of energy within an economy as it is about the central role of banks in the creation of currency.  The energy per capita data in the graph above is the explanation for the so-called “productivity puzzle” that has bedevilled the UK economy for the last decade.  Productivity – getting more output for less or the same input – is essentially a measure of energy; because it is only energy (of which labour power is a very weak sub-set) that can generate value.  As Steve Keen famously puts it, “capital without energy is a statue; labour without energy is a corpse.”  Productivity gains throughout the industrial age have been largely the product of using more energy to boost output.  Energy efficiency and more streamlined work processes also have an effect; although much weaker than the raw impact of harnessing more energy to provide more work (and producing more pollution and waste heat as a bi-product).

In practical terms, this is reflected in Britain’s gradual switch back to a labour intensive and low-tech gig economy.  For example, the once ubiquitous automated car wash has all but disappeared from the high street (other than from supermarkets where it is offered as a loss-leader) and been replaced by hand washing.  Bicycle-based fast food delivery is in a similar category; although even this depends upon the continued proximity to pockets of affluence.

Where affluence has disappeared entirely, we have witnessed a soul-destroying “retail apocalypse” in which whole communities’ discretionary spending has collapsed; rendering them unable to support the shops and businesses that used to be common in British town centres.  That an out-of-touch elite – which includes many Labour politicians, economists and journalists – have blamed this on internet retail rather than declining prosperity also underpins the political crisis the left now finds itself in.

It is in these new circumstances that Labour has continues to make the Blairite error of assuming that voters in Britain’s de-industrial communities have nowhere else to go.  The spectacular success of the Scottish National Party which has rendered Scotland an almost Labour-free country ought to have sounded alarm bells.  So too should the success of UKIP in Labour seats in 2015.  But even after the Brexit Party’s success in May’s European election, too many Labour politicians and campaign managers assumed that they could take the “red wall” for granted.

The left’s old, energy-profligate way of escaping crisis – borrowing currency to fund the burning of more fossil fuels to provide more and cheaper energy to fuel economic growth – is no longer an option.  Shale oil, tar sands and deep water oil fields may contain large quantities of oil; but it is poor quality – it takes too much energy to produce and refine for it to be of much use in attempts to grow the economy.  So-called “green new deals” cannot work for the same reason – the energy source (the sun) might be practically infinite, but the means of capturing and harnessing it is expensive and wasteful.  It may be possible to operate an economy on renewable energy but certainly not an industrial one; still less anything as complicated as the modern, globally interdependent one we now live within.

The growth of foodbanks and homelessness, together with the downward trend in life expectancy since 2008 ought to have been enough to cause the left to rethink its underlying beliefs and assumptions.  Not least because, at least for now, it is the populist-nationalist right which is the beneficiary of the political fallout.  In an increasingly energy-deprived economy in which an ever greater part of most people’s income will have to be spent on essentials like food, utilities and rent, continued support for the plethora of expensive, technocratic global bodies like the World Bank, the OECD, the IMF and, yes, even the European Union may become impossible to justify.  Indeed, even the relatively high salaries of national and local bureaucrats are likely to come under pressure from populations who can no longer afford the taxes that pay for them.

This, I suspect, is why ordinary people are increasingly aligned behind a nationalist right which at least pretends that it is about cutting these costs; compared to a political left which still talks in terms of borrowing (and ultimately raising taxes) to pay for massive infrastructure spending that can only be realistically delivered if someone discovers a new resource-rich planet or a new high-density energy resource for us to exploit.   A nationalism which asserts that the economy should work for the people (rather than the neoliberal opposite) is currently winning precisely because it is more aligned to ordinary people’s lived experience than the vague promises of an expansionist left.

It is for this reason that I urge the left to give up hope.  There is no New Jerusalem ahead of us.  Nor will the imagined Communist utopia put in an appearance any time soon.  In an energy and resource constrained future exacerbated by a growing environmental catastrophe, there is no means of growing our way out of our predicament.  The question, instead, is how do we de-grow our economies in the least harmful way possible?  That is, how do we avoid repeating the mistakes made by every other collapsing civilisation before us, of destroying our society in order to try (and fail) to maintain the privilege of a shrinking elite?

In the immediate term, our choices are stark.  The growing (energy) cost of fossil fuels – which, despite our best efforts still make up 86 percent of the global energy mix – means that per capita energy use will continue to decline.  This will accelerate trends like the collapse of discretionary spending and the growth of food and energy poverty. It will also ensure that the productivity gains made in the last (1995-2005) burst of industrial growth will continue to be eroded as energy-intensive processes are replaced with (energy) cheaper labour-intensive alternatives – something that we are already witnessing in the apparent contradiction between full-employment and stagnant real wages.  The growing environmental impacts – of which climate change is just one part – of three centuries of industrial civilisation are also going to force us to face unpleasant choices.  Do we, for example, abandon a large part of the most expensive London real estate today?  Or do we wait until sea level rise renders it useless?  Do we build flood defences to protect our current infrastructure or do we relocate it to places less susceptible to increasingly unstable weather patterns?  Or do we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that we can carry on with unfettered economic growth even as the flood waters rise around us?

There is nothing certain in this predicament, and there is no in-built guarantee that the political left gets to win.  Hope in this situation amounts to little more than denial.  The reality that most of us are going to face in the very near future is one of shortages – shortages of food, of medicines, of energy and of housing.  Indeed, large numbers of people are already experiencing these today.  It is no longer sufficient for the left to respond to this with policy announcements and manifesto promises.  Nor is it enough to make contact with people once every five years when their votes are needed.  The route back to government for the left requires the abandonment not just of a neoliberal project that has outstayed its welcome; but of the growth-based economic beliefs that have underpinned left wing politics for decades.  More than this, though, it requires that the left picks a side to stand with in the coming crisis. 

The political organisations of the left are well-placed to work in concert with local businesses and voluntary groups in those regions that are worse hit by the growing collapse in prosperity.  This needs to go far beyond the political “community organising” proposed by the left.  Instead, it needs to tie into what will become essential services like food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, debt advice centres and credit unions.  And where these do not exist, the left needs to use its structures and contacts to create them.

In a previous age, when energy was also constrained, the people of Blaenau Gwent – today Wales’ most pro-Brexit community – came together to operate a voluntary scheme designed to shelter local people from the excesses of the private medical services of the day.  The mutual support scheme did not go unnoticed by the young and radical MP for the constituency; one Aneurin Bevan.  Years later, when Bevan became Health and Housing Minister in the first ever majority Labour government, he drew on that scheme as the basis for the National Health Service which he launched on 5 July 1948.  The fact that neither Thatcher nor Cameron and Clegg were able to do away with the NHS, and the fact that Johnson has pledged huge increases in NHS spending demonstrates not just the mass support for the NHS, but the durability of solutions developed by the people themselves.  The left could do a lot worse than to take a leaf out of Bevan’s book – stop hoping for some utopian future to magically appear and start listening to and working to empower the people the left claims to want to represent.

As you made it to the end…

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