10 May 2005
The challenge to the postmodern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the postmodern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself. Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle. In the prolonged period of peace in Europe, there has been a temptation to neglect our defences, both physical and psychological. This represents one of the great dangers of the postmodern state.
‘The new liberal imperialism’, Robert Cooper
There could be no clearer example of the return to the age of imperialism than Cooper’s statement above, taken from an essay published in April 2002. Cooper, a former Foreign Office official was, and no doubt still is, one of Blair’s chief ideological advisors (Cooper was based in Afghanistan, then Iraq and then back in the EU as a military expert).
The essay is probably the clearest and most blatant example of the reality of the post-Soviet period and reveals, in spite of the pretence of a ‘non-political’ civil service, the central role of the state machine in formulating policy on behalf of big capital.
Cooper is, just like Dr David Kelly was, one of the ‘backroom boys’, or as the Western media used to like to describe their Soviet equivalents, an apparatchik, members of the nomenclatura whose functions are to produce both the rationales as well as the practical programmes needed by the political class to advance the cause of the imperium.
However, my visit to Blackburn this past weekend to hear Craig Murray, former ambassador to Uzbekistan speak on how the British government outsources its torture to one of Cooper’s “old-fashioned kinds of states”, nevertheless persisted in maintaining that Blair has “politicised” the civil service, thus perpetuating the myth of a neutral state machine. And although I applaud the stand taken by Murray in exposing what obviously was a ‘step too far’ ie, boiling people alive and ripping out toe nails, nevertheless reveals just how deeply the ideology of imperialism has permeated the consciousness of the political class.
Cooper’s essay also reveals that the Blair government, far from being the articulation of a revitalised Labour Party is in actuality, the mouthpiece of the ideology of imperialism in this new period of unrestrained blood-letting. So to all those so-called old Labour supporters who Blair has been exhorting to vote for Labour in order, allegedly, to keep the Tories out, please be advised that for the past half-century (or more), you have been seriously misled. New Labour is the old Tories in a new bottle.
I don’t pretend that it’s easy to unpack the insidious relationship that exists between the state and capital, facilitated/muddied as it is by a complicit media but as the events of the past few years most clearly reveal, without the seamless integration of a relentless propaganda campaign by the media, it would be impossible to foist such a giant confidence trick on so many people over such a protracted period of time.
This process is perhaps best illustrated by the noise currently being generated about Blair’s suitability as prime minister as if Blair actually made policy! We are led to believe that were Gordon Brown pm there would be a significant change in Labour policies. But obviously, the ‘shift’ (such as it is) was preceded by several decades of a steady but inexorable move right that in turn revealed the real policies of Labour and its relationship to capital.
To begin to understand what has actually happened, we need to look at the role of political parties under capital, in this instance, the Labour Party and how it came to be New Labour and especially why the strategising of people like Robert Cooper are central to the evolution of the Labour Party. How did a party that until recently called itself socialist become the ‘cutting edge’ of ‘new imperialism’?
Successive Labour governments have, since at least the 1970s altered their relationship to organised labour, just as organised labour has changed its character from one of the industrial working class to that of chiefly representing state employees and other so-called service workers. (The state here in the UK and in many advanced capitalist states is the single biggest employer.)
This shift is paralleled by the rightward shift of capital since the 1970s as it attempted to respond to the historical contradictions of the crisis of the over-accumulation of capital and the need to recapture the wealth that had been wrested over decades of struggle from the capitalist class (the 1970s and 80s saw the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in history).
As the organised industrial working class declined, we saw the rise of a largely female, non-union and poorly paid ‘new’ working class, an increasingly large sector of the working people and critically one that the traditionally white, male industrial unions almost totally ignored.
The Labour Party, seeing its traditional base dwindle turned toward the newly enriched sections of the working class who, through the biggest privatisation programme of the 20th century – the sale of public housing initiated during the Thatcher years coupled to the role of bank-financed credit card debt – became the ‘natural home’ of New Labour. These were people who had formerly voted in large measure for Old Labour. New Labour needed to have both sections on board to guarantee success in an election and as we have seen in the 2005 election, it has also discovered the limits of this new formulation.
New Labour’s genius was to combine the appeal of core elements of Old Labour, most notably around public health and other public services and combine this with the New Imperialism articulated by the likes of Robert Cooper. But even here we see that it’s public services with a new twist; the state as financer of private capital or the so-called public-private partnerships. This ‘solves’ one of the problems of the over-accumulation of capital through massive state-sponsored capital investment in new infrastructure but through the private sector, a sort of New Labour, New Deal.
It is within this setting that we find the writings of Cooper making such headway and finding a home in the Labour Party and not in the Tory Party (where in a previous epoch Cooper’s new ‘liberal imperialist’ ideology would have found its natural home).
This process also explains the demise of the Tory Party and why (aside from the support of its rump, hardcore and aging population) there is no new constituency it can reach out to – they belong to New Labour, or at least for the time being they do.
It is also not enough for us to say that in order to survive as an organisation, the Labour Party took on board policies which at first sight appear as Tory. For although this is undoubtedly a component, the major reasons are 1) the changing nature of British capitalism initiated it’s true by a Tory government but not, let us say, ‘fully appreciated’ by its backward Tory bearers and 2) the changing nature and composition of the British working class.
I think it’s true to say that along with the re-emergence of the new ‘liberal imperialism’ we have seen the creation of a ‘new working class’ but one without the traditional solidarity and networks (institutions and culture) forged throughout the 19th century, but one that has had no voice until that is, the emergence of George Galloway’s Respect Party (four of whose candidates grabbed the biggest shift from Labour to Respect of all the parties including the Liberal Democrats).
However, before we get carried away by Respect’s remarkable gain in Hackney in London (Galloway defeated Oona King, a warmongering Blair babe who happens to be Black and represented a majority Asian and Muslim constituency), it’s worth looking at Respect’s policies in the light of what we know about the makeup of this new ‘post-industrial’ Britain.
The Respect Party illustrates the dilemma of attempting to resurrect the old social democratic model in the post-Soviet, post-industrial capitalism of the current period. For on the one hand, Respect attempts to elicit support from the disenfranchised sectors of our society, immigrants, students, the old folks and the poorly paid whilst at the same time using ‘traditional’ Labour values in attempt to bring on board the ‘left’ of the Labour Party’s support, a process that might best be described at trying to square the circle. This is why Respect vacillates between calling itself a socialist party and a social democratic party.
Respect’s success in a constituency like Hackney, hides the fact that it is very untypical of the majority of Labour’s support across the country, for whilst Blair got defeated by an ostensibly left party in Hackney, across the rest of London, the Tories gained the most seats (the only area of the country where they made significant gains) pointing to the fact that we are now entering a new period of post-Soviet capitalism, with regional splits occurring along both wealth and political lines, with the South being the centre of the anti-war movement.
The contradictions of Respect’s programme is best illustrated by how it has avoided taking a position on any policy that risks alienating the better-off rump of Labour support, those who have been caught hook, line and sinker in the debt-financed ‘good times’ of a ‘property-owning democracy’. So all the ‘tricky’ issues have simply been sidestepped including abortion (Galloway is opposed to abortion), immigration and so on, in other words, all issues of fundamental principle.
The problem that any party of the ‘left’ has to address is how to ‘square the circle’, that is, how to meet the demands of a significant minority who have missed out on the ‘good times’ whilst keeping those enjoying good times, happy. So for all Respect’s appeal to the ‘forgotten’ ones, it still has not faced the central contradiction of capital, namely, that continuing to enjoy the good times depends on continuing exploitation of the world’s poor and their resources in order to satisfy the needs of the few.
The problem has been compounded by the emergence of yet another contradiction of capitalism’s insatiable craving for profit, the crisis of global warming, a crisis New Labour is only too aware of as the headline below aptly illustrates
Blair demands nuclear power to protect high living standards (9/5/05, p.6)
Protecting “living standards” is code for maintaining the status quo, or eating your cake and keeping it. Living standards that are based upon a world where 80% live in abject poverty so that 20% can go on keeping capitalism afloat and ‘enjoying’ a life of consumer-based addiction.
One will search in vain through Respect’s election programme for anything that attempts to address this issue at a fundamental level, that of a complete re-think on things like ‘living standards’. Instead, it seeks to restore those ‘old’ Labour values that led, in part to the crisis we face today.
Instead, we see the ‘left’ buying into the ‘Peak Oil’ nonsense as its response to capitalism’s insatiable appetite for oil in order to maintain an irrational economic system. Bluntly, Respect’s programme is based upon political opportunism of the worst kind (it’s why I voted for the Green Party, admittedly as a last resort) as it avoids the hard questions that have to be addressed sooner rather than later as later will probably be too late.
Blair’s attempt to save capitalism by resorting to nuclear power is yet another clear sign of a political establishment that is bankrupt, for it knows that global warming/climate change can only be addressed by a fundamental re-ordering of our priorities, obviously not something it is prepared to take on board. No more endless production purely for the sake of private profit.
Only a transition to a rational (that is, sane) economic system that puts values and human relationships ahead of private profit can even begin to address the crisis that confronts us. This takes courage and, dare I say it, an up-to-date and inclusive marxist analysis of political economy, not something a warmed over Socialist Workers Party that is Respect can ever hope to do (nor for that matter the Greens or other variations on the same theme let alone the Labour Party).
Any real Left alternative to this has to address several fundamental elements:
- The poor and disenfranchised of British capitalism
- A complete re-evaluation of the concept of ‘living standard’ and
- The fact that our ‘living standards’ are dependent on the exploitation of the world’s poor.
- The relationship between the climate crisis and capitalist production
- The twin issues of race and gender as central to imperialism
Re-hashing Old Labour aka Respect, is about as useful as re-inventing the Whig Party of yore, as Old Labour effectively no longer exists any more than the constituencies of old Tories do.
All of the above points quite clearly to the fact that until we face the reality of the unequal division of wealth on a world scale, there can be no solution to the current crisis.
The Cooper analysis attempts to preserve privilege by resorting to the tried and tested methods of a pre-WWII world – brute force – neglecting of course to mention that they didn’t work then so why should they work now? And in fact led to a global conflagration and eventually the use of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms buildup.
If we as what’s left of the left can draw one lesson from the experiences of the 20th century’s attempts to build an alternative to capitalism, it is that for it to have succeeded it needed not only to meet the real basic material needs of the population – health, housing, food and education but equally important, those human-centred values of solidarity, community and of course, our relationship to nature.Any party of the Left today needs to address these issues as fundamental not only to the future of its political life but to the future of our species on the planet. And until we have the courage to say so, we are headed for disaster.