Seeing more Seymour



A review of Richard Seymour, Against Austerity

For those of us whose recent experience of the left is of the splintering of organisations and the breaking up of certain kinds of authority with the result that we are having to learn how to do politics anew, this is an important and necessary book.

Let me start where Seymour is sharpest. Across the political left, from the reformists to revolutionaries, we face a crisis of ambition. A large part of the reason that the governing Lib Dem coalition has remained in office, despite having but a tiny majority, is that are not winning a battle of ideas, and an ideological project which is all about reordering society in the interests of the rich has done better at connecting with millions of voters than any message our side has produced.

In a democracy, parties which repeatedly lose elections, even if they are not elections to Parliament, go into crisis. This is happening to the Liberal Democrats right now. But the Conservatives who dominate the Coalition sense that the momentum is with them, not Labour, and they are probably right.

We are used to a style of political argument where every failure of the trade unions and the Labour Party can be ascribed to a vanishingly small group of leaders, or (on those occasions when these positions are captured temporarily by people from the far left) to the dynamic of leadership itself (the “bureaucracy”).

But reformism is not primarily the product of the 125-year-old decision that the unions should constitute themselves as permanent organisations, and therefore required regional structures, fees, full-timers and, after a twenty year pause, seats in Parliament. In Britain, it is true, the unions came before the Labour Party and their leaders were the original vanguard of Labourism. But this pattern was not repeated in most other countries, where left parties came first and unions second. And their reformists are no more, or less, venal than ours.

Rather, reformism is primarily a product of a wager made intuitively by millions of workers that electing people to Parliament is more likely to result in an improvement in their lives and their friends’ lives than any alternative on offer. It results, in the last resort, not on any class fraction but on the ideas within people’s minds.

Ending the present marginalisation of the left, it follows, requires persuading lots more people that left-wing politics are a credible alternative, credible in these sense of “being held by other people like you” or “being shown to help activists win”.

The failure of the left is not just a failure of its reformist leadership; it is a failure right across the board. No party, no current, no-one publication is doing a good enough job of “making socialists” (as William Morris once put it) in the numbers we need.

Part of the reason the left is not doing better is that far too many of us are trapped in a historical mindset in which we are constantly looking for old symbols to deliver new people, and failing to miss the historic potential of the new.

In a key passage, Seymour criticises the nostalgia of looking back to 1945 for our models, “The Forties were fucking grim. No one but no one wants them back … what is actually involved in any attempt to summon the spirit of 1945 is an attempt to somehow defend the welfare state and social democracy by recreating an era whose chief characteristic is terrifying want, squalor, crushing injustice and early death … It is the symptom of an exhausted Left, unable to relate to the cultural and political sources of radicalism today, where is it the indignado movement, the feminist insurgency, student rebellion or flash-mobbing tax protesters. We need more Occupy Wall Street than Occupy Dresden.”

He is right about 1945, just as he is right by extension about the other traditions on the left which seek to rally us all around different nostalgias, whether for 1900-era Kaustyism, for the unofficial strikes of 1972, or for the 47 Liverpool Labour councillors.

Against Austerity is short book of three chapters. The first chapter, “class”, insists that austerity is not simply revitalised liberal economics, but a conscious strategy for cutting the social wage and assisting the super-rich. It is about re-organising society, through challenging the common sense consensus as to how things can be.

The second chapter, “state”, challenges the common, if naive, assumption that under conditions of neo-liberal ascendancy is being rolled back. Not at all, Seymour insists, rather the state is being used for different things.

The third chapter, “Ideology”, explains how austerity works in terms of securing consent through creating the categories in which consent is constructed. Seymour gives two detailed examples of this process at work. One is the Metropolitan police’s increased use of kettling, which is not so much about managing and containing violence as communicating to onlookers that protest is a dangerous and criminal activity, and making protest itself something with which few outsiders would wish to be associated. The second is the case of Shanene Thorpe, interviewed by Newsnight in May 2012, and challenged over her decision to live alone from her parents, on housing benefit, with a small child. Thorpe felt she had been ambushed and deprived of the chance to explain that she was working full time and her income too low to live without state assistance in London. Seymour presents the episode as a skirmish in the war of the rich to cut both wages and the social wage.

There are times when the book is only an equivocal pleasure. There are one or two passages in which Seymour adopts the persona of an intelligent person who has been given an untrammeled jurisdiction to insult his readers. Yes it is a joke, but it is an annoying one, out of kilter with the project to which he has dedicated two decades of his life.

A focus on how ideas work is necessary only to the extent that it guides people to creative activism. We, on the left, are not too few, nor are we too isolated, to change how millions of people think. We did change the idea, for example, once assiduously pushed by the Daily Star, that “the EDL are a nice bunch of working class people rightly standing up to Islamist excess, even if sometimes they go too far”. And, at the right places, we can have a similar impact on how people think about education policy or the future of health care. If we don’t try, we are in no position to criticise Ed Miliband’s failure to do better.

The strongest political influences on it are the writings of Poulantzas and Althusser. But I am different sort of Marxist, more impressed by people than by ideas. The working class I believe in is a class of people I have met and people I have lived with. Deep in the structuralist Marxist DNA is a notion of life in which ideas are treated to a greater extent as the constituents of reality, than they actually are.

Because the book is, ultimately, more about how ideology works rather than what is happening in politics, it doesn’t make best use of some of its ideas. For example, there is a passage in which Seymour tackles the austerity myths that cuts are needed because national finances had been, for some time, unbalanced. No, he replies, there was no crisis prior to the bailing out of the banks. And he also debunks the idea that excessive national expenditure is directly comparable to excessive expenditure in a single household. No, if a person or a family spend less they have more money to spare, but when an economy is cut, output is also reduced, further reducing the available income. These are good points which would have been memorable if they had been made at page 3 or 23 rather than page 123 of 189.

Seymour leaves his alternative vision to a thirty-page coda at the end of the book. He talks about the way in which campaigns by precarious workers can take them from the margins of working class experience to the core. He describes the need for institutional forms to hold a consciousness of the 99%. He suggests that these may take the form of neither a party nor a union but a social movement. He eulogises the potential of the Occupy movements and of the Quebec protests, neither of which agreed to stay within the limits of parliamentary politics. He calls for a fusion of Social Movement and Community trade unionism. I like many of these ideas in principle, but the proposals come too late in his book, are too broadly sketched, and are inadequately integrated into the critiques of the left and the analysis of ideology that form the book’s bulk.

Yet these criticisms are minor compared to the strengths of the book as a whole. There are very few writers on the far left who try to write engagingly, who try to explain complicated ideas from the academic literature, and who dare to acknowledge the most important political challenges facing the left.

A phrase I hear often among friends is “we need more theory”. Well, if you think you can do better than Seymour, here and now is the time to start.

10 responses »

  1. The title somehow reminds me of the old song from Little Shop of Horrors.

    Suddenly Seymour
    Is standing beside me
    He don’t give me orders
    He don’t condescend
    Suddenly Seymour
    Is here to provide me
    With sweet understanding —
    Seymour’s my friend.

  2. “The Forties were fucking grim. No one but no one wants them back …” Well maybe. Neither of you boys were there. I was. Yes, there was a lot grim about the late forties. Much lower living standards. Repressive attitudes to sexuality and culture. The Attlee government sent troops into the Surrey docks to break a strike just SIX DAYS after being elected. (Something Loach missed out of his movie.)
    Yet there was another side to it. If the forties were grim the thirties were worse. The NHS did transform the lives of millions, and is still worth defending. One thing I remember is that in the 1940s all schoolkids got free orange juice. The country was much poorer than it is now, but it could afford that. Imagine today if TUSC or Left Unity were drafting its prgramme and someone suggested free orange juice for all kids. Your most hardened Marxists would say: “That’s going a bit far”. Maybe that childhood orange juice is one of the reasons why my generation is living longer, why I’m still on my feet despite advancing diabetes.
    Maybe we should look a bit more carefully at the forties, see that there were positives and negatives inextricably intertwined with each other. Maybe we could look DIALECTICALLY – or is that too much to ask of you young theoretciains.

  3. Well quite. I mean the Seventies were grim and all compared to the present day, in many respects, but so what? In them days, they were scared of us,

    This here is a great 1946 film about 1945 and if you don’t get teary during this sequence there’s something wrong with you.

    For my money the greatest fim ever to be made in Britain and its the optimism of 1945, not thre grimness, that makes it so.

  4. I thought your critique of Richard Seymour’s “Against Austerity” was both perceptive and fair. Ian Birchall has a point about the 1940s – grim and all as it was (yes, alas, I really do remember it all). There was a more instinctive tradition of “collectivism” in political and social life – something actually reinforced by the experience of the war. What was true of the decades that followed – well into the 1970s and 1980s – was that all the varieties of socialists and reformists had an essential social reality to work with – class consciousness. Again – lest anyone misunderstand – class is, if anything, an even more disfiguring feature of modern capitalism than it was then. But class consciousness has weakened and fractured to the point of marginality. We can point to a variety of structural economic and social changes/crises which have driven this process. But the implosion of class consciousness has left a terrible political void now in danger of being filled by far right populists.
    As Edward Thompson taught us, classes are periodically made, unmade and remade. Only by the closest possible involvement in the new wave of struggles – not only against austerity but all the manifestations of the sickness of modern capitalism (including all the “oppressions” of gender, race etc) and the closest possible attention to what new forms of collectivity appeal to the new generations in struggle will the left be able to connect again in a meaningful fashion (remember even the Leninists were surprised by the emergence of workers’ councils.) We – no doubt – will face equal surprises in the future.

  5. Well go on Dave and Richard, defend yourselves, Explain how you really understand the truth about history, unlike us silly fuckers who just happened to be there. My Gran got a 160% increase in her Old Age Pension. Mayybe life was grim afterwards, but it was a bloody sight grimmer before. Youngsters who see the whole of history refracted through 1980s hiphop understand nothing about 1945.

  6. Apologies for my slipshod language. The element of Richard’s argument which I meant to specifically endorse was the idea that looking to the past is both a sign of defeats, and the sign of a mentality that invites further defeats. That’s why I wrote, “far too many of us are trapped in a historical mindset in which we are constantly looking for old symbols to deliver new people, and failing to miss the historic potential of the new.” And even when I wrote, “He is right about 1945”, I meant: Richard is right about the use of 1945 as an organising myth. Not necessarily, “he is right about the history as history”, but “he is right about the politics of using history in this way”.

    I care about history, and I can well believe that in the right circumstances history can be a source of hope. But in Britain in 2014 (I agree with Richard) the left is held back by a series of consoling myths which stop us confronting our difficulties, or doing what John Palmer suggests, ie focussing on the *re*consitution of class. (And please note, I’m not saying this just because Richard did, or because John did, a similar emphasis on reconstitution takes up the 2nd half of my last piece on UKIP. This matters; right now, it matters more than anything else).

    A very specific example of either thoughtlessness or nostalgia undermining organisation is the debate we had in the SWP in the last year about whether a general strike by public sector unions was the best thing that could hoped for to challenge the national consensus in favour of austerity.

    Most SWP members went along with that idea. A reason they did, in my analysis, was a series of misunderstandings about a) the relative weights of the private and public sector in the economy as a whole (and an assumption that the public sector accounts for about 50% of all employment rather than the 20% of employment it actually covers), b) an exaggeration of the degree of emotional identification between private and public sector workers in general, c) an especially marked “prolier-than-reality” mis-assessment of the SWP’s public sector worker base which has largely receded, as the members aged, into senior and managerial grades, d) a lack of honesty about the tendency of bureaucratic mass strikes, in particular, to remain in the leadership’s control (Mark O’Brien’s piece in the last ISJ was good on this), and e) a historical assumption that the industrial economy is still essentially where it was in 1972-4 – ie most jobs are in production, in most workplaces there is a union presence, most jobs are full-time and permanent, and in most workplaces there is a stewards’ infrastructure capable of taking all the workers on strike if only they receive the call.

    I’d cite factor (e): an assumption that 1972 is just waiting to happen again, so prosletysing for it will work, as an example of people wasting precious efforts, when their organisations would be much better placed asking themselves questions such as – are there new groups of workers (eg the casualised SOAS fractionals or the casualised Ritzy workers) waiting to go on strike? If so, how can we meet and help and learn from them? I’m proud that RS21 has joined these campaigns and, to that extent, is trying to escape the problems of just waiting for an upturn like the early 1970s.

    Does that mean that if I had the choice of being 41 in 1972 (or for that matter 1977) I would find it attractive? Quite possibly – from this distance, the politics and the culture look more inspiring than today’s. To misquote Ian, the music and the sex was always better when you were young. But as soon as I think about that possibility I revolt against it. The historian in me starts to think “do you really want to have to live through Powellism, the rise of the NF?” And the moment I start thinking the culture was great, I then have to remind myself how much harder TV was to escape, and how rubbish much of it was (Love Thy Neighbour anyone?).

    Now thinking about 1945 honestly – were the films that great? I bet I would have hated a great deal of the 1940s Ealing films, and found them saturated with anti-collective values. I would have liked the optimism and political upturn of about 1941-5 (up to the CP miscalling the 45 election), and I would have hated the downturn that gathered momentum from Churchill’s iron curtain comments through to his 1946 speech and then to the British efforts at McCarthyism. I would have known that the 1947 race riots didn’t begin just then but had their prelude with the mushrooming of fascist grouplets from 1945 onwards. I would have seen the immense slowing down of Labour’s radicalism from about 1947 onwards as foreshadowed by things which were taking place in 1945 – eg the negotiations with the consultants over the terms of the NHS. I would have hated the British Housewives League, the Tate and Lyle campaign against privatisation and the huge press support which both of them received. A huge CP? Good. Laws banning dock strikes? Less so.

    We can swap anecdotes about the 1940s, good and bad, but really they’re beside the point. What matters is that if anyone other than Ken Loach seriously thought that the way to get through to the hearts and minds of the young (whose values, as Richard’s book shows, are to the right of most previous generations on issues such as benefits), by saying “the Forties were great”, they’re wrong. Rather, the left needs to have something interesting and persuasive to say about the movements in our own time , whether it’s (his examples) the indignados, the feminists, the students or UK Uncut…

  7. An intelligent and nuanced reply, Dave. You can do it if you try. Generally you’re too lazy.
    Loach’s movie makes some useful and valid points. It is also dishonest, totally omitting, for example, Attlee’s use of troops to break strikes (the Attlee government used troops against strikers oftener than any other British government ever). And this is culpable. Loach has been around the far left for forty years. he KNOWS about Attlee’s strike-breaking but chose to suppress it from his film. He is a liar.
    Of course history does not repeat itself and only someone as impenetrably stupid as Alex Callinicos would expect it to (how fucking thick do you have to be to get to be a professor?) BUT if we don’t understand history we can’t understand the present. If we don’t know what 1972 was really like, we can’t analyse how our own situation differs.

  8. So relating to the present, those current activists who want to challenge the “common sense” ideas of capitalism, require us to rehabilitate the discredited theories of Althusser and Polantzas? This sounds like old fashioned reformism to me which Seymour has been advocating for the past few years.
    It’s revealing that when the Occupy movement revives old fashioned theories of horizontal and non-hierarchical organisation from the ’60’s that were themselves drawn from the past that this is cast as new and novel while Marxist ideas that have challenged these autonomist theories are cast as old fashioned. IOW the rules of “new times, new thinking” only apply to Marxists but not to those they criticise. These “New Times” tropes sound unsurprisingly familiar.
    While there is no doubt that the left atm is not convincing workers in enough numbers that their interests lie in fighting the system, this is predicated on over 30 years of neo-liberal assault by the ruling class. But the current situation was never determined in advance and if the miners had won their strike then the combativeness of workers might be very different now. The combativeness of the class is not merely a theoretical question divorced from day to day struggles. Dialectically speaking everything is up for grabs unless your dialectics is of the Althusserian variety where the iron cage of ideology exists, outside society, extraneous from human agency.
    Which brings us back to the very important reason why an Althusserian elite, debating organisational issues and bemoaning the poverty of theory will never make a difference to the confidence of workers fighting back. Theory that isn’t based on practice in any age is the province of reformists and revisionists who cling to a vague notion of novelty because they have nothing practical to offer workers.
    While this book offers insights into the workings of neoliberalism that have been stated much better by others elsewhere – its central premise is mistaken. Seymour took the wrong position on Syriza and this book is the manifesto of that mistake.

  9. Ian B:

    “Maybe we should look a bit more carefully at the forties, see that there were positives and negatives inextricably intertwined with each other. Maybe we could look DIALECTICALLY – or is that too much to ask of you young theoretciains.”

    Tut tut, Ian, that is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

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