Richard Seymour’s book “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics” is a realist assessment of the hopes represented by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, as he repurposes the party to oppose the neoliberal state. Writing the book in sympathy with him, Seymour nevertheless warns against Corbyn being “encircled” and “chewed up” by entrenched governing elites even if he achieves state power.
The book claims the success of Corbyn over the political cadavers of the Blairites was largely a response to British politics becoming “less and less democratic”. Labour had suffered from this decay, as workers were simply ignoring them. Many Labour members also perceived a “crisis of legitimacy” in British parliamentary democracy, Seymour believes, and they gave up on their own party.
Labour had become “symbiotically dependent” on banks, business, media, and the rightist wings of state under the Blair government. The author dismisses that Labour government as “flimsy” for the left and “inessential” to the labour movement, because the Blairites became rightist ideologues of privatisation and US-led wars.
Seymour seemed to anticipate the so-called Labour coup of 2016, questioning the legitimacy of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the minds of the regular members. The book is skeptical of the idea of deselecting Blairite MPs, however, saying the politically “underdeveloped” students who rally behind Corbyn are no match for the “immense, lordly dominion” of the PLP. Corbyn is going to have to work within the tolerance of his critics in the PLP at all costs, Seymour suggests.
Contrary to much of the press, Seymour points out that it is not Corbyn but his critics within the party who are undermining Labour and making it less electable at present. As Seymour wrote, they believe “it would be better to crash Labour than to let it win under a left-wing leadership”.
Writing a chapter on the history of Labour, Seymour says Corbyn’s democratic socialism is in fact unusual in the party’s history. Corbyn may be against the party’s history as the “rearguard of reaction”, wishing to instead recreate it as a radical socialist party. In a somewhat pessimistic account, the author believes the party will eventually return to centrist roots.
Seymour writes of the “degeneration of the union link”. Blairite reforms shifted the party to depending on “passive supporters paying a small fee” rather than receiving union funding. This has backfired on the Blairites, driving unions that normally preferred “moderate leadership” into backing Corbyn’s openly socialist leadership.
The Labour leader should not limit his attacks to “the Tories”, Seymour writes. Bernie Sanders had spoken directly to America’s poorest with terms like “billionaire class”, “one percent”, and other language of the Occupy movement. With party loyalties unimportant to the wave of anti-establishment sentiment in Britain, Corbyn could go beyond the language of the party and speak directly to the lowest earners with the same language.
There are, of course, significant questions to be asked concerning electoral feasibility and making policies practicable to ensure Corbyn’s path to power. Certainly, Corbyn’s policies are to meet with popular opposition on some issues, even among poor people he intends to stand for. State intervention in the economy and the perceived excesses of the welfare state meet with opposition from most of the British political audience, Seymour writes.
Despite popular distrust of some of his ideas, most of Corbyn’s “radical” ideas do resonate with voters. Opposition to US military aggression and rejection of unethical arms deals, nuclear weapons, spending cuts, privatisation of vital services, and bailouts for banks seem quite sensible to most Britons. Taxing the rich and making homes and rents affordable to young people is also likely to win over many voters.
Corbyn shares most of our views that “British banks and British tanks do not appear to be doing most British people any favours” and this makes him a popular and effective leader, at least in the Opposition. If applied in power, Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s ideas would be unprecedented in “reversing neoliberalism”, Seymour writes.
The book’s introduction stating “the problem for the establishment is not necessarily Corbyn’s agenda” but “the type of politician that he is” offers the most compelling of its arguments. Corbyn’s real advantage may be his kind demeanour and personality, while voters have lost trust in other politicians, seen as dishonest. A lot of people do not like Labour, but they do like Corbyn. An alienated and volatile public, filled with the belief politicians are dishonest, could be persuaded to vote for this man where they would not have voted for his party.
If Corbyn should lead a future government, Seymour believes it will only open up a new front against him. The unkind state will push back against Corbyn’s kinder politics. Neoliberal governing elites will remain in key positions of power, insisting on keeping the old policies of war and austerity.
Harry Bentham is a British blogger who has discussed global politics, faith, science and futurism for numerous publications. His work has featured at prominent websites including Beliefnet and Press TV. Follow him on Twitter @hjbentham