Radical Politics: Position and Momentum

by , under Philosophy, Politics, Theology

Earlier today, Cameron Freeman – who runs a Facebook group on Radical Theology responded to something I’d posted about Nigel Farage’s resignation with the following:

Kester, I’d really like to hear sometime how do you mesh your (very) radical theology with you’re support for the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power like the EU? Surely there’s just a little bit of cognitive dissonance there, yes?

Rather than reply only in the centralised undemocratic top-down power of Facebook, I thought I’d post some quick thoughts here too…

Mulling on this as I walked home from work just now, I began to think about the mathematical idea of vectors. A vector is something with both magnitude and direction. But the interesting thing about a vector is that it has no defined origin. You can apply a vector to any particular start point, and it will move from that place a certain distance in a certain direction. If you refuse a vector a starting point, it does… nothing. Point being: my hunch is that I have a kind of vector-based politics. They are radical in terms of direction and magnitude… but they are pragmatic about where our starting point is.

Thus, applied theologically, it’s perhaps easier for those who’ve followed my work in that realm to see how that vector has been applied consistently over the past 15 years or so, and moved me gradually in a particular direction. The place I find myself now is very radical, Cameron suggests, but – though many people of faith might find it heretical or dangerous – it is a place that has been gradually inhabited because that inhabitation is possible.

Applied to something like the EU, the story is necessarily different. My political vector is very heavily left-wing, but my pragmatic viewpoint is that we have to start from where we are, not fantasise about starting from somewhere else, a mistake that I think dogs the radical left.

This is a disagreement I’ve had with Zizek’s work for some time, and have discussed here somewhere before. Though I think he has tempered this view now, my sense of his position has been that he advocates doing nothing, because this total withdrawal from things will speed the collapse of ‘the system’ and hurry the revolution. I’m with Simon Critchley on this: I think it’s a convenient excuse for passivity. And this is what worries me about extreme rhetoric: in its strength of magnitude, has it forgotten where we actually are starting from?

To return to the EU debate, I’m not going to advocate “support for the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power.” But to suggest that a vote in Brexit to ‘Remain’ was a vote of support for this is false. Yes, the EU is over-bureaucratic, yes it lacks democratic accountability, yes it has shown intolerance for migrants and refugees, and yes it has treated Greece appallingly. But my vote was not about expressing support for those things. My vote was about attempting to avoid the very very serious consequences of opening the Pandora’s Box that was ‘Leave,’ with the connected tacit permission for racist abuse and this very ugly separatist mentality.

This is where it links into the debate over Jeremy Corbyn. What I have found jaw-droopingly irresponsible is that he failed to understand the unintended consequences of an ideological Euro-skepticism. His reasons for wanting to Leave may have added up – not wanting to support “the centralized undemocratic control of an external top-down power” – but he seemed blind to what  a Leave vote would mean in practice. In other words, he had his vector, but without a proper discernment of the origin, of where we actually are, he ended up impotent.

I am all for reforming the EU, and all for moving from socialites to socialism, but I think the left will remain impotent if it refuses to engage in where we are, and outline some vectors for how we might practically begin to move in the right direction. And this is my challenge to all those who espouse radical ideas: what is the first step?

A prophet who shouts from some high place that we should all come and join him in the nirvana he has found – but offers no rungs to help us climb there – is less than worthless. The purity of their vision actually serves to cheapen them: it’s too easy to rant about how terrible things are and how there should be this revolution and that perfect society. What is far far harder is to long for that place, but exist in the present and have to nudge people towards it.

In very real terms, this is my beef with Corbyn. He has stirred up hundreds of thousands of disaffected young people with an anti-austerity, pro-equality message that is absolutely spot on. His ‘stump speech’ on this is very good. He does town halls well. But when MPs then ask him what should be done, what the first step to that place should be, what practical things should be acted on on the ground in their constituencies, he crumbles into silence. He has a vision of a place, but has no idea how to get there. He is an impotent prophet. A visionary, but not a leader. A true Zizekean, if you will.

(This is what I think pirates got right – and provenly so. They didn’t wait around for the grand revolution. As I argue in Mutiny!, They got on with something very local, very temporary, very practical.)

Corbyn’s grassroots movement calls itself Momentum, and there’s an interesting link here to vector mechanics and quantum theory. As you probably know, what Heisenberg established was that the more you know about the position of an object, the less you are able to know about its momentum. This plays out perfectly for Corbyn’s radical Momentum crowd: so focused are they on this one aspect, they have entirely lost sight of the actual position of things. They harp on about the massive support that Corbyn has among the young members who voted him in, but fail to see that he cannot deliver any movement towards the place he sings about, and this is a betrayal of their vigour and new enthusiasm for politics that I can’t see ending well.

No, I’m not advocating ‘a Labour government at any cost.’ I’m no Blairite. But unless you are in power you have no opportunity to move things in the right (left) direction. And the only way into power is to begin where most people are: in the centre. Only then can you apply your vectors. But – and this is what worries me – perhaps the uncontaminated, pure ideology of the hard revolutionary left is a more comfortable place to be, because it will never require anyone to have to act or do one damned thing.

Apologies in advance – I’ve written this very quickly, so am very happy to be pushed back and to use it as a springboard into more mature thought.

 

 


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  1. Marika

    I’m not sure how you’re so confident that Corbyn supported Leave (I haven’t seen anything more tangible than rumours and insinuations, but I’m willing to be corrected if there’s anything more definite than “someone told me that someone heard Corbyn saying he voted Leave”, which I think was George Eaton’s line. But it’s also simply false that he doesn’t have practical proposals e.g. http://www.independent.co.uk/news-14-5/the-jeremy-corbyn-policies-that-most-people-actually-agree-with-10407148.html It’s weird to me that you’re equating him with the hard revolutionary left, when actually he seems like a pretty traditional social democrat. I get that that position is now significantly to the left of the political centre, at least in terms of the major political parties and mainstream media. But if he was as ideologically puritanical as you suggest, what on earth would he still be doing in the Labour party?

  2. KB

    I’m not suggesting that he supported Leave, simply that he was Euro-skeptic, and very luke-warm for Remain, and that this ambivalence was surprising as it passively allowed Leave gains. The question is how to get the proposals acted on. Yes, there is popular support for them – so how does that end up with him being so deeply unpopular with people on doorsteps? The problem is that many of those directly around him are really very unpleasant in the way they are treating people, and all this nonsense about a ‘right wing coup’ and the abuse PLP people have been getting feels to many like the worst kind of militant behaviour. And one of the key issues about the Labour Party in the UK is that – unlike in many European countries – it hasn’t split itself from a further left element, so he has remained. You’re right though – he’s not hard left himself. I’m just a little fed up of reading radical leftist thought applying itself to him and this leadership situation, which is, in my opinion, not taking seriously where things are actually at. Very easy to shout from the margins.

  3. Cameron Freeman

    Thanks for clarifying a lot of what’s been confusing me here on the Brexit issue. I fully agree that the revolutionary left is as comfortable place to be that never require anyone to have to do anything. But your rationale for voting Remain – to avoid the racial abuse and narrow-minded tribalism that Leave would legitimate, this is a little disappointing. It’s just so fear-based and reactive, and you’re also just handing over your power to the other side by letting them define for you the fundamental terms of the debate.

    And of the 17 million Leave votes, it’s probably somewhere around 1 or 2 in a million who have committed acts racial violence since the result was announced. It’s the same as the terrorist threat – it’s disturbing and real but also wildly exaggerated. The anti-racist’s can no doubt cherry pick a few isolated cases to reinforce their fears, but most of the dire warnings of an outbreak of racial violence (coupled with an economic apocalypse) came from the corporate media – i.e. propaganda machine for the political establishment. AS far as I can see, none of these fears have come to pass, at least not on the scale that justifies their fear-mongering. But I guess we’ll see…

    But voting against the bigger evil is now the default position all over our fake democracies in the West right now – esp. USA, UK and Australia. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is anymore, there are no good choices, we’re dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t, everywhere you look both options are disastrous. And so when people say they are going to vote for Hillary because making sure Trump doesn’t win is the most important thing in the world, then the utterly discredited and openly corrupt corporate establishment wins again. If that’s the way we have to play this game, then fuck it – the lesser evil is to move forward with the global anti-establishment revolt of the nothing and nobodies that’s currently breaking out across the Western world.

    But I appreciate your analysis of Corbyn, he’s an interesting figure and one I’m only just becoming familiar with. And you do ask the right question here too for Corbyn and the radical Left: What is to be done?? And with Corbyn the answer is: seize power. But you then say this is to be done by beginning where most people are: in the center. Not really. Most people these days are not in the center of anything, they’ve been pushed to the margins and feel shut out from any meaningful place in the existing order of things. When Brexit-voting Cornish villagers look on at the hereditary rule of London’s ruling class, they don’t see themselves at a part of any center, they just see an exclusive tribe of chauvinist power elites. What so many are overlooking is that those who many Remainer’s are now calling racists and xenophobes, are simply fed up with feeling like foreigners in their own land.

    But when you say we have to start at the center, you probably mean something like Blair’s Third Way, the balanced middle between the two ideological extremes of Left and Right, yes? I used to be a big fan of Blair’s moderate center (before the Iraq debacle), but these days I see it as just a very clever populist fiction. Yes, we need to reject any exclusive identification with either side of the left/right divide that defines the battle lines of politics as usual. But that’s a lot harder than it seems, because what we encounter here, when we inhabit the precarious tension between the both sides of the political spectrum, is not a balanced middle or stable center, but an even deeper antagonism, the maximal disequilibrium of irresolvable tensions. Blair’s third way is not moderate center but a site of revolutionary rupture, it’s the kind of disruptive novelty at the edge-of-chaos that would constitute the end of politics as we know it!

    So to answer your question: what is Corbyn to do? Well yes, seize power. And then, the first thing to do is rehabilitate democracy and honor the will of the people – while also moving to the center as an event of rupture edge of: Pass Article 51 and then deport any violently unrepentant racists!

  4. Rosie Paylor

    I agree with much of what you’ve written here and especially like your analogy of vectors however, wasnt Labour the only Party that acheived a majority vote for Remain? I am finding it hard to determine how much weight to place on each of the currently circulating hypotheses. Regarding impotent prophets I’m inclined to think that failure to deliver on a Eutopian dream is a longstanding issue with Socialism as a whole not just in relation to Corbyn as an individual. Bloody hell this whole thing shit storm
    of a mess.

  5. Marika

    Isn’t there literally an attempted coup underway from the right of the party? I just don’t see how that’s a conspiracy theory! And isn’t the point of politics partly to try to change the discourse, to change people’s minds? Labour tried pandering to ‘voter opinion’ under Ed Miliband and it didn’t work especially well for them; I don’t think you have to be an ideological purist to suggest that maybe it’s worth trying a different approach. Most of the people I know who’ve joined Labour to support Corbyn aren’t especially hard-core leftists, fwiw, and nor were the Labour members I met when I was still a party member. They just still believe in some kind of welfare state, which seems…eminently reasonable?

  6. Cameron Freeman

    Thanks for clarifying a lot of what’s been confusing me here about your radical theology and how it relates to the Brexit issue. I fully agree that the revolutionary left is as comfortable place to be that never require anyone to have to do anything. But your rationale for voting Remain – to avoid the racial abuse and narrow-minded tribalism that Leave would legitimate, this is a little disappointing. It’s just so fear-based and reactive, and you’re also just handing over your power to the other side by letting them define for you the fundamental terms of the debate.

    And of the 17 million Leave votes, it’s probably somewhere around 1 or 2 in a million who have committed acts racial violence since the result was announced. It’s the same as the terrorist threat – it’s disturbing and real but also wildly exaggerated. The anti-racist’s can no doubt cherry pick a few isolated cases to reinforce their fears, but most of the dire warnings of an outbreak of racial violence (coupled with an economic apocalypse) came from the corporate media – i.e. propaganda machine for the political establishment. AS far as I can see, none of these fears have come to pass, at least not on the scale that justifies their fear-mongering. But I guess we’ll see…

    But voting against the bigger evil is now the default position all over our fake democracies in the West right now – esp. USA, UK and Australia. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is anymore, there are no good choices, we’re dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t, everywhere you look both options are disastrous. And so when people say they are going to vote for Hillary because making sure Trump doesn’t win is the most important thing in the world, then the utterly discredited and openly corrupt corporate establishment wins again. If that’s the way we have to play this game, then fuck it – the lesser evil is to move forward with the global anti-establishment revolt of the nothing and nobodies that’s currently breaking out across the Western world.

    But I appreciate your analysis of Corbyn, he’s an interesting figure and one I’m only just becoming familiar with. And you do ask the right question here too for Corbyn and the radical Left: What is to be done?? And with Corbyn the answer is: seize power. But you then say this is to be done by beginning where most people are: in the center. Not really. Most people these days are not in the center of anything, they’ve been pushed to the margins and feel shut out from any meaningful place in the existing order of things. When Brexit-voting Cornish villagers look on at the hereditary rule of London’s ruling class, they don’t see themselves at a part of any center, they just see an exclusive tribe of chauvinist power elites. What so many are overlooking is that those who many Remainer’s are now calling racists and xenophobes, are simply fed up with feeling like foreigners in their own land.

    But when you say we have to start at the center, you probably mean something like Blair’s Third Way, the balanced middle between the two ideological extremes of Left and Right, yes? I used to be a big fan of Blair’s moderate center (before the Iraq debacle), but these days I see it as just a very clever populist fiction. Yes, we need to reject any exclusive identification with either side of the left/right divide that defines the battle lines of politics as usual. But that’s a lot harder than it seems, because what we encounter here, when we inhabit the precarious tension between the both sides of the political spectrum, is not a balanced middle or stable center, but an even deeper antagonism, the maximal disequilibrium of irresolvable tensions. Blair’s third way is not moderate center but a site of revolutionary rupture, it’s the kind of disruptive novelty at the edge-of-chaos that would constitute the end of politics as we know it!

    So to answer your question: what is Corbyn to do? Well yes, seize power. And then, the first thing to do is rehabilitate democracy and honor the will of the people while also moving to a more radical center – as an event of rupture at the edge of-chaos: Pass Article 50 (the formal mechanism for leaving the EU) and then deport any violently unrepentant racists!

  7. Rosie Paylor

    Did you not yourself earlier in the week indicate The Chilcott Enquiry as a complicit factor in all of this? It’s hard to assess how much of a part it is playing but I strongly suspect that the internal attempt to oust Corbyn may have as much to do with that as to do with concerns regarding his leadership performance. I hear you that an extreme far left persuasion can be conducive to passivity however I’m tempted to agree with Marika’s assertion that the majority of his supporters would not classify themselves as hard line left wing but merely supporters of a welfare state in some form. In terms of fleshing out future steps I’ve not seen much evidence of meat on bones from any of the key parties or players. Probably the most succinct immediate term plan I’ve seen is Caroline Lucas’s Six Point Emergency Response Plan – She is astutely stepping into the void with something concrete for the immediate term but even this doesn’t constitute a clear long term strategy and since the Greens don’t have the capacity of support required to move this forward my current inclination to think a progressive alliance may be the only viable way forward from where we find ourselves now.

  8. KB

    I honestly don’t think that Chilcott has much to do with it, other than the fact that the blood-letting still to come means no one is likely to put themselves forward before that has happened. What I hear from inside the PLP is simple: he cannot lead, and stubbornly refuses to listen to the concerns that MPs have about how things are playing on doorsteps.
    With regards his supporters – I agree, they aren’t hard left, and want simple things like a welfare state. But he doesn’t go any further to making a convincing case as to how to get there, or inspire any confidence in people that he can deliver that, and therein lies the problem. If all you do is see his stump speeches, but don’t have to deal with him as a leader, it’s harder to see it.

  9. Rosie Paylor

    Kester, in light of this conversation I found this article a helpful insight into how we’ve found ourselves part of the ‘Stateless Tribe of Remainia”
    It does indeed highlight Corbyn’s ambivalence and unwillingness to share a platform with Blair however it also sets out in great detail other factors at play along withCameron’s misperception that he could hold the centre through appealing to economic concern. A brilliant article well worth a read. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jul/05/how-remain-failed-inside-story-doomed-campaign?CMP=share_btn_tw