The NYT on the Obama victory

Those who know my politics will know that I am primarily interested in how different social forces become dominant or lose that dominance, within the ‘superstructure’ of our economy – that is to say, the fields of culture and politics. A key part of this in my own experience of political developments is that of the ‘paradigm shift’, i.e. a deep and embedded change in the makeup of politics and debate. Great examples of this are the birth of Keynesian macroeconimics and welfarism on one hand, and the retrenchment and fragmentation of the New Right and post-fordism on the other.

I don’t think this election represents one of those shifts, because the key requirements of this kind of shift is that your opponents concede your basic propositions, and to an extent that produces real difference. In this sense, the whole stratum of ‘intelligentsia’, left or right, can be seen to occupy a new position on the spectrum as a whole. In Marxist terms, this represents a re-alignment and reconfiguration of the politics of a given bourgeois society – one which usually accompanies change to the economic ‘base’.

Put into terms that more conventional political scientists might understand, in a society where social antagonisms are mainly (and indeed comfortably) expressed through electoral politics and public debate (what Gramsci would term ‘a war of position’) rather than sustained struggles of open political violence (‘a war of maneuvre’), this is the moving of the Overton Window.

Is this happening here? I would say no, the key determinant of the US political process at the moment is its economic relationship with the BRIC economies, which are resulting in a state of frustrated flux and unpredictability.

But the question does seem to be one which is suddenly being contested – which can’t be a bad thing.

So anyway, there are some really interesting NYT pieces about all this and the issues which underlie it. Being the NYT, the comments are often as instructive as the pieces themselves. They are worth a read.

Robert S. McElvaine – Obama vs Hoover

Ross Douthat – the Obama re-alignment?

Drew Westen – America’s leftward tilt

While I’m not convinced that this is a big qualitative shift, let alone an irreversible one, Obama can do a lot to cement in the vaguely left of centre domestic direction he has taken and at least land a big punch on the conservative movement. Firstly, he can pass immigration reform. Secondly, he can make a dash to re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine – and indeed, why not? Thirdly he can introduce new Supreme Court justices, and fourthly, he can use this to clamp down on voter suppression, a disturbing trend which really seems to have taken root, with Republicans all over the place brazenly taking part in gerrymandering, often with obviously racist elements. Fifth, and probably least likely, he can make moves to embed union membership as an essential part of economic life.

He has a hopelessly obstructive House to get past thanks to America’s absurd deadlock-seeking parliamentary system. So let’s see if he can be creative.

Predistribution and New Labour: a new hegemonic project?

I had many axes to grind with New Labour, which I thought fell short in a lot of areas. Most of all was the idea that being in office was all – a notion itself founded on the preconception that being in office meant that Labour, and perhaps by extension the movement it was born to express in parliamentary form, was in power.

Obviously the equation of office and power is not generally true (see Clegg, 2010), and was certainly not true when so much of New Labour was about fighting people who wanted often achievable and effective left policies.

In short, New Labour saw itself as being in government because it accepted the core premises of Thatcherism – in other words, it accepted the leadership and domination on policy of the conservative project and a conservative common sense. In other words, by its own admission, New Labour was an admission of conservative leadership of ideas, and domination of ideas – it accepted the hegemony, therefore, of the conservative project.

And if that is so, it cannot be that it had any kind of project to build or assert a hegemony of the left.

If you want to make the case that it did, it’s particularly hard to do, as many of the key politicians involved defined themselves as being in the ‘centre’ – rather than the ‘centre-left’ favoured by Kinnock/Smith era social democrats, ‘democratic left’ favoured by Gramscians and other ‘broad leftists’, and the ‘Labour left’ favoured by partisan traditionalists of both the Benn/Briefing and Foot/Tribune varieties.

It proudly accepted conservative hegemony in many senses, as well as defined itself as the centre (a centre, it must be remembered, forged by Thatcher). It thus opposed broad structural hegemony for the left on two separate but related grounds.

Part of the reason that it was necessary for parts of the thinking left to be on the left of the party in the first place, therefore, was to ditch the strategy of New Labour not for some abstract failure of general policy, but for strategic reasons. It was necessary to move the party leftwards to ditch a disciplined, top down and self interested project that was counter-hegemonic for the left in the long term. Whether it had the strategy right for winning elections is one debate, but whatever the outcome, it had no strategy for winning the country, and even if it did, it would for winning the country to the centre (i.e the general balance of how it is already) rather than any permutation of the left.

It was necessary to ditch New Labour because as well as leaving left voters with nowhere to go by appropriating their natural party, it was against the interests of the whole movement within the country in the long term. It was not strategic to any structural end shared by the left.

So, I’m glad we have Ed Miliband, and I was glad to vote for him at the time. It’s good to see that others are too.

And after a bit of a educational non-debate with a friend on facebook (we both agreed with each other), I was left thinking about ‘predistribution’ – and how well it fits into a more ambitious, hegemonic style of social democracy.

First things first. The name. People don’t like it, because it’s a wonk word. But I feel that around half of the people who say that should simply go away. Why? Because they spent years plugging something called ‘public service reform’, including such populist notions as ‘foundation hospitals’ and ‘internal markets’. Something you always hear from people down the pub, no doubt.

None of these names are good, and that is certainly important for an idea to gain currency. It is a wonk word, and hardly an everyday topic. But I can’t think of a better one that is as general. So for now, ‘predistribution’ will do.

An idea with hegemonic potential

There are several advantages from the point of view of hegemonic strategy (and note at this point that I am reproducing facebook)…

Like the Scandinavian social democracy admired by the soft left, it firstly offers a way to transpose the institutions of the left into the economy, thus providing a fundamental change to the temporally immediate class structure of local capitalism, and increasing hegemonic potential – a dual benefit. Cooperatives. Unions. Management board modifications. Shareholder transparency.

But secondly, I think it underscores rather than diminishes the role of redistribution as well as predistribution more strongly than redistribution can itself (via discourse)… predistribution implies that there is something wrong about how we are paid and treated in a way that is not immediately evident to people simply because they pay progressive tax rates or receive working family tax credit. As well as offering the organising and material base as per the paragraph above, it also pushes the argument that capitalism produces unjust and inadequate outcomes right into our everyday lives. It forces people, especially those reliant on wages, to question the equity and suitability of their situation. This leads to emphasis on collective redistribution as much as it does predistribution itself.

As such, it has the potential to actively attack the current common sense around distributive justice, as well as having two different ways to embed a new one.

So for me, leaving aside the impact on party politics, there are three cultural and organisational reasons to see this as a really exciting intellectual project.

And it’s free.

And it means that some of the huge pile of corporate savings might be released back into the real economy.

Stuff Blue Labour, this is where it’s at.