speri.comment: the political economy blog

Jeremy Corbyn: a Polanyian critique

Corbynism represents a ‘fictitious commodity’ in the UK’s political marketplace

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI

Craig BerrySupporters of Jeremy Corbyn would be forgiven for assuming that, if one were to assess Corbynism – an admittedly crude term for the perspective of the Labour Party’s current leader and his main allies – through the prism of Karl Polanyi’s dialectical framework, the perspective represents a historical ‘counter-movement’.  As such it aims to re-embed the economy in social relations, in response to a neoliberal ‘first movement’ which sought originally do dis-embed the economic organisation from the social sphere by fetishising the notion of the free market.

This, essentially, is how Polanyi understood the early-mid twentieth century emergence of the welfare state in advanced capitalist economies. Arguably, Corbynism offers a response to the Hayekian undoing of the Keynesian state from the late 1970s onwards, which his predecessors as Labour leader had sought to accommodate rather than challenge.

However, I believe this would be an overly-simplistic account of the politics of Corbynism, and indeed of the application of the Polanyian framework to the present moment. In fact, I think we can see Corbynism as itself a product, or commodity, within the political marketplace, the (partial) dis-embedding of which from social relations can be understood as constitutive of the neoliberal first movement.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent that, in Polanyian terms, Corbynism represents a ‘fictitious commodity’.

As Colin Hay explored in Why We Hate Politics, the political process itself has become commodified in recent decades, especially in the UK, as centrist politicians compete to ‘sell’ their branded narratives to the median voter, with the business of actually governing becoming ever more remote and technocratic.

But Corbyn is selling something that cannot possibly be traded in any meaningful sense. Polanyi identified as fictitious those commodities, such as financial instruments, which depended on forecasts about a future which could not possibly be known, or land, which depended on a natural environment which was inherently uncontrollable.

Ironically, while self-identifying as the resocialisation of political relations through repeated references to efforts to build a social movement around socialist values, Corbyn is essentially seeking to commodify ‘the social’ as part of his political trademark, selling the idea of a social movement to individual supporters that Corbynism itself appears entirely unable to deliver. Financiers ultimately cannot marketise the future, and the notion that expressing support for an individual political leader equates to the creation of a broad-based social movement is similarly fictitious.

As such, the Corbyn product is a rather shallow version of the social, which promises adherents solidarity without requiring them to demonstrate the embeddedness of their political organisation in actual associational relations. As F.H. Pitts explains, ‘Corbynism summons up a people it has played no such part in piecing together… But the people’s non-existence does not diminish its political effect on the faithful. It rallies supporters around a rhetorical perch on which to rest their laurels.’

There is little to suggest therefore that Corbyn’s workers’ revolt has the support of many working-class communities. He claims that the Brexit vote vindicates his ‘remain but reform’ stance on the EU referendum, yet free movement of labour, the key complaint of working-class leavers regarding the EU, is the one area of European policy which he refuses to refute.

Corbyn supporters are instead concentrated among the ‘metropolitan left’, disproportionately based in London. Depending on how this is defined, the metro-left is not necessarily a small, homogenous group – but nor is it a mass movement.  Cultural theorist (and Corbyn supporter) Jeremy Gilbert estimates that it represents around 20-25 per cent of the population.

Gilbert acknowledges, crucially, that the metro-left is not representative of the ‘post-industrial working class’, but argues that it must ‘stop apologising’ for this, and instead concentrate and winning them away from ‘a capitalist class who will continue to try to secure their loyalty through appeals to racism, xenophobia and myths about welfare-claimants’.

Thus the rather crude account of ‘false consciousness’ which lies at the heart of Corbynism is revealed.  It relays a disdain for the way in which working-class groups perceive their own socio-economic circumstances, and serves as the key barrier between Corbynism and a genuine social movement.  Matt Bolton explains that Corbynism is based on a simplistic ‘two campist’ version of early Marxism in which the interests of proletariat (redefined as the 99%) stand at all times in opposition to the capitalist class (or 1%).

Corbyn supporters see themselves as embodying a great awakening of ‘the people’ in this regard. But detached from its industrial beginnings, the proletariat redesignated as ‘the people’ is a fairly shallow form of collective political identity.  As ever, the proletariat by necessity has as much interest in its reproduction as its liberation, leading inevitably to the co-existence of both progressive and reactionary ideals.  Corbynism mistakes this contradiction as false consciousness, to which the only rational response is leadership by an educated socialist vanguard.

The irony is that this vanguard, now finally ascendant within the labour movement, is less connected to the actual working class than might perhaps have been the case at any earlier point in the history of the British labour movement.

For the majority of Corbyn’s middle-class support base – drawn to the idea of a ‘popular uprising’ as an emblem of their opposition to neoliberalism, but unfamiliar, to say the least, with its ideological connotations – their first real political encounter with the working class will come only during the next general election campaign (assuming Corbyn wins and remains leader up to 2020), in which Labour is likely to perform very poorly. Filtered through the distorted lens of Corbynism, this encounter will probably lead to the incorrect conclusion that society’s disadvantaged groups have little interest in genuine socio-economic change, and deepen the flawed belief in false consciousness among Corbyn supporters.

Attaching social movement theory to the Corbyn project is therefore an illusion, and perhaps a dangerous one, insofar as it suggests that Corbynism heralds the emergence of an agenda – that is, of working-class empowerment – that Corbyn is largely indifferent to.

As Bolton argues, Corbynism for most of its supporters is ‘a simulation of a social movement – a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with “what Jeremy stands for”’.  Essentially, Corbynism is built on the back of, and not in opposition to, the individualisation of social, political and economic life.  His supporters consistently report that backing Corbyn simply makes them ‘feel good’.  This is one of the key conclusions of Helen Lewis’ extensive conversations with Corbyn supporters on social media platforms.  Lewis argues that ‘presenting the [Corbyn versus Owen Smith] contest as “principles vs power” flatters [Corbyn] enormously.  No one feels good about casting a vote for power over principles’.

Corbyn’s leadership, for one activist writing in The Guardian, means ‘no more putting a cross in a box next to the lesser of two evils’.  The clear implication is that a vote for Corbyn matters more as a statement of personal conviction than it does as an attempt to change society via the democratic process.  Similarly, Sam Wolfson, editor of left-leaning news website Vice, declares that ‘Owen Smith makes me hate myself’; he realises that Corbyn’s leadership has failed, but is wary of ‘the misery of pragmatism’ that supporting Owen Smith apparently signifies.  ‘Please,’ Wolfson begs, ‘help me find a way to feel good about my vote’.

It is no surprise that the children of Thatcherism (and indeed Blairism) make up such a large proportion of the Corbyn support base. Individualist attitudes are ingrained.  They appear to support radical change in the form of Corbynism, but this does not necessarily translate into the collectivist sentiment that has always underpinned socialism in terms of both an organising ideal and a governing philosophy.

Corbynism clearly lacks the raw intellectual and emotional material from which social movements are made. Like its bête noire Blairism, it is probably more soundly understood as part of a Polanyian first movement, insofar as it perpetuates the dis-embedding of the political marketplace from social relations.  Yet Corbyn is not simply trading a suite of policies that we may – or may not – choose to invest our votes in.  He sells instead the very idea of a Polanyian counter-movement, although Corbynism is, almost by definition, set up in opposition to the notion of re-embedding the political marketplace in the actually-existing social realm, insofar as the working class cannot be trusted to lead the socialist project.  Indeed, by commodifying an untradeable good, the social, Corbynism may not simply be perpetuating the first movement of marketised politics, but also obscuring its intensification.

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Categories: SPERI Comment | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 comments

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Comments (8)

  1. If it turned out that Corbynism wasn’t primarily a Southern, metropolitan phenomenon, would this argument still stand? Recent polling suggests that Corbyn is more popular amongst older voters and in the North – http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-labour-leadership-election-owen-smith-landslide-victory-win-higher-numbers-a7218016.html

    • Thanks for your comment Will. I have a number of responses.

      1. When you say ‘more popular’, you mean more popular than Owen Smith (the polls you cite only compare Corbyn and Smith). That doesn’t tell us a great deal. It’s also rather obvious conclusion one can draw from being active in then party up here.

      So It doesn’t really impinge on my argument. Smith’s soft-left Blairism is just as much a metro-left phenomenon.

      2. Labour’s membership is now dominated by Londoners. Even if Corbyn’s lead over Smith is not huge in the capital, the broader point is that Corbyn supporters are overwhelmingly based in London. But my.post isn’t just about London. There is clearly a lot of support for Corbyn in big Northern cities too. Predominantly younger people.

      3. I agree that Corbyn paradoxically also leads among older Labour members (especially returners), those who pre-date New Labour. Their are cleavages within Corbynism – I will write about this in my next post, so please stay tuned! The main one is between younger, London-based clicktivists, and an older rump of craft trade unionists (acknowledging that Unite has gobbled up many of the craft unions). The former is a larger group, but the latter is stronger and more committed.

      4. Finally, to reiterate, the survey you cite is of Labour members only. Not unreasonable to suggest that Labour-voting Corbyn supporters are far more likely to also be party members than Labour-voting Smith supporters. But the latter are significantly more likely to be Northern and of child-rearing age.

  2. I enjoyed your post! A few remarks:

    I have always had doubts about Polanyi’s concept of fictitious commodities and its explanatory value. I grant that some commodities have peculiarities which affect how the respective market transactions behave, but are these behavioural peculiarities sufficiently similar that grouping them under one term is explanatory helpful? Your example of financial products and land does not help in this regard.
    But really, it does not matter that much for this blog post, does it?

    What I wonder is, why the individualisation seems to be implicitly taken a normatively bad development in this blog entry? As far as I am concerned the problem is rather that many Corbyn-supporters themselves suffer from a case of false consciousness, which you describe. But I guess this is a difference in normative commitments, which are not touched upon here.

    • Hi David, thanks for your comment. Polanyian analytical concepts, like any other, can be ‘helpful’, in your terms, without being exclusionary of other concepts arising from other analytical perspectives.

      I’m a little confused by your second comment. I didn’t at any point say the individualisation of politics was a bad thing (although for what it’s worth, I think it is). The point is that Corbyn represents the entrenchment of individualised politics, while presenting itself as the rediscovery of collectivism in terms of both economic and political organisation.

      Yes, many Corbyn supporters undoubtedly uphold a crude account of false consciousness, arguably more so than Corbyn and those closest to him.

      • Hi,
        Oh yes, you did not explicitly write that individualisation is a bad development. I just took it to be an assumption in the background because of the way you phrased your text – and seemingly I did so correctly.

        But I accept your main point. At least it sounds like a plausible description of many – not all – Corbyn supporters to me.
        What I start to wonder is, whether it is fair to blame Corbyn for representing the entrenchment of individualised politics. The question, is whether he could have done otherwise i.e. whether there had been a chance for him to do away with such an individualised politics. Could he have gone back to an older form of class politics or a renewed version of collective politics? I doubt that the chances for that were big. If there wasn’t then he is not particularly blameworthy of representing individualised politics. (But perhaps I am underestimating the chances for a return to collective politics?) Rather he and his supporters would mainly be blameworthy of misjudging what they are doing and what they are representing.

  3. It is not my intention to blame Corbyn personally for perpetuating individualism (although I dearly wish he had done more to challenge it). The more salient point is that his leadership is a product of the individualisation of politics. It’s not as if he became leader in an intellectual, then decide which kind of activists he wanted to appeal to. Individualisation is a longstanding cross-generational trend, one which fits quite well with Corbyn’s brand of protest politics.

  4. I found this interesting, but for me not a useful application of Polanyi’s ideas to understanding the appeal of ‘Corbynism’.

    The Great Transformation argued, in substantivism, for a more socially embedded, anthropologically and ethnographically orientated form of economic theory, which placed market economics as a mode of social relations which developed from, but also co-exists with, three other modes of social behaviour with economic purpose: ‘householding’ – i.e. the application of norms that there exist ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, and insiders have both a duty to provide to, and an unmetered capacity to access, a ‘commons’; and two forms of informal symbolic reciprocal mode: reciprocitiy, if between equals; and redistribution, if between unequals.
    Polanyi argued that promoters of the market mode too often tell an ahistoric and disembedded narrative of its emergence, and in doing this see anything that can be bought and sold – which is anything – as commodities which can be thought about in exactly the same way.
    The argument that, if labour and land are commodities, they are ‘fictitious commodities’, was made to highlight that they refer to things that are fundamentally different to all others: we are labour, and land is where we live. In all prior economic modes the social functions of the activities, as means by which individuals can provide for themselves and others, were clear. In the market mode these fundamental purposes can be lost.

    The analytical benefits of applying Polanyi’s Substantivism to understand the popularity of Corbynism therefore come from Polanyi’s warnings about what happens if the map is confused for the territory, and the fictions of Land and Labour are taken too far. His warning seemed to be that pursuing a socially disembedded, ahistorical market economic agenda too much, for too long, with too little recognition for the social function of this and other modes, generates political countermovements, which if left unappeased and unchecked for too long create too much instability for a pure market agenda to be pursued any further. Marketisation agendas eventually undermine themselves for this reason, collapsing under the weight of civic discontent.

    Pretty much all societies recognise this implicitly: otherwise the public sector wouldn’t routinely be between 30% and 60% of GDP, with a great many social needs and activities effectively de-commodified to some extent. This hasn’t emerge because there’s a hatred of markets, but because it’s what’s needed to produce conditions stable enough for them to function.

    Corbynism represents a clear countermovement against the current failures of public services to meet a number of essential social needs and wants from the general populace. The rise of Ukip represents another one. Both flow from a persistent failure to think sufficiently about the social consequences of economic activity, and to accommodate and ameliorate social needs that result from such activity. Within the Tory party, a political accommodation was made to Ukip through the EU Referendum. There are also signs that, in removing the deficit surplus targets and talking more about infrastructure spending, accommodations are also being made to the former. If too little is done too late, however, the popularity of the countermovements continue to grow, which either pushes them into power, or continues to destablise modern societies and economies.

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