Michael D. Yates: You have written a book and much commentary about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, as well as the surprising presidential run of Bernie Sanders in the United States. In light of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, how do you assess the current political landscape in both countries?
Richard Seymour: In some ways, it is a classic situation of polarization in response to an economic crisis, albeit deferred. After all, the initial response to the credit crunch and its afterlives in both the United States and United Kingdom was to move to the center. It was to seek the safety blanket of a familiar and fair administration of what were perceived to be necessary adjustments to crisis. In the United States, that took a slightly more progressive format, compared to the austerian drift of British politics, but certainly Marxists who expected the neoliberal center to die were brutally disappointed. Until now.
Looked at more closely, though, you can see another pattern. There is never a straightforward translation of economic crisis into political unrest or left-wing gains. In contrast, economic dysfunction is always metabolized through the state, and that does result in its politicization. These states had been losing legitimacy for years as voters detached themselves from the system, stopped joining parties, stopped voting, and gave up political identities passed down for generations. Now they assumed a salient role in organizing a transition out of economic crisis, and quite rightly took the blame for the ongoing inequities, dysfunctions, and declining living standards among workers. That catalyzed the breakdown of the political center.
And because the left was very weak, and the traditional parties of the right were losing ground, there were big spaces in which previously marginal political tendencies—like those represented by Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn, and Sanders—could suddenly project influence well beyond their previous social base. The same, of course, applies on the far right, which is why Trump has been elected president. This is all very fragile, and all the usual crude material advantages are still held by the old governing center. But for the time being, there is a degree of unpredictability in politics that presents opportunities for those who aren’t too constrained by past experience to see them.
MY: In your Corbyn book, you have a chapter that examines the history of Britain’s Labour Party. You argue that it has never been a party with an ant-capitalist program. The same can be said with much greater force about the Democratic Party in the United States. However, you argue that the Corbyn phenomenon and the Bernie Sanders campaign, both arising within such “mainstream” parties, represent a great opportunity for a left-wing revival. Why do you believe this to be the case? Especially in light of the Syriza debacle?
RS: I’m a lot more pessimistic than you make it sound. In the first instance, I should say about the Labour Party that it’s much worse than never having had an anti-capitalist program. Arguably, it did have a socialist program, in the abstract, unlike the Democratic Party. It just never had the politics, structures, or intention of trying to achieve such a goal. The dominant role of the moderate trade union bureaucracy, and the dominant orientation toward the state, meant that any commitment to socialism was propagandistic—something to enthuse constituency activists, who were otherwise excluded from any ability to influence policy. That’s why the first Labour governments were such dismal failures.
What Corbyn represents is, in that light, something quite unique. Corbyn is from the Bennite hard left, which means that he has a strategic commitment to building trade unions and social movements as the base through which parliament can be pressured to deliver radical socialist reforms. He has built his entire political life on the picket lines and protests. The tendency he represents has never been close to holding real power in the Labour Party, let alone the leadership. This is a first, and it was made possible by the breakdown of the old right-wing managerial establishment. In particular, “New Labour,” in an attempt to remedy the decline of social democracy, has weakened the role of trade unions in the party and in the process of government. In so doing, New Labour removed a key mechanism of party management, and drove the unions into a more openly politicized position. They also destroyed Labour’s core vote, with a resulting loss of key right-wing MPs, especially those in Scotland, which was the bastion of the old right’s control. This is the crisis that gave Corbyn his opportunity, which he exploited quite intelligently. The result has been a record increase in the membership of the Labour Party, with the growth of left-wing activist groups like Momentum, reversing decades of decline.
Sanders is in a different category. He represents an almost eclipsed social democratic wing of the Democratic Party, but the Democrats aren’t really a party in any meaningful sense. You can’t join a branch and pass a motion, or organize local members in a protest or an occupation. Labour Party activists can be involved in organizing the working class, and a minority of them are. There’s no way to do this from within the Democratic Party. What Sanders represented was an ideological breakthrough, and the potential for a schism in the ruling class to suddenly broaden the horizon of perceived possibilities. Had he won the nomination, I am convinced he would now be president, and in such circumstances we would be seeing a different conversation about the possibilities for political action in the United States.
However, that brings us to the problem of administering capitalism. The problem is not as severe as in Greece, of course. Syriza was not running a powerful imperialist state with a strong financial center drawing in surplus value from all over the world, but a bankrupt state under the thumb of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. But if either Corbyn and Sanders were to win an election, that is where their real problems would begin.
Even setting aside the difficulties they would have in passing legislation, the resistance they would face from within the capitalist state, and the ferocious coordinated media attacks, they have to persuade business to invest. That is the basis on which they can deliver any of their program. Even though their agendas are not by historical terms especially radical, they would have to show that they are compatible with profitability in a time of global weakness. Corporations are hoarding record amounts of capital. As a government, you can say to them, “we’re going to raise your taxes, drive up your wage bills and impose more regulations—but it will be better for you in the long-term because you will have a better infrastructure and more dynamic economy.” But even if you can prove that a re-tooled Keynesianism can work and is electorally viable, when have businesses ever been that forward-thinking? They would rather pull up the drawbridges and create havoc.
So at most, I think we’re seeing the possibility of regenerating a left that has previously been ground down to the scale of atoms, one that if it adapts creatively to the coming defeats can prepare the ground for success. But that means recognizing that the history of the left is a history of defeats; it is a history of the vanquished. We gain our victories out of a dialectic of defeats—from the crushing of the Paris Commune to the birth of mass socialist parties; from the horror of 1914 to the electrifying revolution of 1917. If we extend our thinking temporally, projecting the lessons of defeat into future gains, we can exploit this opportunity; if we expect instant gratification, we will just collapse in trauma and resignation.
MY: In the United States, almost all of the major labor unions supported Hillary Clinton for president, some in the face of serious rank-and-file resistance from Sanders supporters. In Great Britain, several important unions backed Corbyn. Does the latter portend anything significant about the British labor movement? And in the rich capitalist countries in general, is there much hope for the building of radical labor movements?
RS: I don’t think that the British labor movement is necessarily very radical—historically it is anything but. However, the decision to back Corbyn was probably the most radical thing it has done for some time. Importantly, this was a decision reached by trade union leaders, who are not always the most adventurous characters, but at least aren’t as utterly demoralized and co-opted as the U.S. union leadership. I think it was driven by an instinct for survival. The unions were in danger of being Americanized: losing union density hand over fist, strike rates at historic lows, and losing political clout with Labour—their party, as they see it—to the extent of potentially ending up as mere clients. They had tried everything. They had put up with being bullied and condescended to by the Blairites, and had hoped in vain for a better deal from the “soft left” leadership of Ed Miliband, only to find their power further eroded. They had been unable to defend public services from privatization, or prevent austerity. By 2015, they didn’t have many options. All the other leadership candidates were not only from the right-wing party, but were from a gilded generation of “special advisors,” educated technocrats with no particular respect for the party’s laborist roots. They were pushing a right-wing agenda that was incompatible with union policy. And the union grassroots was visibly fed up with it, and rallied to support Corbyn.
I don’t expect a radical labor movement to come out of this, but what can happen is that a minority of Corbyn’s supporters will use their new networks to organize the working class. And that would ideally include getting unorganized groups of workers into unions, as well as organizing communities against gentrification, occupying universities against the market system, and so on. In general, however, I think unions grow significantly when there are serious struggles. In the absence of that, we have to be patient. Corbyn talks a lot about building a social movement as an alternative to parliamentarism, and as a supplement to trade union action, but we can’t wish that into existence. We have to wait and see.
MY: Corbyn has been relatively good with respect to international solidarity, while Sanders appeared particularly weak, sometimes speaking as if the rest of the world didn’t interest him much. With the rise of right-wing nationalism and the endless “war” against terrorism, how do we go about constructing organizations with an international perspective? When even someone like David Harvey claims that wealth in the rich nations is being drained by the countries of the global South, implying that all of the research to the contrary (for example, that by John Smith in his book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century) is off the mark, how do you assess the danger of the left in Great Britain and the United States ignoring, or even pandering to, the legacy of imperialism?1
RS: To answer your question on the concrete politics, Corbyn is a somewhat moralistic anti-imperialist. This is his Bennism: he supports peace, negotiated solutions to conflict, and the United Nations. In some senses, that can be very powerful. He’s taken a strong stand against nuclear weapons, and bombing in Syria, and he has always shown solidarity to refugees and migrants. I must stress how much this is a break with the classical position of Labourism. Labour has always, from its inception, had leaderships that were pro-empire, pro-war. That has been a bipartisan consensus, even in the so-called “golden age” of reformism after 1945—when they were building the National Health Service, they were also covertly signing Britain up to the U.S. nuclear alliance, and launching counterinsurgency programs across the empire. So to have a seriously anti-imperialist leadership is not a gain to be sniffed at, and culturally it does owe a lot to the common sense established by antiwar and pro-Palestine activity in the period of the “war on terror.”
However, I think he has largely evaded the complexities of the Syrian struggle, which is not reducible to any of its caricatures. I think this bespeaks a serious dilemma on the British left. We know what to do when the government says it plans to bomb somewhere, but Syria has split us right down the middle. There is a wing of the left that at the far end is basically and unapologetically pro-Assad, that hyperventilates about “terrorism” with as much red-faced muster as Freedom House, and at the softer end has a “pox on both their houses” attitude. And there is another wing of the left that is hyper-moralistic and, though correctly opposing both Assad and the Russian bombing campaign and justifiably exasperated with the seeming indifference of a wing of the left, never came to terms with the extent to which the revolutionary aspect of the opposition had been crushed. This does suggest, surely, that we’ve been getting something wrong in our analysis of imperialism.
I don’t know what the answer to that is, but it has to start with thinking. On which note: If I may say so, I think that’s hugely over-egging Harvey’s point, which tessellates with his analysis of uneven and combined geographical development. That is to say, the ensuing analysis in the book that you cite shows that “reversed” is too strong a term for what he’s getting at, viz. that Taiwan and South Korea might now be “sub-imperialisms” of the familiar “metropolitan regions.” To say that he thinks in any straightforward sense that the wealth of “rich nations” is being “drained off” by “the countries of the global South,” makes him sound like the alt-right. We have a lot of thinking to do about the political economy of imperialism, and attempts to complicate the picture should be welcomed as prompts to do that thinking—even if we end up disagreeing.
MY: You have written about identity and identity politics, in what seemed to me to be an especially coherent and intelligent way. There is much discussion on the left about this, sometimes counterposing identity and class. Some, like Adolph Reed, seem to denounce all identity-centered politics as reactionary, even Black Lives Matter, and to argue that only class-based politics, with an emphasis on universal social programs, are worthy of the name “radical.” Could you sum up for our readers your take on this?
RS: “Identity politics” is the Rorschach test of the left. It is so polysemic, and susceptible to so many abuses, we end up talking past one another a lot of the time. To me, it’s straightforward. Class is a social relationship that is structured by race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and a whole range of other determinations. Race is the modality in which millions of people inhabit their class experience. Their “identity politics” will often be the precise way in which they fight a class struggle. Black Lives Matter, a struggle against the racialized violence of the capitalist state, is an example of that, and it is of benefit to the whole working class if it succeeds. Now what would be implied if we socialists were to write off such a movement, which has already had such an impact culturally? Surely it would be that at best we are purists who are incapable of intelligent political intervention in real-life situations, at worst that we subscribe to some spurious “color-blind” politics.
What is more, “identity” is never as straightforward as a label. It is a process, “identification.” To identify myself is to identify myself with others, to say who I am like, who I have interests in common with. Some identifications are potentially more expansive, more universal, than others. The identity of a black woman prisoner is more conducive to solidarity and radical change than that of a white Republican congressman.
I have to admit, I feel quite stupid explaining all this, because it’s patently obvious. Therefore, the fact that some people don’t see it should perhaps be treated symptomatically. Reed, I think, is partly over-reacting against a moralistic form of liberal anti-racism, which ends up being NGO-ized and annexed to the Democratic Party’s self-reproduction. But when you read an “anti-identitarian” like Walter Benn Michaels, it’s very clear that the conception of “class” he is working with isn’t even at the level of traditional sociology, which at least aspired to rigor. He has no idea what he means by “the working class.” And that’s where I would leave it: if you can’t speak about race, or any other axis of oppression, you’ve automatically surrendered your probity on the issue of class.
MY: Monthly Review, perhaps more than any radical magazine, has provided readers with Marxist analyses of the multiple environmental crises crashing down upon us. Corbyn has been much better on these than has Sanders. Yet it is a rare progressive politician who sees the depth of the problems. And there are those on the left—not a few of them, I might add—who see our positions as “catastrophist.” How important is it do you think to put the environment front and center of left-wing political economy?
RS: I think we should be catastrophist. The scientific consensus tells us that we face a catastrophe. On the basis of current global commitments, we are facing the extinction of much of the plant and animal life that sustains our food chain, the submersion of huge population centers, increased floods, droughts, declining crop yields, and massive volatility. The arctic just had a heat wave over Christmas, and the Antarctic ice shelf is beginning to fall apart. New records are being set every year. The vaunted “pause” in global warming turned out to be a fiction. We are reaching a threshold, with a decidedly “old economy” presidency assuming the helm of the United States, beyond which we are talking about adapting to catastrophe, not stopping it. The planet may be dying. We, as a species, may be walking lemming-like into a vast cemetery. How can anyone of sanity be anything other than catastrophist?
The problem is that fear isn’t enough. It never is. People are already afraid, and overwhelmed. That’s why the defense mechanism of denial operates well beyond the “climate denial” industry. I think much of the left is in denial, because it is overwhelmed. What’s going on here is what the psychoanalyst Renee Lertzman calls “environmental melancholia.” When people can’t do anything about their fear and anger, they dissociate. They acknowledge the reality, but they detach that knowledge from its affective response. That rage and terror is still there, but it becomes melancholic, in the classic sense: a thwarted mourning. We need to acknowledge that mourning in order to rage effectively. We need, as Douglas Crimp said, “militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”
- ↩“Those of us who think the old categories of imperialism do not work too well in these times do not deny at all the complex flows of value that expand the accumulation of wealth and power in one part of the world at the expense of another. We simply think the flows are more complicated and constantly changing direction. The historical draining of wealth from East to West for more than two centuries, for example, has largely been reversed over the last thirty years.” David Harvey, in Prabhat Patnaik and Utsa Patnaik, A Theory of Imperialism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 169.