In the second part of a series of short essays, Lewis Akers addresses the failures of the ‘institutional left‘ to address the latest crisis of capitalism. His first piece on the end of neoliberalism can be read here.
Medals, ahead of pay and rights, for NHS workers. Going against the wishes of the UK’s largest teaching union. Putting the needs of capital over human life by pressing for a pro-business end of the lockdown.
In the first week of his Labour leadership, Keir Starmer has provided a demonstration of the failed approach of what I will call the ‘institutional left’.
The institutional left now seem hell bent on being as little like an opposition party as possible – ignoring working class interests and taking on the mantle of ‘sensible politics’ loyal to the state and establishment.
Lukács dealt with this phenomenon in his seminal text on Lenin. He argues that the institutional left are so focused on representing the interests of “society as a whole” that they try to “blur and blunt class differences.” The problem for Starmer’s institutional turn (which, as Jonas Liston highlights, is the one the Labour membership have just embraced fairly overwhelmingly) is that it comes at just the time when the pandemic is exposing “society as a whole” to be a patchwork of conflicting class interests.
This reality is unlikely to dawn on Starmer and his leading circles. We should expect the party’s degeneration to continue.
Can we expect all trade unions to challenge this approach? Not always, as has been highlighted by the recent crisis the trade union leadership can embrace as enthusiastically this ‘big society’ message as the Labour leadership. One example from this crisis has been The TUC praising Rishi Sunak for his “real leadership” in listening to the trade union movement and implementing policies such as furlough pay. However, as pointed out in my article last week, this was not implemented for workers but to protect capital – the Tories are flexible enough to appeal to national solidarity, but they never lose sight of their class interest.
And in Scotland we have our own institutional left. One which has been equally inept but had the power to challenge the bizarre Coronavirus policies of Johnson and his cohort. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently proclaimed that “Scotland ‘will not hesitate’ to diverge from UK on lockdown.” However, there has been little evidence that Sturgeon has been willing to diverge from the UK Government so far. A more serious test and trace approach has now been laid out by the Scottish Government, just as strategic drift takes hold across the UK in the wake of government action. But, as Ben Wray has pointed out, the Scottish Government’s volte-face may have occurred too late. They could be implicated in the mishandling of this crisis, not by what they are going to do now but what they didn’t do before.
The SNP leadership’s relationship to capitalism is superficially different, but in its fundamentals it is the same as Labour’s. Starmer wants to lead the British state, and he therefore wants to prove his loyalty to the interests of that state and its big business elites. Sturgeon (at least in theory) wants Scotland to leave the British state, but she wants to achieve this by making Scottish independence ‘safe’ for those same interests.
The consequence? Both these faces of the institutional left favor the ‘we are all in this together’ approach which seeks to represent the interests of ‘society as a whole’ and keep ‘politics’ out of it. As Grace Blakeley highlights, this is the same approach which we were encouraged to take during the economic crisis of 2007/8, and we all know the highly political repercussions of that.
So if we need to depart from the approach of the institutional left, what way should we go?
Regardless of the weaknesses of the trade unions, workplace collectivism will be an important part of what comes next. It’s important for us to engage in trade union struggle. Whether it be courageous Posties standing up against the Royal Mail; lecturers striking against casualization; or new disputes yet to emerge, as new conflicts inevitably present themselves as governments push to get the economy moving.
But alone this is not enough. Millions of working class people are not members of unions (indeed, after the last month or so very many also lack jobs). And though the prime site of exploitation for workers is of course the workplace, society is made of many arenas of activity and struggle. We need mass movements, involving both action and consciousness raising, directly contesting and politicizing.
Out of these struggles we can create new organisations, relationships and ideas outside of the institutional left, and not guided by the ruling logic of capital.
Image: Dimitris Vetsikas