The Labour Party’s election failure in the UK proves that, for the progressive left to succeed, it will have to become considerably more revolutionary. The ‘softly, softly’ approach isn’t working.
Since, in some sense, the election was about Brexit, the first thing that strikes the eye is the asymmetry in the position of the two big parties. The Tories constantly repeated their mantra of “Get Brexit done!”, while Labour’s stance was the worst possible.
Knowing well their supporters were almost symmetrically split between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers,’ the party leadership was afraid to choose one side and thus lose voters opposed to it – but, as the saying goes, if you try to sit on two stools simultaneously you may well fall into the gap that separates them. What made things worse was how the true stance of Corbyn was more or less known: he wanted a Brexit, just a different one.
The now-outgoing party leader wanted the UK to get rid of EU financial, and other, regulations in order to pursue more radical Leftist policies. Whatever we think of this choice – there are good reasons for and against Brexit – the Labour party avoided an open debate about it and masked its indecision with a catastrophic formula: “We’ll let the people decide!”
Why was it catastrophic? Simply because people don’t want politicians to impose hard decisions on them. Instead, they demand political leaders show them a clear path, to tell them what choice to make. The Tories made their stance clear.
Playing with fire
The second reason for Labour’s failure was the well-orchestrated campaign of character assassination against Corbyn, who was even rated the Top Anti-Semite of 2019 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center (ahead of actual terrorists!). This was a case of foreign meddling into elections at least as strong as the alleged Russian meddling into the last US elections.
Gideon Levy correctly predicts that the precipitous conflation of critique of Israeli politics with anti-Semitism will give rise to a new wave of anti-Semitism, and one can clearly see where this path will eventually end. As Marxism taught us, anti-Semitism is a displaced anti-capitalism: it projects the cause of social antagonisms engendered by capitalism onto an external intruder (the ‘Jews’).
The temptation here is to make a fateful step further and to denounce any radical anti-capitalism as a form of anti-Semitism – signs of this are already multiplying all around the world. Can one imagine a more dangerous way of inciting hatred?
I find it especially worrying when this strong pro-capitalist stance is combined with the newly-discovered love among US Christian conservatives for Israel: how can the US Christian fundamentalists, who are by nature anti-Semitic, now passionately support the policy of the State of Israel?
There is only one solution to this enigma: it is not that the US fundamentalists changed, it is that Zionism itself, in its hatred of Jews who do not fully identify with the politics of the State of Israel, paradoxically became anti-Semitic. In other words, it constructed the figure of the Jew who doubts the Zionist project along anti-Semitic lines.
Trump did exactly the same when he used anti-Semitic stereotypes to characterize Jews as driven by money and insufficiently loyal to Israel. Israel is playing a dangerous game here: some time ago, Fox News, the main US voice of the radical Right and a staunch supporter of Israeli expansionism, had to demote Glen Beck, its most popular host, whose comments were becoming openly anti-Semitic.
When, at this year’s Hanukkah party, Trump signed his controversial executive order on anti-Semitism, John Hagee was there, the founder and chairman of the Christians United for Israel. On top of the standard Christian-conservative agenda (Hagee sees the Kyoto Protocol as a conspiracy aimed at manipulating the US economy; in his bestselling novel ‘Jerusalem Countdown,’ the antichrist is the head of the European Union), Hagee has made statements that definitely sound anti-Semitic.
He has blamed the Holocaust on Jews themselves; he has stated that Hitler’s persecution was a “divine plan” to lead Jews to form the modern state of Israel; he calls liberal Jews “poisoned” and “spiritually blind”; he admits that the preemptive nuclear attack on Iran that he favors will lead to the deaths of most Jews in Israel. (As a curiosity, he claims in ‘Jerusalem Countdown’ that Hitler was born from a lineage of “accursed, genocidally murderous half-breed Jews.”) With friends like these, Israel really doesn’t need enemies.
Last but not least, the third reason is what I call the Piketty trap. In his Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty proposes to radicalize the welfare state – not to nationalize all wealth like in Soviet-style Communism but to maintain capitalism and redistribute assets by giving every adult a lump sum at the age of 25. The progressive income taxes he proposes would allow governments to give everyone a basic income equivalent to 60% of the average wage in wealthy nations and cover the costs of decarbonizing the economy.
Furthermore, employees should have 50% of the seats on company boards; the voting power of even the largest shareholders should be capped at 10%, with an individualized carbon tax calculated by a personalized card that would track each person’s contribution to climate change.
Piketty is thus fully aware that the model he proposes would only work if enforced globally, beyond the confines of nation-states; such a global measure presupposes an already existing global power with the strength and authority to enforce it. However, such a global power is unimaginable within the confines of today’s global capitalism and the political mechanisms it implies – in short, if such a power were to exist, the basic problem would already have been resolved. Piketty’s proposal is utopian, although he presents it as pragmatic, looking for a solution within the frame of capitalism and democratic procedures.
Imagine that Corbyn had won (or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders becomes US president) – and just try to fathom the shattering counter-attack of Big Capital with all its dirty tricks. Maybe the voters were aware of these potential dangers inherent in a Labour victory and preferred the safe game.
The challenges that we face, from global warming to refugees, from digital control to biogenetic manipulations, require nothing less than a global reorganization of our societies. Whichever way this will happen, two things are sure: it will not be enacted by some new version of a Leninist Communist party, but it will also not happen as part of our parliamentary democracy. It will not be just a political party winning more votes and enacting Social Democratic measures.
This brings us to the fatal limitation of Democratic Socialists. Back in 1985, Felix Guattari and Toni Negri published a short book in French Les nouveaux espaces de liberté whose title was changed for the English translation into Communists Like Us – the implicit message of this change was the same as that of Democratic Socialists: “Don’t be afraid, we are ordinary guys like you, we don’t pose any threat, life will just go on when we will win…” This, unfortunately, is not the option. Radical changes are needed for our survival, and life will NOT go on, as usual; we will have to change even in our innermost feelings and stances.
So we should of course fully support Labour in the UK, Democratic Socialists in the US, and their peers in other states. But if we just wait for the right moment to enact radical change, this moment will never arrive. So, we have to begin with where we are. But we should do this without illusions, fully aware that our future will demand much more than electoral games and Social Democratic measures. We are at the beginning of a dangerous voyage on which our survival depends.
Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University.
This article originally appeared on RT.com.