Hello friends, and welcome to Episode 20 of Fully Automated, an Occupy IR Theory podcast.
Its January 4, 2020, and kicking off our fourth season of the show 2020 with two episodes on the recent elections in the UK. In this episode, we are joined by a former guest, Lee Jones, Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, who is also a contributor at the blog, The Full Brexit. In the next episode, which should be posting sometime in the next few days, we’ll have Owen Worth, of the University of Limerick.
Now, both these guests have been on before and, as you’ll see, they have slightly different explanations not only about what happened in the UK election, but about where the left goes from here. But today we get the ball rolling with Lee Jones. The last time you heard him on this show was in Episode 14, in December 2018. We recorded that episode right after the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Its hard to imagine that, a year later, after countless delays, Britain is actually about to leave the European Union!
The UK election took place on December 12, just before Christmas. The results were one of the worst ever for the British Labour Party and so, as we might expect, there have been a lot of “what happened” pieces circulating in the last couple weeks. But one of the more prominent explanations circulating is that the result was kind of a “revenge of the boomers” scenario, or the triumph of British nationalism, or what some even call “nativism.” On the night of the election, for example, Paul Mason tweeted that the results represent “a victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet.”
In this episode, you’re going to hear Lee Jones repudiate that argument in no uncertain terms. As he argued in a recent blog post on The Full Brexit, the results of the election are intimately connected to the politics of Brexit, which itself can’t be understood unless we first have a grasp on the strange tragedy of the British left. In the episode, we’re going to talk about the significance of the decision at the Labour Party’s 2019 annual conference, to support the call for a second referendum. For Lee, however, this decision was merely the latest in a long series of betrayals by the Labour Party of its working class base. This is a contestable argument, I should note, and in our next episode you’re going to hear Owen Worth push back on it, a little. For now though, Lee’s critical point is that this defeat was more a wake up call for the British left than a defeat of leftist ideals and principles. And, as we discuss towards the end of the show, there are lessons here for other leftist parties around the world, and especially for activists supporting the Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States.
American audiences may have heard Keir interviewed by Chuck Mertz a couple of weeks ago, on This Is Hell! We’re kind of hoping this could be a good companion episode to that interview, as we go deep into some aspects of the book that Chuck didn’t have time to address. And there is a LOT going on in this book! It starts by questioning the popular notion that Millennials and Zoomers are a bunch of entitled snowflakes, and suggesting that this myth is actually doing quite a lot of work, politically, in dividing young and old members of the working class, giving them over to the idea that they have fundamentally different interests.
But of course, as with many myths, an investigation of the facts produces a rather different persecutive. It turns out, says Keir, that the generations are stuck in rather different material trajectories. One statement Keir makes early in the book really caught our attention: “the older generation are still tied to the neoliberal hegemony of finance while the young seek to escape it.” But these trajectories are not a given. To the contrary, the logic of neoliberalism forces the Boomer generation to hold onto its material advantages, as a retirement strategy. And, as it does this, it condemns Millennials and Zoomers to a life of debt and forces them into a culture of cynical entrepreneurialism.
In the show, we talk with Keir about the role of events in composing generations. Events, he says, can disrupt our accepted ways of making sense of the world, and lead to the emergence of radically new social energies. But not every disruptive event will necessarily lead to some kind of new configuration, nor will every new configuration necessarily be a progressive one.
One particular event, the 2008 financial crisis, of course looms large in Keir’s story. Unleashing austerity on the developed world, it represents in a sense the apogee of neoliberal governmentality. Milburn cites academic theorists like Wendy Brown, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Jennifer Silva to try to explain how neoliberal capitalism tries to get us to think and act as if there is no alternative to neoliberalism, even tho we all know its not working — we know we can’t all be entrepreneurs. (This reminded us a bit of Adam Curtis, and his hyper-normalization documentary). A key figure for Milburn here is Mark Fisher, and his argument about consciousness deflation.
Whatever we want to call this system (authoritarian neoliberalism? zombie capitalism?), clearly it is making us sick. Throughout the text, Milburn make repeated reference to how we are living in the midst of an epidemic of “depression, insomnia and mental distress.” Yet there’s kind of a mystery to unpack here. He cites Jennifer Silva, for example, to explain how capitalism prefers us to internalize these issues, making them questions more to to do with our emotional and psychic resilience, than anything to do with the structure of the economy.
And, as he argues, this way of thinking about our mental wellbeing even showed up in the “assemblyism” of the occupy Wall Street movement. Nevertheless, he insists, Occupy’s approach to the collective discussion of experiences and struggles did offer therapeutic and even political potentials to the young people who participated. And, as we discuss in the show (admittedly not in nearly enough detail) there are things we can learn here, very much in the spirit of the late Mark Fisher, that might be applied to a new model of treating mental and material health.
Today, the reputation of neoliberalism is today irredeemably tarnished. The question before us is how to build and leverage democratic competence and confidence, to build a new order in the face of zombie neoliberalism. We ask Keir about his own podcast, ACFM, and the role the suggest that might yet be played by the so-called “weird left,” as a way of engaging in consciousness raising. He acknowledges that while counter-cultural practices sometimes get a bad rep (and deservedly so), subcultures like punk and DIY do still offer the possibility of “conscious raising” that could meaningfully counter some of the “consciousness deflating” pressures of neoliberalism.
In the closing chapters of your book, however, Milburn is under no illusions: the left has a long history of melancholia. Ultimately, to succeed, says Milburn, generation left is going to have to bridge the generation gap. As he points out, this won’t be easy — boomers are dependent on financial instruments, 401k, stock markets, property values etc. Equally, we know that as much as they depend on these financial assets, they have very little control over them: 85% of the stock market is owned by the top 10%; property values are dependent on development funds, retirement funds, university endowments, etc. So, considering these interests, it may be hard to bring working class boomers around!
To fix this, he claims, we will need to engage in a “dual strategy.” On the one hand, we will need to get serious about wielding the power of the state, and building economies of the commons, to show Boomers that socialism can work for them, too. On the other hand, however, we will need to build political movements capable of holding our representatives in the state to account. This isn’t going to be easy, however. Time and resources are thin on the ground. Solidarity economies, UBI, UBS, etc, can be one answer here. But, as he concludes, the key fact is that we need to build these alliances. If the generation gap really is a class gap, as he argues, then solidarity economies and the like may be the vital tool we need, to help us achieve the the kind of inter-generational unity we need, if we are ever to win.
Welcome back, listeners, to what I hope you’ll agree is a very special episode of Fully Automated. As you know, the last two episodes have been focused on the Brexit debate, and whether or not the cause of the British left is best served by a departure from the European Union (EU), or by “remaining and rebelling” within the EU, in the hope of reforming it.
Two episodes ago, our guest was Lee Jones — an advocate of ’The Full Brexit.’ During the show, Jones advanced the idea that the ideals of the Left cannot be satisfied within the EU, whereas the most meaningful historic victories of the left have been achieved only by wielding the power of the state. Then, in our last episode, we heard a rebuttal of this idea from Luke Ashworth, who suggested that while the political entity we know as the modern state has played an important historical role for the Left, its time has been fleeting, and the forces of globalization are today of such power that any project of returning to sovereignty will prove inevitably fruitless.
Recorded late in the afternoon on Friday, March 29, in the lobby bar of the Toronto Sheraton, during the 60th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, this episode brings Jones and Ashworth back to the microphone, this time for a live, in person debate. To keep things cordial, we bought them a brace of beers. And they appreciated the gesture it would seem, as the exchange proved to be probably the most collegial airing of political grievances in podcast history.
A quick note for listeners: with the Parliamentary dynamics surrounding Brexit now in a state of rapid flux, we’ve here largely avoided the topic of whether or how Theresa May can at this stage secure her deal, and avoid a ‘drop out’ Brexit. That said, for listeners who are interested in a play-by-play analysis of what’s going on in the House of Commons, we can recommend staying tunes to Novara Media’s Tyske Sour. Today’s show featured Sienna Rodgers and Owen Jones, and looked at a number of important questions, including whether Theresa May is prepared to sacrifice the Conservative Party, in order to cede meaningful ground the Labour Party’s demands for a Common Market deal, and the various divisions within Labour on question of a second referendum.
Finally, the bar we were in was starting to get pretty noisy by the end of the session. We’ve done our best to clear up the sound, but we ask your patience all the same.
(PS: listeners coming to this page may be curious if Molloy has plans to release any t-shirts bearing his “Tortuga on Themes” slogan. He has not responded to our queries).
This weeks guest is Lee Jones, a Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, and one of the people behind the blog, The Full Brexit. I’ve known Lee for a number of years, and I find him to be a thoughtful and provocative commentator on a range of issues. He was one of the early voices, for example, to challenge the mainstream liberal analysis of the 2016 US election, and the idea that blame for the election of Donald Trump should be lain at the feet of white working class voters and other so-called “deplorables.”
Yet, I have found it harder to agree with Lee when it comes to the topic of Brexit. Drawing on the scholarship of Peter Mair, among others, Lee and his fellow bloggers at The Full Brexit have been developing a serious critique of the EU. At the core of their argument is a claim that the EU is a fundamentally anti-democratic project. One that was designed, from the outset, to disempower voters, by transferring jurisdiction over decisions to do with the economy from member states, to an anonymous technocratic body, called the European Commission — a body which, mind you, has only one directive, and that is to advance the European neoliberal project.
Now, to be clear, I pretty much agree with all of this critique. My problem, however, is that I find myself deeply confused about what the left ought to be doing about it and, thusly, what to do about Brexit. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the likes of Grace Blakeley, who has an excellent piece on Novara right now, arguing:
At its heart, the problem the EU presents to the left is not enough democracy and too many veto players. Even if the left managed the heroic task of taking control of the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council both have a veto, and both continue to be strongly influenced by both the national interests of the most powerful states and special interest groups. The combination of these factors would prevent any attempt at socialist transformation within the EU.
Equally, however, I do find it helpful to try to step back and listen to people like Yanis Varoukfakis, who argued in a recent appearance on The Dig podcast that we simply may not have a choice but to take our battle to the EU itself. This is the so-called remain and rebel strategy. Now, sure, as folks at Novara Media will be quick to argue, there is no European Demos — and in the absence of an authentic European polity, its hard to imagine how the EU could ever be reformed. But as Varoufakis points out on The Dig, the existence of a demos may be beside the point. If the European Union falls apart, its not like the alternative will be a return to nation states. It will likely be something much, much worse.
So, obviously, two very well-reasoned left positions, with diametrically-opposed strategies. This is the first in a series of episodes we’ll be doing on Brexit, and the European Union more broadly. And this one, I think, couldn’t be coming at a more relevant time. Lee and I recorded this interview on December 3, at the start of one of the most tumultuous weeks in British parliamentary history. One week earlier, the European Council had agreed to the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement, a large technical document which sets the schedule and terms of Britain’s departure from the EU, beginning in March 2019. But, as I post this episode, it is anyone’s guess what it going to happen next. This coming Tuesday, December 12, the draft is set to go before the British parliament, where it is expected to fail. After that, a confidence vote could be called for, but as James Butler of Novara Media has been arguing, that’s no easy proposition, either.
And there are a number of reasons why, especially from a Left perspective, we might want it to fail; principally, its commitment to a (potentially permanent!) version of the so-called backstop, which would put serious constraints on state aid, and thereby tie the hands of any future government led by Jeremy Corbyn. But in a dramatic development on Tuesday, Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve passed an amendment stating that parliament can amended whatever deal May comes back with, which she must, within 21 days, according to the EU Withdrawal Act. This may make a no-deal Brexit impossible, tho Tory Brexiters have suggested the motion cannot be binding. So, we’ll see.
Anyway, all that to say, much is up in the air right now, in Brexitland. Perhaps all the more reason, then, to take a moment to step back, and spend some time thinking about the EU, and its democratic credentials. So, to get our Brexit series off the ground, here is Lee Jones.
Note: Lee’s latest article, referred to in the interview, can be found here.