"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Ourselves Alone

Frank Callanan

Generation Left, by Keir Milburn, Polity Press, 140 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1509532247

“Age has emerged as the key dividing line in politics,” writes the author of this work. The argument is that the global financial meltdown of 2008 had a radicalising effect, which kicked in circa 2011, “a historic year of protest”, and “the moment of excess that gave birth to an international Left generation”. The events of 2011, we are told, “created a left generational unit”. While “Generation Left” was born “within explosive extra-parliamentary movements”, it made a turn towards electoral politics between 2014 and 2016 (Corbyn and Sanders, Syriza and Podemos). This turn brought members of the “left generational unit” into conflict with a previous Left generation, the Third Way, “formed by the events of 1989 and characterized by their compromise with neo-liberalism”.

Deep generational political and attitudinal divides are a marked feature of the contemporary political landscape. In so far as they are economically based ‑ issues to do with zero-hours contracts of employment, access to home ownership or stable renting arrangements ‑ they are surely better conceived as general subjects of social equity and economic policy rather than as “generational” issues. There is reason to be sceptical about furthering the disaggregation (or really pseudo-disaggregation) of civil society that is a hallmark of contemporary populism. Still, there are obvious immediate disproportionate generational impacts that do need to be addressed. Generational disaffection and electoral expressions of it, if directed with some degree of political intelligence, could actually have a salutary political effect.

The search for political intelligence is not advanced in this work by Keir Milburn, a lecturer in political economy and organisation at the University of Leicester. It is an obdurately Corbynite tract, a hymn-sheet for the adherents of an electorally catastrophic project. That does give it a certain interest to those not of the faith, even now when Jeremy Corbyn himself has passed –far too late – into history. There is a good deal of truth in the complaint that Corbyn was ideologically demonised: many of the policies of his Labour Party were sensible and socially warranted. But however skewed the political terrain, it is necessary to command electoral trust. Political leadership requires qualities, above all some relationship to nation over party, which Corbyn neither possessed nor ever really pretended to. Demonisation does need something to go on, and what the pro-Conservative British press had to go on was that Corbyn (“a mild-mannered 68-year-old leftist”) was the creature, by doctrine or congenital dither, of the hard left. Corbyn might actually be better described as medium hard-leftish than hard left. But what Generation Left brings home is that in some respects Corbynite leftishness is worse than old-style hard left politics because of its seemingly unbounded capacity for collective self-delusion.

Why write a book that has zero capacity to convince anyone not already persuaded? Why on earth bother? Milburn plainly believes that he is making a reasoned argument, but this belief is negated at every turn by a sectarianism of which he seems to be blithely unconscious. One does wonder how many of the participants in the revolution in Tunisia had the time or inspiration to reflect that as well as overthrowing a tyranny, they were “producing a new generation of Left ideas and practices”. Milburn sets out his stall pretty plainly early on: “Our generation has its own characteristics and needs a new concept of political generations to capture them. We need to understand how the young are reshaping the Left to accord with their experiences and desires. A generation moving left is producing a new generation of Left ideas and practices. It’s a phenomenon that’s currently among the most important in the world to grasp.” That’s it then: only those who subscribe to the idea of “Left Generation” should apply; or need to read this. Generously, Milburn does not require you to belong to Generation Left. “After all, the retired have much to offer Generation Left. They have, not least, that rarest of contemporary commodities, free time. The young, meanwhile, can offer sociality to help overcome the isolation and loneliness that plague old age.” At this point the blancmange is wildly foaming over the edge of the plate, curling down the leg of the table and onto the carpet. Why is Polity publishing this?

The blinkered “Left”-absorbedness of everything that has happened or is likely to is tragically unremitting. There is a good deal about neoliberalism. Milburn’s account is fair were it not for the inevitable clanging gloss: “ … I think it’s more useful to understand neoliberalism as entering its zombie stage: it is ‘dead yet still dominant’. The key characteristic of zombies is brain-death …’ This reveals him as a writer of inept prose within the archaic conventions of left-wing pamphleteering (something confirmed by the grim pun of a chapter title: “Generation Left (Behind)”). Karl Marx would have wept. Neoliberalism, a pernicious anti-political and anti-state dogma, of viral propensity, given first effect to by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, is the ideological cataclysm of our era. There is no domain of policy in which we do not continue to struggle with its ferocious outfall. It has shaped, or rather disfigured, our world. It almost destroyed the traditional centre-right of Western politics, which seemed not to know how to fight back, and spiralled outwards to undermine parties of the centre and centre-left. Quite apart from the immense cost in human suffering, the degradation of politics and of governance has been immeasurable. All the author of Generation Left can extract from this epochal calamity is a reassuring vindication of the sanctimonious verities of “the Left”: this he finds in the fate of “neoliberalized ‘centre Left’ parties across Europe. This has benefited the Right but also cleared space for the Radical Left.” I wouldn’t be too sure about the complacent “zombie” idea either.

What is most galling in this book is its attitude to participation in democratic politics, and the strange and unexpected indifference to political defeat that lies at its heart. General elections are not only about the outcome in seat numbers: they are important democratic rites of which the unfolding of the results is an important part. Election nights are an institution in themselves, maybe a minor institution and one now diminished by social media, but an institution all the same. They are moments of pause and transition conventionally marked by a degree of openness. They also afford quite important opportunities for the losing side to play on the remorse of those watching, who may have begun to realise what they have done and which can influence the outcome of the subsequent election. They are occasions that are not to be disrespected. It was remarkable, and I think unprecedented in decades of televised election results, that the apologists and spokespersons of Corbyn’s Labour Party, as the general election results came in last December, shamelessly trotted out a collectively scripted response to the rout of their party. It was not a rejection of Corbyn, they intoned in unison, scarcely bothering to vary their language. They were prepared to lie on television to a public which could see for itself what had just happened. All of this was concerted in advance, which says a great deal: no party that was truly committed to a general election campaign could find the time – or the heart –to engage in elaborately strategising a response to a defeat, even if they had more or less abandoned all hope of winning. From those defeated so heavily (albeit on the “straight” vote) one might expect the odd flash of candour, a moment of insight, some spark of personal emotion, or perhaps an unprompted expression of sympathy with stalwart Labour members of parliament who had lost their seats as the “red wall” crumbled. There came none. The shamefulness of the spectacle is hard to describe. Corbyn’s apologists offered an overt and immediate insult to the faculty of observation – never mind the intelligence – of those watching. One could say it was disrespectful of the practice of democratic politics, but that would miss its troubling weirdness: the Corbyn people were speaking from a planet which was not that inhabited by those who had just voted, whom they were addressing. Something terrible was lost that night – a truly ignominious end to the Corbyn hiatus – which is now for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to retrieve, as I think it will.  

At the most elementary level, how likely is it that the practitioners of the political arts of the “Left” in its Milburnian conception were ever going to prevail in an electoral process in which it was self-tethered by ideological inhibition? How exactly was it that starting from that knotted position they were going to see off the feral professionals of British referenda and elections of the pro-Brexit Conservative party (though they were certainly not professionals of anything else)? That alone denied the contest anything much in the way of suspense.

One is left wondering what it is that Keir Milburn and those whose thought belongs with his in the same furrow of lethargy actually want to attain. The book seeks to inculcate a maintenance of ideological purity connected to a theoretical prospect of the Left in Milburn’s sense acceding to power at some future time. This is something that – intriguingly – is deeper than a reaction against the “Third Way” of Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens (here accurately summarised as “tack Right to win over ‘centrist’ swing voters”). It is an underlying aversion to the practice of politics that extends to a shrinking back from any conventional conception of power. This is very difficult to fathom, in part because it cuts across the accusation that the hard left has a single-minded and unscrupulous Leninist fixation on winning power. But the “Left” as conceived by Keir Milburn exists primarily for itself, and politics for this Left is above all the pursuit of some form of historical vindication that reinstates a currently imperilled communal sense of having been right all along. Generation Left is a prescription written from collective self-isolation. It is a catechism of contemporary Left cliché.

Thus ideas about winning an election and governing are weirdly blurred, subsumed under the mysterious heading of “Growing an Ecology” in a tract that says nothing about global warming. Electoral success involves building social coalitions, and “the day to day conduct of electoral politics pulls to the Right”. A hostile media is the first line of defence. “Left governments will also need to overcome an obstreperous civil service, allay the threat of coups, both soft and hard, and prepare for the confrontation with international capital.” It all melts into imprecision. This shying away from power discloses the startling void at the heart of Milburn’s “Left”. Why do people who think like this bother to engage in electoral politics at all? Why do they get in the way of those on the left who do actually care about electoral outcomes? Why do they not stay at home memorising passages from Generation Left with which to impress their friends?

Curiously Milburn does seem faintly conscious of this problem – in a short section entitled “Escaping Left Melancholy”. “Left Melancholy” has a current vogue. He quotes Wendy Brown, who writes of “a Left that has become more attached to its impossibility than to its potential fruitfulness, a Left that is most at home dwelling not in hopefulness but in its own marginality and failure, a Left that is thus caught in a structure of melancholic attachment to a certain strain of its own dead past, whose spirit is ghostly, whose structure of desire is backward looking and punishing”. Thank you Wendy. That precisely describes the thinking of this book. Milburn however, does not subscribe to the diagnosis (neither, I suspect, does Wendy really). With the wearied but unflagging upbeatness that is one of the symptoms of the condition he writes: “Luckily, the current generation seems predisposed to evade Left Melancholy. Generation Left is the first generation for whom the failures and impasses of the twentieth-century Left are an inheritance rather than a lived experience.”

One of the trade-mark epithets of hard left polemic was “decadent”. One would of course wish to defer to the positive connotations of the idea of decadence, but it has to be said there is something decadent in that old hard-left sense in the reasoning and ingratiating prose of Generation Left.

Set against the high tradition of European socialism, the mere urge to be proved right seems a petty thing. That compulsion is not confined to British supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. Many of those of what is more or less the Milburnian Left in Ireland fell over each other in the rush in pursuit of the fulfilment of their decades-old prophesies of the demise of “civil war politics” to hail the Sinn Féin vote at the recent Irish general election as a vote for the left, and thereby to bestow legitimacy on an unscrupulously populist, professedly ultra-nationalist party, whose commitment to basic democratic norms remains open to challenge.

1/5/2020

Frank Callanan is sixty-three.

Categories