A Storm Called Progress: Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. The Angel of History is blown backwards into the future by the gales of historical change. Labour's critics challenge it to confront directly the accumulation of its past decisions - and their consequences. How else can the Labour Party, and the people who vote Labour, hope to change them?
ROBERT WINTER is a fan of Jerome K. Jerome, a fact which immediately distinguishes him as a man of taste and discernment. His blog Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow offers some of the pithiest political commentary to be found anywhere in the New Zealand blogosphere. Most of the time I agree with Robert, and he with me. Over recent weeks, however, we have not agreed. And since my every attempt to leave a comment on his own blog has failed (Blogger has never really recovered from its meltdown of a few months ago) I am responding to his critiques here, on Bowalley Road.
ONE OF THE most common criticisms of Labour’s left-wing critics is that they are mired in the past. According to the party’s (dwindling) number of supporters and defenders, the watches of those who criticise Labour have all stopped. Some at 19:84, some at 19:91, others at 20:02. These critics are both fixed in and fixated by words and deeds that long ago passed into history. This, says Labour, is as destructive as it is unhelpful. The eyes of the Left, according to Labour and its followers, should be fixed upon the future: let the dead bury their dead.
At the same time (and somewhat paradoxically) Labour’s defenders also use history as a means of discrediting its left-wing opponents alternative narratives and policy-options.
“As I've suggested before,” writes Robert, “the world of social democracy a la 1935 is no more. We no longer have the same labour force, the same unions, the same systems and organisation of production, the same social mores, the same communities, or the same ability to operate within the protection of a nation-state. Above all, and this is underestimated as a factor by most, the hopes attached to alternative systems have, for now, been dashed - the Bolshevik model, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, has failed and we are now seeking new alternatives. That takes time. We may not like this, but it is a reality. Meanwhile, Capitalism, driven by its own imperatives, has moved on politically and economically, particularly on two fronts - the global impact and power of finance capital and the organisation of global production in value chains.”
This is the standard Blairite explanation – adopted by Labour and social-democratic parties from Australasia to Scandinavia. It is not, however, an analysis: it’s a description – and an excuse. It’s the right-wing social-democrats’ way of saying: “Capitalism’s become too big to tackle. All we can hope to do is smooth-off some of its sharper edges. There really is no alternative to the free market.”
But, as the former British Labour MP, Bryan Gould, explained more than two years ago:
“A government supposedly of the Left that feels unable to challenge market outcomes can have nothing to say – however it is dressed up, whatever cosmetics are applied – to those who look to it for social justice and a more integrated society.”
If social-democracy is not about challenging market outcomes (and the social inequality and injustice they generate) then what is it about? Sure, the shape and power of capitalism changes: but, so what? Capitalism was once about coal and steam-engines and machine looms. Then it was about oil, and electricity and the internal combustion engine. Its records were once produced by Bob Cratchits with pens. Then it was flappers with typewriters. As far back as 1848, Karl Marx and Fred Engels recognised capitalism as the most dynamic force on the planet.
Their celebrated description of capitalism: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air”; could have been written yesterday.
Stubbornly refusing to “melt into air”, however, are the relationships peculiar to capitalism. These are as solid as they ever were. And it is this, the edifice of domination, subordination and exploitation which holds capitalist society in place, that social-democracy seeks to challenge, shrink, modify and, ultimately, dismantle.
That’s what the First, Second and Third Labour Governments did here. Even the Fourth challenged, shrank, modified and dismantled, although not for any progressive purpose. But the Fifth (leaving aside the brief period it was goaded forward by its genuinely social-democratic coalition partner, the Alliance) was largely content to leave the capitalist edifice unchallenged. From the labour market to broadcasting, welfare to global warming, the ‘reforms” of the Clark-led government were tentative, half-hearted and almost totally ineffectual.
Of course we can’t go back to 1935 – or 1972. But we can decide to follow the same social-democratic principles, and pursue the same objectives, as Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk. We can declare that any society which denies ordinary working people a meaningful role in shaping their collective future is not a democratic society. We can also say that any party which refuses to respond to working-class exclusion by “putting people first and money second” is not – and never can be – a Labour Party.
In 1940, on the run from the Nazis, the German-Jewish philosopher and social critic, Walter Benjamin, recalled the impact of a work of art by Paul Klee:
"A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
We are driven forward only by what lies behind us.
This post is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.