Tony Blair has written an article spelling out what the UK’s Labour party must do to gain power after enduring major losses in recent UK council elections. In Without total change Labour will die lofty declarations team up with political rhetoric to imagine the party in a ‘new progressive movement’ with other ‘progressive’ political players. Although the word ‘progressive’ is repeated like an incantation Blair is no shaman invoking the powers of the spirit world and casting spells. His message is clear: the Labour Party is doomed if it continues to alienate voters in previously loyal boroughs and regions. Nothing less than ‘total change’ spearheaded by a new progressive movement is required.
So why a new progressive movement. What would be new about it? If progress is not ‘new’ then what is it? Antique, archaic, olde worlde? Alas the chanter fails to enlighten by admitting that progress is not always progressive. There can be unforeseen reversals, alterations and revisions. The idea of progress as an uninterrupted flow of new improvements may be popular with voters and promoted by politicians via their media outlets but it is a fiction that disguises underlying entanglements. For example, any desire for ‘total change’ will conflict with the political wishes of those who do not see the need for change. Then there are those who desire the return of despotism, fascism and the oppressions of previous eras. This tripartite arena of conflict consisting of progressives, non progressives and regressives is further complicated by contemporary class divisions. There would be overlaps between these groups resulting in groups with mixed beliefs such as both progressive and non-progressive and/or regressive beliefs, making the task of uniting ‘progressives’ even more formidable.* Blair plays safe and steers clear of this terrain. Not for him showing how class intersects with civil society and contemporary power formations. He evades being specific about the historical and political forces shaping contemporary relations between class, party, the state and civil society in the UK by avoiding terms like ‘citizens’ and ‘civilians’ and referring to ‘the people’ instead.
Consider the word ‘democracy’; it appears precisely once in Blair’s lengthy article and it is not even discussed in terms of being a progressive political force:
‘and there will be political choices and trade-offs that democracy will decide.’
Here democracy is reduced to a decision making function that chooses between one trade off or another. A function that appears to exclude civilians. Perhaps Blair confused democracy with the opportunity choices and trade-offs of the market, such as those associated with private finance initiatives, futures speculation, hedging, shorting and so on. Writing about democracy using the language of neoliberal orthodoxy is deliberate mystification. Predictably the idea that democracy might be about workers deciding how to govern the market in their own interests is given a wide berth by Blair.
This failure to recognise the agency of civilians, their active participation in democracy is elitist. Blair sees the encompassing ‘vastness of technological change’ as the revolution that will shape people’s lives: therefore, ‘those who understand it’ will be the ones ‘who can show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people’. These lines betray the lofty elitism of Blair’s political thought yet again. First, the people will not understand the revolution; secondly, the revolution will be controlled by those who have power. How convenient! What is implied here is a division between ‘the masters’ in control of the revolution and ‘the mastered’. So ‘the people’ rather than being active participants identifying and assessing historical changes and directing emerging social and economic forms are the passive objects of revolutionary changes whose course is decided by party apparatchiks. What we have here is a recipe for a zombie revolution, like the one depicted in Romero’s Land of the Dead!
It is not surprising therefore Blair disavows the agencies and political activism of communities and individuals that were excluded and marginalised within so-called ‘progressive’ movements. The Labour movement in Britain was hardly a haven for migrants and newcomers. Post war migrants were often resented by Labour supporters who were all for solidarity with the ‘oppressed’ of the world. Nevertheless incoming workers established their own social clubs and political forums within civil society rather than the party with its formal hierarchies, conservative prejudices and power structures. Arguably the democratising of the Labour party under the leaderships of Miliband and Corbyn lagged behind progressive changes in civil society in particular the demand that Labour, including the left, be more inclusive and diverse. Let us not forget democracy is work in progress rather than a vehicle, a commodity whose shelf life is limited. It involves participants from across the working class** spectrum deciding how to change the world rather than civilians reacting to a world that has changed. It requires individuals and communities participating in power rather than subordinated to power. It calls for the under-represented to be fully represented. Above all democracy requires civil society activists to robustly challenge the discursive formations of would be despots and anti working class ideologists.
Blair’s elitist+ vision of an ‘enormous’ and ‘vast’ tech led revolution should trouble us. In particular the assumption that all technological change is ‘progressive’. Are hypersonic missiles progressive? The proliferation of cryptocurrencies? Bitcoin’s competitive mining practices? The vast profits made by big tech from home based click workers? Oceans polluted by the discarded products of technological change, plastics and radiation? How democracy friendly are the the power conglomerations of finance capital? Calling institutions, movements, technological developments ‘progressive’ may well disguise the extent to which they are regressive vis à vis the biosphere and the well being of human life.
In 1940 the philosopher Walter Benjamin described progress as a storm blowing from paradise with such force it prevents a fragile angel (New Angel) from closing their wings. It is a vision of progress as destruction and chaos:
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 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 a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The 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.
How different from Blair’s vision. What is the ‘pile of debris’ but the vast accumulation of toxic waste that threatens the survival of the earth as a life producing planet? Far from heading to paradise we have destroyed paradise, and what is ‘new’ is not vast and seductive and masculine but fragile, trapped and tragically powerless.
*Diagram showing overlaps between groups of beliefs.
**Working class here does not refer to income groups but to specific historical-politico formations between capital and labour.
+Such elitism warns of the dangers of self described progressive movements becoming elitist.