The real problem with the Labour Party is not its policy or the leadership, and it’s not its members. The real problem is was what the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to as false politics. I will explain what this means, what it looks like in the Labour Party, why it is necessary to address it and what can be done.
Arendt’s conceptualisation of false politics is where there are public institutions which are seemingly political but their processes and mechanisms suppress vibrant political activity, discussion and debate. The focus of institutions engaged in false politics is maintaining the machinery and bureaucracy of politics, with a facade of political engagement, but without opportunity for real debate, deliberation or indeed real politics. There is a strong disciplining regime within these organisations, using symbolic violence to ensure that rules and practices of false politics are sustained.
In the first constituency Labour Party Annual General Meeting I attended, I witnessed a member being publicly admonished as he attempted to raise an issue. The meeting chair furiously suppressed the speaker in an authoritarian way, with breathtaking fluency in the party rules, drawing support from the floor he silenced the member. This is an example of false politics. As is the case of the suppression of constituency Labour Party meetings during the last leadership campaign on the unsubstantiated and spurious claim that there would be hostility and abuse if meetings went ahead. There a number of examples of false politics that I have witnessed in the Labour Party since I have been a member. Principally the objective has been to sustain rule and dogma at the expense of debate and engagement.
Initially I thought this was a power struggle between the left and right of the party: between pro and anti-Corbyn supporters. However, looking at as a manifestation of false politics reveals a more fundamental issue that goes beyond factional in-fighting but may also suggest how the party proceeds to become more effective.
I regularly listen to Aaron Bastani on Novaramedia. He has repeatedly observed the lack of innovation in the Labour Party in the last 18 months. There is a radical alternative in politics characterised by the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a huge influx of members and a real enthusiasm for politics. However, he says, the Labour Party has not shifted a fraction of a per cent in terms of doing anything new or innovative. He goes on to say, it is the same expectation that members should just knock on doors or deliver leaflets. Where, he says, we should be thinking about how the Labour Party could be reaching out to 1000s. This is an example of false politics, where the mechanisms and subordination to dogma kill vibrant activity and political progress.
Arendt made her observations during the rise of fascism in Germany between the wars. She observed that institutions were powerless in the face of totalitarianism, the real antidote to authoritarianism was public politics. That is, people having the opportunity to think and discuss their politics, to build solidarity against fascism; not based on false politics, but based on the mobilisation and commitment of the masses.
The Labour Party, throughout its organisation needs to urgently address the domination of false politics. It needs to encourage broad activity, participation, political debate and education. It needs to improve on the functioning of its own democracy and transparency. Make meetings open, facilitate discussion and debate, have the courage to find out what new members can do and how they can contribute. This has got to be an open organisation to build a mass politicised movement.
I wish I were just saying this in order to make winning elections more likely. But with the ominous rise of the authoritarian right in the US, there is so much more at stake. We can only fight fascism by fighting the fascist within ourselves that is manifest in institutional false politics.