To outsiders, the ideological struggle between the tradition-friendly Blue Labour movement and the future-facing ‘Accelerationists’ may seem to be the ultimate in political geekery.
But don’t be fooled, this is really important stuff – and not just because the two sides constitute the most intellectually interesting bits of the British Labour Party. They are also representative of the much wider struggle between the working class politics of the old left and the bourgeois identity politics of the new left.
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Ultimately, this goes beyond the left altogether, indeed beyond left and right – and towards the great dividing lines of the future, which will be about the nature of humanity in a world where technology poses a fundamental challenge to age-old understandings of who we are.
For the moment, let’s get back to the political geekery – and the beef between Blue Labour and the Accelerationists.
This is a divide I’ve peered into before, but this time I’m going to unpack a piece for the New Statesman by Jon Cruddas, a leading Blue Labourite. He begins by introducing the other side:
“Undiagnosed by the mainstream media and much of the academic community, a major intellectual renewal is underway across the left. It is energetic and tech-savvy… embraces bold ideas, and is well-organised and networked.
“It is fast becoming a new political movement; best captured in influential articles and books discussing ‘accelerationism’, ‘postcapitalism’ and even ‘fully automated luxury communism’.”
The animating idea of this movement is that, thanks to automation etc, there’ll soon be so much wealth available for redistribution that we’ll all be able to live on the welfare state – and not have to work unless we want to. How soon is soon is unclear, but the immediate task for the left is to accelerate progress towards the hi-tech socialist paradise.
Cruddas places Accelerationism within a wider transformation in the nature of left-wing politics:
“The historic concerns of the left – nurturing citizenship and building the ‘common good’ – [has been] lost through a descent into relativism and a politics of the self…
“The character of the left has shifted. It has become obsessed with the belief that politics is an authentic search for the self, rather than a sacrificial contribution to the commons, with its trade-offs and compromises.”
Traditional socialism, of which Blue Labour is a part, emphasises working class solidarity allied to a sense of shared, though non-jingoistic, patriotism. It therefore stands at odds with the values of the new (or post-modern) left:
“This politics assumes that generalisation is not possible given our assorted personal histories and experiences of privilege, inequality and exploitation. Left politics has turned inward, preoccupied by questions of personal identity and with a new language of fluidity, hybridity and intersectionality. This dovetails with our modern narcissistic, individualised culture and Facebook echo chambers, in contrast to historic forms of collective agency and physical solidarities informed by traditional – often ancient – models of justice.”
Accelerationism is at the leading-edge of the post-modern left – because it purports to show how we can achieve a post-work economy and a borderless world. It is a vision of the future in which the things that Blue Labour stands for aren’t just seen as oppressive, but also obsolete.
No wonder Jon Cruddas doesn’t approve. His ideological opponents seek to detatch people from group identities and loyalties once held dear on the left. The post-modern approach is about individualised safe spaces, not common ground.
And yet, while some critics accuse the new left of pandering to the self-obsession of the ‘snowflake’ generation, others accuse them of making blanket generalisations – especially when ascribing ‘privilege’ or victimhood to individuals on the basis of ethnicity, gender or sexuality, while paying scant regard to personal circumstances, experiences or actions.
So is the new left a rabble of narcissistic individualists or a cabal of crude collectivists? Logically both accusations could be false, but they can’t both be true.
Except that they can. To understand why, let’s begin with the recent Twitter spat between the comedian Robert Webb and the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer. As part of an online debate about exclusivity of journalism, the latter made her position clear:
“I didn’t go to Oxford because I was privileged. I went to Oxford because I was clever.”
In response, Webb tweeted the following:
“I didn’t go to Cambridge because I was clever. I went because I was a white male from a stable family who encouraged me to work hard at an excellent state school. That’s all privilege. All of it…”
It all got a bit unnecessary after that, and Webb ended up apologising, but let’s focus on the core of his argument i.e. “That’s all privilege. All of it.”
There couldn’t be a pithier summation of what the post-modern left is all about. If it’s all privilege (all of it) – then there can be no merit (none of it). No merit in work and no merit in citizenship. This legitimates the twin goals of a post-work society and a borderless world – and, therefore, the ‘liberation’ of the individual from the responsibilities and loyalties of the past.
Crude collectivism and narcissistic individualism are thus far from contradictory. Indeed, the former is how you get to the latter.
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