John Clarke: “We shouldn’t take failures as the definitive statements that it cannot be done”

The conversation took place during the 2016 Green Academy and is a part of the series of interviews conducted by Bartul Čović. John Clarke is an Emeritus Professor at the UK’s Open University and has recently been working on the politics and policies of austerity. At the Academy he gave the lecture “Welfare State and the Commons: Conflicts and Contradictions” as part of the Commons module. 

BARTUL ČOVIĆ: In the last year and a half, we have experienced two referendums in Europe, Oxi and the famous Brexit, and there is definitely a big amount of dissatisfaction with the way Europe is working as articulated by people, and many studies of referendum results showed that both Oxi and Leave were very much supported by lower social classes. So, given the fact that you talk about austerity, what do you think is the main reason behind this dissatisfaction and this loss of trust in Europe and is the European dream turning slowly into a nightmare?

JOHN CLARKE: What a wonderful question. I am going to do two things in reply. The first thing is to say that the dissatisfactions are multiple. So, some of them are certainly about the European Union; some of them are certainly about domestic politics and political parties. Referendums are strange moments, because people are positioned differently from their old political habits. And that’s important for being able to voice dissatisfaction. They become the possibility of a protest vote. Then I think people are also dissatisfied with a much longer history of, the usual way to call it is the neo-liberal restructuring of the world, and their world and their places of work and life. So, I think all those things compress certainly into Brexit, which is the one I know best obviously, but it’s visible even in places there are no referendums going on. That distancing is what my friend Jeremy Gilbert calls ‘disaffected consent’. You can see the gaps growing and that crystallisation of multiple dissatisfactions is what’s really important and really of interest, because certainly in the British case there is now a question of what happens when nothing happens. So, if Brexit doesn’t make the world better, for the people who voted to leave, what’s the next political moment? And the danger is that it’s turning to a more authoritarian moment, creating the possibility of the figure of the strong leader, which Europe has been tempted by in the past, in these difficult moments, and in a moment of anti-politics and distrust of politicians. Because, even the referendum, even Brexit proves that politics is a bad thing. And that scares me, because I think that we collectively, progressively need to find ways of engaging people with politics. And the danger is that they withdraw, and that’s the ground of at least totalitarianism if not Fascism. For an old person like myself, that’s scary.

But I want to go back to just one word that you used, which is the word ‘articulate’. It’s a really important word in the field I grew up in, in cultural studies, because it was the concept that my teacher (Stuart Hall) used most regularly, most powerfully. I want to pick out two things about it. Because it’s both ‘articulate’ as in the sense of coming to voice, saying things, but it’s also about articulation as a specific set of connections. And referendums are really interesting for two things. One is the possibility of new connections. New mobilisations, a new sense that people might have to be able to say something. But in the British case that leaves the question of whose voice it is. Because it’s certain that the vote was a disaffected, angry, disenfranchised people’s vote, but in Britain the voices were all the voices of the political elite being ventriloquists for popular sentiments. And I think that’s worth political attention and I think the capacity of people who are rich, come from elite backgrounds, educated in private schools, speaking as populists is a really peculiar moment in British politics, a really peculiar moment.

So when you say that the future frightens in this British case, in the context where you have a Conservative pro-austerity government, would you say that the fact that you might lose the supervision and the command of Brussels and the Union might create an even worse and chaotic situation, in terms of Greece where there was a Left government whose promises probably excited us all?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the experience of a Left government whose promises excited me. So, there’s always a moment of transnational envy about such possibilities. Syriza’s promises excited me because it was the first moment in which the normative, hegemonic model of European austerity was challenged and made clear that political alternatives are possible. The strange combination of authoritarian and technocratic European and British austerity… just having that broken up was massively important. My problem in Britain is that the Left is currently, if I say the word ‘disorganised’ that’s a very gentle and polite version of the problems with left politics, and precisely in the moment when the Conservative party threatened to split over Brexit, there were massive internal disputes, a moment that might have been, a moment of possibility for the Left did not materialise. The Conservative party is regrouping, the populist-nationalist party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, has been massively successful, but they are now fragmenting too. But there is this crisis of politics it seems to me. And that’s about the crisis of the party form, and a crisis of representation, a crisis of attachment. But that’s both a moment of possibility and a moment of great danger. Those moments tend, historically in Britain, to be resolved in more conservative, more authoritarian terms. And when the long drawn-out failures and crises of neo-liberalism, the detachment from Europe, the disaffection from political parties, and the global flows of migration which my country tries to resist furiously… that looks like what my teacher used to call ‘a conjuncture’, in which many different forces, contradictions, antagonisms come together and they are moments of possibility and moments of great danger. I’m a pessimist about the United Kingdom.

Photo: Mirela Šavrljuga

I heard some news saying that the popularity of the Labour party is on the rise. Do you think they are capitalising on this situation?

I think it’s why one of the elements of the crisis is the crisis of the party form. So, I do think the Left in and around the Labour party has mobilised, has expanded, has successfully engaged young people in particular in organised politics possibly for the first time. And I think Corbyn has been a powerful symbol. I think then there are two different problems. One is that we are now stuck with a massive struggle within the party, for the control over the party. And in past moments of crisis the Labour party split, and it confused British politics for a long time and I think there is a risk of the same happening. But there’s a question about how to translate mobilisation into the larger field of representative politics. And that’s always the problem for activist politics, which is if you are going to contest parliamentary how do you manage to keep both your feet on the ground, how do you maintain an activist, progressive, leftist politics, and mobilise a much broader base of popular forces. One of the reasons why Syriza was so interesting was because they did manage to for a while – for a while – to keep both feet on the ground.

The last thing you said reminds me of two other statements made by others two days ago. One of the speakers, I think from Catalonia, said that the state of mind of the Left is Fukuyamistic, that they accept this post-historical, post-political, post-ideological consensus and they do not dare to think or talk about alternatives. And one of the members of the Initiative for democratic socialism from Slovenia, Lev Centrih, said that until the moment in which we don’t dare to question some basic elements which make up capitalist political-economical system we will just have one Tsipras after another. In terms of Syriza’s failure, do you think that the battle can be won on the field of parliamentarism or with movements like DiEM25?

I wish I knew. And I hope that I’m not sufficiently arrogant to think that I’ve never been wrong. And one of the things that scare me within Left politics is that most of us believe that sounding certain is the most important thing we can do. Because there is a long history of viewing ambiguity, ambivalence, uncertainty as forms of weakness. I have an old Trotskyite friend who every time I said the word ‘ambivalence’ in his presence used to hit me on the head. And I think that’s a strain in Left politics. And so I think that certainly social-democratic parties across Europe have for the last 25-30 years mostly bought into the idea that you could be a nice version of neo-liberalism. A gentler, kinder, more sociable version of neo-liberalism. And that’s the long betrayal of the possibilities of the Left. And that’s why I think lots of Left parties have struggled to find an alternative footing, an alternative critical relationship and then it’s difficult to bring into the parliamentary popular politics questions about ‘realism’. Because for 30 or nearly 40 years neo-liberalism has defined realism. What is politically realistic means going with the global, going with global capital, becoming an investment-friendly place, lowering corporate taxation, all of those things. Do I think it’s challengeable on the terrain of popular politics? Yes, I do. I do because Syriza indicated a possibility. We often fail but we shouldn’t take failures as the definitive statements that it cannot be done. Podemos has been interesting in trying to build popular foundations for such things. The Labour party in Britain might, but it is so consumed by internal struggles that we won’t know for a long time. I think other places have versions of such possibilities. So, I won’t give up on possibilities because I am scared of the definitive statement which says ‘popular politics is not possible, we cannot win there’. But if we can’t win there what do we do? We become insurrectionary? It’s not such a great history in European politics, either. I mean, I don’t mean social-democracy does not have problems, but insurrectionary risings have not gone well. So, I remain open, if not optimistic.

Photo: Mirela Šavrljuga

During the breakfast you mentioned there are important parts of history which should not be lost. What are the things we need to keep reminding ourselves and others of in order to help our contemporary political struggles?

What a difficult question. If I could have three or four things, one would be the real significance of anti-fascist struggles through the 20th century for the formation of European politics and for the survival of European societies. And I think not just in as it were official revisionisms, of which there have been many, but in terms of keeping popular sensibilities and popular memories alive of what the alternative was and what it might have been without those struggles. It’s critically important. The second would be a history that shaped much of the middle of the 20th century, which is a history of market failure and why we developed public powers and capacities, public institutions, however compromised, however contradictory. There were reasons why we built welfare states, why we built public health systems, why we built public education, all those things were, in part, the consequences of market failure. The market could not deliver. And as we come back into a period of increasingly visible market failure, we should be telling that longer history about why the struggle to find collective, progressive alternatives has always been important for protecting people from the ravages, the viciousness of the market. For making better lives, for providing possibilities of – oh, this sounds grandly liberal – the possibilities of human development, rather than the narrow stunted growth that we currently have. All those things and one of them would be then the rich mixture of political inheritances that went into making those things up.

So we tend now, I think, to tell histories of the Left in terms of political parties and in terms of big ideologies. But actually, in the places I know, and in the places that people created alternatives, there are many, many currents that go to make up progressive movements that brought about progressive changes. And one of the histories that’s important is to remember all those little bits instead of thinking in big blocks. There’s a famous English, British historian called Edward Thompson, who talks about rescuing. He talks about it in terms of particular types of worker, about rescuing them from the massive condescension of history. The fact that we forget how these things were made up and we treat them as if they are the results of singular forces, singular blocks, and actually they were made up. And one of my favourite phrases for anything is that things are made up. Made up, both imagined, they are made up in your head, but they are also assembled, put together, brought together out of bits and pieces. And I guess remembering the past in that more complicated way would be good.

When you talk about these little pieces the first thing that comes to my mind is sort of a left critique of the Socialist culture of memory during Yugoslavia which argued that all of the state museums were ignoring the subject and the figure of the people, of the mass, and were stuck in the narrative of individual heroism, big ideologies, party and also the grand leader while failing to show the participation and mobilisation of the mass.

Yes, those exclusions matter and histories that don’t have the people in them are always disappointing, institutionalised, exclusive types of history. And they are glorifications in different ways. But then, we need to think about the categories of the people and the mass. Because I think the people are complicated and not simple. So, it’s a collective identity which is itself made up. If we talk about, what would the French say, the popular classes, the popular forces, you already get to a plural. So not the people in its singular, pure state. Britain is always more messy, multiple, plural, heterogenic, complicated and always socially and politically requiring the political work of joining together, making up. So, it’s not that the people sit there waiting to be found and discovered. The political work is to mobilise them together, together, and hope that they don’t just break apart into their different constituencies, fractions. And that looks like serious, difficult, hard political work and I am sure that the younger political generation will be more capable than mine was.


John Clarke

John Clarke

John Clarke is an Emeritus Professor at the UK’s Open University, where he worked for over 35 years before retiring. He undertook postgraduate work at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s before teaching and researching around a range of topics including welfare states, citizenship, public service reform and the impacts of managerialism and consumerism. He has recently been working on the politics and policies of Austerity.
Bartul Čović

Bartul Čović

Bartul Čović was born in Zagreb in 1996. He assisted in the organization of the past two Green Academies. His work has been featured in several non-profit media from ex-Yugoslav countries. He's a Sociology student at the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Philosophy.

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