Corbyn's speech, and the end of melancholia
 
I.  When he wins, that's when his real problems will begin. He will be surrounded by enemies. The state, big business, the media, all the powerful institutions would want to stop him by one means or another. That was said from the floor at Momentum's extravaganza earlier this week. Activists nodded and murmured universal assent.

When he wins. This, if it was just complacency, if it reflected a readiness to sit on one's laurels, would be a disastrous attitude. But I don't think anyone in Labour is complacent, not for a second. It's about confidence, and readiness. 

James Forsythe, one of the Spectator's posher reactionaries, expresses just how shaken and appalled the Right are by this new confidence. This, indeed, partly accounts for the media's soap opera gasps at the blue-sky war-gaming for future confrontations with the capitalist class entertained by a Labour 'digital guru'. In the past, it would have been sniggers and sneers of contempt. But 'wargaming' for the worst in this context, is an expression of confidence.

And that confidence and admirable bolshiness was very clear in the speeches from the shadow chancellor and, now, the leader. The Tory counterattack, which involves the Prime Minister defending free market capitalism as "the greatest agent of human progress" in history, doesn't look wildly inspiring as a retort.

What did Corbyn's speech set out to do? It defined a 'new centre-ground', and declared that neoliberalism was broken. It set out a prospectus for a Labour victory. It pushed the boundaries further to the Left on all fronts. Consistent with his overall strategy and analysis, he has taken the opportunity of success to harden up his message. I'm not talking here about specific policies, but it is worth briefly pausing to examine the headline policy flagged up, and the response to it. It says a lot.

II.  This is a country where the effective slogan of the Right since the 1980s, has been "all power to the rentiers". The financial class and the landlord class have each benefited stupendously from the new, neoliberal growth model, predicated on debt, speculation and rationing in housing. The deliberate housing shortage has allowed prices and rents to soar stratospherically. Those who owned their houses could be co-opted into this since rising values gave them access to more borrowing, thus making up a little for the declining share of national wealth going to labour.

That model, as Corbyn rightly said, is broken. While austerity strategies have worked to protect the financial system and keep it much as it was, it has resulted in a "crisis of legitimacy" for capitalism. And the national conversation following Grenfell exposed serious, grave and often lethal injustices in the housing system, at the expense of the poorest. This is not sustainable. So, Corbyn is hinting at going further than controls on rent increases, which appeared in the 2017 manifesto, and imposing an absolute cap, Berlin-style.

The response from many pundits to the issue of rent controls, which is a very popular policy opposed by almost no one, has always been, it can't work. It's a failure everywhere. At its worst, it will bring communist totalitarianism. It might trigger a crash in house prices, with the worst effects on the poorest mortgage-holders. At best, it will have potentially perverse effects, limiting the supply of rented accommodation just when the demand for it is rising, because private landlords keep their properties empty if they can't make enough money. 

If the boilerplate right-wing answer is no intervention on pain of despotism, the usual wonk answer is to demand some sort of satisfactory, carefully negotiated 'middle ground', with light and selective rent controls -- for example, controls on increases linked to longer tenancies, as supported by Shelter, but no absolute cap on the initial rent. In fact, Shelter's rationale for opposing absolute rent controls is fairly similar to the free market rationale for opposing any controls: it will 'force' landlords to sell up since they will make more money that way.

What all of this discussion has in common is that it is completely deferential to the status quo, and thus effectively to the class interests of landlords. Shelter presumes "the absence of a much larger supply of council and social housing". But that larger supply is exactly what Labour proposes to build. It may not become immediately available, but that means a rent controls policy might need to be carefully graduated, not that it isn't feasible.

Another thing that the discussion has in common is that it is unconsciously structured around a figure of the landlord as an individual 'entrepreneur', a rational actor driven by short-term market pressures. This group of people exists. In 2016, it was estimated that there were 1.75 million private landlords. But increasingly, the landlord is a corporation. About a fifth of all rented properties in the UK are owned by companies, often holding corporations for investors and oligarchs. In London that figure rises to 27 per cent. A fifth of all rented properties in the UK, going on 2014 figures, would be 1.72m, which would actually be closer to two fifths of the private rented market. And since corporations focus on acquiring properties to cater to the top-end, this has been a major source of gentrification. Unsurprisingly, it is the buy-to-let investors who are most threatened by Corbyn's plans.

All of this matters because treating landlord behaviour as individual market-based rationality obscures the extent to which it is also class-based. When landlords deliberately leave properties empty, rather than renting, in order to drive up prices through scarcity, it is a class strategy. When landlords deliberately leave land for development unused in order to keep prices high, this is a class strategy. One purpose of building a lot more council housing, and other forms of socially affordable housing, while also acquiring powers of compulsory purchase of unused land, would be to undercut scarcity strategies on the part of the landlord class.

In short, the policy mix of rent controls, land requisition, and council house-building, is classic Corbyn. It is not proposed as a technocratic policy instrument, but as a class strategy. That's what is meant when he says neoliberalism is broken: Labour no longer accepts the premises of that rentier class formation as natural, inevitable and inviolable.


III.  The most important thing about Corbyn's speech is, first, that it led from the left; and, second, that it staked everything on the grassroots, and on the greater involvement of activists. That will have to mean, in the future, making far greater process in democratising the Labour Party. It has to mean reclaiming policy and ideas from the discredited professional castes who are using to running these things.

Corbyn's strategy from the start has been an affront to the purveyors of an antiquated 'common sense'. Build support by defending left positions? Pin your hopes on the activists grassroots rather than the media? Attack capitalism? Criticise the 'war on terror' just after a terrorist attack? How will that play in Nuneaton?

The answer from the centre and right has always been the same: this can never work. Non-voters won't turn out. The young are too shiftless and affectless to bother. The poor are too selfish and decadent. The minority of radicalising activists will never shift the majority. The centre of political gravity is the middle ground, where the concerns middle class voters in a few swing constituencies determine the political future.

This was dogma, but it was one predicated on a real historical experience. For decades, that is exactly how the political system had worked, a trend accelerating after 2000. Why? I wrote, before the election, that the secession of millions of voters from the electoral system was "an expression of powerlessness and melancholia." The "melancholic subjectivity" of the disproportionately poor, unemployed and precarious non-voter could be detected in the way that they blamed themselves for what had been done to them: "a relentless self-punishment, corroborated every day in the news." 

One of the goals of the Corbyn leadership has been to give these constituencies a new political expression within the Labourist alliance, "and crucially break through the suffocating melancholic affects of internalised defeat, channel this deflected anger appropriately and enable disenfranchised people to experience their own potential collective power through a democratised Labour Party."


IV.  This, in fact, is exactly what is in the process of being achieved. It feels like a depression lifting; but is it actually a depression lifting? Is the melancholia thawing?

The answer to this depends on how the question is posed. Why does collective organisation matter? Because we don't know everything. And because there is a lot of what we do know that is unconscious. 

The political unconscious is resistant to change. It is attached to its symptoms -- even if they have to be self-medicated, or manifest as self-harm. What changes people is not being given the right message posed in just the right way. What changes popular subjectivity is action. It is habit. Collective organisation gives you a new set of habits, in which a new way of being, and a new desire, is formed.

And it is from that change that, crucially, a new, radical intellectuality is being formed. A new emphasis on grassroots organisation, as Ash Sarkar rightly says, has produced a fizzing demand for ideas at the base, for political argument conducted at a far higher level than the political class of this country is used to. This is history's retort to all the patronising insults about young people and their purported 'apathy'. But it is also the best response to the kinds of cynicism, viciousness and political insularity that has defined the online left at its worst. Lionel Trilling spoke of the "moral duty to be intelligent". We might, instead, speak of intelligence as a political duty, one that begins to discharged only in collective situations.

So, to this extent, the melancholic freeze on the left -- the combination of bad faith 'optimism' and abjection -- is beginning to yield. And, more broadly, the pervasive melancholia of the working class is starting to transmute into something else -- the emergency of a new, popular class subjectivity in the wake of Grenfell was widely remarked upon.

Of course, this is all terribly fragile. Labour hasn't even won yet and, as those activists incisively suggested, winning is when the real problems begin. 

The scale of social and trade union organisation is still far behind where it needs to be, to be anything like a rival to the venerable organisations of the ruling class. 

The development of new socialist ideas is still in its germinal phase, and a common sense about how to figure the twentieth century experience of Stalinism into our analysis has yet to emerge. 

The depth of conservatism and right-wing ideology in parts of the working class, the parts most in decline and most cut-off from the centres of the 'new economy', is considerable.

But there is movement and a direction of travel. There are the ideas, there is a sense of the enemy, and there is a war cry. The forces of capital, and those of reaction, have been dynamic for some time. Now our side is moving again.