Centrism has risen! Joe Biden and Keir Starmer are leading the Left back to the future, to the glories of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
At least, that seems to be the script. The rollback of more recent radicalism is in full swing. Biden not only defeated Donald Trump to win the US presidency, he also, and just as importantly from the point of view of the world order, saw off Bernie Sanders en route.
Keir Starmer has not, of course, won a general election yet, but he has set about dispatching his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour left with an energy he has not noticeably expended in pursuit of any other political objective.
But this wave of the center-left lacks the dynamism of its predecessors. The days of rock star centrist charisma are long gone, replaced by an enfeebled veteran political insider and a decent-but-dull lawyer, less wave of the future than a low vibration reaching earth from a long-dead star.
Whether dabbing rouge on the ideological corpse of the Third Way is enough to grapple with the global COVID-19 crisis, a crisis which has exposed everything rotten in the world that neoliberalism made, is open to question. It may, however, work better than governance by the incompetent and narcissistic, as has been offered by right-wing populists.
Between Biden and Trump, or Starmer and Johnson, the choice is relatively easy, if profoundly uninspiring. The wind which centrism finds inflating its sails today is not the bracing breeze of new ideas but the noxious gales of reaction. The centrists promise not to make things better, but to prevent them getting much worse.
The Center and the World
But in one critical respect, the good ship moderation is sailing into stormy waters. On both sides of the pond, the new top dogs of the center-left are inching back toward the bile of their predecessors in international politics. President Biden has chosen a foreign policy team heavily invested in the liberal interventionism of the Clinton-Obama administrations, with the additional potency of a great power rivalry against China.
And over here, the Starmer leadership seems to be shuffling increasingly in the direction of a regurgitated Blairite foreign policy. His appointee as shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, has pivoted to an aggressive bipartisanship in relation to China and Russia, adding a couple of logs to the fires of the new cold war being stoked from Washington.
She also blessed with her presence the launch of A Progressive Foreign Policy for New Times, a pamphlet published by two academics — Harry Pitts and Paul Thompson — under the rubric of Open Labour. The main thrust of their argument is an injunction for Labour to retreat from (or move beyond, they would say) the foreign policy outlook of the Corbyn era.
“The ‘two-campist’ anti-imperialism of the recent Labour leadership,” it states, “has little to offer any future progressive foreign policy…. It is thus the intellectual and organisational remnants of Corbynism that need to be challenged in order to resurrect an ethical and internationalist foreign policy for new times.”
The Open Labour pamphlet helpfully reminds us that Owen Smith, Corbyn’s challenger in 2016, upheld an “internationalist tradition of intervention.” If we seek a monument to that concept, we need only look around us.
In Afghanistan, a nearly twenty-year war might finally be in sight of winding down, with the Taliban substantially undefeated. NATO has brought neither peace nor security to that country.
Iraq remains in ruins, with entrenched sectarian divisions and a political system that only functions sporadically for any purpose beyond the distribution of spoils. Increasingly the country serves as a battleground for competing US and Iranian interests.
The NATO attack on Libya, a mainly Anglo-French aggression given a simulacrum of United Nations approval via a deceitful resolution and a war supported by Labour at the time, has left that country devastated and divided, a site of both a refugee crisis and continuing great-power tussles for influence and resources but devoid of effective government.
In Syria, the sustained Western interference in the civil war, alongside similar interventions by Russia, Turkey, and a range of Arab powers, has brought the country to a level of destruction and collapse which, as in Iraq and Libya, generations will be required to overcome. Despicable as the Assad regime is, there was clearly no liberal democracy to be found in the Islamist-led opposition of recent years.
Yemen represents a humanitarian catastrophe with millions facing starvation as a result of intervention in a civil war by Saudi Arabia and the UAE — armed and given diplomatic, political, and logistical support by Britain.
Pre-Corbyn, all of these wars were a subject of bipartisan consensus, between the two front benches at least, Syria 2013 being a limited exception. Nor was the situation different in the United States — the main lines of post–Cold War foreign policy, from Clinton blowing up a medicine factory in Sudan to divert from the Monica Lewinsky case through to Bush’s wars and Obama’s prodigious use of drones for military attacks, as well as his military “pivot to Asia,” were not disputed by the Democrat or Republican leaderships.
In the international arena, Corbyn and Sanders actually represented the common sense of our times. They opposed a policy that has so manifestly failed by every metric, including on its own terms; a policy that has also generated a storm of blowback, not least in terms of a rampant Islamophobia which has in turn helped power the ascendancy of right-wing populism.
But here we are again. To give the Open Labour report a still firmer official imprimatur, it was immediately endorsed by Wayne David, Labour MP for Caerphilly and, moreover, the shadow minister for the Middle East and North Africa. Let no one say Starmer lacks a sense of humor. It can only be some sort of a joke to give that particular post to an MP who was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War, of the bombing of Libya, and of military intervention in Syria. It would be hard for the Labour leader to send a clearer signal as to his direction, his campaign pledge to oppose “illegal wars” notwithstanding.
David’s main demand, unsurprisingly, is that Labour drop the “obsession with anti-imperialism” he associates with the Corbyn leadership. It is worth noting in passing that no Labour politician would suggest that the party abandon an obsession with anti-racism, or anti-fascism, or hostility to slavery, to name just three excrescences of imperialism. But imperialism itself — well, that’s a different story.
In fact, Labour is menaced more by the obsession with imperialism promoted by Wayne David and others. They chafe against “anti-imperialism” because they do like a bit of imperial swaggering, costumed in appropriate liberal clothing. That is not new. Imperialism and right-wing social democracy have long been conjoined, as a review of the Labour Party’s record over the last century surely shows.
So lurid was Tony Blair’s misbehavior in this respect that many have succumbed to the error of seeing him as an aberration. In fact, he sat squarely in a tradition which includes MacDonald, Attlee, Bevin, Wilson, and Healey, inter an awful lot of alia. Millions around the world have experienced our Labour governments as agents of violence and dispossession. Labour has been home to better traditions too, of course, and we saw them in recent years, but unfortunately they have never set the tone for the party in government.
This is part of the “mainstream” Starmer wants the Labour Party to rejoin. However, mainstreams move, and this one is out of joint with the times. Black Lives Matter has reminded us that while it is right to tear down the statues of Edward Colston and other slave-traders, it is even better to understand that British society stands on that same plinth. Very few in Asia, Africa, or the Middle East would damn Britain for a surfeit of anti-imperialism, or the Labour Party for excessive concern for it.
Liberal imperialism has been woven into democratic politics from the high days of nineteenth-century Empire, resting as it does on assumptions of British exceptionalism and moral superiority as well as the baser impulses for the acquisition of loot. To this day, British political economy is to a significant extent conditioned by the consequences of the country’s century of global hegemony.
That is not to say that Blair introduced no novelties — perhaps the main one was his willingness to ignore international law and set aside the procedures of the United Nations, both of which being pillars that social democracy had previously tended to lean heavily on. His liberal interventionism was unbound by such considerations.
But Corbyn’s break from this imperial tradition represented the most significant departure from “the norm,” the greatest rupture with the past record of Labour governments. For this he was loathed by the right wing in the PLP and openly condemned by alumni of the securitocracy — most impertinently (and impenitently) by Richard Dearlove, MI6 boss at the time of secret intelligence’s Iraq triumph.
It got to the point where some of Corbyn’s closest associates and sympathetic commentators felt the battle was not worth fighting, and that radicalism should be exclusively concentrated on domestic economic and social policies. “Give the generals what they want” was the inscription on that particular white flag.
Naturally, political life does not fall into such easily separable compartments, least of all in a world shaped by more than thirty years of uninhibited capitalist globalization. Count the ways in which imperialism impacts at home as well as abroad:
It is commonplace to deplore the disproportionate power of the City of London in Britain’s economy — a hypertrophied financial sector servicing global capital far more than domestic industry and shaping the British state’s willingness to support intervention anywhere necessary to maintain a world of unimpeded capital flows. We have a state heavily invested in capitalist globalization and the force structures underpinning it — at the expense of servicing social need.
Likewise, the Left is concerned with the huge and corrupting influence of the arms sector on government. Making weaponry to be sold to foreign regimes, including the least savory, remains a considerable share of our manufacturing industry, distorting diplomacy and industrial strategy alike — as well as Labour’s own policies, since trade unions will unavoidably prioritize the protection of their members’ skilled jobs in an economy with few alternatives.
The same point could be made in relation to the giant oil monopolies, the quintessential imperial industry. If two industrial (as opposed to finance sector) companies enjoyed more privileged access to Blair’s Downing Street than any others, they were British Aerospace and British Petroleum.
Then there is racism, and the resurgent struggle against it, the latter being probably the only welcome development of 2020 in terms of mass politics. It would take the truly ignorant to separate Black Lives Matter and Islamophobia from the recurring global divisions engendered by imperialism, both historic and contemporary.
The refugee crisis, driven as it is either by Western wars of intervention or gross poverty and resource despoliation, cannot be addressed without challenging global power relationships, which at present still pivot on the domination of the United States and its allies. Nor, of course, can climate change. So in sum — you may not be interested in imperialism, but imperialism is certainly interested in you, as Trotsky almost said.
The new centrist bipartisanship cannot replicate the old. The imperial consensus of the recent past was shaped by the end of Soviet power and the prospect it opened for a world commanded by unilateral US hegemony — the unipolar planet, with Britain as Washington’s most reliable lieutenant, the policy which attained its apogee under Bush and Blair.
That ship has now sailed. The nightmare Paul Wolfowitz and the other denizens of the Project for the New American Century feared most — the rise of other powers willing and able to contest US domination in various parts of the world — has come to pass. Russia has extended its power in both the post-Soviet space and the Middle East; Turkey now tries to carve out its own sphere of influence from Libya to Azerbaijan by way of Cyprus. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia utilize sectarian ideologies to strengthen their positions.
Above all, China has risen to a position where economically and diplomatically it is a strategic challenger to the United States. It has “stood up,” in the words of Mao Zedong proclaiming the People’s Republic in 1949, to the point where it can look the global hegemon in the eye. Although it must be said that Beijing has precisely one base for its armed forces outside its own territory, compared to the Pentagon’s more than eight hundred in seventy countries.
Some of this was likely inevitable, including China’s ascent. The overweening power of the United States post-1991 was an historical anomaly that could not endure indefinitely. But the reemergence of a multipolar world has doubtless been expedited by the United States’ wanton abuse of its unipolar moment in Iraq and by the collapse of the attraction of the Washington model of deregulated neoliberal economics from 2008 onward.
So Biden and Starmer face a different world than their predecessors of twenty years ago, who focused above all on trying to establish a durable system of control in the Middle East and South Asia. They regarded Russia as finished business and China as gradually folding into Washington’s world order. The revamped bipartisan centrism now focuses on confronting China in a new cold war, with challenging Russia’s more fitful return from the political grave as a second front.
How should Labour respond? The conventional position is wrapped in the usual social-democratic swaddling about the need for Britain to be “outward-looking” and “engaged in the world,” helping to solve global problems. In practice, this could mean marching in lockstep with the interventionist Biden administration into new confrontations.
Of course, Britain should fully engage in efforts to arrest climate change and to support the restoration of the Iran nuclear accord. But the Corbyn-period perspective was more expansive. It aimed at disengaging Britain from the US hegemonic project and focus instead on dispute resolution, de-escalation of conflicts, and the reallocation of resources for poverty alleviation.
There was a pragmatic recognition that neither withdrawal from NATO nor unilateral nuclear disarmament were on the agenda, not least because party policy was quite otherwise, but it was a significant break with the status quo. Britain under Corbyn would have been a friend, rather than the sworn enemy, of movements for liberation and social justice around the world.
Over a longer term it would have reduced the power of the City of London and curbed the arms trade, two drivers of neo-imperial policy. It would have taken arms conversion seriously. It would not have assumed that Britain has a right and responsibility to intervene militarily where it wishes. International law and international cooperation would have been strengthened to an historic degree.
This remains a vastly popular program with Labour Party members. Yet Starmer and Nandy show signs of settling back into the comfortable grooves of transatlantic bipartisanship, a path that can only lead to more wars and more international injustice.