Dagenham dispatches

Jon Cruddas – The Dignity of Labour (Polity)

Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s book begins with what we already know: that the Labour Party has lost it so badly it risks becoming a party of urbanistas, university graduates and the retired. A lifestyle choice, not a way of life. Maybe it already is. Cruddas sees the threat the Tories pose clearly. He sees that the Red Wall seats may all fall to them. Via a wicked Schumpeter quote, Cruddas suggests Blairism was about the production of votes, just as the commodity is about the production of surplus-value. The current decline of Labour, then, began all the way back in 1997.

For books, Cruddas picks two key sources early on: James Bloodworth, for the micro, close observation of working class life; for the macro-theoretical-intellectual, Michael Sandel. The two, he takes care to point out, need to be read in conjunction with each other, or brought together.

He’d make a good teacher, Cruddas. He anticipates your questions as he builds his argument. He also picks two films as examples, Made in Dagenham and Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. Both were filmed in the same place and released around the same time. Both of them depict the polar states of Cruddas’s constituency, Dagenham. The first – although far too nostalgic – depicts labour on the rise, people power winning battles and changing lives in the late 1960s; the second is a post-industrial picture of a generation lost to brutal nihilism. It came out one year after 2008.

In Manchester, the one party state is Labour. It has been interesting to observe the complete tanking of the Liverpool Labour Council across the way under sleaze allegations, amazingly with Derek Hatton still involved. Yet in Manchester, it seems the game has been kept just the right side of legally corrupt – hook or crook – at the same time as it has been morally indefensible for an age. Manchester seems to be an eye at the centre of the current swirling vortex of political change. Labour holds, its space is clear, but really, I often think, it probably shouldn’t be. Maybe it won’t be for long. I have all of this in my head, all the way through this book.

Cruddas though, keeps it close to Dagenham and the politics and spirit of labour. Cruddas was not convinced by the luxury automated communism moment. Nor was I. Expecting the means of production to suddenly serve us seemed like the zenith of Neoleft evanglism, 2017-style. Perhaps this was the giddy upside of the delayed millenarianism of the early 21st century, the dusty downside being the anti-vaxx movement currently filling city squares with a few hundred lost souls. As with much during that period, I think Corbynism was only casually related to it. Cruddas doesn’t buy Paul Mason’s riffs either, even though he likes Paul Mason. I feel exactly the same.

Cruddas understands Marx properly. His criticisms of the Bastanis of the Party are rooted in his understanding of the longer history of technological determinism. A new wave of AI is coming though, for sure, and Labour, both the party and the workers, are completely unprepared for it. At the very best the new wave will contain impossible to foresee outcomes, as happened after the euphoric wave of Californian new tech, leading to Web 2.0. At its worst, and Cruddas seems to rank the possibility, these mad leftist evangelisms are leaving a door ajar for the right to push wide open.

Cruddas then spends the bulk of the book on the history of work and a brilliant chapter on the return to Marx (and how). In Cruddas’s reading, the new left turn peaking in 2017 is less Corbynista than Negrista. It is rooted in operaismo, Italian Marxism. This is, I think, more a critique of the excesses of Momentum hubris, but Cruddas’s critique of the ideas – wherever they lie – is absolutely solid.

Basically, Marx’s labour theory of value has, at various times, been rejected or misunderstood. Currently, Marx’s fragment on machines is being used to suggest a technological determinist version of Marxism, which is really more easily found in David Ricardo. This fragment of Marx from the Grundrisse suggests that automation could write labour out of the picture, allowing it to organise. Hence it is technologically deterministic as well as potentially (in the mouths of its proselytizers, Cruddas is not among them) revolutionary. A networked youth is seen as rolling out past dying industries and into the bright future of post-work.

I thought Hardt and Negri’s Empire was way over the top when I read it, not long after it came out. I then sat and listened to Negri’s sheer abstractions at Fly Utopia, at Transmediale, in Berlin, in 2004. I dropped all interest in his grander theories there and then, exactly when everyone around me got giddy. The networked horizontal revolutions we actually saw were the Arab Spring and we know what happened to them. Do we have to repeat a western european workplace version of those mistakes before the penny drops?

I am acutely conscious, though, throughout these sections, how much of Cruddas’s take on the issue is home territory for me, and how much this ‘me’ that I call a home is not the rest of the world; it isn’t even the rest of the left in England. At this point I wonder if we are all like the strange tribes looking awry at the Roman legions, already arrived, with their advanced techne, from the safety of a flooded marsh. Clinging on to traditions that we fully inhabit, but which have no currency in the new world forming outside ourselves.

But Cruddas has things to say here. Possibilities for the Labour Party to save itself. Take the concern about borders seriously, for instance. Elsewhere, he describes how a party memo about appearing in front of union jacks is missing the point, but the real underlying concerns must be listened to. I get the sense of a man well-entrenched in the working classes. A big part of the problem, as he knows, is those in the Labour Party who cannot face the fact of the nativist turn in the white post-industrial voter.

Cruddas faces it, yet he doesn’t write a new Blue Labour manifesto either. He wants to get at the essence of work and its concerns. When Darwin described life he often described its being there and how it was there as one thing. I also think about that a lot when reading this book. ‘If it is there, it is working’, the ‘how’ it is there and it working is one. This applies to the knowledge worker as much as to pond life, yet the life form aspect – in the case of humans that is the social form – of work is being lost. The Labour party, the clue is in the name, lost its hold on the idea some time ago.

This is the most grounded book on Labour I have read in a very long time. Both the party and ‘work’. But it seems to be delivered by a man on his way to fallow, and that actually gives it an additional urgency. We should listen to Cruddas because he is way ahead of us. Not because he’s an intellectual – although he most definitely is one – but because he’s been on the ground where the temperature counts for a long time. He was mired in battles with ‘populism’ well before those battles went global and mainstream. As he reminds us, in 2010 Nick Griffin waited on the vote count, fully expecting the BNP to take over Dagenham Council. Cruddas has been there and done it.

A Guardian article has Cruddas ready to retire and move to a house he had built in West Ireland. Out of England. That, I have thought for some time, is probably the only real way to avoid England’s final implosion into a sort of deregulated madland. A weird antique, served by a shattered, powerless underclass. The real hit of COVID to the economy is yet to come. Money is worth next to nothing. Inflation could cause catastrophe. Brexit is also yet to be felt fully.

Not fully automated luxury communism but malfunctioning manual abject capitalism.

There’s only so much you can do. No point hanging on in a place, shielded by nothing more than evangelism. I suppose people develop an evangelical outlook because they have no choice but to live there. I get the sense that Cruddas has a fairly hard sense of reality. And choices. What is quite worrying to face is that this book feels like a parting shot, rather than an opening salvo. I fear Labour will fall further before it rises again, if it ever does.

Cruddas sees that Labour’s opportunities have been squandered. The thing New Labour embraced, globalisation – despite sounding completely ‘pan’ – had a pronounced American character, I often think. That embrace has turned into a shove of rejection. Slablike community and industry based demographics used to deliver swathes of votes: Labour as a whole way of life, to paraphrase Raymond Williams.

Now the globalised individual is atomised and imagines itself free to ‘express’ freedom US-style via the polling booth. Sadly, the atoms are all quite confidently caught in the great digital scientist’s cloud chamber. They still deliver slablike votes, because the chamber is essentially owned by the right.

Viewed through most philosophies except the giant inflated gasbag of popular liberalism, your liberty without limits has always been a chimera. And ‘the people’ have been disenfranchised by liberal economics, which has given capitalist greed an unbroken series of green lights and a fuel-injection by bailing it out in 2008. Cruddas doesn’t fudge the issue. The problem is that everyone has also been disabused of the notion of a competent capitalist elite, and yet still votes for it. In the worst cases they imagine they are rebel voters, casting for anti-elite heroes.

Cruddas understands that there is no cosmic law of justice that will simply reverse this situation because we know it to be bad. He sees some hope in the pandemic, that our bare conditions have been revealed, briefly. But I see in the news today that 70% of firms bailed out by government money are firing and rehiring. It is obvious that capitalism is ethically void, but that observation will not stop it ruling us all until we run off the cliff. The sleaze is right on the surface and the masses will vote for it.

But this book is a crucial, fixed marker in a political fog. Buy it and hold on to it.

Steve Hanson

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