In other circumstances John Smith’s unwavering class analysis of the linked themes of Brexit and Labour’s December defeat would have been in my January reads post. In the event, by the time it came to my attention I’d already decided on the murder of General Qasem Soleimani as organising principle for that month’s reads.
Here’s where I make good on the omission. I commend Smith’s piece for its analysis, grounded in a revolutionary’s understanding of the Labour Party, of Corbyn’s failure to deliver in the face of a wholly predictable response by Britain’s rulers to the threat he had posed.
I also recommend it for its analysis of Brexit itself. It serves as a vital corrective to starry eyed Remainers who consistently and absurdly confused the EU bankers’ club with what it pleased them to call ‘internationalism’. And to starry eyed Leavers who assumed, equally absurdly, that a Brexit led by BoJo and Farage, and driven by reaction, would somehow end well for Britain’s labour-sellers. It can’t and won’t, for reasons Smith sets out with commendable cogency.
But for my narrow purposes here, it’s this passage which interests me:
Since the 19th century, Britain’s plutocratic rulers have sought to bind workers into an imperialist alliance against the rest of the world … to pacify the working class and to secure the support of its trade union and political leaders for wars against insubordinate governments and insurgent peoples around the world. This imperialist social contract is the very essence of British social democracy, in both its left and right variants. Now, compelled by the depth of the capitalist crisis, Britain’s rulers are moving to dismantle this social contract, sending social democracy into a tailspin. (Emphasis added.)
Nils Melzer on the other hand invokes “the social contract” from the very different perspective of his role as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. In his interview with Republik of January 31 – a murderous system is being created before our eyes – he does not bring Smith’s depth and breadth of analysis to bear on the subject. Indeed, strictly speaking he’s not even referring to the same thing. But his focus on the arrogance of power, and its contempt for hard won legal principles in the persecution of Julian Assange, picks up where Smith leaves off. Britain’s rulers are indeed moving to dismantle the social contract.
For an entire decade [Assange] has been inundated with accusations that cannot be proven and are breaking him. And nobody is being held accountable. Nobody is taking responsibility. It marks an erosion of the social contract. We give countries power and delegate it to governments – but in return, they must be held accountable for how they exercise that power. (Emphasis added.)
Melzer’s perspective could hardly be further removed from Smith’s marxist-leninist take on the severe limitations (I’m being kind here) of social democracy and an oxymoronic ‘parliamentary socialism’. For Smith the social contract is rooted materially and historically in a specific phase of British capitalism which, for our ruling class, has passed its sell by date. But its dismantling, a project begun half heartedly by Callaghan and in earnest by Thatcher, is far from complete.
Melzer by contrast is an old school liberal, an honest man of solidly establishment credentials whose idealist grasp of the social contract is not framed in class terms but as milestone in the faltering, two-steps-forward-one-step-back march of humanity to ever more civilised values.
This limited perspective, and Melzer’s initial reluctance to take on the Assange case as part of his wider UN brief, make his belated disquiet the more eloquent and credible. For the avowed liberals and socialists who should have leapt to brave Assange’s defence from the start, but ran for cover or stuck their heads in the sand the moment the authorities joined forces with ‘liberal’ media to cry “rape” and trash his reputation, Melzer’s interview may be seen as a first step on the road to truth.
What Melzer is groping his way towards, and Smith is in no doubt of, is that the velvet glove of parliamentary democracy – another oxymoron, though a more sophisticated one – is gradually being peeled away as capitalism’s crises deepen. Those who’ve troubled to look hard into the nature of power in the West have always known that when the needs of Profit clash, as sooner or later they must, with those of an ‘open society’, the latter will be swept aside by our rulers as rapidly as depth of crisis necessitates, and balance of class forces allows.
Which is to say very rapidly indeed. Witness the year on year erosion of civil liberties and union powers on the one hand, manufactured consent to war in the middle east and Orwellian hatred of Eastasia on the other. All within a context of surveillance by a state whose capacities would be the envy of Stalin or Hitler. We are spied on, photographed and filmed scores of times each day; our movements minutely traceable through our cell phones, and use of plastic for even the smallest and most casual of purchases. But, hey, that’s OK. “We” are the good guys!
Just like in Winston Smith’s Oceania.
I can’t guarantee life will get easier once you grasp that the world is run by criminals: some very smart, some less so, but all made morally insane by their self-serving belief that the best of all possible worlds, to be defended at all costs, just happens to be the one that brings staggering wealth to the few while millions starve … high-tech wars are a lucrative constant … our planet is plundered through a systemic addiction to ‘growth’ … and even the West’s workers are learning to live with levels of insecurity, at the workplace and in a shrinking welfare state, the leaders of a credulous Labour movement had thought banished for good.
In fact I can pretty much guarantee life will get harder once you grasp this truth, and have had time to digest in full its implications. You’ll have to live with greater levels of stress and anger. Fear too. The Slough of Despond will often beckon and you’ll lose friends (though new ones will appear). But look on the bright side. At least you’ll be seeing straight.
That’s got to be worth something, surely.