Labour’s Love Lost

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

This week we talk about the Tory victory over Labour in the recent UK election, with David Runciman and Libby Watson. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.

We’re thinking about the transatlantic echoes we’re still hearing from Labour’s thunderous defeat in the recent UK election, after a political contest that was something like—but maybe not so much like—the dynamic shaping up here in the US. That’s the dynamic of nationalists versus socialists, which, as Bernie Sanders is a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, defines many of our political tensions.

What can we learn from Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s defeat? Or: can we learn anything? Did Brexit make the situation in the UK fundamentally different from the 2020 US electoral context? We spoke with David Runciman, of the Talking Politics podcast, and Libby Watson, a staff writer at The New Republic who focuses on the American left.

The US/UK parallels are numerous, but one difference between Corbyn and Sanders seems to be Corbyn’s focus on foreign policy, versus Sanders’s focus on healthcare and inequality. According to David Runciman, Corbyn’s emphasis on radical anti-imperialism did not match the emphasis of many working class voters who formerly voted Labour and ceased to do so in this election:

Someone leaked one of the campaigning memos given to these young campaigners who are going out trying to get out the vote for Corbyn, telling them, you know, if you meet one of the working class voters that used to be Labour and they want to shut the door in your face, keep talking and get a conversation going and start the conversation by ripping Tony Blair. That’s what it said. Take on Blair first.

Remind these people that we are no longer the party of Tony Blair.

Huge mistake.

So Blair is loathed and reviled by Corbyn supporters because of the Iraq war, but for the people that they lost, that’s not the issue anymore.

David Runciman.

Libby Watson tells us that the coverage of Corbyn was also a major factor: she described to us a false story of Corbyn stealing a sandwich from veterans, for instance, and other myths about his lack of patriotism.

Read: George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicorn”

George Orwell became a surprise guest star on the show this week, in spirit. As we thought about the fight between socialism and right-wing nationalism, we remembered Orwell’s classic essay on the subject, “The Lion and the Unicorn,” where he makes the argument codified by the slogan “socialism or barbarism.” He wrote the essay during World War II, and he indicted capitalism for worsening the class distinctions that provided scaffolding for fascism. Orwell thought that fascism’s rise could prompt the English to recognize a need for a new social organization altogether, because:

the professional optimists had to admit that there was something wrong. It was a great step forward. From that time onwards the ghastly job of trying to convince artificially stupefied people that a planned economy might be better than a free-for-all in which the worst man wins — that job will never be quite so ghastly again.

His is an argument against capitalism and fascistic nationalism. Fascism as seen in Nazi Germany, Orwell writes, “is a form of capitalism that borrows from Socialism just such features as will make it efficient for war purposes.” Germany’s fascist nationalism and capitalism, for Orwell, are systems in which “the worst man wins.” Democratic socialism, on the other hand, would mobilize people toward “equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate)” as well as “political democracy.”

But in the UK election, voters chose nationalism over Democratic Socialism. Will the US do things differently?

So much of this long essay is worth quoting. Considering the the historical turn England is taking, Orwell reminds you what’s special about the place.

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids hiking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning — all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

Listen: Maggie Nelson on Otherppl

You probably know Maggie Nelson’s masterpiece The Argonauts, but if you don’t, you should acquaint yourself with it, then listen to her on Brad Listi’s podcast. Their conversation opens with Nelson reading her poem “What Is It?”, which begins with a consideration of garbage and leads into encounters with mysterious people. We’re all, similarly, wondering how to make our way through figurative and literal garbage, and so we all have an intuitive connection to this poem.

Brad Listi has a talent for getting writers at their most colloquial and thoughtfully casual; listening to this interview, then, brings you to so many different aspects of Nelson’s wide-ranging, critically imaginative thinking.

Coming up: Ben Lerner

Speaking of imaginatively, politically savvy writers who find literary potential in their own experiences: this holiday week you’ll be able to hear our podcast interview with Ben Lerner, author of the trilogy of autobiographical fictions that capture some of the horror and humor of the 2010s: Leaving the Atocha Station, 10:04, and The Topeka School (published this year).

Adam and Ben.

OS producer Adam Colman did the interview, largely about The Topeka School, which is leading lots of the end-of-the-year best book lists. But they talked about other novels by Lerner—it helped that Adam has written his own book about Lerner’s fiction:

Adam’s book.

It’s a conversation about the perilous language of our politics, the way literary patterns emanate from a book and through its readers, and the role of art in critical thinking. Above all, it’s a conversation about the electric charge you get when you’ve read something that makes you feel alive.

Watch: Back to the Future

If the upcoming interview with Ben Lerner makes you want to read or re-read his novels, you could go to 10:04, in which case you might also want to watch the Robert Zemeckis movie, Back to the Future, which anchors some of the novel’s contemplations and which inspired the book’s title. In 10:04, Lerner’s narrator—there, he’s named Ben—reflects upon the Zemeckis film while describing a capacious sense of time and history, in which past and present and future merge, in which we recognize in our disappointing actual world other ways of thinking about time, history, and futurity.

For New Years Week: Johnny Hodges

We’re bringing in the OS New Year with an hour-long appreciation of one of Chris’ favorite musicians, the great alto saxophone player in Duke Ellington’s big band. This one will be a treat!

This Week’s Ephemeral Library

Matt Seaton on “The Strange Death of Social-Democratic England.” Colm Tóibín on Elton John. Rivka Galchen on the The Case of the Angry Daughter. Greta Gerwig on the Twin Adventures of Filmmaking and Motherhood. You Don’t Know Bernie Sanders.

We’re taking a newsie break for the holidays. Next week is a re-run: Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism.

Have a wonderful winter holiday, Open Sourcerers; please think of us in your end-of-the-year giving; we’re an independent project and we depend on the support of listeners to keep our ship afloat.

We’ll see you in 2020; that’s gonna be a biggie. Send us (info@radioopensource.org) ideas for shows we should tackle and people you’d like to hear from.

-The OS parliamentarians

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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

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