Why Jeremy Corbyn's 'rigged system' is a template for antisemitism

Academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts argue the Labour leader's rhetorical weapon of choice has troubling resonances

January 17, 2019 14:35

At the end of 2016, with his leadership floundering, it was reported that Jeremy Corbyn intended to take inspiration from the newly-elected Donald Trump, and cast himself as “the leader of a populist, anti-establishment movement”. The fruits of this new strategy were soon apparent in Mr Corbyn’s speeches, in which he began to denounce British capitalism as a “rigged system” — a phrase Mr Trump had lifted from his Democrat rival, Bernie Sanders.

Mr Corbyn argued this system had been “set up by the wealth extractors for the wealth extractors”, and pinned the blame for Britain’s travails on a “morally bankrupt” elite who “extract wealth from the pockets ordinary working people” by means of a corrupt “racket”. 

The “rigged system” trope has now been honed into Mr Corbyn’s rhetorical weapon of choice. There is no doubt that this campaign strategy of pitting “ordinary working people” against a corrupt and unproductive “elite” has proved a huge success.

This creation of a division between a productive “us” and a morally-compromised “them” is the sine qua non of populist politics, on both right and left, and it has borne significant electoral fruit.

The rampant inequality of income and wealth Mr Corbyn rightly highlights needs tackling. But in our recent book, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, we use the work of critical theorists like Moishe Postone and David Hirsh to argue that the depiction of capitalism as a “rigged system” imposed by a minority of “wealth extractors” on “the many” carries potentially troubling resonances.

Pushed to its limits, such a depiction can nurture the development of an antisemitic worldview.

This is by no means inevitable. We do not claim that, in itself, the phrase “for the many not the few” — which features in the revised Clause IV instituted by Tony Blair — is antisemitic, latently or otherwise. Rather, we argue that when a political movement is built around the notion of an all-powerful elite extracting wealth from an innocent productive people, the potential is there to create an environment where antisemitic perspectives are legitimised.

This is not to condemn the left in its entirety. As Robert Fine and Philip Spencer have shown, despite the persistence of a distinctive form of left-wing antisemitism, the most cogent critiques of antisemitism have historically come from the left. By critiquing notions of the “rigged system”, or “the people” against the “elite”, our concern is to defend rather than denigrate the possibility of an effective anti-capitalist politics.

Our critique stems from a fundamentally different understanding of capitalism. In our view, capitalism is not a monolithic system consciously designed and covertly imposed by one group — be it the “capitalist class”, the “bourgeoisie” or the “elite” — upon another, whether that is the “workers” or “the people”. 

Capitalism is a specific historical form taken by human social relations. It compels everyone — rich and poor — to behave in certain ways in order to survive, even whilst one group benefits at the other’s expense. Companies have to compete to make a profit in order to avoid going bankrupt. This is a compulsion, not a choice. Workers have to go to work in order to earn a wage to buy the things they need. We have no other option. 

There is no doubt that the former enjoy a better time of it than the latter. Indeed, inequality — in Marxist terms, the result of the capitalist’s exploitation of the worker — is an unavoidable consequence of the way capitalist labour is organised. Exploitation is not a moral failing on behalf of a business owner, or a form of robbery. It is systemic. Even the nicest, fairest capitalist exploits their workers. 

But capitalism is more than mere exploitation. The compulsion to continually produce profit is beyond the control of any individual or institution, no matter how much money or power they have, and has a dynamic of its own which constantly forces both capitalists and workers to adapt to its changing demands at a given time in order to survive. As Marx put it, capital is an intangible yet mighty force that “works behind the backs” of those who live under its sway.

The “rigged system” conceit is not just a neat rhetorical trick adopted for electoral gain, but a lens through which some on the left and right view this dynamic, with different results. 

Through the prism of the “rigged system”, this ongoing process of political and economic transformation is explained solely by the machinations of powerful groups. 

For example, a scheming elite, we are led to believe, callously destroyed the old Keynesian system of “real” industrial production in order to construct an international financial system that, producing nothing, merely sucked wealth away from workers. The 2008 financial crash is seen as the inevitable consequence of allowing the unproductive few to gain the upper hand over the productive many. 

From this perspective, capitalist crises, poverty and inequality are wholly avoidable phenomena. They are the result of an immoral minority wilfully using the power of money, financial trickery and ideology to undermine — or, indeed, “rig” — a society based on “real” production which would otherwise work to the benefit of all. 

This often comes combined with a mechanical “anti-imperialism” which regards the foreign policy of the US and its allies, particularly Israel, as bearing responsibility for the negative effects of capitalist development around the world. 

Whilst legitimate criticism of particular Israeli governments or policies towards Palestine circumvents such short-circuits, at their worst, conspiracist conflations of anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism repeat the “rigged system” motif on a geopolitical level, with Israel the malign and scheming outsider.

We do not deny that nations assert themselves to wield influence, nor do we deny the role of individual politicians and thinkers in the construction of neoliberalism. We recognise the USA’s historic support for oppressive regimes, and that the pre-2008 financial sector was no paragon of virtue. But we do not think that the crisis and misery of capitalist development can be explained merely by reference to individuals, groups or states maliciously intervening in a system which would otherwise function smoothly. 

Rather these actions must be placed in the context of the dynamic of capital as a whole, out of the control of any particular actor, group or state. Poverty, inequality and crises are the result of the internal contradictions of this form of society. This is not to say that there are not better or worse ways of managing these problems. It is merely to recognise that the problems themselves are not solely the product of the secretive machinations of malevolent outsiders. Were capitalism really a conspiracy, it would be a lot simpler to confront. 

Today, a populist politics which pits a productive “us” against a morally corrupt “them” is unable to grasp the internal contradictions of capitalism. It attributes the results of the uncontrollable dynamic of capital to the conscious actions of bad people, regarding social conflict as imposed on society from outside rather than emerging from within. This feeds a paranoid and conspiratorial mindset, on left and right alike, which continually searches for individuals and groups who can be blamed for the current malaise. 
Such a worldview does not necessarily lead to antisemitism. Nor does it necessarily follow from the recognition that the economic interests of rich and powerful people diverge from those of workers. 

But some forms of anti-capitalism see poverty, inequality and exploitation as the result of an external imposition rather than a compulsion internal to the system itself. Given the optimum conditions, this incubates a worldview hardwired into antisemitic conspiracies for centuries, whereby the shadowy omnipotent power of a small elite holds back the development of an otherwise good society.

The idea that identifying as an anti-racist inoculates leftists from the power of this narrative is a fallacy. As both Mr Postone and Mr Hirsh have argued, it is because antisemitism is often presented as an emancipatory response to oppression that it is so seductive. This pseudo-emancipatory character is one reason why allegations of antisemitism on the left are routinely dismissed as right-wing “smears”.

We are in no doubt that Labour’s domestic agenda would alleviate many of the worst cruelties imposed by nearly a decade of Tory-led administrations. Labour is producing innovative and sophisticated policies on corporate governance, public ownership and workplace democracy. But it is unwise to claim that these reforms can halt the crisis-ridden development of capital, apprehending in neither thought nor practice the contradictions at the core of capitalist society.

Far from “de-rigging” the system, unfulfillable proposals for national renewal through repatriating jobs and rejuvenating industries portend only disappointment. With their failure, blame will fall on the groups or individuals deemed responsible. This is an uncomfortable prospect for those who already find themselves accused of standing on the “wrong side of history”. 
Moreover, the depiction of a unified, hardworking people being manipulated by a global elite only needs a nationalist inflection to lend legitimacy to similar standpoints on the far right. Because, after all, Mr Trump is as happy to talk about a “rigged system” as Mr Corbyn. 

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts are the authors of ‘Corbynism: A Critical Approach’

January 17, 2019 14:35

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