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Mick Lynch, The Modern Prince

Trey Taylor

August 17, 2022

In a recent interview on Sky News, Beth Rigby pressed the British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer on his party’s position on the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transportation Workers’ (RMT) June strikes. Unwilling to clearly state his party’s support for the workers, Starmer’s visible squirm was symptomatic of his limp triangulation: “we wish the disruption to be over, we want the government to resolve this,” and so on. This dismal showing is par for the course for Starmer’s Labour, whose strategy pivots on the empty affectation of “professionalism” and procedural competence against the Tories' congenital stupidity.

In stark contrast to the Labour leader, the barnstorming General Secretary of the RMT Mick Lynch’s ability to deftly cleave through the spin on news media has gained him the status of a minor celebrity in Britain. While Starmerinstructs his frontbench to “show leadership” by staying clear of the picket lines, Lynch pillories the ruling classes' attempts to hold working people responsible for inflation after decades of wage stagnation and skyrocketing profits. Whereas one treats politics as a done deal, rolling over for Tory attacks in a desperate bid for the fictional “center,” the other treats it as up-for-grabs, as a realm of persuasion and power building that one can reshape with sufficient decisiveness and aplomb.

In this sense, the split between Starmer and Lynch corresponds to two different understandings of politics, understandings which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci christened that of the “diplomat” and the “politician,” the “political scientist” and “active politician,” in his famous Prison Notebooks. The distinction is a roughly familiar one; does one lead or does one follow? Does one seek to change the situation or acquiesce to it?

The Political Scientist

It should be said that Gramsci’s distinction does not necessarily map on to left and right. Thatcher was certainly an active politician, seeking to break away from the ossifiedpostwar consensus that unified both Labour and the Conservatives. In her case, she ruthlessly transformed the balance of forces, albeit back towards the interests of capital. Moreover, writing from behind bars in fascist Italy, Gramsci himself was responding to an approach to socialist politics that waited for the “Great Day” of crisis in which revolution would fall into the partisans’ laps, a tendency that displayed the kind of passivity he criticizes in the discussion of the “political scientist.”

As for the “political scientist,” then, an apparent realism ensures they “inevitably will move only within the bounds of effective reality,” eschewing any attempt to transform the balance of forces and generate a new “equilibrium.” Politics is considered essentially “static and immobile,” with winning reducible to successfully navigating a fixed set of possibilities, deriding ambitions of what “ought to be” as “idle fancy, yearning, daydream.” While this approach is convinced of its lucidity, it in fact takes what is derivative — individuals’ existing political commitments — as immediate. It misses how the “counting of votes is the final ceremony of a long process.” The apparent will of the people is derived from conflictual processes of political subjectivation, the specific configuration of which depends on the respective organizational power of the classes and class fractions.

Just consider, for instance, the feedback-loop of contemporary psephology and focus-grouping, in which the political victories of the past – Cameron and Osborne’s successful integration of austerity in the national mindset, the necessary “tightening of belts” – become concealed as a neutral center ground, against which “serious” politicians are too afraid to make an argument. This does not mean that politics must entirely reject established opinions, for no majority will be forthcoming in such a case. But it does mean that the challenge of politics is to take established opinions as the starting point, not the endpoint, and develop the appropriate strategy and tactics to get from A to B.

Starmer’s “political scientist” disposition has been evident throughout his tenure. From the very start, his methodical dropping of the “Ten Pledges” with which he won the leadership signals a concession to the media barons and financier class who had rightfully run scared at demands for nationalization and progressive taxation. In the interview with Beth Rigby, he justified his betrayal of the unions by declaring Labour’s“seriousness” about being a “party of government,” equating governing with the technocratic management of the existing state of affairs, instead of, for instance, a concerted attempt to build up working-class power by repealing restrictive trade-union legislation. Moreover, his leadership’s obsession with traditional values as the key to capturing that confabulation of the “Red Wall” voter not only ends up caricaturing Northern constituencies and selling the multiracial working-class down the river but also ignores that people’s political values are fundamentally changeable, liable to being attached to different contents and mobilized to different effects. An orientation towards “fairness” or “security” in the abstract tells us absolutely nothing about what demands might be effectivein a given context, and it is the job of politicians to give it content in one way or the other — to expose the unfairness of executive pay in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, for instance—and not recapitulate nonsense about the magic money tree and deficitspending. Because Starmer’s strategy takes static “values” as its basic predictive element, it cannot appropriately respond to the flow of events, allowing himself to be outflanked to the left by the Conservatives. This was evident in March with regards to corporation tax rises. It was Rishi Sunak, the Tory Chancellor, who correctly grasped the impact of deteriorating economic conditions on people’s political estimations.

The Active Politician

As noted above, the counterpoint to the reactive “political scientist” is Gramsci’s “active politician.” Such an agent takes politics as a “relation of forces in continuous motion and shift of equilibrium” in which to intervene. They are “creator, an initiator,” whose concern with political possibility marks them off from the diplomat, but who nevertheless still operate on the “terrain of effective reality,” if only to “transcend it.” Gramsci takes Machiavelli as the exemplar here, inspired by his attempt to forge a national-popular will toward the formation of a modern Italian state against reactionary feudal holdouts — in short, his efforts to make “ought to be” take a concrete form. This forms the basis of Gramsci’s conception of politics as a process of revolutionary will formation and his desire to bond the peasantry and other class fractions under the counter-hegemonic leadership of the proletariat in the Communist Party; “The Modern Prince.” Here he appropriates the skill of Machiavelli’s titular Il Principe, raising people’s consciousness by exploiting the contradictions in bourgeois “common sense” and unifying and developing the capacities of the masses. And in our present context, one definedby the spectacular impotence of Britain’s designated party of labor, it is Lynch and the unions that have now taken up this task.

Core to Lynch’s effectiveness is his refusal of the corner the bourgeois press tries to back him into. Instead of shying away from the union-boss folk-devil in a stance of perpetual retreat, Lynch sharpens the stakes of the struggle. Crisis is not an aberration brought on by those who are fighting for better pay but perpetuated by a “government of billionaires” completely unable to meet to challenges of the times. Where the Tories seize on the myth of the wage-price inflation spiral to justify their ever-present mission to squeeze the masses, Lynch makes it clear that “wages are chasing prices,” not the other way around. He is able to universalize the interests of his union members — to make it clear that their demands are our demands — and that responsibility for labor unrest lays at the feet of the fat cats and their state functionaries.

Moreover, Lynch completely repudiates the reactionary caricature of the “white working class,” making it clear in a speech at the Durham Miner’sGala that “nobody is illegal” and exposing the way structural racism exacerbates the misery of migrant and minority workers. In this, Gramsci’s exhortation to articulate the interests of oppressed peoples, reject the divide-and-conquer tactics of the elite, and face up to the complexity of the modern class structure, is pressed against that system that ensures the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. Precisely because he sees politics as not fixed, but as continually mediated by the changeable balance of forces, Lynch is able to operate on the fissures of the status quo. By using these fissures that, under the weight of climate change and the looming recession, get larger and larger by the minute, he works to revitalize trade-union organization and identify a path out of the current quagmire. In Gramsci’s words, he “shows concretely how the historical forces” should act “in order to be effective,” and it's beginning to pay off: Within one week, the RMT’s media tour transformed public opinion on the strikes, with 45% declaring support against 37% opposition, a full 12-point shift from the previous poll.

The Path Forward?

Of course, this is not to suggest that Mick Lynch is a revolutionary socialist, but rather that he serves as an exemplar for the way an “active politician” could shape the political terrain. Nevertheless, the path ahead is fraught. Under the weight of forty years of draconian anti-union legislation, the recent uptick in visibility has as yet failed to translate into higher memberships. And trade-union organization faces its own contradictions: the risk of what Gramsci called corporatism, in which unions protect the interests of their own members against long-term or general interests, will be a notable challenge in the push for a green transition in which certain industries — aviation, fossil fuel production — cannot survive in their present form. In this sense, radical politics cannot simply ignore the real obstacles that face any substantive program. Indeed, it was partly the failure to truly grasp the extent of opposition in the Labour Party machinery, and the absolute necessity of its transformation by the left, that marked the death knell of the Corbyn years.

But things do not have to be this way. The spirit of Gramsci’s Machiavelli, of the Modern Prince, is not reducible to a single man, nor even a specific organizational form. Rather, it consists of a mode of politics capable of attaching itself to existing forces and tendencies and strengthening them towards a radical break with what happens to be. The futility of Starmer’s leadership — driven to “conserve what exists, to prevent the creation and organization of new forces which would disturb and transform the traditional equilibrium” — is already evident as the Tories forge a new reactionary equilibrium, premised on tightened borders and an endless culture war designed to distract from capitalism’s intensifying contradictions. If Starmer’s strategy is simply to grovel for the Murdoch press, to abandon the task of persuasion and transformation, then it is not politics: it’s capitulation. And in the vacuum of his leadership, it is in extra-parliamentary movements – from the Don’t Pay boycott of energy bills, to the Enough is Enough campaign — that hope now lies.

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