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.