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Introducing Bad New Times

by Tom Gann, The Editors / August 25, 2020

Bad New Times | Editorials  }
What are 'bad new times'? What do they mean for New Socialist? 12353 words / 48 min read

The tide is sucked back down the stream. Painful years for workers and peasants everywhere.

Zheng Chaolin

‘Bad New Times’ describes both the theme of this edition of New Socialist, and our conception of the situation which we stand in, respond to, and attempt to modify. Aspects of these bad new times determine different sorts of tasks and functions for New Socialist. We’d like to explain how the changed situation has led to us reconsidering how we work. We are not setting out here a particularly determinate theory for bad new times, but rather trying to reach towards both an ethics of theory and an ethics of (our) production.

In addition to our sense of the situation, the phrase ‘bad new times’ is derived from a combination of two lines. Firstly, Bertolt Brecht’s injunction, in conversation/collaboration with Walter Benjamin, “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones”. Secondly, Marxism Today’s 1988 conception of ‘new times’, and particularly the need for the Left to either “come to terms with those New Times” or “remain on the sidelines”.

‘Bad New Times’ lacks the affirmative mood and the general sense of lightness—even giddiness —towards the new that we find in Marxism Today . There will be no New Socialist “Fundamental-list”, no attempts to update such supposedly epoch defining ‘oppositions’ as Beatles/Bros, Angst/Boredom, Self-Control/Remote Control, and Maxwell House/Acid House, and no interviews with Jeffrey Archer. Nor do we think ‘Bad New Times” can be defined economistically. A paradoxical aspect of the Marxism Today conception is that its general lack of interest in economic analysis results in extremely broad, unified characterisations of economic changes becoming the explanatory key for all of the essential cultural shifts, which do little more than express economic changes in an unmediated, unstruggled-over fashion.1

All this aside, however, the 1988 notion of “New Times” did grasp that something important was going on, and that the task for the left was not only to respond to the situation, but to work out the specificity of the situation as the basis for that response. In the same way, as Marxism Today declared,

In the 1980s, Marxism Today pioneered the analysis of Thatcherism and the state of the labour movement. It was the era of critique. Now to reconstruction. We present New Times.

we want to say:

from 2017 to early 2020, New Socialist articulated (we reject colonial metaphors of pioneering) and tried to make effective a critical Corbynism. Now…
…except the newness of the times means that we don’t quite know how to finish that sentence; we don’t quite know what the next phase will be.

We do know, however, that we need to create a space and a set of attitudes that, alongside our ethical and political commitments, is responsive and flexible in allowing what comes next to be worked out.

In this edition we also aim both to acknowledge our debt to the original New Socialist (in Colm Murphy’s words “the forgotten rival to Marxism Today”) and explore some of how it functioned. Dan Frost’s essay draws on interviews with many of those involved including its first editor, James Curran, who says: “there is a clear line of continuity between New Socialist in the 1980s and New Socialist now. Both are responses to the crisis of democratic socialism, and both provide an open forum of critical reflection and debate.” Part of our task is to establish a basis for continuing a new socialist politics and New Socialist as a publication, in the context, as then, of a fracturing of the left.

What Brecht and Benjamin offer us, from the beginnings of their exile from Germany, is of course the sense of the badness of the times. They remind us of what needs to be done: to face up to the badness (in particular, the extent of the defeat we suffered), to refuse to dwell on the consolations of the past, and, as with Marxism Today, to try to understand what has shifted. Brecht and Benjamin also offer us, unlike Marxism Today a specifically political sense of newness. Our original conception of Bad New Times was essentially pre-pandemic, constituted through the loss of December 12th—an experience very like that of the defeat of the General Strike, as described by Raymond Williams in Border Country (though Williams himself refused to be crushed by political defeat). It is worth quoting Williams’s passage at length:

a struggle had been lost; a common effort had failed. And it was not only the failure that broke him, but the insight this gave, or seemed to give, into the real nature of society…The brave show was displaced, in an hour, by a grey, solid world of power and compromise. It was not only that the compromise angered him: not only that he was sickened by the collapse into mutual blame. It was suddenly that the world of power and compromise seemed real, the world of hope and ideas no more than a gloss, a mark in the margin. He had lived on his ideas of the future, while these had seemed in any way probable, and they had seemed probable until now. And a man could bear to lose, but the sudden conviction there was nothing to win – that the talk of winning was no more than talk, and collapsed when the real world asserted itself – this, deeply, was a loss of bearings, a change in the whole structure of his life…You could talk about creating the future, but in practice, look, people ran for shelter, manoeuvred for personal convenience, accepted the facts of existing power. To see this happening was a deep loss of faith, a slow and shocking cancellation of the future.2

What our version of this experience will mean, whether we can hold, in a transformed situation, to common effort, to the world of hope and ideas, to ideas of the future that may still become effective, and how we mourn the future that was slowly and shockingly cancelled remains to be worked out.

The political definition of ‘Bad New Times’ is not just December 12th, but the left’s loss of the Labour leadership, and the very rapid justification (perhaps more rapid than even we had expected) of our pessimism about Keir Starmer (“his promises thus conceal a disciplinary intent: you can have peace, unity, power (of a sort)—but first, you have to put down those silly principles and be sensible.”). We are witnessing the further assertion of the “real world” against the common effort to create a future. And this is not an experience limited to Britain: consider the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the US, or the coup in Bolivia—the state-level project (though never of course just a state-level project) that has been most inspiring to many of us—and its continuing (as we write this, with MAS’s candidate Luis Arce substantially ahead in the polls, the coup regime have postponed the election for six months), or the brutal repression of Black life and Black protest across the West.

As if this wasn’t enough badness, “Bad New Times” has now expanded to cover the pandemic and post-pandemic world—a situation which has delayed the publication of this edition, for which we can only apologise. As well as fitting work for New Socialist around paid work, study, and family, our editors have been organising mutual aid groups, joining protests, and representing themselves and colleagues in Covid-induced redundancy processes. As the economic, cultural, and affective consequences of the pandemic begin to make themselves felt, it feels more clear than ever that new strategies, attitudes, and practices are required if we are to make sense of—and make a future in—these bad new times.

Optimism of the intellect.

It’s important to note that ‘Bad New Times’ does not conceptualise a situation which calls for stoicism or pessimism. It does not call for nihilism or drift, as critiqued in Frankie Miren’s review of Burn it Down! Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution. Still less does it suggest a pose of hard-headed disillusion, the telling of hard truths that the rest of the left are too weak to hear, a “false maturity of resignation”3, a putting-away of childish things in favour of oh-so-serious adaptation to the world and to the facts of existing power. The various decontextualised mottos on which the intellectual left draws in bad times—from Samuel Beckett’s “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” to Tony Benn and Andy Barrett’s “there is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up” (though often attributed to Benn, the first part is a gloss on Benn’s words, and the “bloody toughen up” part is Barrett’s own invention), or Gramsci’s “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect”4—tend to do little more than offer an elitist consolation based, paradoxically, on being part of a special group who are clear-sighted enough to refuse easy consolation.

Decontextualised, Gramsci’s line either, as Asad Haider puts it, “resembles nothing more than a poster on the wall of a middle-school classroom”, or in Ralph Miliband’s words, an effort at “‘noble’… romantic pathos.” All of these mottos suggest a situation to be borne with toughness (and here we should note and reject the mixture of militarised masculinism and an individualistic, self-help, pull-your-socks-up affect). As such, we concur with Miliband that any of these quotes and the worldview they express is an “exceedingly bad slogan for socialists”.

Socialist politics does not happen in the homogenous, empty time relied upon by themes of the constantly returning battle we must fight over and over again, whether that time is hell, unredeemed time, the eternal return or scientific positivism. This also means, following Haider on the limits of a decontextualised Gramsci, not everything can be translated directly from one time to another. Bad New Times is a new here and a new now.

Parts of Haider’s analysis suggest something of the stance we take towards and in the bad new times. Gramsci first uses “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” in his address to anarchists, and as Haider argues, drawing on Panagiotis Sotiris, what Gramsci is beginning to grapple with here is the problem of the creation of intellectualities—though he would not fully develop his thinking on this until much later, in ‘The Modern Prince’ (The Prison Notebooks).5

In ‘The Modern Prince’, ‘Gramsci applies himself to the question of how we might develop popular intellectualities. The difficulty is rooted in the contradiction between, on the one hand, the importance of asserting (and here Gramsci was in agreement with the anarchists), the intellectual capacities of all people—that “everyone is a philosopher”6—and, on the other, the fact that, in class society, philosophy is viewed as the preserve of a “particular category of specialists”7, whereas politics is founded on the distinction between “leaders and led”8. For Gramsci, then, the choice in politics is whether these distinctions are asserted as natural and permanent, meaning political knowledge and the capacity to act continues to be the monopoly of politicians, or whether the activity of politics is the long revolutionary undoing of that distinction, both within politics itself and in terms of the class contradictions and wider relationships outside of it. Where Gramsci departs from anarchist thinking is his insistence that these distinctions cannot be overcome immediately, and that therefore, we need institutions that can socialise knowledge and bring it together with action. This leads to his conceptualisation of the Party not as “the general staff of the proletarian army” but rather as a “laboratory”, the preference for the laboratory over metaphors of a proletarian army will be central to our experimental efforts.

In essence, Haider asserts,

what we miss in reducing “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to a sensibility is the practical importance of Gramsci’s reflections. In the absence of an organisational form which can operate as the organiser of a concrete and collective will, politics has become unavailable to us. To recall Gramsci’s formulation, we require theories and practices of organisation which are oriented towards awakening new and original forces, rather than calculating on the traditional ones

This, then, comes close to our experience: bad new times as constituted by the defeat, and probably the decisive defeat, of a collective effort incarnated in the Labour Party. This effort for us was always a compromise—and often an uncomfortable compromise—but the attempt was worth it. This does not mean mistakes weren’t made of course; as Mary argues, perhaps the left should have been more in and against the Labour Party rather than relying on the “in and against the state” shibboleth as thought by certain “market socialists”. Indeed, we might want to argue that “in and against the state” as a slogan guiding strategy ended up as little more than an alibi, a gesture towards old extra-parliamentary commitments, whilst aiming to smoothly inhabit the state (and the Labour Party is, of course, part of the ideological state apparatuses). This does not, however, mean the book In and Against the State is of no value. M Jane returns it to at least part of its original intention in the first of her regular education columns, where it becomes not an attitude towards Labour Party strategy, but a means for reflecting on and identifying what possibilities of resistance and challenge there may be for socialists employed by the state.

To talk of the need to understand how badly we lost is not to say that Corbynism meant nothing. To read the bad new times through Gramsci’s “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” (and also through Haider’s reversal: optimism towards the creative, experimental intellectual capacities of all people; pessimism towards the old forms of the collective will), is to read the badness of the new times as constituted by the absence of the possible cohering force, and to call for an experimental politics, even if we do not yet know what the laboratory is. Even if the laboratory is yet to be built.

If “Bad New Times” is not part of the tradition of left stoicism, of toughening up to bear the eternal return of marginality within the old institutions, it is also not a faddish absorption in what is taken for the conjuncture (that is, as Stuart Hall, reading Gramsci, puts it, “how different forces come together, conjuncturally, to create the new terrain, on which a different politics must form up”) at the expense of the structural, or of an attention to deep time. We aim to avoid the risk, outlined by Chris Green in his critique critique of Mouffe’s For a Left Populism, of confusing the conjunctural for a trend, of (in Green’s words) “producing a certain kind of Gramsci-esque fidelity to The Conjuncture, in which we might say that ‘a crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades’ but what is actually causing this crisis to occur is not really explored.” This notion of fidelity to the conjuncture is not just an analytical risk but a political-ethical one in terms of the scope of political attention, as Ambalavaner Sivanandan argued against Stuart Hall and Marxism Today in ‘The Hokum of New Times’:

in his refusal to be “determinist,” Hall leaves out of his reckoning the massed-up workers of the Third World, on whose greater immiseration and exploitation the brave new Western world of post-Fordism is being erected, and cannot be persuaded back to them even when the item on “multinationals with their new international division of labour” resonates with their presence.

The loss of focus on the economy, then, led to political attention being restricted to a narrow notion of culture, conceived as shifting patterns of consumption reflecting the part of the economy closest to it—the end of the supply chain of post-Fordism in the imperial core. This narrow focus, in a gesture typical of bourgeois politics and aesthetics, effaces both material production and, crucially, producers. We will continue to pay attention to the economy in the bad new times. In this edition, Nikhil Venkatesh’s qualification of the scope of the concept of “surveillance capitalism” through the need to attend to the labour in factories and mines that is its condition (an argument which draws on Clair Quentin’s work for New Socialist), as well as parts of Tom Gann’s discussion with Wendy Liu, reflect our belief that serious economic analysis necessarily means attending to the world system of imperialism, displacing the analytical centrality of what is held to be value creation for capital in the Global North, as Clair Quentin has argued,

a consoling value-theoretical fantasy currently popular in some left circles is that we create value for capital by dint of, for example, our unpaid immaterial labour building the vast databases of our own commodity preferences that are held by social media giants. While this may be politically expedient from the point of view of persuading people in rich countries that surplus value is being extracted from them even though they don’t produce anything, it is a dangerous category error which serves to entrench a highly inequitable system.

We also believe that one way out of economism is more, not less, focus on the economy. The ‘New Times’ lack of attention meant that the economy, in their general schema, functioned as a unified whole, with certain ‘common sense’ concepts taken for granted. Struggles were abstracted from their specific economic circumstances, which rendered ‘New Times’ incapable of attending to the kinds of contradictions that might prevent an uncomplicated translation of ‘the economy’ into ‘culture’. We hope our discussion of “Johnsonism” is able to present some of the classical objects of Marxist analysis: state, class and class fractions, the economy as site of struggle and (against economism) overdetermined and underdetermined contradiction. We also believe, as suggested in Nikhil’s essay, in the continued usefulness of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production and critique of political economy. Mediocre Dave’s piece on skilled and unskilled work presents a valuable critique of the risks of uncriticised concepts and attitudes passing into socialist analysis, here the received wisdom that skilled work = work that should be paid decently. What does it mean to accept these pre-packaged notions, given by capitalist political economy, while trying to argue for a different kind valuing? In considering the context of socialist economic policy as nearly forty years of neoliberalism (and economic history is a further means of disrupting a capture by faddishness), Mary also challenges the often taken for granted story on the left of an opposition between state and market, and presents neoliberalism in Britain as decisively a project of re-regulation not a deregulation or liberalisation.

With Johnsonism, particularly in the response to the Covid-19 crisis, we see another set of strategies of the capitalist state where the opposition state/market is useless. The state is essential for the reproduction and accumulation of capital. In addition to various interventions, like the furlough scheme, aiming to maintain a degree of stability, the capitalist state in Britain has sought out opportunities for favoured capitals. Adam Blanden argues that this represents the opening up of new areas of social reproduction for capital and that this may be a defining strategy of the capitalist state under Johnson, with Johnson serving, as he did as Mayor of London, as a crucial point of access for capital. M Jane, in her column, also discusses the implications of this in education, where particularly with the provision of online lessons, we see “the Department of Education seizing this opportunity to expedite changes it has hinted at for a long time, for the benefit of its powerful friends.”

Every living cell.

The localising of the conjuncture can be limiting in space or in time. At the same time as he was urging us to attend to the bad new things, and in the face of both the futurity (“they’re planning for thirty thousand years ahead”) and the totalising destructivity of fascism, Brecht was turning, towards the notion of the far future, and the liberation of “every living cell” from the cruelty of the times. Now in the Capitalocene, which has its own totalising and destructive logic, we too must develop a politics of every living cell.

‘Bad New Times’ does not mean an inattention to history; quite the opposite. On the one hand there is deep time (which extends in all directions) and the structural; on the other, the specifically new retroactive force of the present. Bad new times always constitute a new past. There is a double retroactive force in Christiana Spens’s analysis of iconoclasm. Firstly, the toppling of the Edward Colston statue, renders the histories of iconoclasm, particularly those of resistance to the British state or of the British state’s own imperial iconoclasm, vital again. Secondly, the practice of iconoclasm itself is an intervention both in the present and in the past, an effort by protestors to, “create new narratives and icons through the destruction of the old; they seek to reframe their cities and who has a right to shape them. They seek to challenge and remake history, and the values we derive from it.”

The struggles of the present and the state’s response to those struggles (with struggles, resistance and revolt always causally prior to the state’s tactics and strategy, which is initiated by the challenge from below), open up different parts of the past. Two of our pieces, James Trafford’s on riots and policing and Alexander Benham’s on Florence Nightingale and the Nightingale hospitals, argue that the present moment cannot be understood without understanding the techniques of the new British colonial state in India in response to the 1857-8 rebellion (this can also be inverted, present struggles may teach us something about the past). Trafford is, in fact, dealing with two pasts, the past of colonial policing, and the crisis of hegemony of the 1970s and early 1980s and how this was lived through race. The Black Lives Matter challenge to policing (and how that itself has been policed) and the urban uprisings of 1981, open up pasts. For Trafford, colonial forms of governance and the ideological themes have been internalised in the British state, insulating policing from critique, and in understanding those forms we can understand that the increased authoritarianism of policing beginning in that hegemonic crisis was not new, “punitive policing was fundamental to the British.” Alexander Benham, similarly argues for the centrality of 1857-8 in India and the Britain’s response, “a reconquista defined by its spectacular brutality”, and then the longer-term response of the new colonial regime. In understanding the current situation, in this case around the new colonial approach to public health, one which in crucial ways, parallels the British state’s response to Coronavirus (and this should be no surprise, they are similarly structured) history and the persistence of the structural matter: “the way the British responded to the [1896] plague in Bombay was defined by four aspects. Each of these have, in some way, been replicated in Britain’s current response to COVID-19.”

The opening up of the past may also be an opening up of, as Paul Ewart argues, new usable pasts for the left. The government’s handling of the Corona crisis and the roots of that handling in decades of neoliberalism and then its austerian direction, makes Guilty Men relevant to our situation in a way it wasn’t before. Equally, this may take place within culture, as Toby Manning argues of Prince’s acid communism, “the cultural productions of the past should play an active, not a nostalgic role in left-wing thought and activism.”

The task of “Bad New Times”, then, is the opposite of stoicism. Our hopes lie in our capacity to be affected—the false maturity of resignation is “the renunciation of responsiveness.”9 Against neoliberal’s own ‘new times’, the triumphal declaration of “the end of history” with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, (and how much did the legacy of Marxism Today’s new times merge with this new times of the complacent world of power?), Cedric Robinson insisted on how

for the vast majority of the planet’s peoples, the global economy publicises itself in human misery. Thus the simple fact is that liberationist movements abound in the real world—a reason for attention far more weighty than the self-serving conceits of capitalist triumphalism.10

The line of the argument here overlaps with Sivandanan’s critique of Marxism Today’s ‘new times’: that its particular version of the conjuncture misses not only the human misery of the global economy for the vast majority of the planet’s people, but also the capacities of those people to resist, to make history. In this way, ‘new times’ for all its iconoclasm about traditional Marxism ends up (as with its accidental economism) taking a position that is very traditional. Its focus on the imperial core and on the most “advanced” technology, rather than the material conditions of that technology’s production and the resistances that are responses to those contradictions parallels the type of Marxism that, for Robinson is marked by its “neglect and incomprehension of the nature and genesis of liberation struggles.”11 The task for Marxists is, always, to retain responsiveness and to learn from and act in solidarity with emergent liberation movements, even if they do not fit in with our interpretative grid. Indeed, emergent liberation movements will also pose and prompt questions beyond themselves, Steffan Blayney, responding to and supporting demands for prison abolition, argues that instead of positing mental health services as an alternative, it is necessary to subject them to the same line of critique. This line of argument also disrupts some of the conventional arguments of the British left, in this case both the framing of cuts to any part of the state, including the repressive state apparatus as part of austerity and to be opposed as such, and secondly a treating of any state provision of healthcare as fundamentally benign, not even part of the ideological state apparatuses, let alone the repressive, yet, “psychiatric patients can be forced to comply with a programme of medication or treatment against their will, under threat of compulsory detention.”

If our interpretative grid fails to notice and respond, then the grid must be modified—a modification that also modifies history. The “end of history”, then, is not just an insistence that nothing significant can ever happen again, but also the conviction that the past is completed, settled; that there are no more retroactive forces capable of (re)making past, present, and future. It is also the insistence that our interpretative grids are fixed, precisely because nothing can happen.

Serene restlessness.

The stance for ‘Bad New Times’, then, is emphatically not stoicism; neither is it a giddy, “groovy” optimism, nor a posture of disillusion and a making of peace with the world of power. Equally, our faith in popular capacities and emergent liberation movements is not the certain faith that they and we will win. It is rather something like Terry Eagleton observed in Raymond Williams:

a trust in human potential so generous and steadfast that he could be almost physically shocked by the political Right’s routine cynical disparagement of people. This was not some sentimental optimism. It was just that he knew from his own experience what ordinary unheroic people were capable of, and it drove him to smouldering fury to hear them slighted and demeaned…It was not of course that he believed that these fundamental values, of love and compassion and solidarity, would inevitably politically prevail; how could such an astute political analyst in a dark period have credited such a view? It was rather that he refused to be shifted, whatever the immediate loss or setback, from the faith that these values were in the end the only ones that mattered, that they might not win out but they were what it was all about, that if you abandoned this then you abandoned everything.

Interestingly, part of what Eagleton draws out of Williams here was aimed at those around Marxism Today—not in their ‘new times’ period, but in their previous “optimism of the will, pessimism of intellect” phase; the phase of their “long-term adjustments to short-term situations”.

On the one hand then, there is Williams’s steadfastness and a kind of serenity, rooted in the capacities of ordinary, unheroic people to make history. On the other there is Marxism Today buffeted between the hopelessness of the analysis of “Thatcherism” (which represented, for Williams, a “block diagnosis…which taught despair and political disarmament in a social situation which was always more diverse, more volatile and more temporary” - we aim to avoid block diagnosis of this sort in our analysis of Johnsonism) and the giddy optimism offered by adjustment to post-Fordism in new times. On the one hand, we have diagnoses, whether optimistic or pessimistic, that are rooted in a unified and totalising characterisation of the situation; on the other hand, an awareness that human capacities are always more various, and always render situations provisional, open and contradictory; that, more often than not, the main task is to recognise those capacities. Perhaps it is unnecessary to state that we opt for the serenity of Williams over the buffeted-this-way-and-that flimsiness of Marxism Today.

One gets a similar sense of serenity, and understanding that the insects will wake again, spring will come, even if now the revolution is ebbing from Zheng Chaolin’s “The Waking of the Insects”. Equally, we get some of this notion of serenity from Stereolab, as was pointed out by Gavin Mueller. Laetitia Sadier’s singing on “Crest” is “serene, steadfast and sincere”, and so “Crest” points the way to a recourse, a shelter: the theoretical and political practice that has fought and resisted capitalism at every step, through every slump, war, and recovery, and has unwaveringly defended this core historical principle: if there is a way to build it, there’ll be a way to destroy it.” Somewhere between the signs of the coming again of spring, “things are not all that out of control” and “good news is hard to count on” is our serenity.

There is something like serenity in Brecht – who himself found some of this in classical Chinese poetry. At the time of “start with the bad new things”, Brecht spoke of his “moderate mania”, what we want to describe as ‘serene restlessness’. The “mania” side for Brecht, was a certain self-destructiveness – here the desire for the sake of the usefulness of the work and its porosity to the times over its formal achievement (which Benjamin pushed for). The destruction of the egotism of perfection, or of being in charge, or of assuming the glamorous tasks for oneself and leaving the thankless work of politics to others or to not be done is necessary in the bad new times.

The point is to make oneself useful. As Kate Flood argues, “effective organising is neither chaotic nor accidental - it entails meticulous planning and research; a willingness to take on frustrating or repetitive organising work; to learn from failure; to never waste time basking in glory or wallowing in defeat.” This is not the same, however, of the ego-destruction, which carries within it, a certain indulgence of the ego, of activist burnout. There is the need for restlessness, there is so much that needs to be done, so much to challenge, but there is no use in the self-destruction of our own capacities.

In Brecht the subject of this self-destructive restlessness towards formal perfection was including some of the Children’s Songs in Poems from Exile. For Brecht, the justification was twofold. Firstly, what goes on despite the bad new things (“there will always be children”) but secondly, as in every living cell, what was affected, harmed and threatened by the bad new things, and what thereby could be a basis for resistance: “we too must think of everything”. The moderate (or serene) side of mania (or restlessness) then is again precisely that attention to what is repeated, what is deep time and what renders the situation more provisional than it might be thought, and that is rooted in grasping the totality of what the enemy has in store (any point then could be the basis for an emergent struggle, constant attention, learning, activity, back to restlessness…). This for us entails a continuing and renewed focus on feminist questions and thought, and a wider attention to, in Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh’s words the “difficult project of reconciling private experience and social need, and of dealing with the ambivalence and contradiction that bedevil the political theorization of subjectivity.”12 As Barrett and McIntosh note, this is a difficult project and one cannot unambiguously assert certain private or intersubjective experiences against the world of power, as if they are untouched by it. In their critique of Dissident Friendships, Nicole Froio and Constanza Marambio write that not every political question of solidarity, alliance or working together can be dissolved into “friendship”. Sometimes, as in the alliance between the Indigenous Jumma women’s movement and the Bengali Women’s Movement, working together is merely a strategic necessity determined by a situation, “a political relationship that results from colonialism is not a friendship–it is a political relationship with goals, and to classify this as a “dissident friendship” is to romanticise bonds between women, regardless of class, race and history.”

This drive to romanticise - and thus disempower - things is a particular feature of the bad new times. Oppression and exploitation are naturalised when those who dominate insist that those whom they dominate need a strong hand, a firm guide, something to rely. The romantic view of nature, much as that of women, is of a picturesque and passive object, engaged only in the softest types of relation. In her essay for this edition, josie sparrow takes this realisation as a starting-point for her analysis of the political and temporal ecologies of the capitalist world-system.

The ecological is a mode through which the badness of the new times can become truly apparent. Ongoing ecological collapses, unpredictable weather systems, increasingly robust viral mutations, and the utter inertia of the ruling class all combine to suggest that bad times are coming, if they’re not already here. With a Labour Party now not only committed to what was once the compromise position of decarbonisation by 2030, but claiming this commitment as a great victory for radicalism, it’s clear that the struggle for a just and joyful future must take place primarily outside of the Parliamentary sphere - including the junior bureaucrats who’ve made a career out of wringing meaningless concessions from the likes of Alan Whitehead and calling it radical. 2030 would have been cutting it fine if Labour had won the 2019 election and started immediately. A Starmer-led Labour Party even winning the 2024 election seems hard to imagine, let alone somehow having the gumption to effect 10 years of decarbonisation in around half that time, and with no union support. As josie writes, one effect of capital is the remaking of time. While an attention to the deep geological flows that shape our worlds is a necessary skill for any socialist (and a nourishing antidote to the continual fast-forward of capitalism), when it comes to ecological collapse and the many precious lives under threat, the slowness of deep time is, perhaps, a luxury we can no longer afford.

Reconfiguring New Socialist.

What do these “Bad New Times” mean for the structure, focus and project of New Socialist? Introducing the relaunched New Left Review in 2000, Perry Anderson wrote of the particular difficulty of political journals in extending their “life…beyond the conditions…that gave rise to them”. For Anderson, this “makes renewal beyond their first impetus a test specific to them. They stand both for certain objective principles, and the capacity of these to decipher the course of the world.” We would add that we want to change the course of the world, rather than just decipher it, but the point is well made. Of course, the other aspect of extending our life is money, please consider subscribing if you can.

The end of Corbynism is also the end of a certain strategic horizon involving a capacity to have certain effects on and through the Labour Party. There are those who have not yet grasped the extent of the defeat, and continue to persist with “strategy”, without any viable means to carry it out. Following Dan Frost’s argument, an overemphasis on strategy “takes a top-down view and writes up the rules of the world”; the strategist attempts to situate the emergent in its proper place, in relation to, and subordinated to the strategic imperatives of, the Labour Party. When a left Labour government was possible in the short term, there may have been a case for a strategy along these lines (though as Frost notes, much of the movement towards this possibility was through tactical improvisation rather than “strategy”). For the sake of meaningful reforms, strategy’s tendency towards “solidarity with [parts of] the existing order” may have been worth it—though even this seemingly strategic calculation was in its own way a tactic, a capacity to be responsive to an unforeseen, almost unforeseeable, opening.

The old form of New Socialist was effective for certain types of theoretically- or ethically-informed attempts at strategic interventions in and through Labour (although that was far from all the work we produced). These involved significant reflection but the time of their publication was still governed by the imperatives of strategic usefulness, which necessarily ended up taking certain aspects of the situation for granted, rendering these static and not effective.

Our previous strategic horizon, determined as it was to a significant but not total extent by the Labour Party, risked a capture by the day-to-day imperatives of politics conceived in a particular way. This limited our capacity to build a more coherent body of theoretical work, as viewing Labour as the primary (though not exclusive) site of politics treated effective theory as something determined to some extent by the imperatives of a left-ethical challenge to Labour, from within Labour.

The new structure of New Socialist will, we hope, improve our capacity for tactics and widen our responsiveness significantly beyond the limits of the Labour Party. Our new Transmissions section aims to open New Socialist up to grassroots struggles, trade union action (including from those unions external to the TUC and its ambiguous role, at once part of the ideological state apparatuses and part of the means by which working people have impacts), and social movements. We aim in the medium term to seek out contributions to Transmissions from outside Britain. The role of this section is not entirely detached from strategy; however, it forms part of a broader effort to refuse the subordination of tactics to strategy; to refuse the forces that want to hold things in their ‘proper’ place, that proper place being constituted by the insistence that the state, including the Labour Party and its affiliates, has a monopoly on legitimate political action and knowledge. As Frost concludes:

a revolutionary strategy begins with the recognition that it is tried and tested with tactics, with the real movement of the people, with their hope and wit and frustration.

Or, to put it in terms we have used already, Transmissions aims at documenting and expressing a particular sort of serene restlessness: We know the capacities of people are there, and we know they will be used and emerge in unpredictable situations and ways. It’s not good enough, however, to merely argue that there are a possibilities outside Labour or to affirm popular capacities more widely, one has to make good on this in practice, in her regular column Kate Flood will explore organising strategies and ways to engage in militant grassroots organising.

Our Activists’ Inquiry fulfils similar purposes from a different angle, providing an opportunity for activists to reflect anonymously upon the struggles in which they’re involved – with an emphasis on anecdotes and observations which draw out the ‘hope and wit and frustration’ of everyday politics. Already beginning with the recognition of our diversity and disunity, the ­Activists’ Inquiry faces the challenge of collecting together the experiences of a left in Britain which now lacks even the (partial) unity of a strategic orientation towards Corbynism and membership of the Labour Party. In highlighting the variety of these experiences, however, Activists’ Inquiry also seeks to bring out commonalities which transcend divisions based on membership of specific organisations. We are committed to broadening the base from which responses to the Activists’ Inquiry are drawn and the focus of questions for the next edition – Londoncentricity – attempts to support discussions around how some of its (and the left’s) limitations can be overcome.

Having regular themed editions will, we believe, enhance capacities for serene and focused work. It is also a question of practicality for our editors: the new structure will allow for easier planning, perhaps even less need to be perpetually online just in case something happens in “Politics” which requires a response. Going forward, these editions are likely to be more tightly themed; our next edition is on ecology, and we are planning future editions on class and the state.

We are attempting not only to production a body of operative theory for the left in Britain. Operative theory, however, is not only defined by its theoretical object but by the processes if its production and how that process modifies relationships and builds capacities.

In “Notes on British Marxism Since 1945”, Williams makes the distinction between three kinds of Marxist theory: legitimating, academic and operative. These distinctions are made largely through the different theoretical objects of the various types, though a certain aspect of the distinction lies in the institutional location that produces the theory (and by implication its means of dissemination). Legitimating theory is theory that aims to establish a particular tendency or national version of actually existing socialism (and the two are linked) as the legitimate inheritor of Marx. Its institutional location is largely in parties, particularly the various paper-selling sects but it might also be found today is discussions mobilising Marx or whoever else from the correct canon of talking heads to justify strategies and positions with regard to or within Labour. Academic theory, is defined obviously, by its institutional location, in universities, and with this, essentially amounts to the application of Marxism to and within the various academic disciplines with their own theoretical objects.

Operative theory has its particular theoretical object, for Williams it involved, “theoretical analysis of late capitalist society; theoretical analysis of the specificities of British late capitalist society; theoretical analysis of the consequent situations and agencies of socialist practice.” We view the necessary operative theory for “Bad New Times” more extensively than this, or perhaps, we view what is implicated in these theoretical objects more widely than they were viewed in the 1960s and 1970s. What is more important for us, though, than the theoretical objects, is the particular practice of operative theory. Legitimating and academic theory rely, in the last instance, on the maintenance of a distinction between producers of the theory and everyone else – here there are parallels with the continuation of Gramsci’s distinction between leaders and led. The work of the dissemination and rendering accessible of the theory does little to challenge this distinction, even if the expansion of readership entailed in that is no bad thing.

Under current conditions, legitimating theory, as a direct instrumentalisation and sacrifice of autonomy coupled with an appeal to authority is mostly useless. Even when Williams was writing it was limited, but with a variety of contending actually existing socialisms, there was a clarifying and exploratory potential in making the argument for the legitimacy of the Chinese version, or the Cuban version, or the Soviet version, or the Yugoslavian version, or even the Eurocommunist version.

Academic theory, by contrast, is constructed around a rejection of conscious political effects – as Williams notes, this separation from politics was part of Marxism becoming “reputable and respectable” in these institutional locations, and entailed that “the question of ‘communism’ or one of its variants did not necessarily arise” (though this does not mean that it does not have political effects). Williams rightly notes that aspects of academic theory can provide part of the basis of operative theory, and we do not mean to disparage it in its entirety. However, we do not view operative theory either as the application of academic theory to certain objects and situations or as the rendering “accessible” of academic theory.

For us then operative theory involves, firstly, a set of theoretical objects, secondly a particular and consciously understood place within practice, and thirdly, an emphasis on that practice as a collective process that undoes distinctions between the leaders and the led of theory. Both legitimating and academic theory treat, from opposite directions, theory and practice as essentially distinct, with one subordinated to the other. We view what New Socialist undertakes as a process with theoretical (what work and analysis is produced) and practical effects (what are the effects of how we produce, how we develop capacities, how we demystify, how we help people understand their own experience).

The gamble of our idea of operative theory, following Louis Althusser’s “Preface to Capital Volume One” is that there are two sets of difficulties in producing and understanding emancipatory and critical social theory: political and theoretical difficulties and that much theory that is dubbed “inaccessible” is inaccessible on the level of political difficulties, which exist because of political incompatibility of the works and the needs, experiences and interests of readers from dominant groups. As Althusser argues, when it comes to Capital, those with direct experience of capitalist exploitation, “have no ideologico-political difficulty in understanding Capital since it is a straightforward discussion of their concrete lives.”

Our conception of operative theory, however, extends beyond the set of experiences of an exploited productive worker and the analysis of the mode of production this makes possible. Though this does not mean that we ignore class, we intend to publish a future edition on the subject, and much of our analysis of Johnsonism, especially Tom Gann’s account, explores the political and deflected effects of class contradictions. We view, as in Tom’s analysis, but also in a number of other pieces, class as intersecting with or being overdetermined by a wider set of contradictions and relationships of exploitation, domination and exclusion.

Experiences beyond class can also be the basis for decisive socialist knowledge. Frankie Miren discusses feminist manifestos offering a range of angry, creative attacks on oppression. As Lola Olufemi argues, those “on the underside of capital, race and gender [are] attentive to their material conditions” and about to think “how gender, gendered violence and exploitation is central to matrix of oppressive systems that organise the way we live”, or as Juliet Jacques put it, whether talking about the Fall or the cultural democracy aspects of the Corbyn project, “people are intelligent and we shouldn’t assume otherwise.

The interest (in the double sense) exploited and dominated people have in understanding and transforming their situation can provide a significant basis for their theoretical work.

This, of course, does not mean all difficulties in understanding and making use of a theoretical text are solved through this absence of ideologico-political difficulty, in capitalist society theoretical training is specialised. However, it does mean that the interest (in the double sense) exploited and dominated people have in understanding and transforming their situation can provide a significant basis for the theoretical effort in understanding texts, “it is not the theoretical difficulties but the political difficulties which are really determinant in the last instance for every reading of Capital and its first volume” but also in ones own theoretical production and the expansion of who these theoretical producers may be. The question again, is developing the forms, the laboratory, for it to be possible to make use of the experiences that undercut ideologico-political difficulties.

Williams’s definition of operative theory centres Britain – Britain conceived of as the space not just that is analysed in operative theory but where that theory is shaped and has effects. We are based in Britain, and this does mark what the operative theory of “Bad New Times” will be. However, we do not want to limit our focus to British politics. This is partially because Britain cannot be understood on its own—“what do they know of England, who only England know”— and partially because there is a huge amount to learn from what happens outside Britain. Above all, it is because what happens outside Britain matters.

Internationalising “Bad New Times”, Charlie Ebert explores the stalemate in Chile, continuing his analysis and reporting for us on the process, and drawing important strategic conclusions, some of which may prove relevant to socialists in Britain, some may not. Charlie’s analysis also provides in some ways a model for how one might do a certain sort of operative theory for Britain. Elsewhere, Adam Blanden analyses the European response to the economic effects of Covid 19. What are the contradictions and political pressures determining the attempts to manage the crisis?

Equally, an international focus can offer important points of comparison (as well as also allow an attention to differences, that may clarify the specificity of Britain), Sabrina Huck’s analysis of Johnsonism, which makes use of comparisons with radical-right populism in Germany brings out crucial shared features and specificities.

US imperial hegemony sometimes also means the hegemony of its radical politics and theory. There is, of course, much to learn from the USA, both because of shared features of its social formation with Britain and the bravery and theoretical innovations of its Black, Indigenous and People of Colour in challenging the US state and capital. We do not want to diminish these achievements. However, we also want wider learning, particularly from those radical traditions that might be missed as a result of US hegemony. We are very happy to be running an extract from Pluto’s excellent collection, To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe, edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande. In this extract, Cyn Awori Othieno and Annette Davis, on behalf of Mwasi Collective, discuss the history of Afrofeminist activism in France. Mwasi Collective have been attacked as “pretending to be Americans”; to insist on histories of struggle, challenge and thought independent of the US is also to challenge the argument, also made against Black Lives Matter UK, that Black radicals in Europe are responding to genuinely oppressive conditions, rather than seeking to mimic the US, where, it is conceded, conditions for Black people are bad. In their introduction to the collection Emejulu and Sobande note how US hegemony also means the hegemony of the narratives and concepts of some of the challenges, especially the Black challenges, internal to the US, this “has a tendency to crowd out and misunderstand other histories of Blackness and resistance.”[^ N] In her review of Alison Phipps’s Me Not You and Lola Olufemi’s Feminism Interrupted, josie sparrow argues that in part, the limits of Phipps’s analysis are derived from an attempted generalisation of concepts that may be appropriate to the US to struggles and social formations with very different structures and histories.

We are internationalists and anti-imperialists, and we hope to reflect this in what and how we publish. We intend, as soon as we can afford it, to publish high-quality translations of international writing - in part as a means of understanding the points of difference and the points of commonality in socialist and emancipatory struggles around the world.

In the bad new times, we aim to continue the excellent work we have done on Wales, and to remedy our failure to engage fully with Scotland (though we have published some useful work ). Though not part of Britain, we will continue to engage with Ireland both North and South; ‘Bad New Times’ features Dan Baker’s valuable and extensive interview with Daniel Finn on his One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA. Ireland, of course, too forms part of the colonial development of policing that has been domesticated, as analysed by James Trafford.

Culture is Ordinary.

If the active minority continue to allow themselves too exclusively to think of immediate political and economic objectives, the pass will be sold, culturally, behind their backs.
Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy14

Being less governed by a strategy determined by “Corbynism” will also give us more space for cultural coverage. This will be reflected both in longer, expansive, theoretically innovative pieces like Toby Manning’s wonderful essay on Prince as Acid Communism in this issue or earlier pieces like Dan Barrow’s analysis of “the ambivalent bitterness of ‘A Design for Life’”, in a piece, which notably, unlike the “new times” line, is able to grasp both the new possibilities of post-Fordism and what was lost, or Holly Firmin’s exploration of the postwar new towns with their limits a result of their not being socialist enough ,or in the shorter (though no less rigorous) pieces in our new Culture is Ordinary section.

Culture is Ordinary takes its title from Raymond Williams’s greatest early essay, which, amongst much else of huge value, presents a significant challenge to dominant strands of Marxism and their inability to recognise what truly matters if it does not emerge in a way compatible with existing categories (or, we could, add strategic contours). Williams writes,

when the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture, and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I asked them then, where on earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.15

Culture is often, though not always, where emergent struggles first and most clearly register and are contested; it is where contradictions appear, and where new meanings are made both together and in conflict. The effects of the Black Lives Matter struggles on and through culture are explored in both Christiana Spens’s iconoclasm piece and in Jude Wanga’s analysis of the impact of BLM on football. As Wanga argues, the power footballers had as workers was what made the Premier League endorse Black Lives Matter, on whom they were dependent on to restart the season. However, the slick and consciously anti-political form that endorsement has taken, marks that whilst footballers have had the power to have effects, it is still within a system they do not control and which is determined by other forces, much of the challenge has been deflected or smoothed over. There remains much to do, but,

There is a way forward, though whether it can be achieved easily is another matter. The greatest successes of lockdown have been driven by players, with some support amongst fans and the media. That is to give more direct power and influence to players - essentially those who should already be taking more control over the means of production. The players are the product, without them nothing is possible. There is no way for the higher-ups to cover for them, there are no potential scabs who could be sufficient replacement. The focus now must be for players to grasp their influence, have they done in patches, impressively. If they were to organise, agree a loose set of objectives and continue their demands, then we could even dream of player-led, genuine progress being normalised.

The status of footballers, even elite level ones, as workers, albeit of a very ambiguous sort (largely from working class backgrounds, productive, waged workers, yet also, at the top-level incredibly wealthy), the intersection of this through race and the cultural effects of this – cultural effects that cannot be addressed without materialist analysis – are also explored by Sanaa Qureshi. Sanaa explores this both in the context of the restart of the Premier League but also the role thrust upon footballers as ‘role models’ in communicating government health messages. As Qureshi argues, this role, coupled with an ideological framing rooted in the idea that working class people, particularly young working class Black people should know their place, saw both intensified tabloid surveillance of footballers and their becoming vessels for popular frustration.

In Culture is Ordinary we also have the first of Jack Frayne-Reid’s regular columns, exploring Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour and the release of “Murder Most Foul”, Dylan’s first new work as a songwriter since 2012.

We also have what we hope will the first of many in-depth interviews with left-wing cultural figures, with Jude Wanga interviewing Billy Lunn from the Subways. Culture, as well as being a site of struggle, can, of course, also be a place of freedom, and in that place of freedom a working out of something other to the existing state of things. As Lunn says of his interest in literature,

the infinite love that’s bound up in my unwillingness to hurt anyone like I was myself hurt by others is actually a beautiful kind of strength. And I refuse point blank to stand for any mockery or derision of that. Literature has always been that place I go to where I can explore the good away from a society that is, frankly, hell-bent on causing and perpetuating the misery of others.

We are also honoured to feature in Culture is Ordinary a series of dispatches from the Trevor Bastard Extended Universe, possibly the 21st Century’s (and definitely Twitter’s) great (sur)realist masterpiece of interconnectivity.

The bad new times have seen socialists who want to flinch from confrontations (which they dub “cultural” or even “liberal”), essentially abandoning crucial areas of human (and extra-human) experience and struggle, as well as some of the most oppressed, dominated, excluded and marginalised people. We reject this position entirely. We know there is a culture war (unhappy as we may be about the military metaphor), and we’re prepared to fight it. As Williams writes: “Culture is Ordinary: that is where we must start”.16

We are not abandoning an interest in the Labour Party. We still believe in the need to contest the state, including through Parliamentary means, though how useful Labour is for that contestation at the moment is, at the very least, an open question. In ‘Bad New Times’, we have two important critiques of Labour. The first, by Zaynah M, comes from from the perspective of how race operated in the leadership contest and its immediate aftermath, and concludes that the period “where we could be respected in our identities, our expertise, and our unique experiences and challenges is now presented as at best a blip, and at worst a stain on what the Party actually stands for”. The second critique, by Sylvia M, is around the Party’s institutionalised transphobia (something shared with much of the wider labour movement. For Sylvia. trans liberatory demands in the context of the Party, “now feel like they come from a period when we could invest more hope in Labour.” Both authors are unsentimental about Corbynism, the leadership and wider project often fell significantly short of what was required around anti-racism and trans liberation, but there were possibilities. Of course, it is very often through a juxtaposition of ‘serious’, economic and political concerns with unimportant, ‘metropolitan’ cultural politics that struggles against racism and transphobia are dismissed.

We are also including in “Bad New Times”, even though we published it directly following Starmer’s election, Tom Blackburn’s “What Next for the Labour Left”. As part of Transmissions, we will be continuing to run Nicky Hutchinson’s regular column analysing the situation of socialists in Labour.

Stuart Hall’s editorial for the first New Left Review understood socialism in Britain as being in a “missionary”, not insurrectionary, phase. While we would want to refuse the religious-colonial associations of the former term, we view the current situation similarly. This means an emphasis on education, persuasion, and the making and clarification of arguments in an essentially hostile situation, along with the task of, as William Morris put it, “making socialists”. The making of socialists, moreover, is not us preaching to a passive audience, it is also a process in which we learn and are made. We do not believe in a doctrine that “divides society into two parts” with us as socialist educators “superior to society” – “self-changing” is part of revolutionary practice.

To understand the phase we are in and the task we must undertake requires that we understand quite how badly we have lost. Our opponents also argue that we have been decisively defeated (though the persistence of their repulsive harrying of Jeremy Corbyn suggests some doubt on their part) and they are not wrong about this. They are, however, very wrong in saying that, because we lost, Corbynism meant nothing, and that the scale of defeat means we must necessarily adapt to the world of power. At the very least we learnt what could be possible. We discovered and created collective capacities—things we did not even know we were capable of! We built connections, communities, new institutions (including but not limited to New Socialist), even as the old institutions proved woefully inadequate to what we discovered in and between ourselves. This matters, and must continue to matter.

During the election campaign we ran pieces by Tom Williams and josie sparrow, which remain crucial, even though we lost. As Tom wrote:

the very act of being part of a mass canvass- inherently a collective endeavour- feels like a challenge to neoliberal subjectivity. When we are joined on dark, wet, windy streets by strangers, we are- as well as hopefully increasing the chances of a Labour government- also increasing our collective potential.

Or, in josie’s words:

the last few weeks have seen this process of refusal and commitment being lived politically. As more and more of us take to the streets to try and interrupt, even slightly, the nihilistic teleology of the ruling regime, there’s a sense of miracle, of magic, ordinary and beautiful. People coming together, bonded by hope, by determination, by justice and love and compassion.

These experiences still matter and we must make them continue to matter.

One particular risk of holding on to consolation (and consolation is very different from working through what continues to matter) comes in responses to the Labour Leaks report. We do not want to underestimate what it shows in terms of sabotage by the party bureaucracy. Indeed, the revelations have vindicated our argument in “A Vow of Silence”, which we wrote in the wake of the election that, the party bureaucracy and much of the PLP constituted itself a party within a party, willing to go to great lengths to prevent Labour from winning on a left programme and always seeking “even if it required a heavy election defeat…for party members to be taught a lesson and to be forced into a return to placidity”. The leaked report, moreover, as well as vindicating what we argued, shows that the public wrecking, which we chronicled, was only the tip of the iceberg. However, we didn’t win in 2017 (and any serious socialist project within Labour requires subduing the state within the Labour Party), and we lost badly in 2019. The risk is the 2017 election becomes the object of not only consolation but bilious melancholy for decades. We cannot let what-might-have-beens and the fact that we would have won an honest contest in 2017 tie us to the desire to eternally return to that moment’s good old things.

We cannot correct the sabotage of 2017 now, though we can learn from it. We can, however, demand that the racism in the report be addressed. A focus on sabotage risks sidelining these demands, which still have an effective character. The report documents institutional racism in the Party and that still exists. This institutional racism includes antisemitism, the failure of the party within the party do its job and take antisemitism seriously, thereby failing to protect Jewish members. It also includes Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism, particularly, misogynoir. As Zaynah M writes,

all that one can really think after revelations like this—the content of which will not have come as a complete surprise to many of us—is that it is finally confirmed that those who posture as ‘anti-racist’ hate us just as much as those who wear their prejudices openly. We are easy votes: all that is needed is to appear less racist than the other party does for as long as it is expedient—and then we can be easily thrown to the wolves when the white vote is needed.

Ironically, those on “our side” who are now the greatest partisans of adaptation to the world of power are those who want to argue that we have not been decisively defeated, and that, through clever strategy, we can continue to have effects on and through a Starmer-led Labour. They are Frost’s “clever gentlemen of Strategy… the little advocate-generals of another type of answer”, once again “leering…from somewhere in the background of struggle but the foreground of History”. Many have been tempted to claim we “won the argument”. Maybe. But this confuses becoming hegemonic with being hegemonised. The articulation of some of our themes, disarticulated from a wider ethical project and the development and organisation of a set of forces to push beyond the original programme, in the politics of our opponents, with no modifications to the rest of their programme, is not a victory. The capitalist state intervening, as centred in parts of Adam Blanden’s analysis of Johnsonism, to maintain capital’s reproduction—that is, the reproduction of a web of economic and (what are treated as) extra-economic relationships of exploitation, domination, marginalisation and exclusion—is not socialism. At best, it is a mark of our opponents’ incapacity to produce ideas or to resolve the crisis within its existing limits. That the state is incapable of producing its own ideas to resolve the interlocking crises that lie behind the bad new times should not be a cause for unambiguous optimism. The limits of the situation for the state are not only the regime of capital but also limits that have been imposed on it from below through centuries of struggle. The state may resolve the crisis through the violent transcendence of the limited forms of democracy and humanisation that we have won from them - and the already cohered power of the state always gives capital a considerable power to act decisively against us in any crisis. Indeed, as Rhian E. Jones argues in her contribution to the Johnsonism discussion, “Boris” as a figure - with far more in common with a grotesque out of Gillray than with Churchill - cannot be understood outside of an at least partial regression to pre-democratic politics. “Boris” is the form this regression takes in Britain.

Before December 12th, there may well have been a justification for a unity strategy from Corbyn and McDonnell—something like the right Eurocommunist attempt to build, if not alliances with, then the begrudging tolerance of certain fractions of capital, parts of the state, and the Parliamentary Labour Party. A price (and perhaps quite a high one) would have to have been paid in this trimming of sails for the chance to take office (and perhaps stop some disruption of the exercise of power once in office), but it would have been a price for something. Now, though, no more “welcoming bandits as if they’re in-laws”. Now, there is nothing to be gained from acceding to the coalitional impulse, critiqued by Williams in “Socialists and Coalitionists” and grounded in his earlier criticism, quoted by Tom Gann in his introduction in “The British Left”:

the fact that the Labour Party is a coalition has led to an evident poverty in theory: any attempt to go beyond quite general definitions leads at once to strains on this complicated alliance. The prospect of Parliamentary power, within the existing political system, leads regularly to a muting of necessary arguments and the needs of the Party, in parliamentary and electoral terms are given a quite frequent priority over political principle.

Or, as Mary Robertson argues, there was a papering over of disagreements within a broad coalition whilst Corbyn was leader but now, “for the left to continue to have influence by defending and building on the programme developed under Corbyn and McDonnell, both inside and outside the Party, it will require more coherence than has hitherto been necessary.”

As Lenin’s first editorial for Iskra states: “before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all draw firm and definite lines of demarcation.” Whilst we will not be needlessly antagonistic, at this point we believe the task of clarity, including clarity on political differences within the left, is more important than unity or coalition. As well as theoretical or policy commitments, this extends to ethical concerns: we will continue, for example, to assert that trans rights are more important than the demand to support a unified left slate for the NEC elections. If, as Lenin put it, experiencing the low ebb of the revolution less than six years after its victory, that means “better fewer, but better,” so be it. Perhaps, following James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis, “so be it”, precisely because it is not a motto in the way a decontextualised “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” is, serves as a starting point for the approach of “bad new times”. “So be it”, as we are within conditions not of our choosing. But this is not a basis for accommodation with the world of power, “we must do what we can do” and must continue to assert what we do know, as the basis for that:

We know that a [human]is not a thing and is not to be placed at the mercy of things. We know that air and water belong to all [humankind] and not merely to industrialists. We know that a baby does not come into the world merely to be the instrument of someone else’s profit. We know that democracy does not mean the coercion of all into a deadly—and, finally, wicked—mediocrity but the liberty for all to aspire to the best that is in [them], or that has ever been.

As Nicky Hutchinson’s columns have argued, the preservation and development of an independent socialist capacity to act, organise, and think is worth much more in the medium-to-long term than subordination, based on wishful thinking, to any figure of the centre, be they Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner, or Ed Miliband.

Morris opposed the making of socialists to the moderation and veiling of antagonisms and entanglement with “the thousand follies of party politics.” Bad New Times means exactly that disentanglement and stepping back, under Starmer, from the normal situation whereby, we have returned to the situation described by Robert West, the amateur detective and Tory MP, in Ellen Wilkinson’s The Division Bell Mystery, who considering taking a Labour MP who is “running a semi-Communist show of his own” demurs as

it was his lack of allegiance to any party that made him so dangerous a foe. All parties in the British House of Commons are more or less pledged to keep the show running somehow. There is always a bond of union somewhere at the bottom which gets the Mother of Parliaments out of the worst of her family squabbles.17

Bad New Times means certain possibilities that might have existed before are blocked and certain futures have been lost. So be it (or, Hic Rhodus, hic salta!) Other possibilities and other futures (and other histories) are open, some of these are already emergent, some are not, some we can help make, some we cannot, but we can learn from all of them.

There is nothing wrong with mourning our lost futures, but not every future has been cancelled. “Bad New Times” is not a block diagnosis, it is a commitment to the emergent and to popular capacities that mean no situation is final, no situation blocks everything that renders it temporary.


  1. i.e. the description of “the shift from the old massproduction Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post-Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” as at the heart of new times. 

  2. Raymond Williams. [1964]. 2010. Border Country. Parthian: Library of Wales. pp. 148-9. It is striking of course, that the resonant phrase, used extensively by Mark Fisher, was not coined by Bifo but by Raymond Williams, and with significantly more emotional-political charge. Fisher and Bifo’s version comes very close to the undecidability of economism/culturalism that “new times” does, with a lack of cultural possibility firmly rooted in a blockage of economic-industrial modernisation. See Mark Fisher. 2014. “The Slow Cancellation of the Future”. In Ghosts of My Life: Writing on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester: Zero Books. Williams’s conception here, like ours of “Bad New Times” is resolutely political. It seems to have been Owen Hatherley who first noticed that the phrase initially appeared in Williams not Bifo. 

  3. Theodor W. Adorno. 1992. “On Proust”. In Notes to Literature, Volume 2. Translated Shierry Weber Nicholsen. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 315. 

  4. Samuel Beckett. [1983]. 1989. “Worstward Ho!”. In Nohow On. London: John Calder. p. 101. Antonio Gramsci (1920). “Address to Anarchists”, p.188. 

  5. Antonio Gramsci. [1929-35]. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and Translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart. pp. 123-205. 

  6. Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. p. 323. 

  7. Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. p. 323. 

  8. Gramsci. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. p. 144. 

  9. Adorno. “On Proust”. p. 315. 

  10. Cedric Robinson. [1983]. 2000 Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina Press. p. Xxviii. 

  11. Robinson. Black Marxism. p. Xxx. 

  12. Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh. [1982]. 2015. The Anti-Social Family. London: Verso. p. 8. 

  13. Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande. 2019. To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe. London: Pluto. p. 4. 

  14. Richard Hoggart. [1957]. 2009. The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life. London: Penguin. p. 292. 

  15. Raymond Williams. [1958]. 1989. “Culture is Ordinary”. In Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism. Edited by Robin Gable. London: Verso. p. 8. 

  16. Williams. “Culture is Ordinary”. p. 3. 

  17. Ellen Wilkinson. [1932]. 2019. The Division Bell Mystery. London: The British Library. p. 135. 


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Tom Gann (@Tom_Gann)

Founding editor


The Editors (@newsocialistuk)

The New Socialist editorial collective.