I don’t know which is worse, the awful BBC Two series ‘The Toughest Place to Be a…’ or David Milliband’s latest speech on the future of the Left. They’re actually pretty indistinguishable.
The gambit of the BBC miniseries is a familiar one in late capitalism, where it’s easier to defend the political and economic system we live under in the West by holding up examples of how it could be worse than by pointing to ways in which it is good. The special twist it is given, and the timing of its broadcast, make it a perfect tool of tory propaganda. The premiss is that three British public-sector workers – a paramedic, a bus driver, and a midwife (pictured above) – are sent to what we might as well, since it reflects the spirit of the programme, call benighted countries, to see how life is lived there. The paramedic is sent to Guatemala City, where instead of dealing with victims of car crashes she is brought face to face with the extreme violence of the city’s gun culture; the midwife is sent to Liberia, where very basic levels of medical supplies are matched by levels of sensitivity to mothers that she finds difficult to swallow.
The message of each of the documentaries is the same, and to preserve the myth that it is not BBC propaganda, it is the protagonists themselves who draw the obvious platitudinous conclusion: ‘gosh, it’s so awful here (outside Britain); we don’t know we’re born; we shouldn’t complain about anything ever again’. So, a midwife is upset by Liberian norms of what she sees as hurrying deliveries and disregarding mothers (we see babies put on sideboards by the telephone rather than on mother’s breast as soon as born, for instance). This repulsion is grounded in her deep cultural commitment to the British way of doing things (it is clear, incidentally, that the Liberian mothers and midwives see things very differently. When the Englishwoman is allowed to perform a delivery according to her own preference, ending by placing the baby on the mother’s breast, the mother is unmoved and uninterested: in order to feel the ‘loss’ of this sensitivity to mother, mother of course has to receive the cultural training to consider this a norm). Yet the English midwife manages, by the end of the programme, to voice the opposite and classically postmodern view: she says she is now impatient with British women who want a epidural to release them from their pain, after seeing the greater suffering of the Liberian women, which their midwives are both powerless and culturally unpredisposed to do anything about. So, a sympathy with the plight of Liberians that is created by her English cultural situation is then turned against the suffering of individuals in England. You think you’re in pain? Get over it: you’re in Sutton Coldfield. It could be much worse. I’ve got no sympathy.
There, in a nutshell, is the principal defence of the postmodern late-capitalist system of the West. ‘Yes, there are problems, yes you might feel the need to march about them (we’ll ignore you, of course), but basically you should shut up: you’ve never had it so good, and if you would just take the time to visit anywhere else, you’d see that. Yes, we might be making cuts that will drastically reduce the quality of life of millions of people in this country, but are you seriously comparing this to the suffering of these Liberian women, these families in Guatemala City? Get a grip.’ Something of this cynicism inevitably feeds through even into reporting of the revolutions across the Arab world. The very poorest will always objectively make the suffering – no less genuine for being less extreme – of the Western worker seem trifling, at whatever stage we find ourselves in the economic cycle of capitalism. The loss of the EMA or vast increases in the cost of university education (where even Sweden has now joined the ranks of those who charge) looks like a piffling matter – which it is not – simply by being juxtaposed with something worse. The point is to develop a skin so thick to suffering that only the very extremest forms of it are to evince the merest flutter of sympathy. The capitalist class has had this thick carapace for centuries; it has enabled it to garner its enormous material advantage at the expense of almost the entirety of the population. What late capitalism, with its mania for voyeuristic–tourist consumption of the ‘invigorating, inspiring, authentic’ suffering of the world’s poor and disenfranchised, attempts to do is to make the rest of the population, including those who suffer most in the West, develop exactly the same sympathy-blocking shell. It’s for this reason that I said the timing of this awful BBC programme could not have been better. Cameron and Osborne must have held house parties to watch it.
But David Miliband’s latest speech, available on the New Statesman website here, maunders on for a few thousand words to make much the same point, albeit from a different angle. For him, as for the government, there is no alternative to the structure of late capitalism. It is, as Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, and others have noted, literally easier today to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The Thatcherite project we’re still enduring packages this very conveniently. When the soviet system fell two decades ago, so (according to the myth) did the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. Here, demonstrably, was the historic and total failure of the Left, of any opposition to the onward cancerous growth of capital. Miliband, a committed centrist, of course believes this wholeheartedly. The speech is peppered with his faith that it is only by being more centrist, more committed to capitalism (more efficient, but fairer, is one of his mantras), that the European Left can regain office. The failure of the Left, for him, is a failure to be centrist enough.
This, ultimately, is why the West is the toughest place to be a Leftist. Major European parties of the Left are in disarray not for the reasons Miliband thinks but because with the fall of soviet-style communism they threw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather than asking how the third sequence of communism could be formed, specifically by rejecting the barbaric and ineffective party system of the classic second-sequence communist model (what we saw in the Soviet Union and still see in China), the Left simply capitulated. Capital is the only game in town. And when that appears to be the case, those parties become irrelevant. Yes, we can adopt some of their social changes that have little effect on capital (gay marriage, etc.) so that capital continues to develop its human face, but the really costly elements that the Left bequeathed to early 21st-century Europe – in particular the social-democratic welfare state – must be shed. Already New Labour was doing this, but the tories can do it much more efficiently, and they are.
So European parties of the Left, having forsaken their historic commitments with the fall of soviet-style communism, have made themselves irrelevant not by straying from the centre ground but by approaching it. Until they regain a radical critical economic theory, they will always advance the interests of the rich and powerful. But while the propaganda machine of postmodern popular culture like ‘The Toughest Place to Be…’ continues to run, and the sympathy of the worker for the worker – what we might translate from emotional to political terms as solidarity – continues its drastic erosion, there is little hope.