John McDonnell this week claimed at the Labour Party Conference that Marx “has come back into fashion”. There are two key points to address here. The first is that I think he’s wrong. He’s wrong whatever way you look at it. Whether you’re looking at a national level to a country that has just elected a Tory majority government on the back of a campaign focussed on a particularly neoliberal, austerity based economic ideology or a global level to a world where Trump leads the US presidential polling, Germany and the ECB give Greece no wiggle room on debt and China’s currency devaluation threatens global growth. He’s wrong. At the very most, by pointing to the limited successes of Syriza, Podemos, Bernie Sanders and the recent election of his own party leader and Bezzie-Comrade, we could argue that Keynes is on the verge of a limited comeback. But Marx and fashion? The closest it comes is the ridiculous average length of facial hair being sported in Shoreditch right now.
The second point this thing raises is an important one. Would somebody please move Mr. McDonnell away from the microphone? Pick him up, put him in the shadow chancellor’s office and let him get on with the important work or creating an economic policy that will probably be scrapped by the next leader in time for the 2020 election. Don’t let him near a microphone, a dictaphone or, just to be safe, a mobile phone. He’s already becoming the Prince Philip to Corbyn’s queen, the Joe Biden to his Obama. The annoying little gaffe-prone thorn in the new leader’s side. First there was the awkward spectacle of McDonnell taking to BBC question time to apologise for his previous suggestion that IRA militants should be honoured. Already Corbyn has had to spend a good amount of time dealing with the statements of his closest parliamentary ally – just on Sunday morning a chunk of his interview on The Andrew Marr show was dedicated to remarks McDonnell had previously made in support of an insurrection. And now, as if to prove that it’s not just remarks from the historical record that can be pulled up and used against him, he stands in front of the nation’s media and announces that Marx has come back into fashion.
At this point it’s important to highlight the difference between an actual faux pas and one in the context of the British media and political scene. One does not have to say something that is particularly offensive or untrue for it to fall under the latter heading. So while McDonnell may have a point in highlighting the fact that during the troubles there were two sides acting with horrific violence and a lack of decency and now it’s now apparently OK to speak in terms of great reverence for the British soldiers that abused human rights and committed murder but not for the members of the IRA who did the same. Similarly the student led protests of 2010 that sparked the insurrection comments might well have had more of a narrative of justifiable political resistance running through them than the tabloid press gave them credit for in their predictable coverage of riot and disorder rhetoric. I agree, I was there that summer (and very nearly got arrested on two separate occasions!) but saying so, especially in such sensational terms, just invites headlines and criticism.
These latest Marx comments will hopefully be lost in the sea of news on a day when McDonnell’s economic policy took centre stage (and the UNGA schedule meant inevitable Putin-Obama headlines) but it’s unfortunate nonetheless because it shows the same unsophisticated approach towards issuing public comment. Yes, again, a deeper point is probably entirely legitimate. Marxist analysis of the global political economy does have a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of the 2008 financial crisis and the response from developed economies since that fact, even if such analysis does fail to offer a workable alternative. Marxist writer David Harvey’s work on financialisation is enough evidence of that, but saying so in the terms utilised by the shadow chancellor on Monday merely invite a front page of The Sun with a dodgy mock-up picture of McDonnell and Stalin studying Das Kapital together or something equally ludicrous.
So when McDonnell says something controversial there may be a valid argument in there, in fact I would go so far as to say there sometimes definitely is but it’s pretty universally accepted that some truths or talking points just aren’t worth the political capital required to espouse them. It’s the same reason no politician worth their salt addresses the need for an evidence based approach to reforming drug laws. Because even though to do so would be good, sensible policy that would probably save lives and money, it offers every blogger with a pirated copy of photoshop the opportunity to create a meme of you with a big spliff hanging out of your mouth and a rolled up twenty pound note in your nostril and that’s a really hard image to shake off when you’re trying to create serious welfare policy or reform education or address a serious international crisis or whatever ultimately more important issue you’re not willing to jeopardise in order to say something true but twistable. It’s the same reason no one in the public eye will say that Diana was unspeakably rich, often out of touch and not always that nuanced in her views of the world. Because even though it’s a true and defensible statement, if you’ve got something more important to say, it’s not worth defending it.
It’s a shame that politicians have to think in such terms, of course. We’d all be much better served by a political system that was more invested in detail and discourse than soundbite and spin but in the interests of living in reality we have to deal with the nature of headlines and mudslinging. The fault for that is no one’s but our collective own. If we didn’t consume such superficial offerings so readily the media would soon change. If The Sun, The Mail and The Mirror weren’t the three national newspapers with the biggest circulation, if the nuanced debate interested more than a tiny fraction of the population then perhaps we wouldn’t have to produce representatives scared to put a foot wrong, but this is the way it is and while it remains that way someone needs to take McDonnell, gag him whenever he’s within 5 miles of an unprepared statement and hire a team around him to construct the words he actually wants to shoot into the public domain.