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Labour won’t end anti-Semitism until we ditch ‘Puppet-Master’ ideas about politics
Keir Starmer’s promise to axe the Labour complaints team is the latest attempt to end the party’s ongoing, self-inflicted anti-Semitism crisis. From the Chakrabarti inquiry to the Panorama documentary to the EHRC investigation, the failure to end anti-Jewish prejudice is a five-year open sore.
Proposals like Starmer’s are welcome, it goes without saying. Yet failures of institutions and processes — and efforts to fix these processes — only tell half the story. They show how Labour’s high command have dragged their feet on anti-Semitism, but not why.
To understand the root cause, let’s look at high-profile Corbynites’ view politics. John McDonnell regarded criticism of Corbyn after the Copeland by-election as a soft coup. Len McClusky suspected that MI5 were coordinating to undermine Labour. Paul Mason described Corbyn-sceptic MPs as a “pro-1%” machine, determined to silence “the workers, the poor and the young.” Owen Jones envisages “powerful groups” who “manage” democracy to protect their interests. George Monbiot lamented “A small handful, using lies and distractions and confusion [to] stifle [our] latent desire for change.” Diane Abbott described the 2016 move against Corbyn as “the Empire strikes back.” Grace Blakely writes of a “tiny elite that profits from keeping wages down, rents high and ordinary people out of politics.” Corbyn himself depicts a system not just overly beneficial to the rich, but ‘rigged’ by them.
Among Corbyn supporters, correspondingly, discussions concern ‘agendas’ and ‘coercion’. 2015 Corbyn backers were four times as likely as Liz Kendall supporters to believe ‘the world is run by a secretive elite’.
The mindset that guides this regards all problems as authored. It says we live in a thinly-disguised dictatorship, not a democracy. To a greater or lesser degree, it conjures the image of a Puppet Master, oppressing and manipulating us.
Corbyn and his outriders claim to reject overt, ‘tinfoil hat’ conspiracism, of course — especially the kind that bleeds into anti-Semitism. Yet their analysis relies on powerful elites silencing the public will, with ideas about the ‘deep state’ or the ‘MSM’ taken as read. They avoid ideas at the thick end of the Puppet Master wedge, while championing those at the thinner end.
Momentum’s flagship educational video about anti-Semitism was a good example. Released in early 2019, it began by citing as ‘true’ conspiracies about Tony Blair — before cautioning its members against those which involve Jews.
If you regard inequality or poverty as products of elite design then it presents a problem. Most of the population aren’t inhumanly callous enough to oppress everyone for an extra zero on their bank balance. Nor are they superhumanly competent enough to do so.
Hence, if you believe the Puppet Master myth you must also explain how — in a democracy — ‘inhuman superhumans’ came to run society.
The first option is that those born into privilege — who are overrepresented at the top of our institutions — are genetically more inhuman and superhuman. Ideas about class eugenics, however, aren’t generally something the left goes in for.
The second option is that those with influence are corrupted by power; that high office cultivates inhuman-superhumanism. However, the implication of this is that we’re all, latently, self-interested machines — including those on the left.
The third option is that we live in a sort of ‘malignocracy’: inhuman superhumans work their way to the top from different start-points. Yet this is a gift-wrapped argument against social mobility. Working-class people who presently hold power are, it suggests, more likely to be inhuman superhumans than the benign toffs they replace.
None of these ideas are especially compelling (or progressive), which is why sensible people avoid the Puppet Master myth. But for those willing to look harder for the inhuman superhumans there’s an illicit fourth option, tucked under the counter. The existence of the Jewish community offers a white-skinned and often economically successful ethnic group, hiding in plain sight.
Those who buy into this are endorsing the ‘socialism of fools’, as it’s known. Their Puppet Master start-point is the same as Corbyn and co’s — they’ve just taken it further.
This is why Corbyn often baulks at properly condemning anti-Semitism, and why his allies are so bad at spotting it. They’re selling the gateway drug on the school gates — in the form of the Puppet Master analysis. Hence, they’re ill-equipped to preach abstinence when their customers move onto harder stuff, and start talking about the Rothchilds or George Soros. To do so they’d have to abandon an unthinking, lifelong assumption about how society works.
This is not to deny the existence of a super-rich, who are wealthier than anyone should be — nor to suggest that large companies pay as little taxes as they can. But it’s to refute that these individuals and groups spend their time plotting and colluding to keep the rest of us down. And it’s to deny that the efforts of the few who do are the main cause of our unequal society.
The alternative to the Puppet Master is the banal truth that those with influence are less powerful and better-intentioned than we imagine. Problems stem from organic and anarchic forces — not grand design.
Sadly, Britain’s main opposition party has been taken over by those who regard this obvious reality as an inconvenience or a falsehood. To really tackle Labour’s racism problem, Starmer and the others must go beyond structures and protocols, and root out the Puppet Master world view.
Chris Clarke is the author of Warring Fictions: left populism and its defining myths (Policy Network and Rowman and Littlefield). He tweets at @WarringFictions.