The Matter of Corbynism
17 min read

The Matter of Corbynism

What follows is likely excessively blunt for which I can only apologise. Matt Bolton’s widely shared piece should be welcomed for its…

What follows is likely excessively blunt for which I can only apologise. Matt Bolton’s widely shared piece should be welcomed for its desire to examine the present political situation with clarity and rigour. It also offers a point around which to consider the current conjecture, which is what I will attempt here while offering some criticisms of the piece.

The most commonly highlighted sentence in the post runs:

Rather than stopping to ask why people may think the way they do, to think about how their material conditions, their relationship to capital and forms of work and social reproduction, may affect their understanding of the world

This is sound methodology and part of the best traditions of Marxism to which Matt aims to subscribe. However, I want to suggest that if this is the standard to which analysis is to be judged, this piece of writing fails.

There seem to be two major points of the piece which Matt is glad to continue defending after some clarification on Twitter and in comments. First that Corbynism is a “simulation of a social movement”. Second that the situation now is so grave that Corbyn must go and be replaced by another Labour leader more able to win elections. I will respond to these points in turn and conclude with an examination of the virality of this piece in accordance with this same methodology.

the vast majority of ‘new members’, joining the party was not a promise of future activity, but a gesture of general support — perhaps similar to signing a petition — for whatever they thought Corbyn as Labour leader symbolised […] It is rather a simulation of a social movement — a form of clicktivism, of gesture politics based on an identification with ‘what Jeremy stands for’. It makes people feel like they are part of a ‘social movement’ without having to engage in the tricky, boring work of actually building one.

That Corbynism is a simulation of a social movement seems to rely on an unspoken account of what a “real” social movement would look like. Matt maintains that the sheer numbers joining the Labour party should not be seen as indication that a social movement is on its way and that on the ground the tricky work is being abandoned. At the most basic level I agree that people joining the Labour party is no indication of a social movement, though it might be one indicator, but feel this criticism is part of a genre of criticisms that are not especially valid.

Such critiques should be highly familiar to anyone who has been involved in anti-austerity activism since 2008. The Arab Spring, (especially) the Occupy movement or the student movement in the UK in 2010 attracted significant criticism that it was filled by fly by night clicktivism or, more carefully, was a politics without a left; an individualised and atomised politics blundering around without ideological coherence, lacking significant institutional support or wider framing from a left decimated by neoliberalism. One can see similar criticisms offered against online intersectional feminism or safer spaces activism on campus: that this is lightweight false politics compared to the nitty gritty “real world” politics or activism. With Black Lives Matter, outside of ever present reactionary racism, critiques attempt to police activists in the name of an imagined past of “good” struggle. Why are these protesters blocking roads (which Martin Luther King did) as opposed to adopting the peaceful (which were at the time seen as violent and disruptive) tactics of the classic civil rights movement? Why can’t they be like the “real” civil rights movement? These criticisms often veer significantly into what is called “digital dualism” — that there is a hard and fast distinction between the digital and “real” worlds. These politics we are told represent a flight into fantasy because of their digitisation or represent a typical “millennial” lack of personal discipline, laziness and serious commitment. These critiques pre-date 2008 of course. In 2007 Slavoj Žižek was busy telling anti-war protesters to remain in their homes because their presence only reenforced the logic of freedom endorsed by George W. Bush’s imperialist adventures. Better for “materialists” to have a nice long think about things. Like asking where all the “real” protest music has gone despite the clearly fertile atmosphere for such artistic production, asking where the “real” social movement is, as opposed to the fake ones on offer, is a perennial of critique.

It seems to me that what is really needed is what some formulation a social movement looks like now. I am highly sympathetic to criticisms that simply calling something a social movement does not make it so. Well constructed criticisms from Corbyn’s left, echoed by classic criticisms from the likes of Ralph Miliband and within the anarchist movement, opine that the problem is that all this effort with Labour, even for a much better project like that which surrounds Corbyn, is a waste of time when a social movement could be built instead (or in Miliband’s case an alternative left-wing party). Some critics would extent this to say that all involvement in parliamentary democracy or electoral politics is a similar distraction from the task. It seems completely necessary therefore to ask what the shape of a social movement really is like, one that is capable of at least of moving us beyond neoliberalism and austerity and into some other social formation. And relatedly, what the intellectual hegemony that accompanies it might look like, if this is something worth seeking.

Some of the work here would involve looking back at older social movements. I think we would see that they were perhaps not characterised by the high levels of commitment and “strong ties” that Matt’s (absent) account of “real” social movements seems to suggest. People had a range of levels of support and participation from voting for left wing parties, to buying left wing papers to arguing about left wing ideas down the pub and attending cultural events. There is a reason that there is a category of “fellow travellers” in any social movement. Due to “digital dualism” people tend to think that commitment to a political project is less because it is “virtual”. I think it sometimes commitment and its power can be more due to the specific character of contemporary life and capitalism. Offering an account of what a social movement is like in 2016 and where it might be effective would need to consider carefully a situation where there is digital saturation of the whole means of communication, production and exchange. This isn’t to suggest a simplistic analysis here that conjures fantasies of unending victory because everyone has Twitter. But the changes in the relations of production in the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and the opportunities and risks this terrain provides should be carefully examined. Perhaps the social movements under post-Fordism look different from those under Fordism, the era, more or less, of the “classic” social movement?

I do not seek to offer such an account here but would nod to the literature in social movement studies on the subject that might be helpful. Particularly The Logic of Connective Action by W. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg is a point of reference. This suggests that we should consider peer to peer networks in a hybrid political landscape as part of a new account of “organisationally enabled networks” where organisation light the blue touch paper but the large scale work is carried out in “personalised communication mechanism” both through groups of existing friends and via online communication. I would want to suggest that social media and technology accelerates and speeds up some of the factors which were already present in “classic” social movements while shifting their structures and opportunity costs considerably. While total technological optimism is a foolish stance, equally given to ignorance of the dynamics of classes and particularly the neo-colonial extractive supply lines for all digital technology, that digital technology has changed the dynamics of political action is undeniable.

While one should be clear sighted regarding the limitations of the digitalisation of political campaigning for almost all causes, one should also acknowledge their power. Certainly mainstream accounts of the last election suggest that digital campaigning of a particular kind by the Conservatives aided their victory immensely, while poorly thought through and resourced campaigning damaged Labour. The Conservatives knew what any digital marketer will tell you: that if you want to reach a broad base of people Facebook is where its at, Twitter is tiny niche, yet this was the concentration of Labour in the last election. The advantages conferred by digital and data led campaigning is confirmed by literatures looking at the case in US democratic politics. While one should, again, be cautious of an instantaneous transfer of these kind of forces into a potential Corbyn electoral victory, it seems probable that if properly organised a combination of a well run digital strategy with an effective and well organised “ground war” could deliver victory. The Conservatives ground war was extremely unsophisticated in technical operation but was highly effective. The Tories simply bused activist into key marginal seats, no questions asked if they were even party members and did this work carefully without the glare of the media of talking to people, backed by huge amounts of targeted mail shots to key marginals. Correctly tooled and resourced by an enthusiastic and diverse base of working people brought in by Corbyn, Labour could do much better than the Tories last time on these fronts, even while they are still likely to struggle in the “air war” of the national media. The neoliberal media are always going to be fiercely opposed to Corbyn’s project, just as they were fiercely opposed to Ed Miliband’s. It is difficult to know what to do here.

Therefore I think it is wrong to drive a hard and fast wedge between the difference between ‘extra-parliamentary activism’ and a ‘political party’ and think the literature on the subject shows this. In today’s world it seems difficult to suggest that there is a sharp edge between a “real” social movement, a single issue campaign and an electoral vehicle. The claim that digitally mediated single issue campaigns or single issue campaigns generally are totally useless to either an electoral campaign or a modern social movement seems to be false. This is evident even anecdotally. The same person will sign the occasional petition, attend protests and even take contentious action and vote for an anti-austerity party. People are capable of doing both/and if the procedures attain their political ends. For good materialist reasons, the political terrain is ripe for such an assemblage to have considerable success. Indeed, these materialist reasons regarding the constitution of digital capitalism are rather unappreciated by the accounts of mainstream political science. It is useful when fighting on a terrain that the whole of contemporary life is also on that terrain.

Part of the the reason why people don’t participate in the imagined activities of “traditional” social movements is that work now dominates so many of the hours of human life. I think Matt would admit he was a little unfair in declaiming people’s levels of political activity and to be fair, he does try to hedge this in the piece. After a long days work and completing the tasks of just being able to continue this work (the unwaged work that is part of what Marxist feminist inspired critiques call social reproduction), what time is left for political activism? One of the major critiques offered in the aftermath of the alter-globalisation movement from 1999 onwards was that there was an “activist mentality”. This critique — Give Up Activism — is always worth revisiting generally. The “activist mentality” is whereby people would become “activists”, political professionals inside their own groups divorced from the day to day struggles of communities. One could of course abstract this criticism and use it in other contexts, as it is a common one within anarchist circles: the union leaders are their own group apart from their worker (the radical union critique of mainstream unions), the PLP are their own group with their own internal culture apart from their membership or constituents. But though Give Up Activism does reflect on the reasons for this being something to do with isolation and the destruction of the broader political left, what it fails to capture is perhaps why you would need to “go pro”. It is partly because while in the “classic” labour movement one could be part of certain types of political activity openly during the working day, now this is impossible or likely would result in disciplinary procedures under neoliberalism. Union activity where permitted is highly squeezed. Now you don’t have the time or space to a union branch meeting, or go to a Labour branch meeting but you can probably sneak a look at that 50 comments deep Facebook argument or get involved in that WhatsApp group with fellow Corbynistas around your town. Additionally Matt seems to not appreciate that, for better or worse, people are going to meetings now. They are turning up to rallies and talks and events. They are prepared for a long struggle and are detaching themselves quite deliberately from the “MSM” narratives around Corbyn and attempting to diffuse these narratives where they exist peer to peer. Momentum are standing candidates for local office and winning them, there are increasingly “well-organised new members embedded within their local parties, taking up positions of power, standing for office”. Which leads to my next point.

It is clear that something is going on that is unprecedented and it is worth stepping back and taking stock. The Labour party has the most left wing leader of all time, significantly to the left of any other leader in its history. It seems to be some of the criticisms offered by Ralph Miliband as to why this was impossible no longer work because it has happened. When this leader is attacked, the response has been for many thousands to move to defend him. I don’t think it is fair to say that most of these people are only about Corbyn as a person. I think the vast majority seek something like the shape of Corbyn’s politics: an anti-war, anti-racist politics that dispenses with neoliberalism and its formulation as Blairism inside the Labour party. A politics attempts to offer a re-imagined social democracy distinct from its neoliberal variants in New Labour. Vitally, what Matt doesn’t offer is a material account of why Corbynism and why now? An account of “why people may think the way they do, to think about how their material conditions, their relationship to capital and forms of work and social reproduction, may affect their understanding of the world”.

Lacking this Matt is left to his own politics of truth against the supporters of Corbyn who he presumably seeks to bring to his cause or persuade to his view. Matt’s piece simply asserts what the truth of what Corbyn “really is” once we cut the crap and “people who disagree just haven’t been exposed to the ‘truth’ enough yet”. There is no account here of the “objective conditions or the workings of commodity fetishism” that lead to Corbynism which is the recommended tactic for establishing political change. That Matt’s piece falls into the same kind of politics, just to state The Truth over and over again and we are over the hill, tells us something about how commonplace this politics is. Yet, again, there isn’t anything to say why this particular politics of truth is now so commonplace, why even conspiracy theory arises. This would include talking about other politics of truth and leaking — Wikileaks and Snowden for example- as well as other actors who make this their stock in trade who are very important on the left like Noam Chomsky.

Such an material account of Corbynism would be complex but worth establishing. It would include:

  • the Peter Mair Ruling The Void style hypothesis of the hollowing of traditional social democratic parties of the West as they made friends with the neoliberal consensus. The economic reasons why this was the case.
  • Some account of Pasokification and why it has not and cannot happen under first past the post.
  • the above the exhaustion but continuation of the various networks of struggle since the 1999 alter-globalisation movement and the anti-war movement that flows through activism like Climate Camp, through to the anti-austerity activism of UKUncut et al and the student movement of 2010
  • the wider global context that includes the enthusiasms for Bernie Sanders and his insurgency in the US Democratic party
  • the rise and then defeat of SYRIZA and the emergence of Podemos from the 15-M Movement
  • the power of communication technologies in social movements since 2008
  • the institutional defeat of the left from 1979 onwards
  • at the same time the failure of capitalism to solve its various crises from the 1970s onwards
  • the shaping of the UK economy by various spatial and other “fixes” by capital to solve these crises, resulting in the severe geographic uneveness of the that economy
  • stagnant or declining wages
  • that the Conservative party offer is premised on a UK economy floated on cheap credit and house prices and that the aftermath of Brexit and the destruction of these sources of wealth seems likely to attrophy the basis of their support
  • the failure of a soft-left option like Ed Miliband
  • the rises of various forms of “populism” and its meaning and the hatred of elites and the mainstream media it accompanies
  • the fact people are making a last throw of the dice with parliamentary politics in Corbyn
  • the fact that Corbyn is seen by activists as significantly closer in attitude and politics to them than to the technocratic elitism of much of the PLP
  • the continued biting of austerity into the fabric of daily life especially for marginal groups like the disabled who are emerging to defend Corbyn
  • that the light ties to Labour might be a strength as well as a weakness as they might prevent being bogged down in internal politics for decades

This is not an exhaustive list. But lacking this, even a left wing politics opposed to Corbynism or to its left will surely fail by lacking it by its own materialist lights. One does not need to be a fan of Corbyn to recognise this is an unusual phenomena that requires detailed analysis. Without explaining the material basis of its appeal left anti-Corbynism faces a significant challenge. Moreover, it seems that a better strategy, rather than cast aspersions towards Corbyn’s supporters as passive participants in an ersatz social movement, to ask why this is the case and develop strategies to remedy it. The effort to bind the ties and channel the enthusiasm around Corbyn seems a necessary step even if one is a critic. While Corbynism is said to have a “complete lack of strategic thinking” and be “utterly devoid of cunning” is there an alternative set of strategic proposals here?

The extreme urgency of the situation seems to be a point where Matt is very strong on practicing this methodology. While I think an early general election is unlikely at this point, I do think the clarity around the stakes here is important especially given the post-Brexit right-wing regrouping. But unfortunately, Matt’s attitude seems to mis-recognise the conjecture which we are at around Corbyn. It seems clear that if Corbyn goes, the door will be locked on any genuinely left of centre Labour party for many years. Matthijs Krul argues this point quite plainly (the whole piece is very much worth reading):

The most important consideration is that the opposition to Corbyn has sabotaged him from the beginning and has never been willing to accept his huge mandate to lead Labour to the left, regardless of circumstances. To concede even a millimeter to the opposition is therefore to concede not just Corbyn’s leadership, but the very possibility of a left leadership in Labour, ever. That is what is at stake. This is also why the Unite/Tom Watson brokering of a ‘peace deal’ and the chatter about a unity candidate is hopeless: the fight is about whether the left is allowed to have any chance, however democratically legitimate within the party, at leading Labour at all.

Like Blair before and during 1997 centralising party control to his offices, Corbyn’s critics will lock all the doors afterwards. They are already attempting to do everything in their power to ensure he loses: from endlessly briefing stories to the press to inserting a prohibitively expensive fees that will price out Corbyn’s most marginalised supporter to dirty tricks with reviving old membership lists. There will doubtless be a round of purges for new registered supporters. None of the other candidates have sufficient base within the membership or personal fortitude against being leant on by the right and drifting to match the Tory party wherever they lead, or attacking benefits claimants or immigrants, both of which seem highly unlikely from Corbyn. This fact was ably shown during Ed Miliband’s premiership, where any reforming zeal he had was diluted by these kinds of critics bending his ear and endlessly launching attacks on him, leaving his desired policies to one side and him to engrave “controls on immigration” in a stone and propose hugely destructive policies like contributory welfare. It is well known that Miliband’s “did not get into politics to wrtie controls on immigration” but yet he still did. It seems highly unlikely that despite currently cleaving left on a number of matters neither Angela Eagle or Owen Smith will genuinely adopt Corbyn like ideas once installed and the forces in the PLP are assured they have regained control. The fact that the “big beasts” and favoured candidates of the neoliberal rebooted Blue Labour triangulation wing of Labour, for example, Dan Jarvis and Tristam Hunt have remained incredibly silent shows that this contest is largely about wresting control of the party back, before yet another right leaning leader is installed prior to 2020.

There is a wider discussion of electoral prospects here, best saved for another day. Yet as noted earlier accounts of the election show quite clearly that Miliband’s lack of a defining narrative and internally badly organised campaign lost him the election, due to his team’s triangulation against a very clear narrative from the Tories. It is clear from recent speeches that Corbyn is now attempting to forge a narrative around the levels of inequality in the UK and disparities of political and economic power. I don’t doubt this will be full throated and will likely deepen during this campaign. Certainly there needs to be much more “flesh on the bones” here. But to say that Corbyn’s team offer nothing more than re-heated Ed Miliband seems not to recognising the interior political dynamics within Labour and to truly understand what Ed Miliband’s “pre-distribution” offer looked like. Given the above accounts of how these politics might work, it seems within the realms of possibility that, if given a fair crack of the whip and with a now refreshed media team in place, Corbyn would be able to translate this into successes.

It seems then that if you believe it is important for the UK or for the left to have a left wing leader of the Labour party, putting forward social democratic ideas then Corbyn is the only game in town. Owen Smith is not going to offer anything like this and he is the only other option. If as Matt claims Corbyn is offering only re-heated Miliband with a radical veneer, we can I think conclude that Owen Smith is Milibandism 2.0, this time its Normal, really bloody Normal

This is, of course, not the only perspective to take. In a very perceptive piece for The Occupied Times, an account is given of the limitations of this kind of project from Corbyn’s left. It is certainly worth reading and the points out that the new Labour members must exercise solidarity towards efforts at community organising for those attacked by the new waves of racial violence in the aftermath of Brexit and, vitally, oppose their own Labour council administrations vicious decisions when they occur. Those on the left who are opposed to Corbynism as such, either because they are opposed to representative democracy as such (in favour of forms of direct democracy, saying formal politics is a mystifying sphere of power) or that they are opposed to the Labour party as such (because they believe that structurally Labour is impossible to change or for any political party to reform society as needed) or they are opposed to the state, social democracy or reformism as such (for a whole host of reasons, some of which form whole political traditions), can still learn some things from the Corbyn phenomena. Particularly, if we imagine a network or extra-parliamentary organisation scales to nationwide coverage enough to cause media attention (we can think of the Camp for Climate Action or UKUncut as examples), this media coverage is likely to be as vicious if not more vicious than that extended to Corbyn, as are the manner of dirty tricks exercised to sabotage this movement. This would be even more the case if it was not simply a “fluffy” already mediatised protest but rather a force of real material change that did not directly attempt to self-meditise. Attention also to how things are or are not a social movement is also important.

Finally, though I have said more than enough, I want to reflect for a moment on the “material constitution” of the piece itself. Pieces of writing rarely change minds. Normally they are used as a placeholder to demonstrating allegiance to an existing set of views or as further evidence for those views as a way of deepening them. Though the analysis might make occasional allusion to radical means, utilising a sprinkling of Marxist jargon, it ends with conventional conclusions, conclusions that are indistinguishable from those of the plotters and their media out-riders. It contains none of the usual methodological tropes or tools of Marxist analysis — the critique of political economy, the analysis of class antagonisms, political hegemony, the material basis of relations, capital and labour, ideology and so on. Of course, Matt never claimed this was an explicitly Marxist analysis, but did claim (as mentioned in the introduction) that Corbynism lacked some of the resources of such an analysis. Given this the gesture of the sharing of this piece by those who have considerably less radical politics than Matt was to say “look even this person significantly to my left agrees, Corbyn must go”. The epistemic power wielded by the title “academic” multiplies this effect as does the title “Marxist”, a set of ideas and methodology given to cool rational analysis. That the piece also begins with a preamble concerning a number of canards of contemporary commentary regarding the ill informed nature of online commentary (in proximity to ideas of the “online mob”) also makes it a comfortable read for those happy with convention. Thus it was widely shared as a definitive account despite its weaknesses highlighted above. Of course Matt cannot help this and it is impossible to totally control the reception and political use of your writing once published. But one should be aware, particularly in the age of the internet, that every piece of persuasive writing is a political intervention.

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