The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, September 16, 2019

Other People's Politics

Other People's Politics: Populism to Corbynism

J. A. Smith, Zero Books, 2019

Around 2010 or so, I attended a Battle of Ideas panel on populism and/or Euroscepticism, featuring David Aaronovitch and (I think) Bruno Waterfield. In the discussion, someone said that populism reacted to a political system that empowered elites and excluded ordinary people. Aaronovitch retorted that ordinary people had never been more enfranchised: if you were discontented, there were plenty of parties to choose from, petitions to start or sign, FOIA appeals to make... How much more open could a political system be?

I pointed out from the floor that if you read comments on blogs and below-the-line on newspaper articles (this was before Twitter and Facebook took off), you found a boiling pit of fury and hostility towards every element of the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuity: the EU, climate change policy, immigration, 'political correctness', smoking bans, forever wars, bank bail-outs ... and a real sense that railing against them online was all that could be done.

To which Aaronovitch responded: 'These could all be by the same two hundred people!'

I had no come-back to that, not even in my mind. Well, we ken noo.

There are already several interesting books about Corbynism, from a broadly supportive position: Richard Seymour's Corbyn, Alex Nunn's The Candidate, and Steve Howell's Game Changer. All of them, particularly Nunn's, locate Corbynism in the politics of the post-crash labour (and Labour) movement: the slow build-up of stress that produced the earthquake. Other People's Politics is likewise sympathetic, but examines Corbynism from a different angle, that of its relation to populism. Populism in turn is examined in relation to social media. Social media and populism are mutual accelerants, as perfectly matched as mass media are (or were) to consensus politics. On Twitter we're free to say more or less what we like, within the law and the limits of arbitrarily applied and algorithmically policed 'terms of use'. A far more pervasive constraint is that any utterance can be jumped on, and become the focus of a whirlwind of vituperation: a pile-on. Twitter constitutes us as human dust, intermittently whipped up into a storm. And all the time, our free utterances, our freely registered likes and dislikes, our click-throughs, feed the analytic algorithms of advertising and politics, endlessly and mindlessly grinding away.

The unexpected rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has some things in common with the unexpected size of the Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum, the unexpected victory of Leave in the EU referendum, the unexpected victory of Trump in the US, and the unexpected surge of the Labour vote in 2017. Each was more than a surprise. They registered as events that shouldn't have happened, and by all past reckoning couldn't have happened: an anomaly, a shock, an affront. Social media played a big part in all of them – sometimes at the expense of face-to-face campaigning, the ground game, but this under-the-radar aspect contributed to the shock of their actual or near success.

Ironically enough, Britain's unprecedented and unparalleled post-referendum upsurge of a mass pro-EU movement, with its huge street demonstrations, tragic face-painters and flag-wearers, and hashtag #FBPE, could itself be seen as a variety of populism: one that constitutes a different 'people' against a different 'elite'. Instead of 'the bankers' or 'the establishment', the villains become hedge-funds and disaster capitalists. #FPBE have their own conspiracy theories: Cambridge Analytica, Russian dark money, Putin. Heck, they're even convinced that the BBC is biased against them. From the outside, viewed in the small shiny rectangle of the smartphone screen, #FBPE can seem as closed-minded, obnoxious and deluded as the Brexiters do to them, as the cybernats did to me, and as Corbynism's own online army (in which I'm a very minor footslogger) evidently does to New Labour's middle-aged old soldiers (aka 'centrist dads').

But, as Smith puts it, populism is always 'other people's politics'. The bright rectangle is always a window, seldom a mirror. Smith walks us through that mirror. If we can bear to look at it, he argues, Corbynism too is a populism, and all the better for it. All populisms say the 'unsayable', but not all of them say the same. A left populism would blame the powerful, not the powerless, for social problems. Trump says things his supporters wish they 'could' say, whereas Corbyn says things his supporters have been for years on end inwardly screaming for someone, anyone with a public platform to say. There's no doubt that Corbynism has constituted a 'people' of its own: the leftists and socialists who never went away but were excluded from any recognition in the mainstream, and who were largely isolated from each other and indeed unaware of each other's existence. Like the cybernats, now a permanent presence in Scotland, they can be repeatedly dismissed as an online bubble – until they suddenly manifest in the real world. 'Where did all these people come from?' – as a Labour candidate is heard to ask in 2017 as her canvassers are reinforced by an army of volunteers, mobilised by Momentum's 'My Nearest Marginal' app.

Strong and persuasive though this book is on the emotional and ideological intricacies of how a populist appeal can gain traction, and how it can confound the expectations of the sensible centre – tracing, for example, the success of Donald Trump's transgressive rampages, and the conniving nods and winks of irony and deniability in the memetic tactics of the alt-right – it has little to say on the record of left-populism itself, barely glancing at its greatest debacle: Syriza. But to ask that of it would be to ask for a different book. (It's not like there aren't plenty of left critiques of left populism to choose from.) This one does its own job, and does it well.


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