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Corbyn’s intolerant populism

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

January 10, 2019   5 mins

Since his election as leader of the Labour Party in the summer of 2015, Jeremy Corbyn has faced a barrage of vicious criticism. Much of this has been hysterical, while some of it has arisen on the back of legitimate concerns regarding the company Mr Corbyn keeps as well as his occasional lapses into anti-western conspiracy theories.

Few, however, have taken Corbynism seriously as an intellectual movement. Fewer still have done so from a point of view that is, by temperament, broadly sympathetic. Yet this is what two young academics, Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, have done in a new book which seeks to take “Corbynism seriously and critically as a semi-coherent set of ideas”. In Corbynism: A Critical Approach they have produced the most thorough and alarming overview of the Corbyn worldview to date.

In contrast to some of the headlines which usually accompany stories about a future Corbyn government, Bolton’s and Pitts’ first contention is that Corbynism is not as radical at it seems. Instead the Corbyn movement reflects “wider societal, ideological and political-economic shifts that bring it closely in-step with an increasingly ‘post-liberal’ political environment”, as the authors put it.

They demonstrate that Corbyn’s populist division of the world into oppositional ‘us’ and ‘them’ camps has more in common with the politics of Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán than it does with the traditions of democratic socialism.

Borrowing heavily from the baleful and half-baked ideas of populist theorist Chantel Mouffe – as well as from the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt – Corbynism’s division of the world into ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ requires regular heresy hunts in order to sustain itself.

Moreover, capitalism itself is viewed not as a material system of production, but rather as an unfolding moral-religious story in which one side – the ‘99%’, the working class, the ‘oppressed’ – is regarded uncritically as innately ‘good’, while blame for society’s ills is placed squarely on the shoulders of ‘them’ – the bankers, the ‘1%’, and in the darker reaches of the Corbyn movement, a sinister cabal of wealthy Jews.

As we have discovered over the past three-and-a-half years, this deeply personalised interpretation of capitalism easily lends itself to conspiracy theories about the malevolence of particular groups and individuals. Once this group of permanent outsiders is required to define an ideology, the search for enemies continues without end. As populist governments around the world have demonstrated, the triumph over one adversary invariably necessitates the creation of another, as well as the never-ending expansion of categories such as ‘fascist’ to include anyone with whom the party or movement disagrees.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this fascinating book is contained in its erudite attack on Corbynomics. Corbynism as an intellectual movement is built on several key planks. As the authors note, it is first and foremost the reheated ‘socialism in one country’ that was a hallmark of Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy of 1975. It also rests on a personalised understanding of capitalism inspired by the late socialist theoretician Ralph Miliband.

In this reading of Labour Party history, the failure on the part of Labour politicians such as Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair to usher in socialism was seen by Miliband not as a result of the power of global capitalism, but as a consequence of (in Miliband’s words) the personal “failures, derelictions and betrayals” of these politicians. In addition, Corbynism is inspired by the ludicrously determinist post-capitalist fantasies around full automation promoted by a new generation of media-savvy pundits such as Aaron Bastani.

It is the first of these – the equation of economic nationalism with socialism – that is behind Corbyn’s apparent ambivalence towards a hard Brexit. Little attempt is made within the increasingly influential ‘Lexit’ movement to understand the global nature of capitalism. Instead, and in common with Blue Labour, delusions abound as to the power of a single nation state to hold-out against the immense power of global capital. Yet “capital,” as the authors put it, “will win out” – just as surely as night follows day.

Were a Corbyn government to come to power and implement its desired programme – which in practice would resemble the recent ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’ paper more than its watered-down 2017 manifesto – a “recklessly deluded” protectionist agenda could well result in a beggar-thy-neighbour, 1930s-style trade war should other countries choose to pursue a similarly nationalistic economic path.

As for fantasies of workers’ control of industry favoured by more democratically-minded sections of the far-Left, under this contemporary incarnation of Bennism production would remain within constraints set by the state. As Bolton and Pitts put it: “If workers refuse to adhere to the ‘needs of the nation,’ the state must ensure that they do”.

The trade unions, vocally supportive of Corbyn in opposition, would potentially be neutered and reduced to mere arms of the state under a Corbyn-led government, just as they are in favoured Corbynista despotisms such as Cuba. In other words, workers would gain no more freedom than they currently possess under capitalism. And they are likely to suffer even greater privations if the raft of protectionist measures favoured by the Lexiteers around Corbyn are put into practice.

At a time when it has become fashionable in socialist and communist circles to portray liberalism as little more than the handmaiden of fascism, Bolton and Pitts’ book offers a refreshing defence of liberal democracy from the Left. Too short-sighted to recognise that socialism and social democracy are built on the freedoms set down by liberalism, and too mired in the logic of identity politics to articulate a vision in which what a person thinks and says is more important than the tribe they belong to, competing tendencies within the Labour Party “luxuriate in the flames licking at the sides of liberal society,” the authors write.

These competing tendencies – in particular Corbynism and Blue Labour – hope to ride the ascendant wave of anti-liberalism for electoral gain. In this they are unwittingly aiding and abetting the very nationalist forces that – in a familiar story – will turn their sights on the workers’ movement once the formal niceties and civility of liberal democracy have been dispensed with.

There is something profoundly disturbing taking place in politics across the globe and Corbynism should, in my view, be seen as another morbid symptom of it rather than its putative solution. As orthodox religion fades away in the developed world, it has been replaced by a Manichean style of politics that retains the moral fervour of its progenitor, as well as its teleological faith in progress.

Heretics are regularly uncovered and cast out of what the academic David Hirsh has called the “community of the good”. Instead of fearing each new political crisis, competing sets of true believers try to outdo each other in cheering on our steady descent into the abyss – a process they believe will hasten our arrival at the promised land.

Corbynism: A Critical Approach, is the best book on the phenomenon of Corbynism by some distance because it slots the movement firmly within this camp of moralising and intolerant populism. In doing so it ought to free up space on the broader Left for a more critical approach to the Corbyn project, not least because it is written by two activists who have by their own admission long-yearned for “the Left to take the reins”.

This is probably something of a forlorn hope to be sure. Many prominent Left-wing journalists long-ago abandoned any pretence to truth-telling in their adherence to the Labour Party line. Nevertheless books like this are valuable because they will stand as exemplars of clear thinking and objectivity, long after the career-ideologues have been swept away and child-like adoration of ‘Jezza’ has subsided.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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