April 7, 2020

Corbynism. Been there. Done that. End of.

Or is it?

Jeremy Corbyn may have led Labour to its worst election defeat since 1935; the Corbynite candidates may have been trounced in the leadership and deputy leadership contests; but to quote the man himself, “we have won the arguments”.

Indeed, the allure of Corbynism is so potent that even the Tories have succumbed to it! In his interview with Laura Kuenssberg, the departing Labour leader said that he had been proved “absolutely right by the amount of money the government is now prepared to put in”.

So does that make Jeremy Corbyn the Obi-Wan Kenobi of British politics — “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine”?

Er, no. The Corbyn years have had no influence whatsoever over what the Government’s doing now in response to the coronavirus. Exactly the same thing would be happening had Andy Burnham become leader in 2015 or Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall.

Of course, we’re all searching for silver linings these days. One can hardly blame the Corbynites for seeking to salvage something from the wreckage.

And yet there’s something else going on, something more important — a delusion not just of the hard Left, but of the modern mindset in general. It’s a basic misunderstanding about the way history works — and to explain it I’m going to take you back to the start of history itself.

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*

Ancient Egypt is old. It was ancient to the ancient Greeks. The Roman Empire is closer to us in time than the Old kingdom of Egypt was to the Roman Empire. When the Pyramids of Giza were being built, the last of the woolly mammoths were still walking the Earth. Even if one excludes the Ptolemaic dynasty (Cleopatra et al), the history of ancient Egypt is longer than all of history since ancient Egypt. How’s that for continuity?

That said, there were upheavals along the way. Famines, invasions, entire dark ages. But nothing quite compares to what happened in the 14th Century BC. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV was on the throne, doing what pharaohs do. Then, in the fifth year of his reign, he changes his name to Akhenaten — and declares a religious revolution.

The old gods of Egypt were pushed from their pedestals, their names erased and their temples destroyed. In their place, the pharaoh instituted the worship of one god and one god alone: Aten, a solar deity.

It was an extraordinary event. A belief system, developed over millennia, cast down by the actions of a single man.

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The new belief system, Atenism, held sway for 20 years or so. But it didn’t last. A great plague and the death of Akhenaten himself weakened the new religious establishment. When Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, became pharaoh he changed his name to Tutankhamun (yes, that Tutankhamun). This signified that Aten was out and the old pantheon of gods was back, including the chief god, Amun.

The old order reasserted itself and would endure for centuries to come — Akhenaten’s revolution had came to nothing.

To the modern mind that’s rather disturbing. You see, we love our revolutions — not every specific instance, but the general idea of them. The quintessentially modern belief in progress requires that the old give way to the new — and if that does not happen continuously, then episodes of very rapid change must do the job instead. Revolutions, whether religious, political, scientific or sexual, all help to keep the wheels of history turning.

At a safe distance in time, just about any revolutionary — however un-PC — can be co-opted to the cause of progress. Take the leaders of the Reformation: men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. They may have said and done some very illiberal things, but there’s no need to ‘cancel’ them; not when they can be woven into a Whiggish or Marxist scheme of history. Viewed through such a lens, early Protestantism is just a stage along the way to secular liberalism or atheistic socialism, depending on one’s preferred variety of progress.

But that brings us back to the Akhenaten problem. Here we have a revolution that made a huge impact while it lasted, but which ultimately went nowhere. It didn’t push history forward. It didn’t lead to the next stage in our intellectual development. It was a dead end — and modern man can’t abide a dead end.

In the 20th century, attempts were made to reconnect Akhenaten’s revolution to the through-roads of history. Atenism had some of the characteristics of a monotheistic religion, so could it be that it directly inspired Judaism? Sigmund Freud thought so and wrote a book about it, suggesting that Moses was an Atenist priest. There’s no real evidence though, and these days the theory isn’t taken seriously. The rise of the great monotheistic religions did eventually bring antiquity to a close — but they had nothing to do with Atenism.

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History is full of dead ends. Consider, for instance, the aeolipile, which was an early steam engine. When do you think it might have been invented? During the Enlightenment, perhaps? Or was it a Renaissance experiment — the sort of thing that Leonardo da Vinci tinkered with in his workshop? Plausible guesses, but out by more than a millennium. We have descriptions of the aeolipile that date back to the First Century AD. And this suggests a tantalising scenario: that the industrial revolution could have started over a thousand years before it actually did. Just think, we could have reached the stars by now!

So what went wrong? Why was no further progress made? Some people blame the Church — which supposedly stood in the way of scientific progress until its power was broken by the Reformation and modernity. That’s ahistorical nonsense, of course — as are specific myths like the story that Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria. The prosaic truth is that the aeolipile was an idea ahead of its time — unsupported by the scientific knowledge and technical expertise required to take it to the next stage.

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The fact is that not every departure from the norm is the start of something new. It might not even be the end of something old — just another dead end or temporary detour, with no long-term significance.

Our pre-modern ancestors wouldn’t have had any trouble accepting that. They lived in a mostly static, unchanging world, and if change did come it usually wasn’t good news. But in the modern era — an age of invention, liberation and noticeable economic growth — change became something to welcome, and continuity a disappointment.

Our revolutionary mindset is also tied up with the Neo-Darwinian account of the natural world. The process of evolution depends on mutation to supply the raw material for the forces of natural selection to work upon. Indeed, evolutionary change is often revolutionary — long periods of stasis punctuated by shorter periods of rapid development. We can view human history in the same way, with new ideas and movements serving the same purpose as mutation (i.e. memes = genes).

It’s a useful analogy, but it has to be followed through. Most mutations confer no advantages. Many are downright maladaptive. They are generally selected against in the survival of the fittest. Nature is not kind to her freaks.

In trying to interpret current events, we should always bear in mind that there are freaks of history too — anomalies without legacies.

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It’s too early to be sure, but this may be the best way to think about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. I realise that’s easier said than done. Whether one welcomed it or not, the rise of Corbynism was an extraordinary thing to witness — and it’s in our nature to ascribe to significance to the unusual.

However, its precisely in these circumstances that we should be most sceptical. Strange things happen in troubled times. Ever since the global financial crisis, politicians who offer change have pulled off one political upset after another. 

That our times are troubled is, of course, significant — as is the fact that people are so desperate for change. It is entirely right that we should try to understand the underlying trends. However, an excessive focus on the essentially random outcomes of such chaos means that we end up investigating the effect and not the cause.

When a dramatic shift takes place we feel compelled to explain it as some sort of historic inevitability. But what if no explanation is necessary? There was nothing inevitable about Corbyn’s rise to (almost) power. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from disruptive factors that had very little to do with him. As soon as the time and the place stopped being right, his position collapsed. Shift happens; and very often it shifts back again.

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Donald Trump is, I think, another example of over-interpreting the abnormal. Yes, the unhappiness of American voters is real. The backlash against globalisation, mass immigration and military intervention is deeply rooted and highly significant. But the phenomenon of Donald Trump himself, his conduct, his language, his general lack of decorum, that is where we must be careful not to be caught up in the moment. Though his misrule has consequences, it is important that we don’t obsess over what won’t outlast him.

He is so different from how we expect a President to behave that we think he’s broken the mould and that US politics will never be the same again. It’s more likely though — and for exactly the same reason — that Trump is a one-off. The next President, whoever he or she is, will probably be, well, presidential.

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The danger posed by the freaks of history isn’t just the mayhem that some of them sow in their wake, but that they distract us from what really matters in the long-term.

Try to picture in your mind the entire output of every current affairs publication from 2015 to the start of 2020. Imagine the towering pile of words devoted to the subject of Donald Trump. Then, next to it, picture the smaller, but still mountainous, heap of stuff about all things Jeremy Corbyn. Finally, imagine those two piles compared to the little that’s been written about the risks of pandemic disease in a hyper-connected global economy.

It strikes me that we’ve been searching for significance in the wrong places. It’s not that there’s none to be found. I’m not a nihilist and I believe in a universe suffused with meaning. Nevertheless, the meaningful things aren’t always obvious and the obvious things aren’t always meaningful.

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Comment


  • April 11, 2020
    The abnormal thing about the election of President Trump is that for the first time since 1860–61, the opposition refused to accept the result. That ended badly the first time. It will end badly this time. Read more

  • April 7, 2020
    "...The Roman Empire is closer to us in time than the Old kingdom of Egypt was to the Roman Empire" Of course it is. May 29th 1453 AD, at the gates of Konstantinoupolis, wasn't that long ago. Really interesting and thorough article though - Atenism was a thing, wasn't it. Read more

  • April 7, 2020
    Haha! Read more

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