Curious things keep happening in UK and US politics. The pundits are puzzled: why do Trump, Sanders, Corbyn exist? Why Brexit? A collective madness has settled over the populations of these countries, is the impression you might get from reading seasoned commentators. Ordinary people keep deciding things that make no sense to those who rule them. We are entering dark times, they say, yet few can explain why.
A recent openDemocracy article explained the Brexit vote as, in part, the rejection of existing institutions of government. Neo-liberalism has become too unsubtle, the promotion of the interests of the rich too obvious. People see rotten institutions led by rotten people, and they’ve had enough. It’s not just Brexit that can be explained as an uprising against the institutions: it is visible too in Corbynism. I say this as one who has not joined the Labour Party myself, but has watched many friends joining it over the last few months. I keep seeing banners in my social media feeds saying “I’ve joined the Labour Party” and I know that none of those people want the Labour Party as it currently exists. And for sure none of them are the Trotskyists that Tom Watson and every second newspaper columnist is so excited about.
I’ve spoken to a few friends who have started going to Labour Party meetings in different areas of London. There are a few old-fashioned Trotskyists around, they say, but there aren’t many of them and they don’t exert a lot of influence. This makes sense to me: the total number of people in Trotskyist organisations in the UK at the moment can’t be more than a few thousand. Most of them won’t be joining the Labour Party because they are in parties already, or don’t have the time or inclination. Meanwhile those joining Labour number in the hundreds of thousands. Even if there are a few Alliance for Workers Liberty members desperately trying to advance their organisation through the Labour Party, it’s difficult to see how such a small organisation (hundreds, most people suspect, rather than thousands) could have much of a decisive influence in such a large movement.
Another accusation flying around among columnists of late is that Corbyn is a populist leader. A cult has developed around him, claim some, and it’s true it’s possible to spot some starry-eyed fans on social media. But in my experience the much more dominant idea among recent joiners is that Corbyn is an opportunity to take back an institution lost to the left. Those on the left have not had a party to represent them in England for decades now. I realised this some years ago and wondered when the situation would blow up. Despite the best efforts of Thatcher and Blair, there are millions of left-inclined people in the UK, and it is not sustainable for them to have no voice. The young in particular will not pretend that a party led by management consultants and, ahem, PR men, represents their interests, nor do many of them even want to be represented. They are libertarian-left inclined, with expectations that good institutions should be radically democratic.
All it took for this mismatch between people and institutions to go from unsustainable to insupportable was a falling standard of living for the first time in generations. Most of the Labour joiners are young (too young to remember Militant) and they have watched their wages falling and house prices and rents rising, and they are angry enough to do something about it. Corbyn was the opportunity, he was the moment. He is the leverage point they want to use to crack open the closed Labour Party and make it a party of the left again. They don’t just want a change of policy either, they want to re-make the party democracy, turn it back into a grassroots organisation. Populism is when a demagogue uses the people. Corbynism is people using Corbyn. Most of them will, I suspect, discard him if and when they need to. I almost feel sorry for the man, except I think he is aware of this role, is happy with it, has withstood all the pressure precisely so that members can use him. Corbyn is no fool: he wouldn’t be doing this for a bunch of fading Trotskyists.
Another accusation levelled against Corbyn supporters is that they are an ‘online mob’. This sounds like a desperate rearguard defence against the changes that technology is bringing to politics. Most political movements in most wealthier countries from now on will have a significant online component, a lot of them will be organised primarily online. There will always be a lack of discipline in online organising, and the over-zealous will always provide an excuse to dismiss people as a ‘mob’. But that won’t wash with many people for very long, not with those who understand the online world. Indeed, it is this very technology that helps create the rebellion against existing institutions. The internet was not the start of the dissatisfaction: an increasingly educated population (a cognitive surplus as Clay Shirky might call it), the neo-liberal dismantling of productive industries in rich countries, a closed media shop that think parliamentary jostling is the limit of the political, and an increasing intolerance of deference to our ‘betters’ have all been factors.
What the internet has done and is doing is facilitating the flow of a lot of information between a lot of ordinary people, nurturing an anti-authoritarian culture that has little time for failing hierarchical institutions that don’t provide what people need. The internet means that we – for I include myself here – can act on our collective knowledge and our self-respect to say that we deserve better than our current institutions are offering. I predict that if the institutions don’t respond to this, if they don’t open up to more co-productive methods and genuine democracy, they will be relentlessly targeted either for destruction or restructuring. Some will target the EU, others will target the Labour Party, next year it may be a different institution.
The world has not gone crazy. It’s just that people in countries most afflicted by the neo-liberal assault on their standard of living have had enough. The young have been failed consistently by all parties for all of their lives, and have no respect left for the institutions that have managed society for the last sixty or two hundred years. What’s more, they think that with their help, their skills, their knowledge, those institutions could be much better.
This isn’t the end of civilisation; far from it. If enough of us can push in the right directions at the right time, steering round the temptations of fascist solutions to the institutional crisis, this is rather the start of something amazing. It is the dawn of a new type of institution that certain currents of the left have been demanding for some time: sometimes called convivial or caring institutions, sometimes radical participation, sometimes called co-production, sometimes the Partner State, all represent a shift toward institutions to which we can contribute, rather than being merely subject to them. Labour under Corbyn and a reshaped party also need to rise to this challenge; everyone does.
To ensure we end up with a positive rather than Trumpist solution to our institutional crisis, we firstly need to recognise the crisis is here, and then start reorganising institutions to accept the cultural changes that have been given a rocket boost by new technology. It is clear to me then that even if Corbynism fails, this ‘madness’ of the ‘mob’ battling against domineering institutions will not end with Corbyn’s career. We are just at the beginning, and it’s really nothing to do with Trots.