Corbyn and the house of mirrors

Jeremy Corbyn

This article appeared on Backbench

“Hang on a minute lads. I’ve got a great idea.” This is how the classic 60s film The Italian Job ends, on a literal cliff-hanger. After successfully stealing some gold, Micheal Caine and co. are in a coach hanging off the edge of a cliff, with the stolen booty at the end which is above thin air and the gang at the other. As Caine edges towards the gold, the coach tilts dangerously over the precipice. We never find out what the great idea is.

This is the same dilemma as the Left faces: how far is it possible to get to the golden ideals of socialism without going too far and throwing yourself off the cliff into electoral oblivion. Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to be Labour’s next leader, is offering the party a chance to run straight at the gold.

As has been pointed out on the website Little Atoms (quoted below) the Labour Party has changed completely, from inside-out, regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not. We may be about to see a whole new Podemos or Syriza.

“Labour now has 610,753 members, supporters and affiliates. A staggering 1 in 15 people who voted Labour at the last general election will be able to vote in Labour’s leadership campaign.

From a low of 176,891 members in 2007, membership has nearly doubled to 299,755.

Any political party is the sum of its members – they knock on doors to convince voters, they select candidates for the council and MPs, they arrange the meetings, the cake stall at the local fair and fundraise for the party. An entirely new membership will create an entirely new party.”

The tempestuous politics of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe since the crash, where movements and parties rise and fall overnight like paper blown about by gusts of wind, probably has many causes. But one must be the complete diversification of the media and cultural spheres in which we now live.

In the USA, it has long been acknowledged that the polarised media is a cause of polarised politics: that if Fox News and CNN can produce completely different realities, their viewers will see life through different lenses. Yet with the Internet and globalised media that effect is far greater now.

If you take the example of what music people listen to, or what television or films they watch, we live in a very diverse media landscape. Instead of relying on the traditional media sources, the Internet allows us to explore, for free, the most obscure corners of culture. More than that, we have the voice to collaborate, share and produce instead of being directed from top-down.

Yet just as this allows hipsters to avoid chart music or Hollywood blockbusters more easily, it allows those who don’t care for politics or serious news to switch off altogether. With Netflix there is no annoyance at having to wait through the 10 o’clock news to watch your favourite programme.

Those particularly interested in one topic, whether the environment or banking or gluten-free food, can focus exclusively on that. You can become an expert at whatever you want and find circles of like-minded people. Similarly, if you find right-wing politics distasteful, you have no need to expose yourself to it. Websites and blogs of all ideologies fill the demand for news filtered to suit everyone’s specific worldview and biases.

The algorithms used by internet companies amplifies this effect: you are directed through search engines and other websites to articles similar to those you have already read. The social media bubble does likewise: people’s friends and acquaintances are likely to share similar opinions and interests, and so share the same links and feel enraged by the same topics. It reduces the possibility of being challenged about what you believe.

This cosy way of engaging with media means visions are narrowed and differentiated. The view of society as a whole becomes as refracted and unreadable as a laser beam shone through a waterfall. With fewer common reference points, uniting everyone under one banner becomes harder.

This is a particular problem for the Left, given the correlation between being young, using online media, and being left-wing. According to Ofcom, 60% of 16-34 year olds got their news from the internet or apps in 2014, compared to 21% of those over 55. One left-wing Corbyn-supporting Facebook page, Another Angry Voice, has 178,000 ‘likes’: similar to the circulation of The Guardian.

Before the election, the futility of ‘Milifandom’ and hashtags like #CameronMustGo illustrated the point. Social media gives movements and slogans the illusion of having a much bigger effect than they do in reality. There is also a distancing effect between the politically-engaged and the rest of the country. Those who use ‘Tory’ as a swear word or dismiss anyone who votes Conservative as selfish and greedy seem to have already lost touch with the world outside the house of mirrors. Those who reacted with fury on social media after the election results, denouncing the selfish electorate, fail to realise that in our consumerist, individualist age, parties are like companies: you cannot blame the public for not buying your product.

And so, going back to Jeremy Corbyn, what becomes less surprising given all this is that many people actually seem to think he could be anything other than a disaster for Labour. The myth that Labour under Corbyn or someone like him can, whether in 2020 or afterwards, build a winning coalition from Labour voters, non-voters, and voters from the Greens, the SNP and UKIP is fanciful. This theory rests on the assumptions that the all the disinterested non-voter has been waiting for is a bit of 80s socialism; that patriotic Ukippers scared of migrants can be reconciled with the politics of international leftist solidarity movements; that Scotland, who earlier this century gave the ultimate Red-Tory Tony Blair a whopping majority, is waiting for a party far to the left of the SNP; and finally and most preposterously of all, that all this manoeuvring can be done without leaking votes to the centre.

The left has typically complained that mainstream media is biased to the right; and that, using Marx’s idea of false consciousness, the masses are fooled into voting against their interests, likes turkeys for Christmas. The bigger problem now may be that the left doesn’t even know what the masses are thinking. Unless Corbyn does have a great idea, get ready for a big fall.

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