Digital Corbynism

Above photo: Jeremy Corbyn recorded addressing a Labour Party rally in Bristol in 2019. Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images.

In the UK, the left no longer has a party, but it may still have the tools necessary for retaking it—tools that can be improved, remodeled, and reorganized.

The first time I saw protesters dancing on the roof of a police van was at a May Day demonstration in London in 2002. Over the dulcet acid techno beats of a bike-powered sound system, a friend explained that we were imitating the Reclaim the Streets movement of the 1990s—free parties on highways doubled as tactics of resistance against infrastructure projects in the name of halting ecological and capitalist crisis. I learned then that I had come too late for anything new. The late British cultural theorist Mark Fisher described this era as one of nostalgia (-algia, the suffix, signifies pain, distress). Thanks to the ideology of what Fisher called “capitalist realism,” faith in the future had been canceled.

I didn’t know it yet, but something did make us different from the leftists that came before us: the internet. (It’s a cliché because it’s true.) In the scene that took shape in the aftermath of the anti-globalization movement, which in the UK peaked in 1999 with the J18 protests, politics revolved around affinity groups of hippies, punks, ravers, and teenagers preoccupied with squabbles between youth anarchist networks and Trotskyist organizations. Much like their U.S. equivalents, these groups focused on direct action: protests against the arms trade and to free Palestine, confrontations with cops, school walkouts against the Iraq War, squatted camps at G8 summits. Unlike our predecessors, we had Indymedia to learn about protests, and web forums and riseup.net listservs to stay in touch. In 2003, Fisher started writing on his blog K-punk, inspiring a network of radical bloggers. This was not a scene where left theory or history mattered much (libcom.org, which became a kind of anarcho-communist Wikipedia, was set up around this time to address the intellectual vacuum at its core). Political education meant learning to encrypt emails on action training weekends. At demonstrations, the anarchist kids would mock the docile Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members handing out the Socialist Worker paper; if we had wanted what they were selling, we would read the Guardian! The only thing that held the young, fragmented left together was a common enemy: the warmongering Labour Party.

No one had any sense yet that the internet would be so crucial in bringing left politics closer to a mass politics than at any time in recent history. The political movement that formed around Jeremy Corbyn, the MP from Labour’s left wing who was elected head of the party in 2015, promised a better future through the restoration of the best of the British welfare state, achieved with new technologies: “socialism with an iPad,” as Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell put it. It also promised new forms of organization and participation where British mainstream politics had failed.

The four-year tenure of Corbyn’s leadership, which ended with Labour’s electoral defeat in December 2019, unified the factions of the increasingly networked anti-capitalist left, which gave up its historic opposition to the Labour Party and tried to navigate and reform its unwieldy, hostile structures. They filled the ranks of the grassroots membership (previously small in number and soft left in politics) and, in their support of Corbyn, found new common interest with Labour’s affiliated trade unions, whose leadership have often been closer to the parliamentary elite than the members, and whose rank and file have had their power within the party eroded over a period of decades. As such, Corbynism is best understood as the name for a period of left unity, at a time of disunity within the larger Labour Party.

The primary cleavage in British politics—over Brexit and the referendum decision to leave the European Union—cut across this temporary unity. Nonetheless, for the duration of Corbyn’s leadership, it held. And it was forged and facilitated, at least in part, by the internet. Under Corbynism, the left tried to make Labour work as a socialist party, taking responsibility for organizing and educating its members and the public. Its main efforts, to that end, were digital. Social media and digital communications brought new life to electoral campaigns, mobilization drives, and democratization efforts, creating the conditions for a novel political formation—a party-movement born from the encounter of an electoral party with digital horizontalism.

Though the internet played a role in making Corbynism, it also intensified its challenges. The forms of organization that could have sustained Corbynism were weakened through their reliance on digital platforms, and the new social forms produced online made Corbynism vulnerable in ways its opponents could easily exploit. In the end, the new left did not establish a movement strong enough to beat the Tories or hold onto the party. What kind of role did the internet play in its defeat?

Now that Corbyn’s gone, it’s possible to assess what the story of his leadership means for left movements everywhere. The networked media that gave the Corbyn movement its shape did not produce the kind of political action necessary to counter the bureaucratic organization of the party that it aimed to inherit. Yet the contradiction of digital Corbynism is one through which the left must pass to find both a media form and a political organization that can succeed in our era of digital capitalism.

According to political scientists Richard S. Katz and Peter Mair, the mass membership parties of the mid-twentieth century were succeeded by the cartel party system. Cartel parties used state resources to maintain power, collude with each other, and squeeze out smaller competitors. The neoliberal politics of the era were low-participation, technocratic, and professionalized.

In the early 1980s, a small faction of MPs in the UK responded to these trends by founding the Socialist Campaign Group, a socialist grouping within the Labour Party which later included Corbyn and McDonnell. They tried to keep alive the belief that Labour could be an instrument of socialism, despite its many structural flaws: its parliamentarism, its collaboration with capital, and its pursuit of change from within the existing order. The leftists of the Labour Party provided mainstream support for radical campaigns (Corbyn was a friend to anti-racist and sex worker movements in the 1980s and a key figure in the antiwar movement; McDonnell, whose constituency includes the area around Heathrow Airport, was the climate movement’s parliamentary point of contact in the 2000s). But few on the anti-capitalist left thought the party could be a vehicle of radical social transformation.

That started to change after 2008. With rents spiking and underemployment soaring, many anarchists and anti-capitalists became progressives of a more organized kind. A housing movement emerged from the burnout of the climate movement. Anti-austerity dissent produced a generation hungry for wealth and income redistribution and willing to work through the party to get it. Across Europe, new digital parties—most prominently the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain—were using online platforms to replace bureaucracies, reverse membership decline, and promote participation. The UK had no left digital party, but the tools of the anarchist internet were starting to be used to promote left politics beyond its oppositional enclaves.

The anti-austerity unrest and student movements of 2010–11 were crucial events in the transformation of the horizontalist British left into one that advocated a Gramscian vision of politics as a “war of position”—the long-term strategic work of creating counter-hegemonic cultural and political institutions. What would become the Corbynist public sphere was being built through organizations like Novara Media. This was a long way from the left media of the 2000s—the playful, underpaid blogs and forums that Jodi Dean described as “writing for strangers.” Call it podcasting for hegemony.

Out of these movements emerged Corbynism’s activist base. Labour traditionally drew its political class from trade unions and professionals. Now it came from the professionalized millennial precariat. Given this change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Corbynism’s most visible successes were in media, policy, and digital campaigns. As this base entered the Labour Party and adapted to its electoral horizon, it began to function in the spaces that the old cartelized system allowed it, especially the digital gaps that the party bureaucracy did not yet fill. Corbynism would become what political scientists James Muldoon and Danny Rye have called a party-driven movement: party insiders adopted aspects of movement organizing and co-opted existing networks to develop the party’s “movement wing.” It was a left insurgency within a cartel party that was digital not by design but by default.

After Labour was defeated in the 2015 election, Corbyn took his turn representing the left on the ballot for leader. The previous soft left leader, Ed Miliband, had implemented a set of new voting rules that lowered barriers to party membership and gave members, registered supporters, and affiliated members the final say over the leadership in a one-member-one-vote system (a move which was meant to empower members, at the expense of unions, who had previously been guaranteed one-third of the electoral college but now had to opt in to vote as individuals). After a summer Corbyn spent campaigning against austerity, with social media facilitating an old-fashioned rally tour of town halls, Labour became the largest mass membership party in Europe. As a result, Corbyn won the leadership with a higher vote share among members than Tony Blair had in 1994.

Social media, Ben Tarnoff has argued, can serve as an incubator for left movements. In 2015, it also worked like a funnel. Networked politics in the early 2010s had provided the conditions for high turnout protests that required, and bequeathed, little organization. Now, the network entered the Labour Party.

Over the next two years, a new movement was galvanized, especially during attacks on Corbyn by opponents. In 2016, a leadership challenge from the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party energized Corbyn supporters, who turned up to protests to defend him at a crucial moment when unity was fraying. By then, the left had mastered the art of memes—the laddish legend of Corbyn as the “Absolute Boy,” decked out in a TV appearance in James Bond furs, was the classic, with the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” adapted as his anthem. Viral successes were sustained by a growing online media infrastructure, which managed to spread content to users in parts of the UK that the Labour left finds hard to reach and put digital celebrities on primetime TV. Each campaign had a centripetal function, working to keep the left within the Labour Party. When Labour dramatically outperformed expectations in a 2017 election, unity was consolidated.

At its high point in 2017, Corbynism’s success looked like a product of the internet. The digital public sphere contained certain tensions within the party and allowed members to keep their aspirations linked to radical projects outside it. Corbynism’s cultural producers also thrived online. In the small world of British politics, they had outsized effects, mainstreaming left culture in spaces vacated by the declining center. Fisher’s cohort of radical bloggers became movement intellectuals, advocating a techno-optimism that inspired aspects of Labour’s program in the 2017 and 2019 manifestoes, including its support for a universal basic income and a four-day work week.

The heart of digital Corbynism was the campaign organization Momentum, set up to support Corbyn’s leadership. Momentum had its origins as a membership list (the party saw it as a way to capture data) but the organization quickly supported more ambitious goals. These were contested from the start. Veteran Labour members conceived Momentum as a vehicle to forge a Corbyn-supporting majority, win elections, and democratize party structures by establishing open primaries. The volunteer wing, by contrast, wanted it to be a social movement—an open membership organization with a regional structure of in-person groups committed to community organizing. By 2017, Momentum’s political culture was set by the volunteers, but organizationally the Labour activists triumphed. The National Steering Committee centralized the organization, with the goal of mobilizing the Labour left to act for and within the party; membership was restricted to Labour members. Instead of a delegate system in which local groups were represented nationally by chosen representatives, participation was facilitated by a digital platform.

Momentum used email directives to prod members to perform specific tasks—to canvass, fill out online consultations, or vote on party ballots. In this way, it succeeded in promoting candidates and establishing a Corbyn-supporting majority on Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), which allowed it to push through changes to the party’s constitution. Momentum’s tech team developed an app to guide voting of members at party conferences. Nationally, Momentum operated best during campaigns: in 2019, the digital tools My Nearest Marginal and My Campaign Map coordinated canvassing and voter outreach—facilitating the kind of digital-driven, bottom-up organizing that characterized the Bernie Sanders campaigns.

But Labour lost. After 2017, the online left misjudged its declining popularity. Corbynism was no shortcut to power, but its digitally propelled rise made it seem like it might be. Digital organization was robust during campaigns, but it couldn’t compensate for analog disorganization. As sociologist Zeynep Tufecki has argued, the internet allows for organizing without organization. Networked movements can grow rapidly without the prior build-up of collective capacities that prepare them for what comes next. It turned out to be easier to incubate a movement than to win a majority or take over a party.

Corbynism was defeated as much as it failed. The results of the 2019 election told a story familiar to the international left. Britain’s unequal cities remained Labour strongholds, while the party’s longstanding uneasy relations with England’s postindustrial towns were worsened by the politics of Brexit, which split Labour’s traditional constituencies. The Corbyn leadership was unable to handle the Brexit dilemma. Nor could it unite communities divided by the social consequences of deindustrialization. Decades of drift could not be remedied in one election cycle. The 2021 local election results confirm that Corbyn’s successors have been unable to prevent further losses.

But Labour’s difficulties under Corbyn were not only electoral. The Labour membership, despite its growth from just over 200,000 members before Corbyn first ran for leader in 2015 to a peak of more than half a million, also remained low participation. Joining the party was a digital affair, but so was being active within it. Only 35 percent of Momentum members took part in internal online elections in April 2018. Its digital model worked well for building relations between leaders and members but was less suited to developing the relations that keep movements going. While it tried to mitigate alienation among supporters through social media engagement, it did so unevenly and often in ways that reinforced divides—particularly generational ones, which, in asset economies like Britain, are both the most difficult and the most necessary to bridge.

Momentum had regional successes in organization-building, but largely because of pre-existing cultures—like in Manchester, renowned for its labor, student, and anti-capitalist movements. The same was true of local Labour branches: those that turned left and became hubs of community organizing were in places with existing networks and high inequality and deprivation, like Liverpool or the borough of Hackney in London. In The Digital Party, Paolo Gerbaudo argues that parties rooted in the internet lack the integrative functions of old mass parties; they struggle to provide the forms of civic association that make membership meaningful. In the quasi-digital Labour Party and its adjacent organizations, the key sites of online sociality were local Facebook groups, which connected activists where offline participation was low but didn’t do much to increase it.

The decision to operate Momentum through a centralized digital decision-making structure with an electoral focus sometimes made it function more like a nonprofit foundation than an organizing movement. The digital democracy platform My Momentum promised participation, but during the Corbyn era it didn’t help local groups make an impact on the national agenda. Nor did Momentum get many benefits from the centralization it did achieve. The Labour Party’s hierarchies were left largely intact, and the anti-Corbyn Labour right remained embedded in the bureaucracy. The Corbynist left chipped away at this, often through online voting, but it was less successful at getting people to show up in person at regional meetings to swing decisions, or to run for local office in council elections.

These tendencies were compounded by Corbyn’s reticence in nurturing the movement he depended on. Despite their initial close alliance, he often did not align with Momentum, instead centralizing decision-making in his personal team in the Leader of the Opposition’s office and relying on allies from the Stop the War Coalition and union leadership to diffuse demands from the grassroots membership. He didn’t deliver on promises to democratize the party, and the grassroots didn’t consistently fight for that goal without his support. The digital structures that had been crucial to Corbyn’s rise became a nuisance to him.

Many of Corbynism’s failures were symptoms of the centralization of power by a leader who struggled to lead, such as the inability to deal with the party’s right flank or with charges of anti-Semitism, the major political crisis of his tenure. But the lack of redistribution of power within the party also meant the left lost not only the leadership but its hold on the party machinery. The current leader Keir Starmer has shifted Labour right, but the seats in the NEC have also been lost, and a Community Organising Unit established under Corbyn has been defunded. The networked movement entered the party, but it didn’t reshape its institutions.

In the postmortems since the 2019 defeat, it has been common to argue that these limitations were caused in part by the Corbynist left’s insufficient political education efforts. Political education is key to revolutionary and socialist movements—to building a base, to changing people’s minds, to connecting people’s material experiences with histories and theories of struggle. The Labour Party has long had an uncomfortable relationship with this dimension of politics: for most of Labour’s history, it advocated impartial public education provision by governments, rather than education for socialism by voluntary organizations or party-affiliated groups. Education was certainly not an aim of cartelized parties; they thought only in terms of “public opinion” to be followed, not changed. Even the Labour New Left tradition from which Corbyn hails had few practical answers about how political consciousness was to be created or mobilized within an electoral framework.

The recent transformation of the media landscape, and the rise of new mechanisms for delivering political information and producing political opinions, mean that education must be taken seriously not only by revolutionary movements but reformist parties. But the Corbyn movement inherited conflicting communication models for doing so. The sincerity sales-pitch of cartel party politics sat uneasily alongside an older mass membership vision, in which trust in the party is earned through its delivery of goods and defense of multi-class interests. Both were hard to square with the Labour left’s understanding of political education (it valued education but defined it paternalistically) and that of the anti-capitalist left (who articulated a less hierarchical, less disciplined vision, if it had one at all). There was a Corbynist response to the problem of political education, but it was piecemeal. It involved periodic grassroots education efforts like The World Transformed festival, which more closely resembled protest camps than workers’ night schools. Most of the time, education still meant reciting the party’s platform—the popular policies for a Green New Deal, Free Broadband, and a National Care Service. But radical policy ideas, generated by the grassroots and then grafted onto a technocratic model of education, weren’t enough to win.

What should political education look like under digital capitalism? In a memorable 2015 blog post on “the white unconscious,” Richard Seymour described how people become agents of radical transformation not by “didacticism,” but by rethinking their wants and desires and convictions in light of new criteria that they discover through organization and struggle. His example was anti-racist education. “If you have political organisations where anti-racism is taken seriously and part of their active agenda,” he wrote, it is possible “for an anti-racist knowledge to displace the old unconscious configurations and investments.” The task of political education is to find out what it takes to dispel those investments in the old order: “When we confront the unconscious, we’re confronting what is in some ways a conservative subjective force, but also something that can become, if confronted, through the questions it poses, a source of change.”

Seymour—another Gen X blogger, who Fisher once dubbed the left’s “excommunicator-in-chief”—is today known for an idiosyncratic and merciless materialism. For years, starting in 2003, he blogged at Lenin’s Tomb almost daily, in luminous, caustic detail; now his essays are on Patreon. I first heard of him at the Gleneagles G8 protest camp in 2005. At a meeting, I made an insufficiently radical comment and was booed. I was nineteen; it was a hard break. (Call-out culture predates social media, even in the most horizontalist movements. Decades ago, Jo Freeman described it as a feature of “trashing.”) Later, a friend suggested some readings that might help me grasp what had invited that scorn. He gave me a list of blogs; one of them was Seymour’s. I don’t think I actually read Seymour much until a few years later (shame can work that way), but that original humiliation is probably part of why I’m still such a fan.

The delicate and difficult confrontations of political education can be hard to stage on social media platforms that traffic in shame and cruelty. In his latest book, The Twittering Machine, Seymour casts doubt on the idea that social media—which he calls, with a nod to Adorno, “the social industry”—can be a productive terrain of struggle. The social industry works by “digitalizing the unconscious”: it’s a stage on which our dependencies and misplaced devotions play out. It offers individualized quick fixes but also functions as a safety valve for the consequences of capitalist immiseration. It magnifies shame, sadism, and cruelty; demands conformity and rectitude; and stokes fears of being wrong.

If Corbynism struggled to integrate new and old forms of organization, it was also slow to reckon with the social logic of the platforms and the education necessary to mitigate their damaging effects on mass membership parties. In particular, the anti-Semitism crisis—itself in large part produced, and used to great advantage, by the Labour right and right-wing press—escalated because of the leadership’s inability to manage online extremism in Labour’s name. The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on anti-Semitism, which found the party responsible for “unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination” against Jewish people, mostly identified cases from social media. As James Butler argued in the London Review of Books, in a party where membership can be digital and with few opportunities for political education, “ceding the digital space to the conspiracy theorists populating Facebook groups risks letting a problem grow unseen.” The social industry facilitated radicalism without accountability, providing ammunition for Corbyn’s opponents whenever they needed it. Is this an inevitable risk for left movements and parties today, which cannot hope—and often do not desire—to regulate the online activities of their supporters or members?

The dominant view on the Corbynist left has been that social media is a vital tool for changing people’s minds (especially in a country like the UK where roughly 70 percent of national newspapers are right-wing and Tory-supporting, with three companies dominating 90 percent of the print media market). Seymour is more pessimistic. The social industry makes horizontalism impossible and counter-hegemonic projects difficult. The platforms aren’t political rivals—they are not aiming to build broad civil society coalitions, or to win the consent of the governed—but “sub-hegemonic practices” with “subterranean” power that work on the “infrastructures of everyday life.” Old media was conditioned by functions extraneous to advertising (the ideological agenda of newspaper owners, the professional ideology of journalists). Social media, which is purportedly non-ideological, is where ideology functions in its purest sense. The post-Marxist left may have welcomed this new techno-political regime as producing grassroots power, but for Seymour, “we are denizens, not citizens, of a machine that keeps us addicted, amid endless boring scrolling, with sudden volatile rages, excitements, adrenaline rushes of hate.” The social industry organizes everyday infrastructures, but it doesn’t often do so in ways that break people away from their worst habits, desires, and beliefs. Instead, it shores them up.

Can the left use the social industry for its own ends, or play a role in puncturing its structuring of social reality in digital capitalism? Seymour argues that the right is better placed to make use of the hunger for resentment and shame that congeals online, where the “telos of the clickbait economy” is “fascist kitsch.” He advocates a strategy of refusal and exit, but he also sometimes implies a different lesson: the online left needs to develop a kind of digital discipline. While constraints on social media use are increasingly key to the intensification of workplace discipline, it’s less clear what a democratic form of self-constraint from below would look like. Seymour—an SWP activist for fifteen years until he left in protest in 2013, leading a social media campaign about the cover-up of rape allegations against a prominent member—invokes the habits nurtured in Trotskyist groups and their particular vision of education born of sustained action, membership, and commitment. This amounts to a discipline not of being told what to do, but of thinking before acting. In practice, such groups have often developed dysfunctional political cultures that are not conducive to this kind of thinking. But at their best, they nurtured an intimate relationship between media form and political struggle. The production and distribution of newspapers coordinated left activity in ways that went beyond meetings. It placed education at the heart of organization.

Replicating that form of coordination in a digital landscape is not straightforward. But the real difficulties may lie in how the platforms intensify the more prosaic danger faced by any defeated left: the risk of getting stuck in an enclave and becoming a political class seduced by its own self-education, far from the picket lines, the schools of struggle, and the rhythms of class politics. The challenge—augmented by the internet—is to break free of the tendency to see good ideas and well-delivered policies as substitutes for organization. This tendency is enhanced by the social industry but cannot be reduced to it. The horizontalist forms of communication and education in certain corners of the internet may appear to present an alternative to the cartel party model of political communication, but they can also run in parallel, leaving the latter intact.

In the context of these competing models of education, it’s no surprise that Twitter can feel a lot like a school, with all its benefits and horrors. It’s a space of discipline and hierarchy; it has its teachers and bullies and cliques. It’s full of grandstanding and humiliation, but it can also be a place of solace and solidarity. You learn a lot, but you might also be scared of getting something wrong. The school of the social industry can reach more people than selling copies of the Socialist Worker or an action training weekend or even a political education festival. But it can also reinforce mistaken beliefs about where the classrooms are, and about how people change their minds. It’s often said that platforms turn disagreements into denunciation. Yet they also distort the force of ideas. As Seymour writes, most people “take far too much pleasure in their beliefs to give them up for a well-put policy statement.” Political education is vital, but politics is not education. Social change doesn’t happen by swapping people’s false beliefs for true ones via a better media strategy. It requires the collectivization of their individual struggles and, often, the reorganization of their lives.

Corbynism did not manage to do that, online or off. The party-movement stimulated and popularized left digital cultures. But, in the time it spent near the levers of power, it didn’t learn how to use digital tools to turn its successful organizational transformations into lasting ones. It was not possible to transcend the contradiction produced by the alliance of the analog cartelized party and the networked movement.

That doesn’t mean this can’t be done. Corbynism also confirmed that many discover the left by digital means. Since then, the crisis conditions of the pandemic have amplified digital organizing structures in many countries, from Zoom town halls to tenant meetups to DSA Slacks, and confirmed that much of the encounters, education, and organization that are the basis of movement building can be recreated online. There are vestiges of community in these privatized and remote yet still public spaces, which have assumed even greater importance as COVID-19 squeezed already unequal and dwindling access to embodied public space. In the case of Britain, the left no longer has a party, but it may still have the tools necessary for retaking it—which can be improved, remodeled, and reorganized. Momentum has been rolling out new digital structures as part of a broader strategy to reengage the left within the party, building from the forms of digital resistance ongoing outside it. (Shame, though an unreliable route to radicalization, can also sometimes yield results—give it time.)

The hope remains that the internet can still offer something new: a space not just to incubate movements, but where old ones might endure. The task is perseverance as much as creation. In his account of the AIDS crisis, Douglas Crimp described militancy as emerging from within bereavement: the adage wasn’t “don’t mourn, organize,” but “mourning and militancy.” We are in our own plague, and the work of mourning—of sustaining a relationship with someone who is no longer there—is no easy feat. Carrying on, without reaping the benefits and satisfactions of victory, may require a discipline and a faith that is hard to sustain online. Can the social industry prove to be not just an incubator or a school but a vehicle for endurance? The truth is we don’t know. It hasn’t yet been tried.

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