Like many of the political events of recent years, the surge in support for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn at the UK general election was supposed to be ‘impossible’ until it happened. Soon after the election, Dougald Hine and Keith Kahn Harris began this exchange, asking whether recent developments vindicate an earlier optimism about the potential of networked political movements – and how the strange renewal of Labour in the UK relates to the situation of new and old political parties elsewhere in Europe.
This conversation is published ahead of The Art of the Impossible, an event which Dougald Hine is hosting at Newspeak House in London on the evening of Monday September, 4.
Dougald Hine ( DH): So you and I met in 2011, in that moment just after the Wikileaks embassy papers release, at the height of the student movement in the UK and in the first weeks of the Arab Spring. There was an evening early that year when some friends and I sat in a pub across from the British Museum, talking about it all with this guy from Newsnight, and the next morning he wrote a post listing Twenty Reasons Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere which went completely viral. It was a time when there was a feeling, firstly, that the ways in which people were using networked technologies had suddenly arrived as a historical force – and, secondly, that this could be a very hopeful development.
At the end of that year, at your suggestion, the two of us edited a book together – a quickfire, networky, thrown-together sort of book – called Despatches from the Invisible Revolution.
To be honest, I’ve tended to look back on that book as the end of a period in which I was optimistic to a degree which seemed embarrassing in hindsight. History has gone on being as weird as it was in 2011, but when I remember the way my Twitter feed surged with enthusiasm for what was happening in North Africa and the Middle East … well, in retrospect, it’s uncomfortably close to those images of crowds cheering young men off to the Front in the summer of 1914. Speaking of Paul Mason, I was struck by a column he wrote at the start of 2016, five years on from that original Twenty Reasons post, in which he was deeply pessimistic about how the collision of networks and politics has played out since:
‘The longer it goes on, the more hatred is exchanged on Twitter, the more irrationalism is stirred up by demagogues, the harder it becomes to see this phase of world history ending with the de-escalation of tension and the reinstallation of multilateral order.’
So, fast forward to the summer of 2017, and without wanting to wipe away all the grounds for being troubled by the shadow side of network politics, I can’t help feeling a kind of hope in the wake of the UK election which has sent me back to the stuff we were writing in 2011-12. Not least, what makes me hopeful is that the hold of Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre over British politics has been broken and this has a lot to do with the ways in which people are using networks to inform themselves, connect and organise. Then, just after the election, I was flipping back through the book-length version of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, looking for a reference – and I came across the bit where Mason quotes your Naming the Movement article, where you seemed to discern:
‘A trend, a direction, an idea-virus, a meme, a source of energy that can be traced through a large number of spaces and projects. It is also a way of thinking and acting: an agility, an adaptability, a refusal to accept the world as it is, a refusal to get stuck into fixed patterns of thought.’
And so I thought it was time to compare notes, because I’m curious how all of this is looking from your point of view?
Keith Kahn-Harris ( KKH): How is all this looking from my point of view? In a word: confused.
You mentioned Wikileaks. That seems to be an example of the occlusion of hope that some of us have experienced. What seemed to be – and what could have been – a utopian project for radical transparency has degenerated into a monument to the vanity of a nihilist lover of dictators.
I’m finding that kind of crushing disappointment almost everywhere I look these days. One example: a radical Jewish activist who I know, someone who has been consistently at the forefront of developing the new forms of activism and community that so inspired me in 2011, recently argued that clickbait leftist sites like The Canary were a positive development for the left. He didn’t see it as a problem that such sites ape the pseudo-journalism of the right – he thought it was a good thing that the left now had its own Breitbart. I found that heartbreaking.
And of course these are just examples from ‘my sort of people’. On the ‘other side’, everywhere I look things have fallen apart: Brexit, Trump, Putin, ISIS, climate change denial … you know the list.
Yet I said I was confused, not despairing.
What I’m confused about is that hope has not been extinguished and has even been rekindled in the most surprising ways, at the same time as it remains enmeshed in darker tendencies..
And yes, we’re talking the Labour Party here, and maybe to an extent developments in the US Democratic Party, the stubborn persistence of Podemos and similar movements that people like Paul Mason have championed over the years.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of Corbyn himself, the movement that propelled him to the Labour leadership and to better-than-expected election results evokes some of the hopes of both Occupy and the earlier anti-globalisation movement: that a diverse multitude (the ‘99%’) imbued with a conviction that ‘another world is possible’ might just bring about radical change.
That is heartening and thrilling: that sense that the future might be less crushingly determined than we thought; that the old dictum that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ may mean more than cynical pragmatism and soul-deadening triangulation.
Yet I can’t help sensing the darkness penetrating the light. I can’t help seeing the more regressive tendencies within the left of the Labour Party: the lust for purges, the bullying, the blindness towards or open embrace of repressive regimes, the lack of willingness to confront or acknowledge anti-semitism. Certainly, unlike some critics of today’s Labour Party, I don’t see these tendencies as the beginning and end of what the party means today, but they still exist.
And over and above all of this, there is a point where hope becomes blindness. I get what it feels like to be part of a movement where it feels like anything is possible. But I can’t discard the need for critical thinking, for hard questions, for reserving judgement.
Do you feel any of this too?
DH: Well, as you know, I’m one of the founders of Dark Mountain, so I’m not exactly inclined to blind optimism. These days it feels like I spend part of my time out on the mountain, which I think of as a place of retreat – in at least two senses of the word – where certain kinds of reflection and perspective become possible, but in order to gain that perspective, you’ve withdrawn from any kind of immediate agency. And then, every so often, I come back in and try to write about how we make sense of what is going on, politically, here and now. And I guess the common thread is that I’m looking for a sense of hope that doesn’t feel like wishful thinking.
Now, having said all that, the morning after the election, I joined the Labour party. I hadn’t done it sooner, mainly because I live in Sweden these days and I was hearing such conflicting things from friends back home, which made me hesitate. Like a lot of people, I guess, I’d been in the position of that poster in Mulder’s office in the X-Files: ‘I want to believe’. In what? Not in a heroic leader, but in the possibility that something is happening here that can open ‘a crack in history’, to use that beautiful phrase of Subcomandante Marcos.
You quoted the line about politics as ‘the art of the possible’, and a lot of the time that’s the limit of aspiration for parliamentary politics – I’ve met decent people who went into politics who I think saw what they were doing in precisely those terms, attempting to work within the bounds of what is ‘possible’, to limit the damage. For me, the question has always been: how do those bounds get set, how do they change, and can we contribute to their changing?
In the years since we did the Invisible Revolution book, so many of the major political developments around the world have been events that were meant to be ‘impossible’ until they happened. The effect of these events is to shake the certainties, to unsettle the bounds of what is understood to be possible – the bounds of history, as Marcos is talking about it – yet, very often, the content of these events is deeply alarming.
From the Brexit referendum to the presidential elections in the US and France, we have had a series of binary choices which seemed to boil down to ‘vote for the politics of fear and hate’ or ‘endorse the neoliberal status quo’. (Let me just say, in passing, I think the Brexit vote is more complicated than the other two, but that’s another discussion.) With the UK election, there was actually a choice to vote against neoliberalism, without voting for anything that could be interpreted as the politics of fear and hate – and this ignited the imaginations of enough people to produce a supposedly ‘impossible’ surge in support for Labour.
You listed some of the blind-spots of the political tradition that Corbyn is coming out of – and I could probably add to the list. But his leadership is a vehicle for something larger and potentially a lot broader than it’s mostly been painted. There’s a chance here to redefine the boundaries of ‘possibility’, to break out from the kind of realism that has taken hold over recent decades, that accepts not only the economic ideology of neoliberalism – with its devotion to markets and competition and deregulation – but also the idea of what humans are (or ought to be) which lies at the heart of that ideology.
Remember that line from Thatcher: ‘Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul’? I don’t think the left has a monopoly on rejecting the spiritual poverty of neoliberalism, the inadequacy of the story it tells about what people are like. Actually, I think it’s a bit like the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a hegemony with hardly any true believers left. But equally, the example of the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath might give us that wariness about how all this could play out which I think you were trying to point to?
KKH: I’m not sure that neoliberalism is quite as exhausted as the Soviet Union was in the last years. There are no shortage of true believers who are intensely committed to the free market dogma they spout. Yet the example of the Soviet Union is still an apt one – both 1917 and 1991 raised enormous hopes that were ultimately dashed. That doesn’t mean that those hopes were unwarranted then and can never be warranted in the future; only that hope and wariness always need to be balanced.
That need for balanced, hopeful wariness, perhaps relates to another perennial problem with the pursuit of political change: how do you marry reflection, long-term thinking, critical thought and the like with the immediate (and often very messy) realities of day-to-day politics?
There is always going to be some kind of ‘gap’ between these two tendencies and that’s fair enough. But one of my concerns about the Labour Party is that, in some cases at least, the gap seems to have got wider and wider. The ‘wanting to believe’ that you identify seems to be so strong that it sometimes overwhelms or smothers the expression of doubt, ambivalence and nuance. It feels like I’ve seen some of the best minds of my generation fall into a morass of clickbait, denunciations of the BBC and petitions to purge the enemy within.
To a limited extent I empathise with this tendency. Labour activists now scent victory and possible new elections within the next few months. The sense that power may be in their grasp with ‘one more heave’ can make activists disinclined to do anything that may undermine that effort. Before that, the near-constant attacks on Corbyn since his election as Labour leader has meant that even some of the more ambivalent supporters have been reluctant to criticise him in public.
But while I can understand this tendency, I can’t help asking the question: if not now, when?
The problem is that the suppression of complexity and doubt can become a habit that is hard to break. The temporary putting aside of difficult questions can become extended indefinitely. That was, after all, one of the terrible shortcomings of New Labour: the focus on ‘discipline’ and a unified message was born out of the trauma of the multiple Labour defeats in the 80s as the party tore itself apart. But even after a landslide election victory in 1997, the inability to tolerate debate and difference turned from a temporary strategy to a permanent condition.
Like you, I joined the Labour Party since Corbyn became leader. I joined just after the Brexit vote, as Corbyn faced a leadership challenge. I felt that I wanted to be part of the debate. I felt that those of us who were on the left of the Labour Party but had serious reservations about Corbyn needed to speak up.
I lasted less than a week before I gave up. I just didn’t see a space for me. There didn’t seem to be a thoughtful penumbra surrounding the cold, hard politics. The logic of ‘with us or against us’ seemed to permeate everything.
And yet, and yet… I agree with you that there is an intoxicating sense of possibility here; a moment in which what seemed solid promises to melt into air. It’s just that I think that the Labour Party is an outcome of this moment as much as it brought it about. One of the dangers of hope that has been unleashed is that everything that has happened can retrospectively be portrayed as planned; as though Corbyn saw all this coming and sparked everything off.
Indeed the intense focus on Corbyn himself – by both supporters and detractors – really worries me. It seems to reduce what is a complex, multi-layered set of possibilities down to something two-dimensional. This goes back to what I said about the gap between political action and deeper reflection. Ironically perhaps, the tantalising possibility of real political change has caused the tantalising possibilities of real social change embodied in what I called in 2011 ‘the movement’, to wither. This is oddly disempowering – an outsourcing or displacement of hope onto one man and the party he leads.
It remains to be seen whether a Corbyn-led movement can birth something genuinely new, whether it can escape the sterile cycle of purge and counter-purge that the Labour Party has often fallen prey to, whether it looks to past models of socialism or can grasp the tremendous (and maybe calamitous) changes we are about to face.
It seems to me then that part of the task ahead is to reduce the gap between political action and more reflective kinds of work. We need to find a way to build political movements that make space for difficult questions, for diversity, for ambivalence.
Do you share my framing of the task ahead? And, if so, do you have any thoughts on how it might be tackled?
DH: Well, this exchange has been running along slowly, and now it’s late summer. More than two months have gone by since the election. There was the awakening of hope at the unexpected result – and then, while everyone was still processing that, the horror of Grenfell Tower, which we haven’t even touched on here. There’s a line from a piece that Will Davies wrote for the LRB which has been stuck in my head for weeks: ‘The coincidence of the Corbyn surge with the horror of Grenfell Tower has created the conditions – and the demand – for a kind of truth and reconciliation commission on forty years of neoliberalism.’ I think there might be a clue there to the kinds of work that are needed.
There’s lots of stuff I could pick up on in your last reply – I think you may be overstating the part about ‘displacement of hope onto one man’, for example. It’s hard to disentangle what’s going on from the stories that get told about what’s going on – including the stories that are being fed by the same elements within the British press that wanted to convince us that Ralph Miliband was ‘the man who hated Britain’. Democracy in the UK has been sabotaged by the likes of Murdoch and Dacre for most of our lifetimes and the BBC, where I used to work, has struggled to perform ‘impartiality’ against a background of systematic bias. Part of the hope right now is that we saw the press do its worst to Corbyn and it failed to destroy him. As I wrote straight after the election, that’s not just hopeful if you’re a Corbynite, it’s hopeful if you believe in democracy.
You’re absolutely right that Corbyn’s Labour is the outcome of a moment, not the author of that moment. It’s been said before, but it’s depressing how rarely analysis of what’s happened with Labour looks beyond the shores of Great Britain to the crisis of social democracy playing out across Europe. You have countries like Greece or even France, where historic parties of the centre left have been obliterated, and that opens the ground for new political forces. Elsewhere, you get a social democratic party that used to count on 30-40% of the vote and that’s slid back to 25-30% – and what you see is stagnation. You bring in a new leader with a fanfare, like Martin Schulz in Germany, and six months later you’re back down at 25%.
Now, a FPTP system like the UK’s is basically rigged against the emergence of new political forces – and ordinarily, that sounds like a formula for stagnation. Except that, under current circumstances, it’s forced a cohabitation within the structure of the Labour party which puts it in the strange position of being the one historic social democratic party in Europe that is not asleep at the wheel, but has actually found a way to renew itself.
Take Denmark as a comparison: there, the Social Democrats are on 25% and they resemble the mainstream of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and then you have four other national parties with significant numbers of MPs out of which you can build a left-of-centre parliamentary bloc. That includes a couple of established parties to the left of the Social Democrats and it also includes a political start-up like The Alternative which is (as far as I can see) a non-leftist, anti-neoliberal party – very network-oriented and close in spirit to the kind of movement you and I were writing hopefully about in 2011.
What’s happening with the Labour party in Britain is that, instead of being spread out across multiple parties, the equivalent elements are having to cohabit within a single party. (This is part of what Jeremy Gilbert is getting at when he writes about Labour as a ‘platform party’.) It’s not a comfortable arrangement and it’s been far from clear that it could work, but it has the virtue of forcing everyone to wake up. The quality of debate – the amount of room for reflection and self-criticism of the kind you’re looking for – may not be all that could be desired, but compared to the state of left-of-centre politics in much of the rest of Europe, it looks like a renaissance.
In the longer run, it’s probably not sustainable – nor is it desirable that it should be sustained, because the FPTP system is a hugely problematic way of running a democracy. So if you’ve not found anywhere to connect to what’s going on within Labour, then I’d suggest looking at some of the other things going on around this landscape: the work that Ronan Harrington and others are doing around ‘Deep Politics’ with Alter Ego; the work that Compass has done to build the idea of a Progressive Alliance and publishing reports like the one Indra Adnan wrote on the future of political parties; or the work that Indra is doing with Pat Kane, Shelagh Wright and others as The Alternative UK, inspired by the Danish example but operating as a ‘political platform’ rather than a party.
Will we be disappointed? Of course, that’s how history works. And if I take a few steps back up the mountain, what I see is an unfolding ecological crisis that is unravelling the foundations of our way of living, that is going to call our assumptions into question – not least, the assumptions that frame our politics – in ways we haven’t begun to get the measure of. I see the best of us blundering around, talking about the Anthropocene as if it marked the latest step in humanity’s conquest of nature, rather than an encounter between hubris and nemesis.
Don’t mistake me for an optimist, then. But let’s say I’m right about all that: it still leaves us with choices about how we treat each other, how we make life work together as communities and societies, what stories we tell about what it’s like to be human. It still leaves us with ongoing cruelties which we can accept or confront. And there’s still that need to open a crack in history.
KKH: I’m glad you brought up comparisons with the state of the left in other European countries and that you mentioned the problems with the FPTP system. I’ve long felt that one of the basic problems with the Labour Party is that, under our electoral system, irreconcilable factions are ‘condemned to live together’ due to the non-viability of starting new political parties.
Yet on further reflection, I wonder if there are not possibilities inherent in a political system in which parties are always fated to be heterogeneous coalitions. All parties in the UK harbour within them multiple think tanks, journals and the like. Much of the intellectual energy within the British political system has been focused around these kinds of institutions.
The problem arises when one faction within a party wins big. In both the New Labour era and today, opposing factions are threatened with irrelevance and all the position papers they produce become meaningless.
I kind of yearn for the Labour Party of my childhood when party conferences were fractious affairs and no one faction dominated. I know that the Labour left has always intended to devolve power to the conference. I worry though that this will simply lead to a kind of echo chamber – more raucous than the New Labour variety admittedly, but hardly a space of real contention. One of the problems with calls for Labour internal democracy is that they have sometimes been calls for the domination by the left of the party.
You mention Compass and I agree that its work on political parties is very promising (I was a member for a while). While I am very much in favour of the Progressive Alliance idea, I can’t help but think that they have missed a trick – Compass is more focused on relationships between parties than within them.
It struck me that there is an analogy to be made with another field I am familiar with: interfaith dialogue. There is a lot of good work that has been done to nurture both elite and grassroots dialogue between members of different religions; there has been much less attention to intrafaith dialogue. Indeed, some religious leaders find it easier to have dialogue with leaders of other religions than with other denominations within their own. In my own experience in working on dialogue within the UK Jewish community, there is a strange claustrophobic intimacy to the relationship between opposing factions that often makes for intractable conflict.
I’m not arguing for a conflict resolution process within the Labour Party, or indeed for dialogue groups. What I am arguing for is a party that sees itself as a coalition that can never be entirely stable. While the desire for electoral success can help to bind this coalition together, no less important is intellectual ferment. Division is not something to be afraid of, it is an inevitability. Let a thousand think tanks bloom!
You mention the importance of Corbyn surviving media attempts to destroy him. While I take issue with this to an extent – some of the reports on his dubious past alliances raised troubling question – I do agree that resisting the power of the right-wing media has been an important accomplishment, one that opens up all sorts of political possibilities. I think we need to push this further though. Regardless of the place on the political spectrum, media outlets usually construct divisions within parties as implicitly or explicitly a damaging thing. Parties today have had to construct an image of unity to an extent that was unimaginable a few decades ago.
What if Labour – or any other party – refused to play along with this game? What if Corbyn, or figures from any party faction, were to say ‘yes we are divided, we are diverse – and that is our strength’?
Now that might open up new possibilities. We need, as you put it, to ‘blunder around’ if we are to find new ways of responding to changing social and political conditions. That is only possible if there is room to disagree, to make mistakes, to be uncertain. Electoral success has been assumed to be antithetical to any of this. What if we were to challenge that assumption?
In the book I wrote on the Israel conflict in the Jewish community, I argued that part of the problem we faced is that ‘politics’ is seen as antithetical to decent intra-communal relations and to civility.
What if we were to see the political not as a space of irreconcilable conflict, of zero-sum thinking, but as a space in which we recognise our interdependence and the inevitability of our flawed individual thinking? This isn’t the same as arguing for a blandly polite discourse, a stultifyingly ‘reasonable’ consensus. It requires a certain bravery, an exposure to countervailing currents, a willingness to be exposed.
In short, what if we saw politics as opening things up, rather than closing things down?
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