The Future: Democracide, Death Row or Rebirth.

“Shall we blast or shall we build?”

So ran the final line in an old CND anthem written in 1958 by science fiction writer John Brunner and much sung on anti-bomb marches. Here’s more; the message, in many ways, remains relevant.

Time is short; we must be speedy
We can see the hungry filled
House the homeless, help the needy
Shall we blast, or shall we build ?

At the outset of the 21st century a number of writings were published arguing that in the century ahead there would be a stark choice. If we dealt with pressing issues such as climate change, the environment, the oceans, the bees and butterflies and harness the positive power of new technologies then the 21st century  could be the turning point towards a wonderfully Utopian human life on Earth. If we didn’t, then we’re fucked. A good example of the genre was the very readable The Meaning of the Twenty-First Century by James Martin and published by the extremely worthy Eden Project. (I see you can now get a copy for 1p on Amazon…)

More recently there has been a small trickle of works presenting a similar death-row or rebirth scenario from a radical left viewpoint. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (Verso 2015) is a good example. They argue that the technology now exists, or could easily be developed, to do away with most of life’s drudgery thus enabling a move to a postcapitalist future without work. The estimable Paul Mason certainly agrees with the postcapitalist formulation, as is well outlined in his Postcapitalism, A Guide to our Future (Penguin, 2016).

Either-or scenarios are notoriously rigid, black and white with no grey. For the most part we humans muddle through. If we get an idealistic bee in out bonnet and enact it on a mass scale it usually leads to social, human and even economic disaster. On the other hand, a lack of idealism produces a cloying, nihilistic mess – which is not an unfair description of what we have now in many Western countries. Also, of course, a lack of idealism nearly always benefits the status quo which, in turn and by definition, tends to the right rather than the left.

However, for all that either-or discussions of the future, dystopia or utopia, can be hard to negotiate and make credible, there is, I believe, a special urgency to them right now in an era which is witnessing the death of the expert, almost total digital mediatization and the disruption of many political, social and even personal certainties. These are, of course, all of a piece and could potentially usher in an atrophy of meaningful democracy, a situation in which the most democratic ideas actually lead to their own withering away. I call it democracide.

Germany, perhaps still the most noted example, committed democracide in 1932, 3 and 4, when democratic elections which were played by the rules actually enabled Hitler to take office despite never having a majority against his main opponent Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler, of course, then abolished the position of President and replaced it with Furrier. And the rest really is history.

I cite Hitler simply give an extreme example of democracide. Despite scare postings on social media, our situation is not directly comparable with the 1930s, although it is true that there are parallels that give cause for thought: governments targeting the most vulnerable, the rise of a working class right-wing given voice and legitimacy by populist denouncements of the political class, nationalism…Historically, however, and in the cause of verbal accuracy we should be wary about labelling all this “fascist”. Until a right wing military haunts the streets, until even just the semblance of democracy is abolished, until the role of Prime Minister is replaced by an authoritarian dictator, until there is a political philosophy that favours certain races and classes and denigrates others (and so on) we should probably hold off on the F word. Ghastly though fascism is, it is by no means the only repressive socio-political scenario of the right; its enormous disadvantages in the 21st century are twofold. First, our collective historical experience of the 20th century means we can “see it coming”, although it is true that the lessons of the past can remain unlearned no matter how tuned in to them we might appear to be. Second, and more importantly, it demands an actual abolition of the last vestiges of democracy, incomplete and increasingly imperfect though it may be. In a breathtaking paradox, it is the very groundswell of what passes for democracy (let’s just say Trump, Brexit) that would prevents it from being taken over by obvious dictators.

In any case, if we are searching for the real dangers, the destabilisers of today, scraping the historical barrel for faint traces of fascism isn’t really where its at. Trump, and for that matter Farage, is a symptom, not a cause. The cause is elsewhere, much deeper and more elusive. It lies somewhere between the Internet, total digital mediatization and the death of the expert and/or truth.

Maybe we can start with social media – interestingly and maybe ironically enough because if you read this blog it will either be on its own WordPress website or on Facebook. From being a thinking person with no voice and no outlet (because I’m not on the press and media gravy train) online technology now enables me to write this, and you to read it. So far so good – the enabling, democratising power of digital media – or so we are often exhorted to believe.

There’s another side to this though: it is often vulgarly said that opinions are like arseholes – everyone has them. Or to put it differently, there is no online filter that lets you know whether my particular opinions are worth reading or not as opposed to the many thousands that are now available to you. In fact there’s an enormous load of drivel out there, and some very unpleasant drivel at that.(Of course, I have to concede that to some people my opinions too will be drivel.) The cultural and practical difference between this online present and the recent past is very simple. Off-the-wall opinions (much, much more off-the-wall than mine) were generally accessed in some fairly remote ways where most people didn’t go, notably, for example, in those wonderful, pokey little alternative bookshops that were found in most cities and gave you a thrill of subversion just to walk through the door. These tended to be “anarchist” or left-wing bookshops, the right-wing not usually being quite as articulate and up front. But there were right-wing pamphlets issued at one time by the likes of the BNP, the National Front or – further back – the British Union of Fascists or the Mosleyite Union Movement. They were distributed on the streets, at meetings and surreptitiously in schools. In comparison to online culture these obscure little enclaves – left or right – remained outside the everyday experience of the majority. By contrast an opinion expressed on Facebook, Twitter or whatever, as we all well aware, can go round the world as soon as it is posted. It can stimulate threads in which opinions are challenged, explained or amplified. The role of the “experts”, therefore, is vastly reduced and compromised. We all pitch in.

All this, of course, is familiar, but it needs to be acknowledged that one of the root causes of the death of the expert (probably the most significant cause of all) is the way digital technology has had the effect of legitimising all opinions, all views no matter how odd, iconoclastic, dangerous, idealistic, nasty, informed, ignorant , peaceful, warlike, wise or unbelievably stupid. In this situation it is easy for the likes of Trump or Farage or Le Pen to peddle a dangerous dope – the fearlessly stated, supposedly hitherto unexpressed views and feelings of the voiceless ones, the common if a little conservative folk who only want to make a living and do the right thing in the face of interference and corruption on the part of “them” – the political class or the liberal politically correct left. This constitutes another paradox. The views of this newly empowered democratic populectorate, expressed via its votes for demagogues, short circuits and backfires into a kind of non-democracy. Trump spent millions convincing his supporters that he was just an ordinary guy like them. Jimmy Carter in 1976-7 spent the tiniest fraction of Trump’s (or Clinton’s) amount of money. His campaign didn’t have money, not on that scale. I’m not arguing for a return to the good old days when presidents only had a relatively small budget. I am saying that the situation is now totally out of hand, entirely a media (and very much a digital media) event, with no integrity, and yet rumbling away in Trump’s camp was the notion of the ordinary guy. The absurdity is staggering.

The death of the expert, however, is not merely related to politics alone. You even find it in the very places where you might expect to find actual real experts – in universities and colleges. Although universities are always keen to trumpet the research profiles of their staff (and thus show how many experts they employ and therefore get more money) there has increasingly been a disconnect between this and what happens on the coalface, as it were – teaching undergraduates in particular. Making sure that students’ tasks fall easily within their grasp, underplaying levels of expertise, “democratising” knowledge, making the acquisition of knowledge and educational experience subservient to student retention and employment prospects – all this puts the experts in a strange position. They are supposed to know their stuff but they’re not supposed to show it in case it scares someone off.

Many teachers now find that their students check their facts on Google and even come back with alternatives. Is it entirely churlish to resent this? After all, facts is facts and we’re all entitled to know them and get them right. Yes perhaps, but what is to be made of the piano student who checks everything their teacher tells them and comes back saying there’s another way of doing it to the point where there’s no way to proceed? Or, from my personal experience, what of the piano student who watches YouTubes of performances of the piece he is learning, thus making it harder for me to encourage a search for his own interpretation? For that matter what do we make of conversations which flow nicely until one of the company gets on the phone or their laptop to check the facts? I once went to a folk singing session and contributed a song only for one of those present to look it up on their phone and tell me I’d missed out a verse. I really, honestly did want to take their phone and stamp on it.

All this, of course, illustrates the self evident fact that our lives are now digimediatized pretty well constantly. Half the people you see in the street, and most on railway stations, are on their phones. The mobile phone is a novelty not a necessity although few now can see it that way. The idea that we should be available twenty-four hours a day means that basically we now live in public, in a kind of public mediasphere, in which privacy, private thoughts and the inner life are increasingly buried deeper. On Facebook we mourn the deaths of the famous, a kind of cyber-grief that has very little substance other than nostalgia. We outrage at what our political opponents are doing and procure a load of “likes” but what effect does this have on any actual real world situation? Probably very little…

The situation is even more complex, more existential than this. The cyberworld is not a place; it is not a family; it is not a palpable reality. It is a conceptual space, a space constructed in the mind rather than anywhere else in our lives, although it may lead to real live events. It is compulsive. On a radio programme recently young people were asked how many hours per day they spent online. Their answer was that it would be easier to work out how many hours they were not online. I spend too much time online. You probably do. There a gamers who play for up to sixty hours non stop and wear diapers so they won’t have to get up. The online world has an addictive quality, and like all addictions it masks a spiritual desire for completion that too often ends in emptiness.

The new world, the postcapitalist world without work argued for by Srnicek and Williams, let us recall is a world in which drudgery is taken over by technology. The idea of getting rid of boring, mind-numbing work is appealing and takes good aim against the work ethic promoted by capitalism under the guise of being good for us. It raises a problem familiar to readers of science fiction: what happens when the technology goes down? I mean all of it, not just the bit that accomplishes a particular task that we’ve been happy to scrap. An increasing or total dependence on technology and machinery, digital or otherwise (but mostly digital) must have the human being as its failsafe device. In other words, we would be ill-advised to forget the “old way”. In editing music or speech it can be the case that old school studio engineers who were brought up editing magnetic tape with a razor blade and splicing tape have a particular sensitivity which bleeds through into their work with computer programmes. So the first thing is not to lose the basic skill. Reliance on the machine is a form of personal irresponsibility.

But further. The real dilemma is between the human spirit and technocracy. Those who stake much on the cyber world, on new technologies, on their amazing abilities and potentials might see this as a false, or old fashioned, dichotomy. Surely the human spirit can now develop in hitherto unimagined ways, they might say, by embracing the extraordinary new world that the new technologies are now beckoning us towards. This may be so, but note that the word I used to counterpose with the human spirit is “technocracy” not “technology” – to which I shall return in a moment. If the first step towards dealing with a problem is to develop an awareness of it then there needs to be a developing discourse of critique of the digimediatized world. Those (like me) who have critical perspectives need to find forums, and be offered platforms, in which to express such critiques. Pandora’s box is, self evidently, opened and its contents unleashed. This not only refers to technology and what it can do but also to what we ourselves become in the digimediatized world we now live in. What happens to our humanness; what happens to this labouring, myth-making animal that we are? And this also refers to politics, social formations, attitudes to knowledge, experience, relationships of all kinds and our general sense of location in life. It also takes in the enormous area of debate and exchange on the subject of democracide mentioned earlier. The most sacred of sacred cows, democracy itself, surely needs to be put in the alchemical vessel of these debates.

Alongside an awareness and ongoing discussion of the problematics, there are other paths to be explored. The digimediatized world, precisely because it is so pervasive, needs a counterculture that is a real counterculture which genuinely runs counter to the precepts and values of the new scenario. There are two ways of doing this. One is to accept and embrace digitechnologies and use them for countercultural purposes. There are, for example, music clubs up and down the country (Plymouth’s Cafe Concrete for example), record labels, and genuinely experimental approaches to music that subvert or oppose mainstream and majority music. Music is the example I know best but this happens in all other spheres. To have any genuinely countercultural impact it needs to keep itself as clear of academia, commerce and prescriptive funding schemes as possible. The other countercultural path is that of lo or no tech. Liveness, non-mediatized events are a crucial element in a current counterculture.

The rationale for these general strategies echoes that proposed by Theodore Rozak in 1970 in The Making of a Counterculture (Anchor/Doubleday 1969). His description of the technocratic society was of one that justifies itself by appeal to technical experts whose appeal is based on scientific forms of knowledge “and beyond the authority of science there is no appeal”. This led him to make three key observations relating to the notion that our human needs are purely technical in character – first, they can be analysed formally by specialists and translated into “social and economic programmes, personnel management procedures, merchandise. and mechanical gadgetry” (my italics). Second, this formal analysis of our feds is now pretty complete – so no improvement needed there. Third, all the necessary experts happen to be those currently in charge or “on the official payroll of the corporate structure”. In these days where the rhetoric of cultural democracy can be pervasive it is salutary to note that Rozak’s ideas are even more valid than they were in 1969, and this is why a supporting and developing a genuine counterculture – or countercultures plural (as opposed to one that has the system’s ways at heart but finds opposition fashionable or image-worthy) is urgent.

Rozak understood the 1960s counterculture as a response to technocracy. When the era is placed under the microscope this view can hardly be disputed. The 1960s saw a revival of fin de siecle ideas involving mysticism, orientalism and the occult as well as a folk revival with a second wind. It harboured some romanticism and an anti-enlightenment rhetoric – Blake rather than Newton. In other words, there was an urgent concern with spiritual values, the making of the individual, what Illich called “tools for conviviality” and a great faith in the arts, especially music, in the non-tangible world of experience, the politics of experience as R.D. Laing called it. Or the Jimi Hendrix Experience…

A development of spirituality is the last, most necessary but complex response I shall list in relation to the digimediatized world and its complex social, political and personal dimensions. I do not advocate an imitation on the 1960s, and most certainly not a revival of that fey, imperialist, self-centred world of New Ageism of the post-’60s. Spirit is niot necessarily mysticism. It simply refers to the unseen, to the un-manifest but demonstrably existential. It does not need to have anything to do with gonzo-Buddhism, new age bodywork practices, runes, the Tarot, the smell of sandalwood or the practice of Tantra or the thoughts of wise old gurus from the Himalayas, although some of these may have something to offer. The main point here is that there can be no such thing as cyber spirituality. Whatever form it takes (music and the arts, meditation, relationships of all kinds, scientific research, teaching and learning…) confrontation with the inner life, the sense of self, purpose and identity necessarily takes place live and alone – despite whatever help might be available from mentors and sympathetic witnesses. And live means away from the computer screen – and leave your phone at home.

A Buddhist speaker I heard as long ago as the 1980s discussed technology. He claimed that technology is the new world. We must embrace technology. We must understand what we can do with it. We must also – he said – practice Buddhism so that we are always in charge of the technology rather than vice versa. We do not, of course, all have to practice Buddhism, but in essence the man was right. The development of new material possibilities must be accompanied by a corresponding development of the inner life. Not long ago I sat in a local pub with four friends all of whom were jabbing text messages onto their phones. I rest my case…

 

 

 

21st Century Fascism and Democracy

I never use the word “fascism” lightly. However, in various powerful countries in the Western world we are now hearing more than a handful of politicians, parading as loose canons, perpetrating ideas which can certainly be described as proto-fascist. This does not, of course, mean that fascism has actually arrived. For that to happen the far right has to have power and a modus operandi of extreme repression and, quite possibly, socio-political violence. So far only Donald Trump has – or may have – that kind of power. It remains to be seen what his period in the political limelight will bring. But the signs, especially in Western Europe are not encouraging. The French electorate is going to have the same kind of Tweedledum or Tweedledee choice that Americans had – a declared Thatcherite or a fascist…

UKIP in the UK is now a serious threat. One would imagine that as it has accomplished its aim – the vote to leave Europe – its work is over.  It might legitimately hang around as a watchdog to make sure that Leave happens in the way they want it. But Paul Nuttall’s declared ambition of replacing the Labour Party is not far fetched and shows that UKIP is not going to shut up once its single issue raison d’être is over. Nuttall has called for the privatisation of the NHS, a referendum on bringing back the death penalty and reversing the hunting ban. A nice, mild enlightened individual, then, and clearly pumped up with ambition.

I have a good friend, a German lady living in England, who told me that although Germany does have a scary far right the mainstream of German outlook is still warned by its past. Ironically, I wonder whether Germany might be an enclave of humanitarianism in an increasingly hard right Europe.

There is one factor that cries out for a serious response, given that if nightmare scenarios were to actually occur it would be the ballot box that got us there. Therefore some critical discussion of democracy itself seems in order. Unless there is some critical thinking about this most sacred or sacred cows I fear we could be doomed to repeat history. Or as a Buddhist might say: the details have changed but not the karma. At the very least it seems relevant to ask a few questions.

If we genuinely value the principles of democracy our faith should be strong enough to investigate or re-investigate it and propose different forms. Is first-past-the-post actually democratic? Does it need to be based on a single personality-leader? Is the party system obsolete? Is it a good system that can lead to fascism, inhumanity, and the law of the jungle propagated by that neoliberal demigod Ayn Rand? What other forms might democracy take? Can we demythologise democracy? Can we have real democracy with a press and media drenched in the hegemony of capitalism? If not, what might we do about it? Can we perhaps drop the stupid concept of the “freedom of the press” – a relevant concept a couple of centuries ago but no longer? Surely at the very least we urgently need to think about these matters.

Trump and Neoliberalism’s End Times

Donald Trump is not an erratic, a loose canon, a ridiculous vainglorious puffed up man of the people who opposes the political mainstream. He is not any of these things. He represents on the one hand the apogee of neoliberalism and on the other its decline and fall. He is not exterior to it. He comes slap bang from its heart and soul. If you want to see what neoliberalism is like at its most threadbare, its most exposed, take a look at Donald Trump.

Neoliberalism was many years in the making. Think tanks and conferences involving its pioneers (Mises, Hayek) went back even to the 1930s and a search for an economic theory and practice other than classic liberalism and socialism. When it eventually achieved political ascendency in the 1980s, proselytised by Milton Friedman and gobbled up by Thatcher, Keith Josephs, Ronald Reagan et al., it had firmed up into a simple pro-capitalist, pro-competition, militantly pro-individualism, anti-public position that conveniently reduced to simple slogans of the kind that Thatcher was particularly good at – “you can’t speed what you can’t afford” and so on. It also made a populist (and popular) appeal to the idea of social, political and (mostly) individual freedom. In theory this pointed to the idea of the minimum state. In practice, however, it usually meant more state and institutional controls, interventions and bureaucracies, more management – not less. Neoliberalism’s fundamental belief that human wellbeing is best served by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms, by individual self-interest and by monetarizing everything in sight was well entrenched in the 1980s and has remained the default position ever since.

There’s always a time-lapse between a new idea’s appearance and its deeper grip, and between its deeper grip and its backwash. The banking crisis of 2008 was a direct descendent of 1980s monetarist policies and deregulated freedoms. Donald Trump, likewise, roughly a quarter of a century on, is a product of neoliberalism and demonstrates its essentially amoral (or maybe unconscious) core.

Its not that Hilary Clinton is NOT neoliberal. Very far from it, of course. But she’s the acceptable face. Trump is the unacceptable face of neoliberalism. That’s what makes him so shocking to his opponents and so appealing to his followers. Trump is an individual, a self-made man, a billionaire. He is a culture hero, a kind of demigod, in the same bracket as Bill Gates, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson or Simon Cowell, such luminaries of contemporary entrepreneurial spirit have actually contributed more of value to society than Trump’s skyscrapers, hotels and casinos. Trump is essentially useless to all but Trump.

Trump may have been on the right and wrong side of the law, may have exploited immigrant workers, may have erected huge monuments to his ego – buildings which bear his name, may have blustered his way to the top, may have had as many business failures as successes – but the point is that he – as a self-motivated, self-directed, self-driven individual – has kept going doing what the system says we all must do: succeeding in material terms and to hell with everything else – ethics, conscience, empathy. Neoliberalism, even more than capitalism itself – of which it is, of course, a derivative -, has a Brechtian moral at its core: as in the fictional city of Mahagonny the greatest crime is to be poor or needy. It is acceptable, and expected, that all will do everything and anything to accumulate wealth in a dog-eat-dog world. There are really no morals – if you make your pile out of the misery and even destruction of others that’s just how it is in the jungle, as also in the world of Ayn Rand. When Trump replied to Clinton’s accusation that he didn’t pay his taxes he said that was because he’s smart. Pure Brecht. And an exposure of the amoral core of neoliberalism.

How could a monster like Trump occur in a civilised country? Part of the answer is that neoliberalism itself is a form of barbarism. But the more interesting question concerns why there haven’t been more Trumps. After all, he stands for everything the system stands for. Even his racism and misogyny are not inconsistent with a divided, unfair and blaming society. Blame is the explanatory tactic that is dragged out when the system fails, when its promise stalls. Blame the migrants, blame the left, blame the Jews or the European Union.

Trump, therefore, represents neoliberalism at its most naked, its most exposed, its least adorned in Theresa May-like piety and right-wing austerity programmes. On the other hand, there has been a lot of talk for a few years now about the failures of neoliberalism, visions for a post-capitalist society. One of the best accounts is Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” whose first chapter is headed “Neoliberalism is Broken” – which it is, which is proven by the fact that the more it fails to deliver the more it – er – fails to deliver. But there now are many analyses of this deeply flawed system. Furthermore, any vision for the future that doesn’t include enlightened policies on climate change and how to manage rather than rape the planet simply isn’t a vision at all. Such radical-left-green thinking is way beyond the intellect of Trump. But it may be that the neoliberalism’s greatest clown might also be its last one. It probably gets no worse than Trump, and from here on its decline all the way to a better future. That, at least, is the optimistic view. If Trump were to set a working benchmark of unbridled decadence we might all be well advised to get in training for the next rocket to the Moon. Or somewhere.

The Kamikaze Blairites

Is Jeremy Corbyn any more or less electable than Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband were, all of whom were approved by the NEC and the PLP? For that matter, if Tony Blair stood for leader now what would his electability ratings be? Those who pronounce Corbyn unelectable should pause for thought. It is the Labour Party itself that has been proven unelectable, and that is fact, not speculation. If the party is to become electable again it therefore goes without saying that it has to change from being a party of neoliberalism (not all that lite either), spin and utter disconnect with its supporters and potential voters, to being a party with vibrant support and clear analysis of what’s wrong in Britain today. More than this, though, it needs a positive vision for the future, something that Owen Smith is signally lacking. The only future he appears capable of envisaging is deposing Jeremy Corbyn who has actually done nothing wrong.

What has happened since Corbyn was overwhelmingly elected leader has muddied the waters somewhat. First, even before he was elected there were the beginnings of plots against him. From his election onwards there have been constant sneers and smears, hardly making his job of leading the party an easy one. No political leader that I can remember had to battle against such odds – Thatcher, Callaghan, Major, even Blair all had loyal parties.

Then eight months later came the mass resignations designed to make Corbyn’s position untenable. Party unity, the first prerequisite for a good opposition, was totally disregarded in this kamikaze act of self-destruction.

Then there was the clamour for a new leadership contest so that this time those who vote could get the right answer, the previous one obviously being wrong. And when this new leadership contest was set up, which of course it never should have been, there was the attempt to exclude Corbyn from being on the leadership ballot, a clear and cynical attempt to ignore the existing rules. Eventually there was the spectacle of two political nonentities, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, launching embarrassing campaigns that, frankly, didn’t know what they were for, only who they were against.

The EU vote was something of a diversion, although it proved to be grist to the mill of the discredit Corbyn campaign. And so it rolls on, the Blairites and others losing in the high court and looking stupider by the day. Will they squander huge amounts of members’ money in appealing the high court’s decision? I’m betting they might. After all, they’ve proven they’ll do anything to prevent Corbyn’s supporters from voting.

But the muddied waters have now obscured everything. If there were an election soon and Corbyn lost it would be obvious that the electorate as a whole hadn’t fancied a disunited party. Where would the blame lie? With Corbyn or the frankly vicious campaign against him? In all honesty it would be hard to tell. Both sides, no doubt, would blame the other, but it wasn’t Corbyn who started the plots and coups against himself, now was it…

The anti-Corbyn faction is single-handedly responsible for destroying the Labour Party. To use an analogy: if a suitcase were found at an airport would you blow up the entire airport? That, in effect, is what the anti-Corbyn faction is doing, and it seems that their only grounds for over-reacting in such a manner is that they don’t like the look of the suitcase. At least, they show no interest in opening it and finding out what’s inside – which is interesting, to say the least, because it is full of things one might expect to find in a case labelled “Labour”.

Dylan Goes Electric

Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, and the Night that Split the Sixties. Elijah Wald, Dey St., 2015

That night in the summer of 1965 when Bob Dylan did a short electric set at the Newport Folk Festival is the stuff of legend. Accounts differ as to what happened, although the core issue of Bob Dylan’s loud electric presentation is not in contention. He did three songs, Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry with a rock band line-up. It was loud, louder than folk festivals were used to. He returned to do an acoustic encore, but the legend remains: Dylan “went electric” and Pete Seeger went apoplectic threatening to put an axe through the electric wires. From here on Dylan represented liberated youth refusing to be constrained by existing circumstances and fashion (“I ain’t gonna work at Maggie’s Farm no more”); Seeger, from being the rebel who had cocked a snook at McCarthy, became the old garde who didn’t get it (“…something is happening here but you don’t know what it is do you, Mr. Jones?”).

The crowd booed and jeered. How many? Did they all boo? Recollections vary. It was mainly because of the lousy sound system whereby you couldn’t hear the words. Was it? That’s certainly what some say, but not others. Pete Seeger, symbol and key organizer of the Newport Festival and, indeed, the American folk revival as a whole, was outraged but it seems unlikely that he was walking around with an axe – although there was one available. It had been used by singers of worksongs to add some authenticity to their singing. Alan Lomax, America’s most assiduous folk music collector, was disgusted by Dylan’s petulant display.

Elijah Wald’s Dylan Goes Electric…is the best read you’ll ever find on the subject. His detailed research enables him to give full accounts of every aspect not just of this one incident, but of all the circumstances leading up to it, the dynamics and contradictions of the folk revival, as well as the wider significance of the event itself. Furthermore, as we have come to expect from Wald, his writing is easy to read, fluent, and as compelling as a who-dunnit. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. (I said that about his Escaping the Delta a few years ago, one of the best books about the blues I’ve ever read.)

The folk revival, not only in America, was very much a case of authenticity versus manufacture, those old and problematic polar opposites which dissolve the closer you get to them. Popular music was an industry, it was concerned with image, marketing, made its appeal by means of simple – if not simplistic – statements, and at its worst was the soundtrack of a snide capitalism whose only motivation was to make money. Folk music, on the other hand, was felt to be unspun, real, certainly not capitalist, not an industry, and made an appeal to love and peace among “my brothers and sisters all over this land”. Of course, the careers of the best known folksingers such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, early Bob Dylan and, indeed, Pete Seeger himself were supported, at least in part, by aspects of the music industry – agents like Albert Grossman, record companies, and even hit records. The authenticity-versus-manufacture dualism is a nonsense really. It’s all about presentation, image and assumed ideologies. Wald’s account presents this entire dynamic in historical detail, sympathetically, in a non-partisan manner giving credit where its due and critique where its necessary.

What’s clear, and what I’ve been teaching university students for some years now, is that for all that it has become a mythic narrative the night Dylan went electric is the single key symbolic moment when rock took over from folk as the music of 1960s youth, and it has continued ever since. There are many roots (and routes) to rock: black rhythm and blues, which Elvis always acknowledged, aspects of country music, urban blues, beat poetry, the folk revival. And there were many instances of electric instruments in folk before that night at Newport. But because of the stir Dylan caused, because of the music and words of the actual songs he sang, and because of the fact that it was Bob Dylan, it is not too journalistic and not too hyperbolic to claim it as the birth of rock. Certainly the tale can be validly told thus. Elijah Wald’s brilliant book will give you all the evidence you need.

The Labour Party: What’s Happening?

Like so many matters in British politics, it all goes back to Thatcher. Or rather, it goes back to the neoliberal revolution that she spearheaded under the influence of academic ideologues such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek via her trusted ally Keith Joseph who, as much as anyone in the world, was a leading proponent for replacing Keynes with Friedman, welfare-ism with monetarism. More precisely, it goes back to the problem that neither the Labour Party nor the Left in general had any viable response to these epochal changes other than, as Raymond Williams once put it, to say Thatcher and spit. And, perhaps it should go without saying, the changes were indeed epochal and continue to rumble on in today’s politics. Neoliberalism is still the status quo.

From the Second World War onwards, previous to Thatcher’s revolution there was only the post-war Labour government that represented change of equivalent significance. The Atlee government saw the beginnings of welfare-ism, a programme of nationalization, public provision of essential services and transport, the NHS. The list is well known and is the diametric opposite to neoliberalism, as Keith Joseph and Thatcher well knew. For them all those hallmarks of post-war Labourism had become the enemy.

Where post-war Labourism had emphasized collectivity and the role of the state as a provider for all, the neoliberalism that finally triumphed in the 1980s (it has a longer history) emerged from discussions around the minimum state and the importance of markets in managing and defining the economy. Electorally it had one killer pitch to popular discourse in general: its big idea – over and above specifics such as the free market and attacking the unions – was an appeal to the concept of freedom. Or rather, it was a particular take on freedom based around an intense work ethic, individual self-determination, enterprise and, where at all possible, de-regulation.

It was hard to argue with. Western Europe and America have lived in an epoch, at least since the Enlightenment, whereby individual liberty has been a watchword throughout society. Few of us assume that it is a good thing not to be as free as we can possibly be, to live under a rigid social hierarchy, for example, or to have slaves or even servants, although these latter do still survive. This freedom for all is a complex animal, not as obvious as it may seem, but still it is the ideological bedrock from which there is no departure. Suppose for one moment that someone came up with an idea for the assured survival of the planet, caring for the environment in ways that made a real difference but that these depended on an authoritarian administration telling us all what to do and what not to do. Would it get far? I doubt it…

Neoliberalism’s pitch of freedom as a basic human entitlement, therefore, was a simple idea that attracted no serious opposition. After all, isn’t freedom what we all want? Don’t we all suffer from the intrusion of forces that constrain us? David Harvey’s definition of neoliberalism, gives some broad outlines of what it is.

“Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skill within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices.’ (Harvey, David: A Brief History of Neoliberalism, OUP, 2005, p. 21)

Mrs. Thatcher said: “There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty”. It was a message that conflated good housekeeping with liberty, the one leading to the other, and was not hard to understand. Thrift, business acumen, hard work and being free to build one’s own empire made the entrepreneur in neoliberalism into a kind of culture hero. It is still the case. Culture heroes of our age include the likes of Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, Bill Gates or Simon Cowell – famous primarily for being successful in business and being rich, but their wealth is self-made rather than hereditary. And, implausible though it is if we so much as pause to think about it, the promise that anyone can “make it” is at the heart of the appeal of neoliberalism. It’s a kind of offshore European version of the American Dream. Work, put in the hours, follow your dream (as they say on X Factor) – and why shouldn’t it be you up there? Or, more modestly perhaps, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do pretty well in life; neoliberalism is a belief that all barriers and constraints to your progress should be removed. That includes too big and unwieldy a state, trade unions, control systems – including those that govern markets, and all forms of regulation such as those associated with, say, broadcasting.

Neoliberalism, however, is something of a chameleon. It says one thing and frequently does the other. Although ostensibly against bureaucracy it’s governments and government departments always aim to fix things in favour of the freedoms they believe in via enormous amounts of legislation and, indeed, bureaucracy. Harvey again:

“We have to pay careful attention, therefore, to the tension between the theory of neoliberalism and the actual pragmatics of neoliberalism.” (Harvey, op. cit. p. 19)

The appeal of neoliberalism is not hard to understand – or rather its rhetoric is easy to take in (and be taken in by…) Remove the constraints on individual enterprise (deregulation), regard the welfare state as the nanny state which discourages initiative (liberation from overprotective interference), and encourage individualism and competition by reifying individual self determination. The Welfare State was perhaps good for its time, so the argument might go. It looked after people when they needed it, but now those old-fashioned days are over. Given that Thatcher de-industrialised significant swathes of Britain, the working class became almost a taboo concept. Its cast-off remnants, of course, were portrayed in popular movies such as Brassed Off or The Full Monty. On the other hand, allowing “the people” to buy shares in de-nationalised industries, or buy their council houses, was vaunted as enlightened because these were first steps on the property-owing and entrepreneurial ladders. If you regarded yourself as cool you did not identify yourself as working class. Being weighed down by your roots, your job, your traditional social and family structures began to be considered desperately old-fashioned and inflexible. The catch phrase of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher period was “Go for it”.

This new, aggressive system, in some ways, was seductive. Give people more control over their own lives, wrest power away from unions, establish a culture of aspiration and you supposedly have a growth in liberty – and indeed “libertarian”, a word only previously heard in anarchist circles, began to be used to describe the free, unconstrained, self-improving and ambitious ideal citizen of neoliberal Utopia – and, make no mistake, it is a Utopian system.

The year before Thatcher’s election victory of 1979, Marxism Today had published Eric Hobsbawm’s article The Forward March of Labour Halted? – in which, after a historical survey of a hundred years of the working class as a political and social force, it was shown that the overall picture was one of decline. Union membership, for example, was stagnant and well behind many other European countries. More alarmingly, Hobsbawm produced figures to show that the Labour Party’s overall vote had largely been in gradual decline since the demise of the post-war Labour government even though there had been Labour governments during that time. His purpose was to point this out rather than suggest reasons and remedies, yet it was clear to whoever thought about it that this decline reflected the changing demographic of the Labour vote. The traditional working class with its class-based political consciousness was on its way to becoming a thing of the past. Remember that Hobsbawm’s article was published before Thatcher took office, not after. For this reason is was indeed very prescient. The success of neoliberalism, therefore, was not merely due to the Iron Lady’s assiduous pursuit of an ideological position. There was also social grounding in which its seeds were planted.

At a packed Tribune meeting at a Labour Party conference just after Thatcher’s election I saw Neil Kinnock, who was not yet Labour leader, give a speech based on Hobsbawm’s article. He was passionate about learning and heeding its lessons. Alas, he did not get much of a reception from the assembled left of the party. Other platform speakers that night including Tony Benn and Denis Skinner derided Kinnock for bothering with academic hogwash. If we wanted to know what was going on in the country we should go and ask coal miners rather than a London University scholar. I remember being appalled by this knee-jerk anti-intellectualism which pandered to one of the very worst strains in English culture.

We can gloss over what happened next. Thatcher’s period of government, followed by John Major, represented a low point for the Labour Party with its internal squabbles and a breakaway faction, the Social Democratic Party, which (current Labour politicians take heed) really did amount, in the end, to a MacBethian tale
 told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Alas, though, it was not only the SDP that amounted to a political irrelevance. The Left as a whole, and I include its entirety from the Right of the Labour party across the spectrum leftwards, had no response to neoliberalism other than a reassertion of the Left’s historical values: defending the working class (which, as we have seen, was changing profoundly), unionism, solidarity, and, in some cases, militancy and zeal. (Say Thatcher and spit…) Not that there was (or is) anything wrong with these positions, but it was becoming clearer that the context for them, both culturally and politically, was changing.

For all the opprobrium heaped upon Tony Blair, it was this situation, this turn of history that he tried to address. He took a sledgehammer to crack what was admittedly a pretty large nut. His determined effort to purge the idea of socialism from the party outraged many, not only those on the Left, as when he abolished Clause 4 and symbolically and actually knocked the stuffing out of Labour’s raison d’etre. The size and scale of his election victory in 1997, however, served to convince some that he should be given some slack. The disappointment of many with Blairism, which turned out to have significant overlaps with Thatcherism, was partly motivated by the belief that he could have figureheaded a much more radically Left government than he actually did. It should be acknowledged, however, that the massive vote for Blair’s Labour was not a call to full-blooded socialism. Some would argue that it was his removal of this possibility that made him so electable. What is undoubtedly true, however, is that his ideological position turned out to be not just a little centrist, but overwhelmingly to the right of the party. Not only was there a New Labour; it also had a New Right.

Blair’s reign should not be blackened entirely, the Iraq war notwithstanding. But the perception was (and is) that his attempt to establish a “new” Labour included a ruthless attack on “old” Labour values. Most importantly, it was generally perceived to be directed by new levels of spin. New Labour’s period of ascendency was also the period when Labour lost its heart. Worst of all, there was still no real response to Thatcherism. In a BBC interview in 2013 Blair looked back and described Thatcher as “a towering political figure” who had always been “immensely kind to him”. He commented: “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them”. So while the Left was still saying Thatcher and spitting, Blair’s New Labour was simply incorporating neoliberalism but giving it a more sleek, more marketable spin. It was intensely disappointing for anyone who had hoped for something a little more progressive. The institution of student fees was only the beginning.

The vote went down. From being a presentational skills hero Blair’s popularity slumped, partly due, it must be said, to Iraq. Gordon Brown, intelligent but awkward, lost the election and Labour was most definitely back in the doldrums. Ed Miliband was sincere enough, but his habit of finger-wagging the unions before they’d even done anything did nothing to restore the old Left’s faith in the party. And still, and crucially, there was no real response to neoliberalism, now the default position for just about everything in society from big corporations to arts funding.

David Cameron’s coalition government, despite what the Liberal Democrats’ may say about their presence holding the reins of the Tory racehorse, was more right wing than Thatcher. Neoliberalism was by then thirty years old in an active sense in the UK. Its core beliefs had now had time to become entrenched and unconscious received wisdom, as if questioning them was questioning the universal order. Self-evidently not everyone accepted this, but you did if you were a Tory, and you did if you were in government, and for that matter you did if you were in a government department such as education or health, running a business or a media enterprise The trebling of university fees is a case in point. For those “on the ground”, university lecturers and other staff, if you opposed the fees hike there was nothing you could do about it. Under the present Tories it’s getting worse.

Interestingly, although there was still no real response to neoliberalism one of the routes taken by a depressing number of voters was, in effect, to move to the Right. The fact is that neoliberalism actually doesn’t work, certainly not as an economic system – which, after all, is where it begins. Even middle-of-the-road economists are now saying this. Neoliberalism does not decrease deprivation, poverty and misery in society, neither at home nor elsewhere. The fact that it promises far more than it can ever deliver in terms of personal achievement, that it is generally administered by people who are already wealthy, that it has not challenged the entrenched class system in the UK, that it stands to reason that not everyone can be at the top, and despite the insistence of popular culture’s daily messages to the contrary, we can’t all be rich, famous, have the figure of a fashion model, be glamorous, go on telly, be a pop singer, eat posh food, go on expensive holidays or whatever – all this makes the culture of neoliberalism an incubator of alienation and dissatisfaction. Despite its promises we’re still not living in a Utopian paradise where monetarist values lead the way to a “natural” society in which a mythic invisible hand makes sure that everything works out in the end as it should. It is a religion rather than a political system and (I sigh deeply to acknowledge it) among the few people who realize this is a relative minority of violent zealots from other religions who seek, literally, to blow it up.

In the absence of a genuine response to neoliberalism, however (and violence is about the stupidest), there has been a rise in frustration, a rise in the numbers of people disillusioned with what it does (such as austerity), a rump of opinion that reaches for scapegoats and finds them provided by a xenophobic and populist right wing. Nigel Farage is actually a pure product of neoliberalism. His speeches and interviews hardly ever mention the fundamentalist economics he favours as a right wing man of finance, but harping on about immigration provides a perfect dumping ground for frustrations and angry emotions that actually belong elsewhere. There are leftist views about why leaving the EU was a good thing, but the overwhelming presence in the Leave campaign was covert and overt racism. Pointing out, and convincing people who support UKIP or voted Leave for right-wing reasons, that there is another analysis of the present day social landscape is the major task of the Left in the coming years. It won’t be easy. As in the 1970s, it’s so much easier to blame the wogs.

So we come to the present state of affairs. There actually is a critique of neoliberalism. It has arisen in the 21st century and is still emerging. It doesn’t so much come from the old left as from the young, although how young is a moot point and it would be wrong to peg the whole thing on youth. A mature and respected political philosopher, Michael J. Sandel, has articulated some of this critique in works like What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets of 2012, a favourite of Ed Miliband’s incidentally. The title says it all. Markets cannot be allowed to determine everything. Surely there must be a moral limit to the domination of everything by monetary value. In America, according to Sandel, you can pay to lobby a politician. Not only that, there are now people “earning” money simply standing in the lobbyers queue so you don’t lose your place. The injection of a moral dimension into left(ish) politics and social critique is a genuine response to the irresponsibility of neoliberalism at its most crude. It was the basis of the Occupy movement where some of the younger supporters of Bernie Sanders, or perhaps Jeremy Corbyn for that matter, cut their political teeth. It represents an insistence on a moral dimension to politics. The morality of neoliberalism has always been overwhelmingly a matter of apologetics. The idea that wealth would trickle down, for example, was not only untrue; it constituted a naked and ethic-less justification for making loads of money without conscience.

The moral, or ethical, dimension is vital. It’s concern for fairness, justice and compassion should run through politics, especially left politics, like a spine. But simply insisting that people are nicer to one another, more compassionate, more egalitarian, is not a political platform. After all, any politician, right, left or centre, could claim it as indispensible to their viewpoint. A principle, and ethics, remains so much hot air unless it is channeled into actual lived experience, into things that matter. This is where we can begin to understand the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn looks like (and patently is) a sincere man with a conscience. The baying hounds of much of the Parliamentary Labour Party after his blood really are, mostly at least, transparently awful. Their tactics stink. The way the NEC has restricted votes, and thereby rigging the results, is a scandal that one can hardly believe is legal. I would not buy a second hand car off Owen Smith. I wouldn’t buy anything off Angela Eagle.

Interestingly, however, Corbyn’s support is a fascinating meeting of old Labour socialist values, which felt they had been left behind by Blair’s neoliberalism disguised as New Labour, suits and spin and all, with the conscience and current issue politics of the radical young and alternative left, which includes the Greens and others – the environment, climate change, migration and refugees, an increasingly unequal society, feminism in its newer forms, inclusiveness, and so on. It is now common to encounter people who were Labour but who have spent some time in the Greens and have come back to Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn. The meeting of these conscious seasoned socialists with the idealism of an ethical youth and Green presence is creating exactly what has been lacking all these years as a response to the ever tainted verities of neoliberalism.

This meeting of two dynamic strains, socialist and (for the want of better words) green and young, could prove to be just the alchemy that makes gold. Both elements would have to “give” a bit. There is sometimes a slight rigidity in the old socialist model, expressed by the tendency to believe that you found the truth years ago and you’re sticking to it. The unctuousness of old lefties who have seen and know it all can be a little sticky to negotiate. There is likewise sometimes (by no means always) an organizational flabbiness in the green/youth element which is partly a natural anarchism that often inhabits new radical progressive movements, but is also a response to the spin and hypocrisy of mainstream politics. But these two elements, with goodwill, flexibility, determination and optimism, could actually be each other’s counterbalances, and finally come up with a new brew that the Labour and Left of Thatcher’s time were unable to produce.

There is, of course, a lot at stake. The groundswell of grass roots approval of Jeremy Corbyn encapsulates the new possibilities. Corbyn is a seasoned party socialist, so he appeals to all those who are likewise. He also comes over as transparently honest and decent (a friend who saw him speak said to me “Is he for real or did I just dream him?”), but he is not limited by merely being an old socialist. He includes climate change and the environment in his speeches, as well as lifestyle rights, and displays a feel for where the basic inequalities are, where and how they originate and what might be done about them. He has a political past as a rebel, and the causes he has protested against range from apartheid to raising student fees, he has always been against all wars and Trident, against selling off the nation’s forests, for promoting enlightened policies on climate change – and so on. His protesting and voting record is a good one. Thus a Labour leader who seems trustworthy, doesn’t smarm himself up for the cameras like a CEO on a recruitment campaign, doesn’t rely on spin, causes a stir merely by being himself and playing by the rules that others apparently want to tear up when it suits them, embraces environmental and lifestyle issues, even has a policy for the arts (although this could be sharpened up) – all this provides a good framework for an alliance of progressive ideas, for attracting people who, until now, have been on the outside of mainstream politics due to distrust and frustration rather than sheer apathy. This is – finally – where the long awaited response to neoliberalism is incubating.

There are complications. It is always easier to sell a simplistic idea than an intelligently complex one. When Corbyn said his commitment to leaving the EU was around 70-30 he was telling the truth. The EU issue was not a simple case of one truth. It should have been a nuanced debate, not a gladiatorial contest of almost depraved nastiness. Corbyn has been castigated for his inability to over-simplify. Thatcher was the virtuoso of simple, single truths: “You can’t spend what you can’t afford…”. Duh!

Socialism and neoliberalism share this possibility: they can both be reduced to an over-simplified essence – collectivism or monetarism, easy to put in slogans. The new politics, the one that could grow from the socialist and the green/young, is necessarily polyvalent. It resists being reduced to a cliché like “market forces” or “peoples’ ownership”. There’s even a chance that it may be able to embrace both. The new political paradigm is doctrinally non-doctrinal. It admits that lines and boundaries between ideas can be (and will be) regularly crossed. At its heart will be an interconnected “human” and “natural” world in which it is recognized that this very dualism is, in itself, a provisional idea. This sounds like a Green manifesto, and maybe it is, but the emerging idea is different in two respects. First, it is not simply a way of respecting nature, the environment, the Earth. It is also a way of showing the network of connections between people, between peoples, their actions and thus their responsibilities to each other as well as to the environment. An old Buddhist formula is useful here: life can be seen as self, others and the environment, all causally inter-related. Second, presented or conceived of symbiotically with a remaining and viable concept of socialism it becomes an active principle of working for egalitarianism and justice. It becomes an assembly of ideas rather than an ideology, a doctrine. And that is what the new politics needs to be: an engaged assembly of ideas, of compassionate ideas, or ideas that point to a post-capitalist order.

There are, and will be, many ramifications of this, but as far as the Labour Party is concerned there are certain implications. The new, emerging politics has no time for empty presentation, for image over substance, even for power at any price. If the only way you can gain power is by presenting yourself in utterly compromised ways, by fabrications and cynically flimsy promises, then maybe it isn’t worth it. This is not to say that the new paradigm doesn’t care about or disdains political power, but it is to say that there are limits as to what it will do to attain it. Corbyn appeals to this highly ethical strain and is thus accused of being “unelectable” – which is not strictly true and certainly unprovable. Given the current volatile state of politics it is doubtful whether any such prediction should be given the status of certainty. The game is actually open. There is a world to be won. It is not predetermined other than if the negatives are repeated often enough to be self-fulfilling prophecy. The best way for the Corbyn experiment to fail is for the Labour party’s establishment to keep on saying that it will. Alas, there appears to be little chance of them understanding that fact.

Why has the tentative suggestion of new political formations and new alliances, based around Corbyn, so angered the parliamentary Labour establishment? One answer is that since Blair it has become accustomed to neoliberalism, spin, smart and plausible politicians (now of both sexes), and a status quo, in and out of parliament, as the default position. There are vested interests, and I do not only mean financial ones. The notion of real change can be a threat to any status quo – not only loss of seats but also of existing political credibility should such ideas succeed.

Then there is the argument I have now heard a few times that within the political mainstream establishment there is a self-correcting tendency that emerges whenever the Left is in ascendency. That sounds plausible. Is it really the case that the party of Keir Hardie, the working class movements of the Depression era, the NHS and nationalization is now heaving with people who don’t really like socialism after all? Do they instead buy into the suits, spin and rules of combat so deeply established during the Blair years? It certainly seems like it, but I’m not sure that this general theory should be given top priority.

It does, however, get us near the truth behind the anti-Corbyn movement in the PLP. Over that long history since Thatcher, over that political wilderness in which there was no viable challenge of neoliberal orthodoxy, it seemed to be the case that that the only way to play the game with a chance of winning was to go for spin and image above all. The failure of the super-intelligent but visually shambling Michael Foot as opposed to the electoral success of the smart, well spun Blair is frequently cited. Corbyn’s another Foot, another scruff-pot, surely. Waves of left wing ascendency split the party – as in the 1980s. It will end in tears. Jeremy is not electable. Of course, if you keep saying something often enough there’s a good chance that it will become a self-fufilling prophecy. The frequent repetition of “not electable” roughly translates to “don’t want him to be”. There has been so much negativity flying around for the past year that the “not electable” theory can now never be proved to be solely down to Corbyn’s lack of a tie or his non-singing of the national anthem. Even if he wins it will surely be true that one factor which could drive people to vote for him is the degree to which he has been ganged up on. So the matter of what happens to him now electorally, and why, has been rendered unanalyzable primarily by the forces arraigned against him.

The PLP, despite the relative youth of some MPs, has a longish memory. It certainly goes back nearly fifty years, although recollections that far back are passed on in received wisdom and oral tradition. It suggests that we don’t want another period similar to the rise of Militant with its infiltration of revolutionaries and Trotskyists, the public unpopularity of full-blooded socialism, multiple party splits, and a desperately image unconscious far left. It is argued that Corbyn and his left wing supporters should be regarded as history repeating itself and, whatever it takes, this leftward tide needs to be stemmed for the sake of the party and whatever future it might have. Frankly, the opposite is true. If Corbyn were ousted there can surely be no doubt that the majority of those who have joined Labour in the past year will disappear as quickly as they came. Labour could return to being a mainstream party of no particular charm or interest.

The accusation that Corbyn has not turned out to be a good leader is a bizarre and specious criticism to fling at one whose job was deliberately made almost impossible from Day One not only by the predictable behavior of the press and media but also from those who were supposed to be on the same side. Anyone subject to such barrages of criticism and daily acts of disloyalty, to stony silent shadow cabinet meetings, mass resignations and the twisting and gerrymandering of party rules might be excused for not being the reincarnation of Gandhi. Corbyn has done remarkably well in fact. He has not got down in the gutter, has produced no dirty tricks, no personal attacks, and seems calm, quiet, respectful and well spoken. I don’t know how he does it.

The dissenting members of the PLP, the “Get Corbyn lobby”, has totally misread the situation on three counts. First, today’s political landscape is not comparable to the 1980s. Union strength was massive back then. It simply isn’t now. Corbyn’s supporters are not motivated in the same way as Militant Tendency. For the most part they are not revolutionaries, but neither are they in favour of austerity policies. If anything, the underlying call is for a return to the kinder policies of Keynesianism or a mixed economy, something Joseph and Thatcher abhorred, for a more compassionate social democracy rather than the barricades. This orientation, which Corbyn shares, would have been unremarkable in the Harold Wilson years: affordable housing for all, social justice (they didn’t call it that back then), good services, fair prices, a concern for those at the bottom of the pile, jobs, the NHS and no nuclear weapons. For today’s blend live issues such as climate change, the environment and the plight of refugees are, reasonably it seems, added. What the movement currently figure-headed by Corbyn is calling for is hardly revolutionary. It is social democratic, fair and achievable. One wonders why anyone in the Labour Party should oppose it.

Second, there is not a moderate Labour electorate out there waiting to be canvassed to accept more reasonable ideas. In fact, Corbyn’s ideas are reasonable enough, as we have seen. The unprecedented swelling of Labour’s ranks in the last year has purely been down to the breath of fresh air and honest politics that Corbyn represents. It is this that has attracted new members, young members and lapsed members sick of the suit and spin politics of New Labour but not sensing a rediscovery of Labour’s roots.

But the third and main misreading of the situation is the anti-Corbyn lobby’s apparent inability to recognize the unusual, perhaps unique, nature of the present moment in left progressive politics. I have argued that the strands and elements characteristic of the rough and informal alliance of Corbyn supporters, it’s placing of morality at the heart of its politics, its combining of socialist ethics and ideas with highly current concerns broadly of a green nature, its refusal to play games of spin and empty presentation, all this and more is, finally, a viable response to the neoliberalism we have suffered since the 1980s, some of whose results have been the 2008 financial crisis, Tory austerity policies and alarmingly widening gaps between the better-off and the worse-off.

Shockingly, the clamour against Corbyn has now started to include some on the left of the party plus some sympathisers. The notion, expressed by Owen Jones and others, that attaining power is the be-all-and-end-all and that Corbyn simply doesn’t cut it, is short sighted and likely to lead back to where we came in with a bland, well spun, respectable middle-of-the-road party which ignores the lives of the real poor, those whose struggles to survive are palpable day in day out, those who traditionally have lacked a real voice or outlet for their frustrations, a situation exploited by the populist far right UKIP. According to the most Ayn Randian neoliberal orthodoxy such people are at the lower end of society due to a kind of just if inevitable law of the jungle. This is obvious rot, but the truth is that if Labour or some kind of progressive alliance were to listen to these voices and articulate their fears and frustrations there would be no trouble in getting votes.

The new response to neoliberalism is still emerging. What will happen to it is anyone’s guess, but it would be a crying shame if it were nipped in the bud as a widespread reaction to getting rid of Corbyn.

PRELIMINARY WORDS OF REGREXIT

The Swedish American union agitator Joe Hill is reputed to have said on his way to his execution: “Don’t mourn. Organize”. He was framed for a murder he didn’t commit. We’ve been shafted for what many didn’t fully understand. Still Hill’s rallying call is in the right spirit. After all, those of us who pin our colours to progressive political masts are familiar with defeat and realize the wisdom of re-grouping, re-thinking and dealing with the new situation no matter how awful. So somewhere in my anger and depression I’m also hearing a voice saying no regrexit. Let’s move on from where we are. After all, there’s nowhere else. (For some reason I think of the Buddhist metaphor or the beautiful Lotus flower that has its roots in muddy swamps. I’m feeling the mud…)

 

First, and probably most important of all, we must not let the vote to leave the EU diminish the progressive commitment to internationalism. The human family is – and must always be – at the heart of our thinking. Whatever the Leave politicians may choose to think, the rump of Leave votes was in favour of a reducing, diminishing England – (yes, England, not the other UK countries). This was – scrape the surface either a lot or a little – ultimately racist and xenophobic. But this shrinking purview should now be resisted. We should take note of the fact that post-industrial Britain (Thatcher’s baby), and more recently neoliberal and austerity Britain, has given rise to significant sectors of people without any kind of jobs they can proudly identity themselves with or rely on, vast numbers of zero hours contracts, with bleak prospects, Meanwhile the monuments of the celebrity driven brave new world are erected around them in the form of shopping malls, business parks and empty centres of culture containing insufficient business and precious little culture. It is the easiest thing in the world to blame visible scapegoats – Johnny Foreigner who comes over here and takes our jobs. Send ‘em all back so we can experience our desolate alienation alone.

 

In the face of this a more, not less, internationalist outlook is now imperative. It can happen on all levels: more exchange schemes, revisit the almost expired twinning movement, unions should revive their historic internationalism and redevelop their essential triple vision of local, national and international solidarity – unions should debates ideas and ideals as well as wages and conditions; progressive, cooperative, communal movements now need to propose and act on a political vision of an alternative Europe; we need more and more multinational festivals with a political edge. We need something more than the trite, easily incorporated posings of things like so-called “world music”. We need battle cries, not corporate slogans.

 

One of the few reasonable arguments that Leave had was that trade with India, China and other non-EU countries round the world was hampered, if not blocked, by EU membership. Well, from a trade point of view, Leave forces us to develop a global perspective – which, of course, should include the remaining EU countries. (Whether or not they’ll go along with this is, of course, another question.) All such moves in the direction of international trade will take years rather than months to develop. I’m afraid we have to accept that.

 

So in areas such as the arts and humanities now is the time to become even more internationalist. It will take a couple of years to fully leave the EU, so in the meantime, presumably, its schemes for artists can be taken advantage of, but it doesn’t really matter: international schemes can be dreamt up and they don’t have to be dependent on the EU. And aside from that, those areas if endeavor that develop human empathy and communication – as well as political understanding – now need to be ramped up. Sport, after all, has always had an international perspective.

 

The Leave vote was not primarily a political or economic vote. It was based on right wing ideas about immigration and only thinly disguised racism. This, therefore, is the time to combat those ideas in as aggressive a way as possible. This includes promoting a real understanding of history, especially 20th century history whereby we went to war against fascists and racists. Discussion on race and racism is long overdue at all levels from primary schools to political debate.

 

But we need honest debates. The liberal left is sometimes guilty of quite the opposite. We fear expressing our real opinions; we fear attaching blame where it really belongs. We respond to each terrorist atrocity by speculating on the personal and collective narratives of the terrorists which led them to extreme actions. This presupposes that the truth is in the (supposed) narrative, not in the action. It isn’t. Its propaganda by deed and the deed should be judged. Likewise, we shy away from the concerns that some people have about our “way of life” and confuse genuine questions of identity and orientation with racism. The right wing and racist politicians exploit this confusion ruthlessly. That’s why Leave has won. In fact the right wing supplies only temporary, superficial and unworkable answers to problems which could be seen as opportunities rather than dangers – to reference the ancient Chinese. There has been no debate worth having on migration, certainly not on any scale. Its time has come. We need to make it happen.

 

If leaving the EU could lead to an alternative Europe, to greater global exchange in all things from economics to music, to genuine debates on migration and climate change, to the de-trivialization of discourse on race and difference, and to in-depth cultural exchange through the arts and humanities, all will not be lost in the wake of the desperately depressing Leave vote and the inevitable disasters it will bring. This defeat that we have suffered must be turned to strength – the strength for all of us in the regrexit camp to become stronger and wiser, more sophisticated, more able to communicate with more people, and more able – ultimately – to fight back.