Corbyn and the Sound of Future

by Magda Schmukalla

While most of us are still going through some sort of Brexit-shock the Labour party embarks onto the process of a leadership contest and an inner-party conflict from which it might not return. Corbyn, the current leader of Labour, might or might not be criticized for his leadership strategy, but he is certainly not to be blamed for the general crisis Labour, the country and neoliberal democracies more generally are going through at the moment. If he can be blamed for anything then that he represents people who were trying to find progressive ways out of this crisis. The overwhelming problem is, however, that this is a crisis which it might not be possible to solve within the political and economical structure that is currently to our disposition – more generally due to the relation between politics and the economical structure in neoliberal democracies and more particularly due to the electoral system in the UK which makes it difficult for the big parties to split up and form coalitions.

Whoever will be elected as next Labour leader will have the option to either adjust to the rhetorics and politics of the conservatives by trying to soften their language and by referring to ideals of social justice without being able to implement them. Or he or she will try to find a different language, one which aims at recreating a left-wing discourse which does not only react passively to the program of the conservative party and profit-driven market tendencies but one which contains the vision of a better future for everyone together. But let’s face it – in the first case Labour will not be more likely to win elections than before its members voted for Corbyn since the neo-liberal discourse of the Conservatives will always sound more coherent and convincing when presented from a right-wing perspective – even when it takes on fascist, populist tones. On the other hand, if it moves towards the second option it will very likely be smashed by inner-party conflicts, like at the moment, since any radical progressive approach will seem to threaten potential short-term successes the party still believes it could gain.

In this situation, the revolt against Corbyn seems to me rather a way of denying the gravity of the crisis Labour and left-wing politics are in; a crisis that has not been created by the Brexit but which must have been haunting the party since a long time. Corbyn’s leadership has been treated from the very beginning by many party members but also by public media as a mistake rather than as a symptom that once identified and understood could direct the way to a cure. With cure I don’t mean a process of healing which would restore the old strength of the workers’ Labour party neither the popularity of its reformed version as New Labour. What I mean is rather a process which would trigger profound reconstruction of a political strategy for the Left. It is not that, like in the case of the referendum, for example, people who voted for Corbyn had been deluded or seduced by some simple, populist rhetorics – even though many might argue that this was exactly the case. But I think it was rather the opposite – the election of Corbyn was a sign for the need for a more profound hence non-populist) and more radical left-wing party politics. One that does not prioritize the media-popularity of professional leader figures but which aims at politicizing the people. Corbynmania, I therefore argue, was an event that had seen a majority of Labour members hearing something in the way how this wing part of the party spoke that is otherwise missing in the established jargon of a Left trying to be the more social version of the right. The euphoria of this manic phase which seems now in the process of turning into another depression or return to established forms of party politics, was an expression of a sense of hope and a desire for something new – and hence a profoundly left-wing moment. It captured an imagination of some kind of future politics which would not be based on the ability of politicians to seduce their voters but which would be based on a political culture that would take people and their situation seriously and support them in becoming political agents rather than mere consumers – it was, if you want, a utopian moment in the midst of a growing disaster.

Now seeing and fixing this not-yet-existent form of future politics as incarnated in the figure of Corbyn is a problem, because it forces him to become a type of leader as which he has not been elected. But his team has, I think, tried to conserve and implement parts of the momentum that had let to his election. Had I decided to take part in the election of the new Labour party leader I would have not voted for him. Too much did he represent to me a male leftwing politics of the last century. But now, after having experienced Corbyn’s presence and strategy through what I have read in the news (I hence cannot comment on inner-party issues related to his leadership style), I started recognizing a different tone/sound in politics that could actually bring Labour or whatever left-wing party there might be in the future closer to the realities of the working and middle class (and the two of them together) – closer than any leader who will try to be on the safe side by making concessions in regards to the racist anti-immigration arguments (like Cooper did) or by emphatically embracing the European Union instead of signaling space for an absolutely justified critique of it as in the 7-out-of-ten comment for which Corbyn has been and is being criticized widely. Also the argument that his team rejected a common action where Blair and Corbyn would have fought on one side for remaining in the EU is to my mind weak because it dramatically simplifies the complexity and gravity of the Brexit-vote – suggesting that if Corbyn and Blair had rallied together we wouldn’t be in the dreadful and dangerous mess we are in at the moment.

So what convinced me in the way how Corbyn and his team approached left-wing politics was their emphasis on a rational and sophisticated, hence complex, dialogue with the voters. Although often slow, which probably was not only a result of the time some arguments or statements need in order to be developed but also caused by the constant resistance he was facing within his own party, his contributions to the debate around the referendum were political in the sense that they were arguments that would help workers and middle-class people understand what voting remain meant and why it was in their interest to vote for remaining in the EU even if this would not solve all the issues people are struggling with today. Now tday he is mainly criticized for being too complex, too rational and too much a man of principle. But this critique, to my mind, challenges exactly those moves that could have potentially sparked off (in future … and slowly) new forms of left-wing politics. A politics which can not be won by focusing on the choice of a correct, charismatic and euphoric leader figure but would require Labour or left-wing politicians who enter into a serious, radical and complex dialogue with their voters more generally. How dangerous but all the more necessary such a type of politics has become can be seen in the tragic case of Jo Cox.

This is the potential I see in Corbyn’s attempt to change the speech of left-wing politics. The bad news however is that this type of politics will indeed not win any elections in the short-term. But even worse is that if Labour doesn’t face the fundamental crisis of its current political non-existence then it will not win any elections ever again (to put it drastically). In this respect, I see in the current run against Corbyn a projection of a profound crisis onto someone who cannot be blamed for it. To my mind the current outrage against Corbyn even resembles dangerously what is happening on the right in regards to immigrants. Both, Corbyn representing a different type of politics, as well as the immigrants who are being seen as the personified other are blamed for the dead ends created by the crisis of neoliberal democracies. It might be correct that Corbyn as a person is not the right one to lead this party. But forcing him to step down while criticizing him for having tried to step out of a crisis, will quite certainly close down the little gap for a profound reform of Labour and its ability to create a better future that – maybe – opened in the course of Corbynmania and co. If Tony Blair says, as he did in relation to Bernie Sanders’ popularity in the US, that he stopped understanding today’s politics then this could potentially be a hopeful thing – however, it will turn into a total catastrophe, potentially the biggest that the world has ever seen, if it is only the right in the form of Trumps, Farages or Johnsons which tries to find ways of securing its power within the current political vacuum.

This post was originally published on the 29th of June 2016 on my blog


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