The trope of ‘taking back control’ has become ever more prominent within political life, explicitly in the case of the Brexit movement but implicitly in a whole range of other movements from Trumpism to Corbynism. In their thought provoking, if at times unpersuasive, critique of Corbynism (Corbynism: A Critical Approach) Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that the promise Labour have made to take back control over capitalism is fundamentally illusory. From loc 2441:

The inevitable failure of such a model in an irreversibly global society just sets up yet another narrative of betrayal, one greatly intensified by the faith in Corbyn’s personal integrity and the self-regard of the broader movement as being the ‘community of the good.’ This is in common with all such demands for the taking back of control in a world where we are all out of control.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a promise has been made, as opposed to a more nuanced message being reduced by Pitts and Bolton to fit the argument of homology between populist right and populist left which they were inclined to make, it raises an obvious question: if control is impossible then what should we do? Their argument as far as I can see is to preserve the forces of liberal multinationalism as a means to mitigate the excesses of global capitalism. Or at least that’s the only positive case I’ve seen 2/3 of the way into the book and it remains a bit weak. But where I think they are making an important point is their concern about where a perceived betrayal of the promise of control, might lead. From loc 2445:

This is particularly risky if the institutional structures of liberal capitalism –the impersonal laws and rights which ameliorate, however unsatisfactorily, the inherent conflicts and contradictions of a system of ‘social labour’ –are conflated with that self-same system of socially mediated labour, and thus recklessly cast aside in the name of ‘taking back’ an elusive and impossible ‘control.’

This concern that Corbynism is harassing energies which, in the event of its failure, might not be contained within a left project, immediately made me think back to this gloomy Richard Seymour piece about the betray narratives taking shape on the British right. I find it easy to imagine how a narrative of betrayal could emerge among a renewed left, not directed at the leadership of a failed Corbyn project but rather at the ‘establishment’ which has destroyed it in order to serve their narrow interests. How might this entangle with the myth of national betrayal currently emerging on the right? It is admittedly one in which Corbyn himself is frequently cited, as Seymour makes clear, but the main thrust is again with the ‘establishment’. Where could this lead? Après moi le déluge.

In the last few years I’ve been struggling to make sense of optimism as a political factor. It struck me during the pre-refendum debate that the case being made by someone like Daniel Hannan, with his neo-mercantilist vision of a post-EU Britain, could be seen as considerably more optimistic than anything being offered by the remain camp. In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton suggest the same was true of the left in the 2017 election. From loc 995:

On both left and right a deranged optimism prevailed, in which faith in the future was all that was needed to bring it into being. This wishful thinking, seemingly at odds with the cold reality of forthcoming political isolation and economic decline, was exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers convinced that Empire 2.0 was on the horizon, as well as the Corbynists who held in their man expectations apparently so high as to never be met.

I think there’s overstatement here and a considerable contraction of reality involved in their claim of a symmetry between Brexit-ism (for lack of a better word) and Corbynism. Both reflect in their view a triumph of the cultural over the economic, to use the terms Will Davies did when making a similar(ish) point, with their competing visions of taking back control. In this sense, Mayism was the earliest attempt to build a coalition on a new political landscape, albeit one that faltered due to the weakness of May herself as a campaigner. From loc 966-980:

The distinct brand of ‘Erdington Conservativism’ developed by her close advisor Nick Timothy seemed perfectly primed for the post-austerity, post-Brexit era. 49 Inspired by the 19th century Birmingham industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, Timothy’s vision was founded upon an interventionist economic programme of infrastructure investment, the rejection of ‘globalist’ free trade in favour of protectionist tariffs to secure British industry, fierce Euroscepticism, a radical reduction in immigration, selective state education, and a laser-like focus on the apparently communal concerns of the so-called ‘white working class’ –traditional values, self-responsibility, patriotism, and law and order. There was an obvious overlap with both the message of the Leave campaign, as well as the creed of ‘faith, flag and family’ which had long been touted by the ‘Blue Labour’ wing of the opposition party-indeed, Lord Glasman took tea with Timothy in the early months of May’s premiership. 50 As May walked into Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister it seemed that her programme of economic and cultural protectionism was destined for hegemonic status. On the steps of Number 10, she promised, in language clearly adopted from the anti-austerity wing of the Leave campaign, that her government would be ‘driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours’ –the millions of ‘ordinary people’ who were ‘just about managing’.

However Brexitism and Corbynism have come to thrive in this post-austerity climate. It is precisely because of the bleakness of the former that I’m so enthused about the latter, as the only way I can see to resist the creeping barbarism of the last few years. But Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that “the optimism Project Corbyn sells its adherents proposes a false resolution of contradictions contemporary conditions cannot effect” and call for “a politics of pessimism can best match present realities and work with them practically” (loc 527).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but thus far I remain unconvinced, as thought provoking as I’m finding it. The obvious response to that last quotation is why? Why does a politics of pessimism help us ‘work’ with them ‘practically’? I can see an analytical argument to be made for a politics of pessimism but from the perspective of a pre-analytical commitment to a left project, I see nothing practical or desirable about it. Perhaps it will become clearer to me as I get further into the book.

I thought this was an excellent account in Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton. From loc 627:

Austerity is often taken to have caused the contemporary rise of populism. In retrospect, however, it is abundantly clear that austerity itself was a populist project –both in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the creation of a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and Jan-Werner Müller’s notion of the hyper-moralisation of political discourse. How else to explain the singularly odd way that Britain responded to the financial crisis? The Cameron government was far from the only one to react to the crash and their ballooning deficits by insisting on the need for a programme of austerity. But in no other country did the public don hairshirts with such gusto. As Owen Hatherley has noted, Britain was convulsed by a fit of ‘austerity nostalgia’ in the wake of the crisis – unleashing dark political energies Tom Whyman captured well in the coinage ‘cupcake fascism’.

The book was published in 2018 and presumably written in 2017. But it’s hard not to link this to Brexit when reading it in April 2019. If they are correct about austerity populism then did Cameron and Osborne sow the seeds of their own destruction in their strategic embrace of the austerity narrative? From loc 640:

It was as if the public actively welcomed the collapse of the economy, regarding it as an event which finally gave some meaning to a life waylaid by the cheap thrills of credit-fuelled consumerism and reality TV, a form of existence that suddenly felt as toxic as the junk bonds clogging up the balance sheets of banks around the world. The austerity narrative was founded on an opposition between a national community of ‘hardworking people’ and a feckless underclass who had brought Britain to its knees –namely the ‘scroungers’, the benefit cheats, those too lazy to work and choosing to live off the largesse of the state. In this telling, the financial crisis itself was essentially caused by the Labour government’s reckless decision to rack up monstrous debts in order to fund the lavish lifestyles of their shiftless clientele. In contrast to this rotten coalition of bloated state, corrupt liberal-left political elite, and workshy scroungers, the Tories would instead take the side of the ‘hardworkers’, those willing to take responsibility for their own lives and roll up their sleeves to ‘sort out Labour’s mess’. ‘We’re all in it together’ was the cry, deliberately evoking the Churchillian spirit of wartime. The ‘deficit’ –and those responsible for it –was turned into a national enemy

Social media is often accused of being an echo chamber, but has it played a role in empowering marginalised people and elevating their voices?

It has and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of this when we focus on the problems which social media is creating for politics. In recent years, cyber-utopianism has been discredited and that’s a good thing, if we hope to realistically appraise the political consequences of these technologies. It’s much less common now to find people making the case that digital media will empower individuals, undermine hierarchy and usher in a brave new world. This utopianism was rooted in a particular time and place, providing a technological equivalent to the breathless rhetoric of figures like Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair who claimed we were moving ‘beyond left and right’.

But an increasing scrutiny of the darker sides of digital media, particularly post-Trump, too often obscures the continued positive capacities of these technologies to bring people together and articulate a collective claim on the world. These positive and negative aspects co-exist: the risk of the echo-chamber is an unfortunate byproduct of the mechanisms through which social media allows new collectives to form. Nonetheless, we need to remember that this isn’t an inexorable consequence of the technology itself. Some of the unfortunate features of online political culture are as much a reflection of long-term political disengagement, particularly the decline in trade union and political party membership, as they are the influence of the technology itself. We can and should reclaim a positive vision of the capacity of social media to empower marginalised people and elevate their voice, while being realistic about some of the risks inherent in doing this.

Is activism through social media effective?

It depends what you mean by ‘effective’. It can demonstrably be an extremely powerful way of gathering people together in a particular place at a specific time. Furthermore, it can do so in a way which extends beyond existing networks, reducing the reliance of mobilisations on the more traditional forms of engagement such as stalls, leafletting and canvassing, seen most prominently during national elections. However there are important questions to be asked about whether this is necessarily a good thing. It might be easier to assemble people together but what do they once they are there? Can you keep them together after the initial assembly? The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has convincingly argued that networked protests don’t develop organisational capacities because of precisely this ease of assembly. They may be able to draw people out in large numbers but they’re ill-equipped for articulating demands or developing strategies, leaving them easily outmanoeuvred by more traditional political organisations. Social media offer powerful tools for movements but they also create problems.

Social media has been talked about a lot with regards to democracy after Trump’s win. Do you think there’s really any understanding of just how well social media can be used to campaign? It feels as though politicians may not have even scratched the surface, at least that we know of.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding social media and elections, much of which is indistinguishable from marketing material for the companies involved. Cambridge Analytica is the most prominent example of this, held up by some critics on the left as a terrifying exemplar of the coming digital authoritarianism in which elections are won by whoever can employ the most data scientists. Coincidentally, these claims about their influence match those made by the company itself, albeit without the critical spin. We need to be careful about blindly reproducing claims made concerning the role of social media in elections by companies whose raison d’etre is to help exploit social media data (alongside other sources) for electoral gain. Nonetheless, there clearly are changes underway. The role of technology in politics has never been static. There’s no reason to believe social media would be any less significant for electoral politics than radio and television were, as well as many reasons to suspect they might prove to be more so. It’s just important that we remain critical of the vested interests of those who are already playing this game.

Online harassment has not really been tackled and marginalised people are especially at risk (shown best perhaps by ‘Gamergate’). Is it a risk that social media is empowering the wrong voices and shutting down democratic debate?

It’s not so much that social media empowers the ‘wrong’ voices, as that the incentives for democratic debate aren’t there. Meaningful dialogue is a slow, difficult process which is particularly difficult when it takes place between those who lack trust in the good-will of those they are talking to. This would be difficult under the best of circumstances but it’s close to impossible within the environments of most social media platforms. For all the participatory rhetoric which surrounds them, the underlying economy is one of visibility and this is something accrued through generating a reaction. It might be that this reaction is praise for slowly and carefully seeking to understand the position of a person you are debating with. But it’s much more likely to be a witty quip that appeals to the lowest common denominator of potential viewers.

This is the problem on a micro-scale. Now what happens when millions of these interactions feed into each other over years? We have increasingly toxic cultures, driven by expectations of behaviour, within which harassment thrives. Only the most naive person could claim social media had created the hate we can see in so many corners of the internet. We live in a racist, classist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic world. But social media has created an environment in which this hate can be leveraged for visibility as far too many aggressively people compete to be seen to the exclusion of the dialogical and relational powers of these technologies. I’m not a pessimist about social media but I am increasingly a pessimist about people.

Why did the only positive vision of Britain’s future come from right-wing Brexit advocates? That’s the question I’m preoccupied by having read Why Vote Leave by Daniel Hannan. Take this for example, from loc 1903-1917:

It’s 2020, and the UK is flourishing outside of the EU. The rump Union, now a united bloc, continues its genteel decline, but Britain has become the most successful and competitive knowledge-based economy in the region. Our universities attract the world’s brightest students. We lead the way in software, biotech, law, finance and the audio-visual sector. We have forged a distinctive foreign policy, allied to Europe, but giving due weight to the US, India and other common-law, Anglophone democracies. More intangibly but no less significantly, we have recovered our self-belief. As Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the European Federation, crossly puts it: ‘In economic terms, Britain is Hong Kong to Europe’s China, Singapore to our Indonesia.’ 

Part of our success rests on bilateral free-trade agreements with the rest of the world. The EU has to weigh the interests of Italian textile manufacturers, French film-makers, Polish farmers. Even Germany likes to defend its analogue-era giants against American Internet challengers such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Uber. Once outside the Common External Tariff, the UK swiftly signed a slew of free-trade agreements, including with the US, India and Australia. Our policy is like Switzerland’s: we match EU trade negotiators when convenient, but go further when Brussels is reluctant to liberalize, as with China. 

Following Switzerland, we forged overseas relationships while remaining full members of the EU’s common market –covered by free movement of goods, services and capital. Non-EU trade matters more than ever. Since 2010, every region in the world has experienced significant economic growth –except Europe. The prosperity of distant continents has spilled over into Britain. Our Atlantic ports, above all Glasgow and Liverpool, are entering a second golden age. London, too, is booming. Eurocrats never had much sympathy for financial services. As their regulations took effect –a financial transactions tax, a ban on short-selling, restrictions on clearing, a bonus cap, windfall levies, micro-regulation of funds –waves of young financiers brought their talents from Frankfurt, Paris and Milan to the City.

I’m not persuaded by this vision. But it is nonetheless a desirable image of a potential future. Whereas my own (eventual) advocacy of Remain would struggle to offer anything more than “it’s a bit less bad than the alternative”. When did optimism become a characteristic possessed by the right and lacked by the left?