Jeremy Corbyn and the radicalism of possibility

Today tens of millions of people in my mother country will vote in an early general election few expected and almost nobody wanted.

Throughout all the emotional vacillations of the past few weeks, the one thing I continue to feel is a sense of hope and possibility that until recently would have seemed very alien. It’s not simply the hope of an outright Labour victory that’s keeping me going (unfortunately, this remains somewhat distant possibility) so much as a sense of possibility created by what Jeremy Corbyn has achieved in rejecting the ossified conventional wisdom of pundits and political gatekeepers.

Virtually all the politics I’ve known in my lifetime have been concerned with contracting the horizons of possibility rather than expanding them. Corbyn has succeeded in the face of all odds by explicitly rejecting the hallowed neoliberal premise that nothing can ever get better; that poverty and inequality are metaphysically hardwired into our societies; that the state can tinker but never transform; that democracy is an inconvenience to be managed rather than an enterprise to be embraced; and most of all that the only appropriate response to 30 years of defeat and retrenchment is to accept, adapt, and continue the march into decline. For once, the possibility of change on offer is the real kind: not the hollow elite spectacle of a Trudeau, Clegg, or Obama, but an electoral program that would qualitatively improve tens of millions of lives with a genuine mass movement at its back.

That such a thing could happen in Britain of all countries, especially after the frankenstein duopoly of Thatcher/Blair, still seems surreal. There is a strange sadness about the place, a haze of resignation and decline that has hovered over every decade since the war in one way or another. It is partly this, I believe, that accounts for the cultural stranglehold conservatism has enjoyed since the late 1970s: it’s what preserves all of the old class hierarchies and the insidious logics that justify them; keeps alive the nativism of Mosley and Rivers of Blood; makes culturally admissible the bourgeois racism of a Farage or a Griffin; it’s what maintains the Victorian moralism which says that the only value more important than Pavlovian deference to aristocracy is pathological contempt for the licentious lower orders; it’s the subtext behind every piece of tabloid grotesquery or Murdoch monstrosity, behind every bogus cultural shibboleth from The Aspirational Society to Alarm Clock Britain; it’s what kept democratic socialism in check even when the working classes were organized in their factories and their mines. 

I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight, of course. But win or lose it feels like something genuinely beautiful has been uncorked.

So, with a few hours to go, here’s to the radicalism of possibility and to the future it might bring for us all. 

Photo: https://twitter.com/emilyafai/status/872183750981017600

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A final note on Independence

Regardless of which side prevails in the referendum today, Scottish nationalism has asserted itself so loudly in the past few months that the consequences will be tangible even in the face of a No vote: Westminster’s leaders are already offering further devolution of powers and the episode has successfully sent the complacent London establishment into panic mode.

Whatever your view of the referendum, anyone frustrated at the ossified state of British politics should welcome this development. Neoliberalism may have wrought destruction everywhere but in Britain it has affected a massive socioeconomic transformation with consequences that have completely restructured the body politic in just a few decades. Once a social democratic country with a huge manufacturing sector, a dynamic welfare state, and a ruling class tamed by both democracy and public ownership, Britain today is an economic oligarchy lacking either solidarity or social justice. Its working class, once proudly assertive at the highest levels of political decision-making, has been reduced to a precarious postindustrial rump, suffering the double indignities of poverty and class chauvinism; the latter exemplified by a morally reprehensible tabloid/entertainment culture which delights in demonizing the casualties of Margaret Thatcher’s counter-revolution as parasites for the amusement of its smug economic beneficiaries. That the party which once proudly and openly represented the interests of the working class spent the better part of its most recent tenure in office embracing and even deepening the injustices of Thatcherism can only add to visceral sense of misery and despair felt by so many Scottish, English, Welsh, and Northern Irish alike.

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In the face of all this, a Tory prime minister who once claimed to embrace social justice now appropriates the iconography of wartime austerity while asking people all over the UK to accept even deeper retrenchment to pay for a crisis wrought by the very amoral greed which his party’s most popular leader helped make culturally hegemonic.

Britain today is a country which officially embraces enterprise, entrepreneurship, individual freedom, and social mobility. In practice, it is a country run by and for a narrow political elite from a select group of families who inherit their wealth and send their children to the same cabal of exclusive private schools while hollowing out social provisions and gleefully demanding people on benefits “work harder” to “earn” their miserable payouts. It is a country whose elites accuse the SNP of exclusionary demagogy while English far right movements and their allies in the press call for immigrants to be denied welfare, rounded up, (or worse). It is a country where individual freedom means the freedom of the ruling class to acquire unspeakable wealth while thousands of people spend their nights sleeping on cold concrete and the unemployed are effectively reduced to economic serfdom. It is a country where the elitist proclivity to fawn on greed and bourgeois excess is matched only by a love of demonizing and degrading the extremely poor for sport.

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Scotland has been among the worst victims of this neoliberal shift. In spite of this, a majority of its people haven’t voted Tory in over 50 years and its political centre of gravity remains defiantly to the left of the British mainstream. Scottish nationalism may predate Britain’s ring wing cultural shift, but its aggressive reassertion – particularly among the young – can only be understood as a clarion call for social justice and solidarity in the face of their erosion by myopic Westminster elites.

This granted, we must hope that any result will persist in shaking Westminster out of its complacent neoliberal slumber. The Yes campaign has faced a predictable barrage from all manner of sources who have an economic stake in the current arrangements and yet maintains considerable momentum. The No campaign, for its part, finally realized it needed to articulate its own vision of social justice in order to prevail – as evidenced by Gordon Brown’s decidedly left wing speech in Glasgow on the campaign’s final day. If this whole episode is evidence of anything, it’s that only a decisive break from the political shackles imposed by neoliberal orthodoxy will galvanize large sectors of the public for change. In either case, the Labour Party must take note.

So whatever the result of tonight’s vote, here’s to a Britain that turns itself once again towards solidarity, equality, freedom, and social justice for the working people of all its kingdoms – United or otherwise.

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