Yet Another Reason Why Corbyn is the Absolute Boy
Jeremy Corbyn and Hauntology
Francis Fukuyama proclaimed in his essay The End of History that the political situation of the moment (as in, the one where Capitalism was said to defeat Communism) was the final one. The Neoliberal project was viewed as a success. He wrote in 1989 of the approaching epoch:
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.
Up until around 2007, in the UK this could have almost said to have been correct, albeit it being a deeply depressing prospect. The political reality we inherited from the previous generations was to be the last, with only minor alterations needed to respond to minute developments.
But now, it is 2017. We have lived through what has now been dubbed The Great Recession. The efforts by the Clinton administration to push for Republican voters have left millions jaded in the US, with New Labour leading to the same in the UK. Economic growth has come to a grinding halt, and workers have been pushed into ever greater precarity. The IMF have openly stated that Neoliberalism is a failure.
Partially as a result of this, Donald Trump is now President of the US. He ran on a platform of clearly defined statements: Make America Great Again, Build The Wall, Lock Her Up, Drain the Swamp. None of those statements have yet to lead to anything meaningful, but with these statements he offered himself as an outsider candidate, a candidate not beholden to the usual interests. Unsurprisingly, Trump is of course beholden to these usual interests. But this I’m sure you already know.
A curious, lesser known thing about Trump’s campaign is that it was centered around a slogan use thirty-six years ago by a Republican president still widely respected by many: Let’s Make America Great Again was used by Ronald Reagan in his successful 1980 campaign.
Trump in one way positioned himself as the enemy of the establishment, but in another hearkened back to a time when being a republican meant being able to deregulate without obstacle, to generate short-term profit without being lumbered with economic recession. In addition, there was much less of the questioning of international policy that would intensify during the Bush years. It could be said to be a simpler time, one easy for the common American to become nostalgic for.
Was this cynical recycling of the campaign of a more practiced politician, or was Trump’s team knowingly tapping into the common American voter’s sense of nostalgia, either real or invented? Whichever one it was (and I’m sure that it is a combination of both), it was certainly a more effective campaign than Clinton’s campaign. That campaign made use of slogans such as I’m With Her and America is Already Great, and gave no comfort to those in hard places in the US.
Something very different happened elsewhere recently, though.
By God, is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Music?
In the UK, it was the dominant left party that sought messaging that connected their message back to earlier eras, with the right wing floundering blandly.
Throughout the General Election I kept seeing Corbyn’s campaign use the slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’. For myself as a committed leftist, this seemed like a great way of appealing to the public without using the much maligned language of Marxist tradition. His campaign was doing that, but they were also doing something masterful. This then brings us to the curious phrase of hauntology.
It was the French philosopher Derrida who coined the phrase ‘hauntology’ in his 1994 book Spectres of Marx. Derrida is a philosopher that I am unashamed to say melts my brain every time I try to read him. Mark Fisher explains hauntology in relation to music and art in the superb What is Hauntology, which really piqued my interest in the idea. Collins Dictionary defines the phrase as a ‘[s]ocial movement concerning the idea/s of the past and the future, haunting, bleeding into, the present.’ And it is this idea of an idea from the past bleeding into the present that really struck me.
Corbyn’s slogan ‘For the Many, not the Few’ quotes from Percy Shelley’s poem Masque of Anarchy. The final stanza reads as such:
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
This is extremely apt — the last time Labour were in power, it was with Tony Blair (and later Gordon Brown’s) New Labour. Corbyn’s manifesto is very different from his predecessors, and was Labour’s most radical in many generations. It was an appeal to voters to vote again for a party which promised to stand up for the working class- to rise like lions.
Corbyn throughout his leadership of the UK Labour party has been plagued with many accusations: that he is a Hamas sympathiser, that he is an IRA symphathiser, that he would not launch nuclear weapons to annihilate millions… it boils down to one accusation, that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-British. With such a slogan, quoting the canonical and revered Shelley, Corbyn makes an appeal that he is in fact deeply for British culture.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, operate in an almost ahistorical manner with their slogan being ‘Strong and Stable’. This is of course an appeal to the voter that they will be able to handle Brexit negotiations better than Labour. But that is it. That is all that you can infer from this phrase. It is inflexible, one-dimensional, and utterly bereft of vision beyond that of a series of unfathomable business meetings held in a distant European office. It does not allow the reader to insert their own meaning into it. It does not tell you if you have a chance of having extra money to feed your family. It does not suggest you may have a better chance of getting a higher education. It promises only to maintain present conditions, of appeasing the abstract entity known to many as The Economy - which to a large percentage of the population may as well be fictional it is so distant and separate from day-to-day life.
That is why Corbyn’s campaign was fucking class. It was able to make use of a concise slogan that you can comprehend if you have the most rudimentary understanding of English, and see the signified ‘Many’ chanting his name at music concerts and rallies on telly. But, you can also read it in the language of academic Marxist scholars, while also being able to attach it back to two hundred years of British culture. You can sit and think about the phrase for ages and the historical context of it.
We are not taught about events like the Peterloo Massacre in school, which Shelley’s poem is a heartfelt remembrance of. It is a history that has been swept aside, a history of labour struggles that formed our working rights and current lives in the UK. It is a history that Corbyn’s Labour is bringing back into the dominant reality, one which now threatens Conservative and Centrist rule deeply.
The Absolute Boy has tapped into a hidden well of nostalgia we didn’t even know we had, and we are all the better for it.