Corbyn: the summer of hierarchical things
Labour can become the counter-power
My first experience of the labour movement was going to the Leigh Miners’ Gala, in the 1960s, aged about six or seven. I remember, amid the tight throng of people, one striking image: a boxing ring, in which a local slugger was taking on all comers.
The flesh of the fighters was red and bruised. One man had blood on his face, another a stupid smile: the challengers were mainly drunk. They slammed their gloves into each other’s ribs with such force I can hear it now.
And then my father’s hand slid up to my forehead and covered my eyes. “Don’t look,” he said.
That’s what the working class gained by forming a movement of its own. Something that could co-exist with the brutality of everyday life and at the same time shield us from it. Something that allowed you to live inside the system and at the same time nurture the ideal of something different.
Years later I discovered there was a word to describe this: “counter-power”. A set of ideas, traditions and actions that lets you both survive within capitalism and fight against it.
Thatcher and her generation decided such a counter-power was no longer tolerable. They set out to crush it. The people who crushed it inside the Labour Party were Kinnock and Blair.
As a result, for the past 30 years the whole structure of politics and economics in Britain has been built around the project of making the lives of working class people worse, not better, and disempowering them in the process.
The essential assumption of all centrist politics was that the victims of rising inequality are too stupid, too inarticulate, their kids too dazzled by celebrity news, their communities too atomised for them to ever effectively fight back. The days of counter-power were over.
Then, after 2008, the counter-power was reborn. No longer centred on the old working class, it was simply “us” — the crapped-upon masses. The barista, the courier, the lawyer, the shipping clerk. Those were the people I met occupying Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. Anarchists in black balaclavas yes — but also pissed-off guy with gym membership and a Besiktas season ticket.
The 2011–13 uprisings — Tahrir, Occupy, the Spanish indignados, Taksim, Brasil — were mass phenomena that, even when suppressed and defeated, left a residue: ideas, patterns of organisation, networks, as Manuel Castells put it, of “outrage and hope”.
The proposition driving that resistance, since the night an art activist group shone the figure ‘99%’ onto the Verizon building in New York, boils down to this: that the world is governed by a rich elite; that the economic model of neoliberalism is broken; that inequality is out of control and the state there to defend the interest of the 1%.
This is the context in which the British political class has chosen to stage three mass plebiscites, which have cumulatively eroded their control — not just of official politics but of the political situation.
The first was the Scottish referendum of 2014. The establishment won but only by sacrificing the Scottish Labour Party to a near wipeout in the next year’s general election; sacrificing the credibility of the BBC; and creating a template for mass rejection of any future “Project Fear”.
The second was the Labour leadership race, which massively expanded Labour membership and put the UK’s most left wing MP in charge of Europe’s most moderate socialist party.
Finally came the Brexit referendum: the ultimate act of miscalculation, in which Project Fear 2.0 misfired and the UK kickstarted the breakup of globalisation.
Corbyn’s impact on Labour membership came in three bursts: the leadership election, which added tens of thousands; his nine months as leader — whcih took the cumulative gains to 120,000. And the post-Brexit coup, which added a further 130,000 members on top of that in just 10 days.
Thus Labour’s mass membership now stands, in England and Wales at least, as the most interesting and dynamic political phenomenon of the era. You would not know this from the press coverage, which treats them as a rabble of entryists — but if the Corbyn movement (and that’s what it is) were in a foreign country, the BBC would despatch multiple teams to fathom what was going on.
By launching their coup against Jeremy Corbyn, an alliance of Blairites and the careerist centre left have signed a pact of doom.
If they oust Corbyn, either by keeping him off the ballot — as they’ve attempted today; or by mobilising temporary “£3 members” recruited by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper — they will be trapped inside a hell of their own making: a rebellious party whose activists and trade union base they’ve defeated in a war to the finish. Even if the alliance of Blairites and centre-leftists win, they cannot abolish the mass base.
If, Corbyn remains on the ballot paper and wins, then logic dictates the MPs who rebelled, using vile insults and demoralisation tactics, must be replaced.
The Blairites are on a trajectory towards joining a centrist party with the Libdems. I’ve said before I think that is an honourable and consistent position for them. But even some of the centre left, who tried to tolerate Corbyn for the first nine months, don’t look like they can live with Jez 2.0.
So today’s NEC vote came at the maximum point of danger all those inside the Labour party who fear it morphing from a political party to a counter-power.
By September, if Corbyn wins he’ll be in a position to go into the Labour conference exerting control: over the NEC, where a left slate looks likely to win; and over policy via conference, where the delegates will for the first time reflect the changed membership.
After that, in any election called by the incoming Tory prime minister Theresa May, Corbyn’s supporters would be able to stage “trigger ballots” to de-select the MPs most hostile to Corbyn, leaving the leadership, the HQ, the policy and the parliamentary group aligned to the left.
There are rational critiques of Corbyn’s leadership. But to understand the level of fear and loathing and panic being spat out by the Blairites and the right wing press you have to understand what’s at stake.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci once wrote that to make a revolution in a western democracy, you have to understand that the the elite system does not rely primarily on the state to defend itself.
You can take the state, said Gramsci: but capital has line after line of trenches and fortifications beyond it.
He meant the churches, the media, the royal family and its opaque political powers, the legal system, the ideas in our heads, and ultimately the very institutions workers themselves created: trade unions corrupted by proximity to management; political parties corrupted by proximity to power.
When you watch how Corbyn’s leadership has had to operate it becomes obvious where the final defence line of the 1% is dug: it is inside the Labour Party. In fact physically it is somewhere between Corbyn’s office in the Norman Shaw building at Westminster and Labour HQ on Victoria Street.
Corbyn, most of the unions and most of the membership stand on one side, with up to 40 MPs. On the other side stands the Labour HQ, the millionaire donors (mainly giving privately to individual Blairite MPs), about 170 MPs, together with the newly mobilised right wing “Saving Labour” members, recruited via the Sun newspaper.
In between, of course, are a lot of confused and nervous people, who have justified and perfectly understandable differences with Corbyn, but who cannot see the justice of the coup.
For those who support him, this needs to be the summer of hierarchical things. Engagement with long-dead party structures; mobilisation; organisation; self-discipline.
If we get it right Labour could become — for the first time in its history — a mass, democratic and participatory opposition to the rule of the 1% that would be a major thing in the politics of the Western hemisphere: a social democratic husk transformed into a living, breathing counter-power.
Ultimately the Labour coup would have happened sooner or later, whatever the result of the referendum, or local elections. Because what’s at stake is not one man.
Corbyn was only ever a placeholder around which Labour’s membership could create a new kind of politics: a more networked, more activist, and much more radical form of social democracy than has existed within Labour since the 1930s. A form of leftism rooted in the very communities where Labour is battling right wing populism, through community activism and grass roots engagement.
So whatever happens in the legal battles and the election ahead, the issue is no longer Corbyn.
It is whether the membership will take root and branch control — not only of the party but of the struggle in society against the neo-Thatcherism planned by the Conservatives as Brexit unfolds.
During the past three years the focus of social justice struggles in Britain got pulled towards voting.
Corbyn’s victory in 2015, Brexit in 2016 and the near victory of the Scottish yes campaign in 2014 all held out the possibility of a effortless exit from a dying and unpopular neo-liberal structure.
A kind of “free revolution”, handed to you by a hapless elite, where all you had to do was tick a box.
But revolutions are never effortless. The revolution that’s put Podemos on 20% in Spain, and Syriza into power in Greece, involved masses of people on the streets, resisting the elite’s attacks, and creating a new kind of power in communities and on the streets and in universities and schools.
This is the modern counter-power, and Corbyn’s election was only ever a reflection of it.
As for the coup-plotters, their attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper sent a very unfortunate message to half a million people: that you can vote for anything but your own freedom; you can vote for the nicest and most accomodating of people but we will treat him like a terror-suspect.
Well now it is game on.