DO YOU THINK CORBYN HAS THE VORTEX IN HIM?
The Corbyn vortex is less a question of Corbyn himself, more one of the forces, groups, images and beliefs drawn in and assembled as a result of his campaign. The material drawn into the vortex was inchoate fragmentary, often beleaguered and its unity in the vortex of the campaign quite possibly fleeting. The Corbyn vortex exerts a retroactive force, above all on the struggles of the left since 2003 but also on the history of the left in the UK more generally. The Corbyn vortex also enacts a radical break with the situation as it was, forcing a decision.
To address Corbyn it may be useful to attempt to separate out some of the contradictory material that has been swallowed up in the vortex: Corbyn: The Incorruptible; “Labour Values” as a site of contestation; Corbyn as Our Iglesias or Tsipras; Extra-Parliamentary struggles and the development of effective alternative patterns; The political geography of Corbynism; Prospects for the next five years. Hopefully this provides a means of analysing what has happened and how, what prospects there are from and what are the limitations of the Corbyn Vortex.
This is the first (and most positive) part.
1. The Incorruptible
“It is those who are not lovers of ruling who must rule.” Plato, Republic, 521a
I was wrong, but then so was almost everyone else, in May and early June itappeared that Corbyn’s function in the leadership contest was to have taken part, lost honourably and introduced a few leftish talking points, one or two of which, at best, might have been taken up by the eventual winner Andy Burnham. Corbyn seemed ideally placed for the role of honourable loser in contrast to John McDonnell, whose politics is more grounded in extra-parliamentary struggles, or Diane Abbott, whose more obvious populist qualities may have allowed her to reach out beyond a traditional left audience. Moreover, Corbyn’s obvious reluctance to stand and his unconvincing manner of public speaking, further contributed to this impression.
The paradox, of course, is that for all this and for all the sense that having put forward Corbyn as the candidate was indicative of a historic weakness of the left, it is likely that, unlike Bevan or Benn, Corbyn will become Labour leader, it is also clear that what seemed like weaknesses have been transformed into strengths. Even Corbyn’s unconvincing public speaking- he is no popular tribune- functions both as a mark of modesty and of an index of both seriousness and the difficulty of building socialism under current conditions, we are a long way from Bevan’s oratory, “not a style for serious argument” (Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters, p. 369), and, as Williams notes, sharply, “After all, if it could have been done by talking, Wales would have been a socialist republic by the twenties.”
Corbyn projects (and this corresponds with the truth) utter incorruptibility. Corbyn’s ethical manner and focus on advocating positions as part of a debate, in contrast with McDonnell’s clearer grounding in the materially rooted struggles of the labour movement, intensifies this incorruptibility. This is not to say, however, that Corbyn is indifferent to, or plays no part in these struggles, merely that they are mediated through an ethical understanding rather than one of class antagonism. Corbyn presents a politics in which the public good is sundered entirely from private interests, including, significantly, the private interests of the working class. In Plato it is this indifference to private interest that produces the reluctance to rule in the ideal ruler. It is perhaps useful here to contrast the “public good” of Corbyn, with the idea of “common good” in Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt’s risible right-wing “resistance” group, “Labour for the Common Good”. The public good for Corbyn is a break with the chaos of individual material desires (in Rousseau’s terms, the general will); the common good with Umunna and Hunt, the regulation and agglomeration of corrupted individual desires (the will of all). As Badiou argues, applying Plato’s critique to contemporary politics, “democratic politics [as the regulation of material desires] is unsuited to the service of any idea at all since if the public power is in the service of desires and their satisfaction, which ultimately means in the service of the economy in the broad sense of the term, then it obeys only two criteria: wealth which gives the most stable abstract means for their satisfaction and opinion, which determines the objects of desire and the inner force with which people believe it necessary to appropriate these.” (The Meaning of Sarkozy, p. 90).
A notable feature, therefore, of the panicked opinion-mongers when faced with Corbyn has to be attack his incorruptibility as in his eating of cold beans out the can because he was spending too much time campaigning. This tendency of attacking Corbyn for his incorruptibility is especially clear in a particularly stupid column from Suzanne Moore, in which she argues, “one of the reasons I don’t support Corbyn is an innate distrust of asceticism. I can’t help it”, and continues, “Politically, though, Corybynism now represents a kind of purity. And, on the left, purity always shades into puritanism, an unbecoming exercise in self-flagellation that is curiously indulgent.” Corbyn’s incorruptibility stands as a clear refutation of the power of opinion, of the function of useless columnists like Moore and her claim to speak for the people. For Corbyn, the people are the austere bearers of virtue and, crucially, the basis of kindness; for Moore, the people are an anonymous mass of corrupted preferences, incapable of virtue or kindness, too stupid to speak for themselves and requiring Moore and her ilk to mediate and represent their desires. With Corbyn the people are real, concrete individuals but capable of the universal; with Moore the people are abstract, speechless but incapable of the abstraction that allows universality. In Moore, this contempt for the people is the justification of her slackness towards herself (she is one of these corrupted blockheads herself) and those like her, revanchism towards others (like her image of the people, Moore is incapable of kindness).
In the opposition to corruption, there is a crucial difference between Corbyn’s rhetoric and that of Pablo Iglesias or Podemos. For Podemos, la casta (probably best rendered in English as “the establishment following one of the few opinion-peddlers to support Corbyn), is always alluded to. The risk, however, is that the better the power of la casta is demonstrated, the more hopeless the situation becomes, politics is entirely demoralised, entirely determined by corruption, all are in it for themselves, including Podemos. By contrast, with Corbyn, the establishment is not presented in its own right at all (though Jones’s book is presumably influential for many of Corbyn’s supporters and plays some of this role) instead it appears only negatively as that which is broken with by Corbyn, the incorruptible, the man whose rectitude proves the whole world is not corruptible.
Corbyn’s incorruptibility in its positive articulation, moreover, bears with it a hope (but only a hope, not the genuine development of an alternative pattern of living in common) of a genuinely socialist culture which does not merely aim at imitating the consumption habits of the rich. Again the contrast with Bevan, praised by Moore for “swilling [the verb is, accidentally, telling] his champagne” is instructive. Corbyn’s personal austerity hints at the necessity of values outside of those of the stupid and boring culture of the rich, it also insists on the value of the lives of those unable to afford champagne. Whilst it may, at a stretch, be true that, as Martin Pugh argues, Bevan as “an authentic working-class socialist cum hedonist was perfectly placed to articulate Labour’s case in an era of affluence”, (Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party, p. 318). there is something pathetic and servile in the spectacle of Bevan, essentially defeated, taking taxis to Harrods and drinking champagne with the wealthy. Moreover, today, the necessity or otherwise of Labour reckoning with affluence, is rather moot, Corbyn is our first post-affluence politician.
Corbyn’s post-affluent style, however, is drawn entirely from the past, indeed, it is a mark and limit of any politics of virtue, that it cannot generate its own images of the future. With Robespierre it was “ancient Rome [that] was a past charged with the time of the now which is blasted out of the continuum of history”, (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History, XIV), with Corbyn, or rather for the Corbyn Vortex, the past charged with the time of the now is a certain, always until now defeated, tendency in Labour itself, the tiger’s leap into the past with Corbyn, is to Corbyn himself in the 1980s.
For Part Two “Two Versions of Labour Values.”