Is Corbyn a Populist? Trumped-Up Political Strategy

There is but one true and profound political lesson from 2016, and that is that people are ignorant of political issues. At the same time, this ever-present problem is the one we never seem to learn. Last year was a political trauma, and like any trauma our first response is denial. We apply various narratives to explain it away (Trump isn’t that dangerous after all / they’ll never get Article 50 through parliament). The particular delusion I want to talk about here is the idea that Trump’s path to victory in anyway speaks of an opportunity for the left. This is something I touched upon when speaking about Žižek’s endorsement of Trump.

The false narrative goes something like this: the centre ground, which has oppressed radical thought for 30 years or so, has collapsed. The centre is out of touch with what ordinary folk really think and care about, and this is capitalised upon by fascists like Trump because the corrupt media prevent the left from being heard. Žižek presaged this problem in his 2011 Living in the End Times.

Today, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we experience a kind of [unease] in liberal capitalism. The key question is now is: who will articulate this discontent? Will it be left to nationalist populists to exploit? Therein resides the big task for the Left. [Note that populism is the problem, not the opportunity]

Hence all too predictable reaction of the left to Trump: to whinge about the battle it lost, to say it wasn’t a fair fight, rather than to focus on the battle to come. For example, there is the strange idea that Bernie Sanders, who failed to even win the primary, could have won the election in place of Clinton. This is an extension of the crypto-masogynist idea that Clinton’s unpopularity, rather than public support for Trump, is the cause of the election result (in other words, blame the victim). A final example was the fantasy that technicalities could stop the inauguration of Trump, further proof that no one believes in the sovereignty of the ballot, despite it’s very real power.

Today, I’ve been brought out of the cave I’ve been hiding in since the US election. I’ve been dragged out, not by the philosopher educator, but by the Corbyn re-launch. When I heard that Corbyn was going to be re-launched, that his team had finally realised that this wasn’t working, I felt hope. I hoped they’d actually start doing press releases and making friends with the media. Hope is, however, the ground of disappointment. According to this write up, the plan is actually to up their slagging off of mainstream media (as though mainstream were a dirty word, and not the demographic they’re supposed to be appealing to).

If this article is correct, and it seems consistent so I believe it is, the idea is that Trump’s tactics can work for Corbyn. The new strategy is grounded in the following analysis of Trump’s success. The latter used negative media coverage to enhance his support. He would say “controversial” things, and then when the media attacked him for it, he would say “look the media is evil, look at how mean they’re being to me”, which created support.

I think this hypothesis is fair enough, but I don’t agree that it can be translated to Corbyn in the way the article reports. To quote rather than rephrase:

Corbyn’s team say that letting their leader outline his views more prominently, however controversial they may be, could boost his popularity by playing to his two main strengths — that he says what he thinks and is perceived as a man of integrity.

It seems simple enough: Trump and Corbyn are “controversial”, therefore what works for one should work for the other. But, like all arguments from analogy, it falls short of proof. Trump and Corbyn are controversial in very different ways. Trump is a racist, sexist moron. He says moronic racist and sexist things that are completely unacceptable in the public realm. Corbyn is a middle-class vegan who argues for quite technical solutions to political problems. These solutions are certainly unpopular and boring to non-politicos, but neither unacceptable nor controversial.

The idea that Corbyn can play from Trump’s rulebook is symptomatic of a serious analytical error that equates the far Left and Right. It is shared by both members of the centrist commentariat and by their “populist” opponents, from Canaryist tin-foil-hatters to indignant Daily Mail mouth-foamers. They all see the difference between Corbyn and Trump and the ailing center through a liberal lens: there is a centre of political consensus and extremism on the fringes. This extremism has now perversely been identified with populism, which, despite being an oxymoron, obfuscates the fact that Corbyn is extremely unpopular outside the Labour party membership.

To put this another way, the consensus is that the far left and right are formally identical, if materially different, i.e. they have the same structure (outsider, don’t get media coverage, insurgent, grassroots etc.) but encapsulate different beliefs (Fascism vs Socialism). But, Fascism and Socialism are formally, essentially, and entirely different from each other.

To prove the principle through one example, fascism is essentially anti-intellectual. By contrasty, socialism is essentially hyper-intellectual. Socialism encourages people to think critically about their economic circumstances. Fascism encourages them to distrust experts and trust their brute emotions and instincts. For this reason, fascism thrives in ignorance whilst socialism falters.

I remain unconvinced, therefore, that Corbyn can thrive through the brute anti-intellectualist, anti-establishment tactics of Trump. They are contrary to his core message: be rational, be kind, be honest. Trump’s counterpoint to that is be emotional, be cruel, be a liar, because all the others lie anyway: embrace your ignorance, because that, at least, is your truth.

General ignorance about the nature of globalisation is the true reason for rise of Trump and Brexit. In other words, the problem is that people are ignorant. The left has two choices: work to stop them being stupid or circumvent their authority. One would have thought that Corbyn, like Tony Benn, would want to take the former route. To seek media attention to get a message across. On the contrary, annoying the media has now become the cornerstone of official Labour strategy.

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