By David Waywell.
It’s strange writing this today, having not written a word in months. Yet I’m grateful. The W&Y article, ‘Jeremy Corbyn: Fifty Shades of Black and White‘, woke me from a three month slumber, during which I’ve felt apathetic about politics. The reason was the UK general election which finally proved that politics is a far from beautiful game, especially when the tactics of one team are drawn up by Lynton Crosby.
To further draw the analogy to football: you might want to support the team who plays the ball and embodies the spirit of the game but the reality is that the name on the trophy is usually that of the team that parks the bus and is not afraid to go in with their studs raised.
The election here was defined by one gloriously high tackle, for which David Cameron was shown only a yellow card and went on to win the game. Raising the subject of Scottish nationalism may have been bad sportsmanship but he made the electorate fearful of a Labour government and that was crucial to the Tory win, even if it meant endangering the Union he professed to care so passionately about.
In a way, I guess that Tim’s article frustrated me because it was so damn reasonable. It was precisely the kind of cogent analysis of Corbyn’s foreign policies that I could never hope to match. Yet what sparked my urge to reply was the manner in which politics was assumed to be about cogency at all. Tim was right to point out the problems with Corbyn’s policies but his argument was missing a vital detail which was this: people really don’t care about Corbyn’s policies.
Corbyn’s success is not simply a UK phenomenon – so ignore, for the moment, notions of left and right – In America, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are producing campaigns that have broken many of the traditional rules of politics. Both campaigns were predicted to fizzle out at some point, yet, as of this moment, both continue to gain momentum. Whilst the biggest fear of the Republican Party is apparently the idea of Trump winning their nomination, their greater fear should really be his running as an independent and fracturing their core vote. One of the most astonishing parts of the Trump story is that it distracts from the spectacular mess that Hillary seems to be making of her campaign compared to the ground being made by Sanders. And what’s remarkable is that most of this is being done with very little discussion about policy. Instead, we are discussing email servers and Trumpisms such as ‘ I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created’ and vague promises to build a wall.
Yet the story of Trump and Sanders is the same story as we see in the UK. Corbyn was never meant to be the frontrunner. He was meant to be a short term contender, expected to be the first to drop out of the race. Even before the campaign began, he was artificially boosted into the race as a sop to the left. He was there to make the race appear fair and representative of both wings of the party.
Is it a coincidence that Corbyn, Sanders, and Trump are succeeding where mainstream opponents are failing? Whilst it would be fair to argue that the policies of all three fail close scrutiny, all three are doing well because logic and reason are no longer in vogue.
In terms of UK politics, they were no longer in vogue the moment David Cameron played his game with Scottish nationalism. The genius of Lynton Crosby (and, make no mistake, it is a form of genius) is to realise that people aren’t motivated to vote because of clear policies. He identified one key fear and the Tories played to that for the last weeks of the campaign.
Corbyn doesn’t appeal to people’s fears as much as he appeals to their idealism and passion. He might not be good for the Labour party, the Labour movement, or even the country. Yet like Trump and Sanders in America, to large portions of the electorate, there’s something ultimately satisfying about him. It’s something that defies reason.
There is plenty of context to understand what’s happening. History is written in broad brushstrokes. Since the sixteenth century, Western intellectual movements have routinely shifted their focus between reason and something we might broadly describe as imagination. After every period when people fall in love with classicism, there’s usually a corresponding cultural spasm that sees artists reaching for something that is distinctly non-rational. The poet, Alexander Pope, wrote his Essay on Man in 1734, and his faith in Reason is clear throughout. The poem is written in heroic couplets, which themselves convey a clear-reasoned structured argument, singularly obsessed with the power of the human mind over the failings of the body.
‘man’s superior part
Unchecked may rise, and climb from art to art;
But when his own great work is but begun,
What reason weaves, by passion is undone.’
In 1734, the powers of the mind seemed without end yet by the end of the century, rationalism had already reached both its pinnacle and nadir in the French Revolution, where the modern French state found its birth but reason also produced the ultimate humane killing machine in the shape of the guillotine. If ‘The Terror’ was a product of rationalists, then the response, in England at least, is to be seen in the poetry of the Romantics. Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats embodied a different way of looking at the world. Their poetry talks about vague things such as spirit, perhaps best remembered in Keats’s summation in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, where ‘beauty is truth, truth beauty’.
There is a touch of the Keatsian in Corbyn whose speeches share something of the ‘truth beauty’ idealism. He is the anti-Blair whilst Blair was himself the antidote to Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. (Incidentally, not insignificant to the argument is noting that Foot was a Byron scholar and biographer.) Blair was the ultimate election-winning machine, as calculated, rational and merciless as the guillotine. Was it any surprise that he fell for the lies surrounding Iraq? That war was the product of neo-conservative intellectuals who believed they could win battle with ideas. (‘Reason’, incidentally, is a word big in the world of the libertarians, including the website and magazine, reason.com, which promotes ‘free minds and free markets’.) The Iraq War was an expression of a deeply held rationalism about remoulding the Middle East simply by unleashing freedom, choice and trusting the people to use their ‘reason’ to choose correctly.
Of course, the fallacy is now obvious. Mathematics might be thought of as the ultimate form of logic but even logic embodies its own romantic element in the mathematics of chaos. With hindsight the most predictable result of Bush and Blair’s policies and the short lived idealism of the Arab Spring was the chaos that has been unleashed across the Middle East, with the effects being seen on the borders of Europe.
We now stand at the point where the most knowable thing is the unknowable. In such a climate, the appeal of a Corbyn is easy to see. Jeremy Corbyn heralds a new romantic spirit, not just in Labour ranks but across the political spectrum. His words might not stand up to scrutiny but he’s speaking to an electorate that has grown tired of the reasonable but heartless arguments of the now old New Labour. It isn’t just a phenomenon of the left but across all politics. There is a broad cultural shift away from the persuasive power of logic and reason. Corbyn is working magic on the left in the very same way that on the right in America the appeal of Trump grows with every apparent slip. This might be a return to old-fashioned passion politics but it might also be that we’re entering into a new era of demagogues and perhaps now is also the time for somebody to offer a notion of caution.
This might not be best time for our politics to be dictated by men appealing to both our passions and fears. ‘What reason weaves, by passion is undone.’