The Corbyn phenomenon – and the utter media-class meltdown over it – is weirdly but obviously reminiscent to anyone who witnessed the rise of Bernie Sanders here in the United States. In both cases, the harbingers were clear, both in terms of responding to grim economic data for an indebted younger generation, and arriving in the wake of bona fide progressive movements such as Occupy.
Clearly, both the U.S. Democratic Party (which has never been a left-wing, working class party) and the British Labour Party (that dumped Clause IV of its constitution calling for common ownership of industry under Tony Blair, before repeating every Clintonian bromide in a posh accent) were not only ill-equipped to address rising inequalities, but ideologically unaligned with the interests of their electoral bases. But more so than Trump, or Boris Johnson, neither Sanders nor Corbyn were supposed to happen as national phenomena.
In the case of Sanders – who with 51%[i] of his support coming from non-white voters has the most diverse support of any major candidate – the line was that his supporters were a bunch of white male ‘Bernie Bros’, whose ‘leftism’ provided a thin veneer for deep-seated misogyny and wounded racial privilege. A typical litany from The Nation’s Joan Walsh from 2016 read:
I’m tired of seeing her confronted by entitled men weighing in on her personal honesty and likability, treating the most admired woman in the world like a woman who’s applying to be his secretary. I’m stunned anew by the misogyny behind the attacks on her, and her female supporters, including my daughter. I’m sick of the way so many Sanders supporters, most of them men, feel absolutely no compunction to see things through female Clinton supporters’ eyes, or to worry they might have to court us down the road, take special care not to alienate us lest we sit the race out in November, if our candidate loses.[ii]
This tack, which conflated scattered outbursts of sexist or racially insensitive statements, generally online, from Sanders supporters, with far more numerous disagreements, sometimes sharp, without discernible sexist or other bigoted undertones, is still a mainstay of coverage in such venues as MSNBC, The Washington Post, and The New York Times – whose almost ludicrously biased coverage on Sanders has been ably skewered by Katie Halper.[iii]
Indeed, when Sanders had the temerity to suggest that Amazon CEO, and all-around Bond villain, Jeff Bezos’s ownership of The Washington Post has an effect on its coverage of his campaign, the Krakatoa-level eruption of media outrage was something to behold. [iv]
NPR characterized Sanders’s well-deserved jab as ‘sounding like Trump,’[v] while Aaron Blake in the Post itself sneered at his ‘bogus media beef,’ declaring in what was one step from tone-policing:
But as Trump has also shown, the gripes can often be badly exaggerated, undermining whatever valid points you might be making. If you’re going to criticize the media for being bad actors — and we’re hardly above criticism — you should choose your words more carefully and make sure you’re not undermining your own credibility in the process.[vi]
Perhaps the establishment-liberal-objection to Sanders was best (if rather stupidly) summarized by prosecutor-turned-MSNBC commentator Mimi Rocah, who declared, ‘Just as a woman, probably considered a somewhat moderate Democrat … Bernie Sanders makes my skin crawl,’[vii] and then predictably, and with no particular evidence, cries ‘Bernie Bro!’ when ratio’ed into oblivion on Twitter for saying something dumb.
One could go on like this, and many have, and here in the U.S., we have more than a year left of this, at the conclusion of which we will all be worse people than we are now. The point is the attacks on Sanders emanating from the ‘liberal’ media in the U.S., which almost universally loathes him, are cartoonish, poorly reasoned, and often in bad faith. Lurking beneath, however, is that for the first time in a long time, American politics may be reconfiguring on a class axis.
The End of Socialism
Which brings us to Corbyn. Back in the latter half of the 1990s, it was a lonely station being a leftist. The standard line, including from supposed left-wing publications, was that, per Francis Fukayama, the big conflicts were over. Socialism, after the fall of the USSR, whether taking its cues from Enver Hoxha, Leon Trotsky, Eduard Bernstein, or Billy Bragg, was as intellectually discredited as phrenology, Lysenkoism, and Ptolemaic astronomy. And that went equally for nationalized industry and tuition-free grad. school.
Back then the leader of the British Labour Party, Tony Blair, could be heard to boast ‘When businessmen say to me, ‘Tony, I never thought I’d be doing this but here’s a big cheque to help you beat the most dishonest, negative campaign in history,’ I say thank you to them’ – which in retrospect may be the most important line of Blair’s 1996 Blackpool speech.[viii]
Corbyn was an under-the-radar backbencher who wound up in the running for the Labour leadership in 2015 as a sop to what were widely assumed to be the demoralized remnants of the Labour Left, a footnote to what was expected to be a contest between the competing progeny of New Labour forefathers. Corbyn’s leadership wasn’t supposed to happen.
As with Sanders, but possibly worse because the British press, improbably, outdoes even its American equivalent in narrow-minded pettiness, blinkered class prejudice, and general unpleasantness, Corbyn has been on the receiving end of every possible calumny.
When he says he likes the novel Ulysses, the media class reminds us of his modest educational attainments; as if James Joyce wrote that novel to test the erudition of Oxbridge graduates instead of entertain its readers. He has been labelled a Stalinist, a dunce, and a doctrinaire ideologue.
The Labour Party’s apparatus spent his first year as leader assiduously purging, or attempting to purge, new members for such infractions as publicly stating the desire to vote Green in previous elections, or, in the case of Irish poet Kevin Higgins, writing a satirical poem in support of Corbyn.
The lowest point among the multitude of attacks has been the accusations of anti-Semitism against Corbyn and his allies. Two things are simultaneously true – anti-Semitism is a serious problem in the world, Britain included. Also, the British Labour Party has ninety-nine problems, but systemic anti-Semitism ain’t one. The accusations come from a place of bad faith, and to the extent that they are not merely a case of punching the left, they are mounted in defence of what is a jaw-droppingly racist Israeli state under Benjamin Netanyahu (with an only fractionally less racist internal opposition).
In terms of political opportunism, the case of Luciana Berger, who exited the Labour Party in 2019 in favour of the entity currently called Change UK (currently polling at 0%) stands out. When members of her local party constituency, where her anti-Corbyn stance had made her deeply unpopular, submitted no-confidence motions, the Blairite wing of the Labour Party went into full smear mode.
Tom Watson expressed ‘our solidarity, our support, as she battles the bullying and hatred from members of her own local party,’[ix] whose crime was wanting leadership that better represented them. Blair himself got in on the act, and the media soon pivoted from a story of a local Corbynite membership revolting against a Blairite M.P. to one of an anti-Semitic membership against a Jewish M.P., based on isolated incidents, all to bury the rebels’ main point in their main motion, namely: ‘Instead of fighting for a Labour government, our M.P. is continually using the media to criticise the man we all want to be prime minister.’
That Alex Scott-Samuel, the constituency co-chair at the time, had regularly appeared on an internet show sponsored by conspiracy theorist David Icke was bad optics at the very least,[x] but Scott-Samuel’s membership in the ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’ should make one wary of sweeping claims of anti-Semitism.
If anything, Corbyn has been too accommodating to his critics, with Labour repeatedly suspending his key ally Chris Williamson not for being an anti-Semite, but for questioning the good faith of those who continue to challenge the Labour Party on the issue. Corbyn repeatedly denounces anti-Semitism; the Labour Party has developed an educational program to combat it; and Labour has mounted a series of online videos and pamphlets against anti-Jewish stereotypes and politics. And yet the attacks continue – even as a post-Windrush, Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party takes after Donald Trump and says the formerly quiet, overtly-racist bits increasingly loudly.
Slow-motion Pub Brawl
Perhaps as ludicrous, if slightly less fatuous, are those attacks related to the never-ending slow-motion pub brawl that is Brexit. This, too, had its origins in Establishment hubris. It wasn’t supposed to pass. BoJo was supposed to use the opportunity to throw some raw meat into the gaping maws of the slavering rubes while Cameron was supposed to let him have his moment, after which Boris was supposed to shut his goddamn mouth. And yet again, a different wing of the in-crowd underestimated how little the nerds, burnouts, hoods, punks, shitkickers, and other people not seated at the cool kids’ table liked them.
There are plenty of reasons not to like the E.U.. It is, at its core, a neo-liberal trade pact, and as the Syriza government in Greece discovered, the E.U. would rather see a country pauperized than let it renegotiate a payment schedule with its citizenry in mind. E.U. rules against state aids render the renationalisation of industry that Labour currently advocates not technically, but effectively impossible.
That is not to say that a no-deal Brexit wouldn’t be catastrophic, or that many of the loudest pro-Brexit arguments aren’t tinged with xenophobia and racism. It is to say, however, that the #FBPE crowd’s almost utopian view on the E.U. is underpinned by a combination of frequent class privilege (‘how will I be able to pop over to the villa in Provence next weekend if Britain leaves the E.U.?’) and disdain for the socialist project.
In terms of relations with the E.U., Jeremy Corbyn has consistently attempted to manoeuvre through a deeply complicated series of conflicting demands in a political environment dominated by disinformation and demagogy. As I see it, his main concerns are:
- A Labour Party membership deeply divided over Brexit.
- Genuine belief that one cannot in good faith override a democratic vote because it did not produce the desired outcome.
- Desire to preserve positive aspects of the E.U. (ease of movement within the area, for instance), to blunt the effects of a hard Brexit (e.g. to trade) without glossing over the negative.
- Letting the Tory Party, which caused the mess, to bear the political costs.
- Keeping the Blairite majority among the party leadership at bay without completely selling out to them.
The latter two have probably caused Corbyn the most problems. Ex-Labour (and current Lib Dem via Change UK) M.P. Chuka Umunna griped in The Independent: ‘I cannot think of any Labour leader in my lifetime who would not have instinctively said ‘Remain’ but the party has changed irrevocably under the current set up.’[xi]
Of course Corbyn is not the only one – a number of those from the 2015 intake of MPs who are mooted to succeed him are on record of being even more hostile to the notion of a People’s Vote.’ Umunna was born in 1978, and the Labour Party under Michael Foot (leader 1980-83) favoured leaving the E.E.C., a position reversed by Neil Kinnock, whose main contributions to world history were paving the way for Blair, air-balling what should have been an easy election in 1992, and giving speeches for Joe Biden to plagiarize.
This may seem an historical quibble, particularly as Corbyn campaigned, albeit unenthusiastically, to remain in an institution unworthy of enthusiasm, but Umunna inadvertently captures the key ideological disconnect.
For many years socially liberal yuppies like him dominated what, in official circles, constituted the ‘left.’ The socialist project, either isolated in its traditional mass party like Britain or essentially vilified and repressed to the point of near-extinction as in the United States, became a vehicle for free-market and militaristic ideas – but performatively anti-racist, pro-woman, and pro-gay – and a gaping political void emerged.
With the genuine article re-appearing in the shape of Corby and Sanders, the ‘left’ of the Blair-Clinton era is the left-no-longer. But they like the real estate. Thus come the ludicrous charges.
As Noam Chomsky noted of Corbyn:
One must admire the incredible skills the media have in manipulating the population. They’ve managed to convince many that the most passionate anti-racist campaigner of the last 40 years, Jeremy Corbyn, is actually pro-racist and anti-Semitic.[xii]
Of course Blairites favour, not social equity, but aspirational mobility, treating inequality as isolable matters of exclusion on the basis of race, gender sexuality, and so forth, rather than economic inequality, reflecting exploitation inherent in capitalism.
There is a block in favour of radical, egalitarian change, and its leaders aren’t named Kamala Harris, Tom Watson, Chuka Umunna, Rachel Maddow, Alyssa Milano, or J.K. Rowling. Or Elizabeth Warren, frankly. Thus the ‘anti-Semitism’ slurs, and the ‘Bernie Bro’ canard.
Many with leftist sympathies are genuinely bamboozled, given the ubiquity of this garbage. Other claiming these affinities really don’t really like socialism, universal health care, free college, and railroads that aren’t owned by the likes of Richard Branson. And those people should be honest about that, and if they aren’t, it’s okay to own them relentlessly on social media.
Feature Image by ‘paulnew’ is of Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a leadership election rally to his supporters in August 2016.
[i] Untitled, ‘Profiles of supporters of the leading Democratic candidates’, Pew Research Center, August 20th, 2019, https://www.people-press.org/2019/08/16/most-democrats-are-excited-by-several-2020-candidates-not-just-their-top-choice/pp_2019-08-16_2020-democratic-candidates_0-06-2/.
[ii] Joan Walsh, ‘Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton, With Joy and Without Apologies’, January 27th, 2016, The Nation,https://www.thenation.com/article/why-im-supporting-hillary-clinton-with-joy-and-without-apologies/.
[iii] Katie Harper, ‘MSNBC’s Anti-Sanders Bias Makes It Forget How to Do Math’, July 26th, 2019, FAIR, https://fair.org/home/msnbcs-anti-sanders-bias-makes-it-forget-how-to-do-math/.
[iv] Chavie Lieber, ‘Bernie Sanders called out Jeff Bezos for poor treatment of Amazon workers. In a rare move, the company fired back.’, August 30th, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2018/8/30/17797786/amazon-warehouse-conditions-bernie-sanders.
[v] Domenico Montenaro, ‘Bernie Sanders Again Attacks Amazon — This Time Pulling In ‘The Washington Post’’, NPR, August 13th, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/08/13/750800062/sanders-again-attacks-amazon-this-time-pulling-in-the-washington-post.
[vi] Aaron Blake, ‘Bernie Sanders’s bogus media beef’, The Washington Post, August 14th, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/14/bernie-sanderss-bogus-media-beef/.
[vii] Josh Feldman, ‘MSNBC Panelist: Bernie Sanders ‘Makes My Skin Crawl,’ I Don’t See Him as ‘Pro-Woman Candidate’’, Mediaite, July 21st, 2019, https://www.mediaite.com/tv/msnbc-panelist-bernie-sanders-makes-my-skin-crawl-i-dont-see-him-as-pro-woman-candidate/.
[viii] British Political Speeches, Leader’s speech, Blackpool 1996, http://www.britishpoliticalspeech.org/speech-archive.htm?speech=202
[x] Lee Harpin, ‘University distances itself from academic who promoted Rothschild conspiracies on David Icke show’, THE JC, February 12th, 2019, https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/university-insists-academic-who-promoted-rothschild-conspracies-on-david-icke-1.479941.
[xi] Chuck Umunna, ‘Jeremy Corbyn is happily helping Britain leave the EU – he is and always was a Brexiteer’, The Independent, March 18th, 2019, https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-brexit-chuka-umunna-the-independent-group-leave-remain-a8828001.html.
[xii] Frea Lockley, ‘Here’s how thousands of people are standing up to smears against Jeremy Corbyn’, The Canary, March 26th, 2018, https://www.thecanary.co/uk/2018/03/26/heres-how-thousands-of-people-are-standing-up-to-smears-against-jeremy-corbyn/.