Jeremy Corbyn and The Pitfalls of ‘Social Media Socialism’
What Bernie Sanders supporters and other leftists need to learn from the downfall of Jeremy Corbyn.
Last Thursday, the Labour Party — led by veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn — suffered its worst general election result in over 80 years; having lost the popular vote by double digits and being reduced to a little over 200 seats; giving the Conservatives a majority of 80. The party is now in the midst of a leadership election, branded as a “period of reflection”; which, in reality, has resembled more closely, a period of infighting, with the only declared candidate having been accused of calling an MPs pro-Brexit constituents “stupid.” The party will elect a new leader by March: with it remaining unclear whether the party will seek to continue with ‘Corbynism’ or seek a clean break, however, the scale of loss suffered by the party — where previously safe Northern Labour seats elected Conservative MP after Conservative MP last Thursday, often with large majorities — means that regardless of leader, the party is unlikely to win back power in the next five years, all but guaranteeing Conservative rule until the end of the next decade.
The result represents a stunning setback for the new 21st Century ‘social media socialism’; of which Corbyn was seen as a global leader of. While parallels can’t be fully drawn with other leaders of this movement, i.e. Bernie Sanders, as Corbyn was almost deeply, personally unpopular and, the issue of Brexit made the election unique, the result does speak to the problems facing a movement which puts the working class at its center, but whose most vocal supporters are overwhelmingly middle class and university educated and who center their activism on social media, rather than on traditional campaigning methods.
The problem for ‘social media socialists’ is that, unlike past socialist movements, they are increasingly detached from the people they claim to champion
Social media platforms such as Twitter, where the socialist left’s voice is the loudest, are synonymous with echo chambers and incivility and, therefore many of the issues I have with the online left are not confined to them and instead extend to people across the political spectrum who are ‘very online’ and very politically opinionated. However, the socialist left is the largest and loudest group on platforms like Twitter and therefore has added responsibility to moderate their behaviour, and while their ferocity of support for their beliefs is not unique to them, there are certainly issues surrounding sexism and bullying that seem particularly pertinent to them.
This schism between the left’s view of the working class and reality came to a head on election night, where traditionally Labour seats in the North and Wales fell to the governing Conservative party.
The next big test for the socialist left will come in 2020, where we will see if Bernie Sanders can make it all the way to the White House, and if they want to avoid a Jeremy Corbyn redux they have to learn what the UK Labour Party failed to: that if you are going to make a movement centred around boosting the working class, you actually have to listen to and respect working class voices. The most active Corbynites were affluent, university graduates who mercilessly attacked anyone who dared to question the radical direction of the party, as being complicit in the oppression of the working class, yet failed to actually ask the working class, themselves, what they believed.
The problem for social media socialists is that, unlike past socialist movements, they are increasingly detached from the people they claim to champion and their view of the working class is an incredibly reductive and two-dimensional one. It is one that seeks to paint an entire group of people as having identical struggles, which centre around being collectively and constantly oppressed by the forces of free-market capitalism. It ignores — and therefore fails to address — the benefits that capitalism and free markets have brought to such communities and, while correctly diagnosing that current levels of inequality are unjustifiable and that the wealthy pay too little tax, their view that the rich and powerful are solely to blame for the problems of working class communities and that everything from broadband to university should be free for all, goes against the quintessentially working class ideas of hard work and personal responsibility. It also feels to many, too good to be true.
Those who blasted centrists and neo-liberals for being insufficiently pro-worker, were themselves the most out-of-touch with the wants of most working class people
This schism between the left’s view of the working class and reality came to a head on election night, where traditionally Labour seats in the North and Wales fell to the governing Conservative party. The result was that the ‘online left’ — having spent months using the tribulations of the underprivileged as a stick to beat their ideological opponents with — immediately took a derisive view towards those they so passionately claimed to defend. They pontificated about how anyone who had voted ‘Conservative’ was deserving of the cuts that would impact their communities and — dismayed by the outcome — dismissed working class Conservative voters as ‘stupid’ and took away all their agency: arguing that they were ill-informed and brain-washed by the mainstream media. For a movement that claimed to be underpinned by a class struggle, they couldn’t have appeared any more out-of-touch.
However, the movement wouldn’t have been heading for such a collision course with reality if it had not been so consumed by the echo chamber that is social media. As Barack Obama said in November, most people don’t want to “tear down the system”, they just want their lives to be better. But, the purity tests of dogmatic leftists mean that such a pragmatic approach was dismissed hook, line and sinker by party activists. Ironically, those who blasted centrists and neo-liberals for being insufficiently pro-worker, were themselves the most out-of-touch with the wants of most working class people.
Culture is supplanting the economy as the most important issue to voters
Perhaps the most illuminating example of the echo chamber in which the new, socialist left operates comes from the story of a Labour activist in the marginal seat of Great Grimsby. A piece by the local Grimsby Telegraph tells of how in the final days of the campaign, the now ex-Labour MP Melanie Onn, was joined on the campaign trail by a British man who’d flown over from Cuba who was “well versed on international issues… but knew little about Grimsby.” A source for the newspaper said he was “asking whether people were in the Labour friends of Palestine” while canvassing in ‘rubbish’-laden street with “boarded up” houses. This, more than anything else, exposes the disconnect between the average voter and left wing activists.
Also clear, is the lack of realisation by Labour and the left more largely of how culture is supplanting the economy as the most important issue to voters. The view of many on the left that if you offer enough free stuff to working people they will accept increasingly left-wing cultural positions is wrong. As important as policies are, the visceral hatred for Corbyn was mostly to do with him being seen (rightly or wrongly) as a terrorist-sympathising, royal family-hating, Islington elitist, whose party’s Brexit position (a Second EU Referendum) only confirmed to many voters their view that the ‘liberal elite’ saw them as ‘stupid’ and ‘ill-informed’ for supporting Brexit and that their voices wouldn’t be listened to until they delivered the ‘right’ result for the establishment.
Ultimately, the downfall of ‘social media socialism’ in the UK election should have been seen from a mile off and leftists across the world should take heed of Jeremy Corbyn’s fate. There is still hope for those in the socialist movement — it is building up a coalition (young and diverse) that looks more like the future than it’s rivals (older and whiter). But, if it cannot adapt to fit the wants of the current electorate and is unable to centre it’s class-based politics on the actual beliefs of the working class, it will fail.