In the 14th Century a man named Francesco Petrarca, surprised at the sophistication and subtlety of the classical works he was beginning to read, came to feel that he was living in a dark age. Petrarch could not have known that six centuries later a similar feeling would wash across the academic world; a feeling that as a society we have abandoned any kind of human metric of the social good. Petrarch, the proto-humanist who is often credited with catalysing that early modern transformation of Europe known popularly as the Renaissance, was obviously deeply stirred by the classics and the values they gave to civic duty and municipalism, finding in them many point of identification with his own desire for social change. This must have left him feeling that he was a fish out of water.
This did not deter him however, and at long last vast and sweeping social and intellectual changes came. This is not a story of hope and fulfilment though. Change came too late for Petrarch himself to fully enjoy. The humanistic freedom that had only intimated itself to Petrarch was not to bloom for a hundred years afterwards. It was for others — Salutati, Bruni, Machiavelli, Ariosto and Chrysolorus — to enjoy and further the explosion of the studia humanitatis which so transformed the social and cultural terrain of Europe.
Such a lesson is sobering. It leaves us to contemplate our situation as academics and scholars as irredeemably medial, interposed between the populist gloom that surrounds us and a more receptive future which would conceivably benefit from the development of our insights. We are separated from that world by our own finitude. We are, in these respects, useless to the world as is and must have the humility to recognise this. We are all, whether we like it or not, prefigurativists — we think and sometimes act as if a future receptivity were already unfolding, and this is both a stumbling block and a source of great hubris on our part.
A philosophy of praxis, in which we aim to materialise and formally operationalise the inherent progressive tendencies of society, can often excuse this hubris by giving us the impression that we know which way the pendulum is actually swinging. Clearly, we don’t ever know this, and social tendencies and vectors of transition only become visible in hindsight like Hegel’s owl of Minerva. If Petrarch had ever felt this, it must have stung him like a cloud of wasps. The social alienation and isolation that come with the idea of oneself as a pioneer are absolute, and so we must absolutely abandon this notion.
This is why it can enrage a more mature leftist when histrionic newcomers to the movement start to abuse those non-university-educated sectors of the voting public with jeers and taunts of ‘knuckle dragger’ and ‘thick’. I’m sorry to say I am and have been guilty of these reactions. These are the reactions of somebody who claims to know the interests of the working class at an objective level, long before they have been subjectively worked out. As such they are founded on blindness and arrogance. A leftist sense of temporality has been warped by desire. Our hopefulness and enthusiasm for political progress is hard to contain, so much so that our deep care and concern for the future results in apparent carelessness and priggishness towards the present. The populist right are correct in this one thing: contemporary leftists are very much out of touch with the British lumpenbourgeoisie. We snicker in our blogs and communiques about transit van drivers and migrant-bashing idiots sweating for an exploitative boss from nine to five for a cheap beach holiday in Tenerife, yet these are the very people we should be aiming to find some sort of common ground with, however minimal. The reason? Because these people, insofar as they feel themselves to be a majoritarian community, are the many, not the few; they exist, and compose our society, not on some feral fringe of inbred rural hilly-billies but in every suburb in the country. Instead we fascinate ourselves by constructing in our minds and theoretical apparatuses an imaginary world wherein the most sub-sub-subaltern and minoritarian identity we can conceive of would feel welcomed. That sounds harsh and self-flagellating, but it is true. An inclusive, broad appeal cannot only count the percentiles it so worriedly wishes to shelter, it must do so without alienating and discounting the wider base. Don’t talk ‘broad church’ rhetoric, don’t talk ‘church’ at all; this is not about bringing people under some wan umbrella that hangs over our heads to shield us from misfortune. Labour is an environmental, social, and political intervention that is based on a radical vision, a vision that grasps all of us by the root (radix) in order to put something substantial under our feet.
In a populist age such as ours has revealed itself to be, politics is populism. Outcomes are determined in advance by the sway of the media and there is no way out of this. It doesn’t matter that, “in October 1936, Jeremy Corbyn’s mother participated in the battle of Cable Street in defence of British Jews after British fascists had staged an assault on the area” and that “Corbyn was raised in a household passionately opposed to antisemitism in all its forms”. It doesn’t matter that “on 7 November 1990, Corbyn signed a motion condemning the rise of antisemitism in the UK” or that “on 30 April 2002, Corbyn tabled a motion in the House of Commons condemning an anti-Semitic attack on a London Synagogue”. None of these many, many items in the historical record matter; not the voting record, not the protest history nor the life-history; they do not matter in the slightest. The only thing that mattered is that Corbyn was presented by the media as deeply complicit in Labour’s “problem with antisemitism” and therefore as an individual he hated Jews and was unsupportable, unelectable, and probably crazy to boot. In our times, the facts are brutally made, not researched and verified.
The UK media hates Labour, but with one caveat. The last fifty years the story of print media’s relation to Labour leaders (Foot, Kinnock, Brown, Milliband, Corbyn) has been different in only one instance: Tony Blair, godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Grace. What marked Blair out above all was his inside knowledge of how the media machine works. Even when he made deeply unpopular decisions, rousing the ire of the public to march against him in the biggest protests in living memory, he still held a relatively even keel on the face of it. We can only imagine how Ed Milliband, with no friends at all in the press business, might have fared under the same circumstances.
We must learn this, and learn it fast: Leftists need to play the game, even as we tirelessly scheme to break, educate and reform it. The example of Jeremy Corbyn’s nosediving popularity in the North of England shows what happens when you attempt the ideological purist’s stance of self-subtraction, when you don’t deign to ‘stoop’ to the vernacular and commonplace, when you refuse to ‘taint’ yourself with populism. Labour need to get ‘in’ with the media and develop something with this relationship, not stand outside in the cold refusing its terms.
It is for these reasons I am supporting Rebecca Long-Bailey and will vote for her as leader of the Labour Party. She, apparently alone of the contenders at this point, is at least making the herculean attempt to bridge the gap between base and knowledge, populism and vox populi, voter and vote, which the monstrous media spectacle machine interposes.