Last week hundreds of festival-goers queued for 45 minutes outside a converted church in Brighton to hear cultural theorists ponder ‘Acid Corbynism’.
Many of them had already participated in workshops ‘to mould, model and get messy together’ by using ‘clay as a medium for creative collaboration and social engagement’, or had engaged in ‘an experimental approach to clothing design ideas’ to explore ‘relationships between bodies and garments, and our connection with others’.
There had also been opportunities to reimagine ‘football as a social movement’ through a ‘combination of spoken word, visuals and participatory discussion’ and to chart the genesis of neoliberalism at a Stuart Hall reading group.
As has been extensively reported the intriguing agenda at The World Transformed (TWT) organised by the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement stole more than a little lustre from the main Labour Party conference.
The sentiment was captured in a much-shared tweet in which one ‘centrist dad’ was heard to comment on leaving a TWT event before heading back to the main conference that ‘everyone in there is more attractive and talking about more interesting things’.
And after an absorbing and exhausting few days shuttling between both conferences I can testify that the observation captured some, but not all, of the truth.
It’s true that most TWT attendees were below 35, and the venues had something of the ambience of a students union bar, the walls plastered with posters, ambient electronica playing through the sound system, the tables thick with leaflets and festival regalia, notably the ubiquitous Corbyn t-shirts and Momentum badges. But there were almost as many older participants, most in their 50s and 60s, though somewhat fewer 40-somethings, an age group that, coming of political age during the New Labour years, may be more sceptical about Corbyn’s movement.
And it is also true that many of the festival’s events had an open-ended, speculative dimension beyond those of the regular conference fringe.
Some were hands-on activist workshops exploring campaigning techniques and technologies or the Labour Party’s byzantine decision-making processes. But most ranged into issues more usually found in the seminar room, exploring the further reaches of contemporary radical political and economic thought.
Several of the most popular discussions explored the possibilities new technologies such as AI, the internet of things, digital fabrication and machine intelligence might open for some future post-capitalist society in which routine work is transcended by automation. Established luminaries such as Paul Mason and David Harvey, together with upcoming writers including Aaron Bastani, Helen Hester and David Frayne deliberated the meaning of work in a world beyond wage labour.
For some looking in on the festival from Labour’s centrist and communitarian traditions these sessions confirmed their worst suspicions about the radical forces Corbyn’s leadership has unleashed.
While the TWT techno-utopians dreamed a rally of the Blairite Labour First group feared an insurrection against capitalism, a former Shadow Chancellor warning:
We have to hold our ground to make sure Marxism never succeeds. It’s about trying to overturn capitalism completely. It has no place in the modern Labour Party.
And as the conference closed the New Statesman published a polemic by Jonathan Rutherford, an academic sympathetic to Blue Labour, warning against the abstractions spun by TWT’s ‘mix of baby boomer libertarian socialists, ex-Eurocommunists, accelerationist theorists, and younger generations of identity liberals, feminists, and anti-colonialists’.
For Rutherford the TWT tendency substitutes a naive technological determinism for the rigours of day-to-day class struggle with its speculations that capitalism will simply fold in on itself as automation renders wage labour redundant and undermines the consumer base the system requires to reproduce itself. As 3D printers become more widely available the price of products will fall towards zero, and the sharing economy makes it ever easier to exchange goods and services for free, a new age of ‘fully automated luxury communism’ will dawn, without storming a single barricade. The ideal is an abstract utopia cleansed of traditional forms of meaning and community:
Work fulfils the ethic of reciprocity which binds people together and by which we support those unable to work … Corbynism rejects patriotism as jingoism. Blue Labour embraces love of one’s country as an essential part of internationalism. For one, nation states with their borders divide people against each other. For the other, nation states are essential for giving people democratic control and for managing globalisation. For one, immigration is a cultural and economic positive. Opposing it is xenophobic. For the other, the free movement of labour is the same laissez-faire principle as the free movement of capital – it has externalities that need controlling. For one, localism is folkish and backward looking. For the other a sense of belonging is a vital part of all successful societies.
Two ideas of liberty, two ideas of community
Rutherford’s article is revealing both for what it sees and does not see about the Corbyn movement’s ongoing efforts to forge a unifying political philosophy.
There’s no doubt that it is is futurist in orientation, eager to explore the edge of contemporary progressive thought and fascinated by the emancipatory potential of new technology. And it is unashamedly libertarian: the human condition is malleable, a site of political contestation, open to new patterns of social life and economic relations.
But it is important to acknowledge that this is a socialist libertarianism which insists that the freedom of all is the condition for the freedom of each. The pursuit of liberty is viewed as a collective enterprise, achieved by communities willing to engage in political struggle to open up spaces for human flourishing beyond the parameters of the neoliberal marketplace.
There was less talk during TWT of post-scarcity utopias than of the possibilities collective action affords for democratising the political and economic frameworks within which people must make their lives: the opening up of the governance of political institutions, public services and workplaces to ordinary people. The principle current of thought articulated at the festival had more in common with Raymond Williams and the 1960s New Left than any techno-Marxist accelerationsim: the pursuit of social solidarities capable of standing against conformism, authoritarianism and managerialism.
The Acid Corbynism event offers an instructive example of how TWT’s surface ‘cool’ can mislead, obscuring the festival’s serious intent. The event’s very title seemed designed to provoke and reinforce mainstream narratives about TWT’s propensity for intellectual dilettantism. But the discussion itself offered valuable insights into the kind of political movement festival participants are seeking to develop.
The event based its name on the title of a book the late political theorist Mark Fisher was working on before his death earlier this year. Fisher’s Acid Communism sought to identify those elements of the 1960s counter-culture that might have a lasting relevance for contemporary political struggles.
1960s and the golden (?) generation
The decade’s legacy is often dismissed by today’s left, its solipsistic experimentation with chemicals and Eastern mysticism taken as prefiguring a subsequent embrace of crass consumerist culture and New Age self-therapy. But the event’s host, Jeremy Gilbert, developing Fisher’s line of enquiry, argued that there is much to learn from how the best of the counter-culture mobilised itself to challenge moral and political orthodoxies. The 60s saw the rise of the peace, environmental and civil rights movements, and fought to overturn long-standing prejudices regarding gender, race and sexuality. Even nebulous speculations about the development of a ‘higher’ consciousness had intriguing parallels with the labour movement’s traditional concern to cultivate ‘raised’ consciousness amongst workers. At its best, Gilbert argued, the counter-culture explored ‘forms of culture that are collectivist without being conformist, liberating without simply breaking social ties.’
Other TWT events exploring similar territory exhibited – contra Rutherford – an acute awareness that progressive political change will have to be fought for.
Participants at the Corbynism from Below session, for example, insisted that the capacity of an incoming Corbyn government to implement a programme of far-reaching reform would depend on the prior cultivation of a groundswell of grassroots support for a radical agenda. The traditional social democratic formula of top-down, statist engineering will not be enough.
One of the speakers, the veteran community campaigner and Red Pepper editor Hilary Wainwright, argued for ‘power-as-transformative-capacity’ over ‘power-as-domination’: people should be helped to see themselves as political actors with agency, not as passive subjects waiting for a paternalist Labour administration to help them. That process of grassroots radicalisation could only be achieved if the party is willing to engage with people through a freewheeling programme of community activism, which might include the establishment of links with community groups, political discussion evenings, cinema clubs, social enterprises and engagement through social media channels. The cultivation of support ‘on the ground’ for a radical Labour programme will be necessary to shore up a Labour administration against powerful forces that will seek to undermine it. She argued:
Such counter power needs to have a productive capacity, at a minimum to produce the means of sustaining everyday life, that is autonomous from the dominant political and economic order. It needs a disruptive capacity to deprive big business of its power to sabotage elected governments. And it requires an element of broad and transnational mobilisation to expose and combat the illegitimacy of any hostile intervention against an elected government.
With its focus on forging and supporting strong solidarities much of what was said at TWT overlaps with Blue Labour communitarianism. There are also crossovers in regard to scepticism about the EU – only one TWT event took Brexit as its focus – though TWT’s euro-ambivalence has different grounds from that of Blue Labour. The differences with Blue Labour consist not regarding recognition of the importance of community, but in how it is understood.
The Corbyn left, like the New Left before it, is seeking to develop a liberal understanding of community, of ‘potent collectivities’ that do not depend for their mobilisation upon the invocation of traditional understandings of nation, faith, ethnicity and family.
They are firm internationalists: TWT’s critique of the EU focuses upon its economic orthodoxies rather than freedom of movement (though my impression is that, for all their reservations, a solid majority are Remainers). They are humanists, or of a liberal religious persuasion: little mention was made of the role that faith communities might play in developing social solidarities – a key point for Blue Labour. And they are socially liberal: some sessions discussed alternative frameworks for the socialisation of childcare, drawing on the history of radical socialist thought going back – at least – to Alexandra Kollontai and the Soviet avant-garde.
For TWT the enemy isn’t liberalism but neoliberalism, an ideology seen as, with its insistence that effective human organisation can only be ordered through the enforcement of market relations, always and everywhere corrosive of the possibility of collective purpose. It might be said that TWT seeks a ‘progressive communitarianism’, understanding community as aspiration, something that has to be consciously created and forged ever anew, rather than an existing state that has to be defended.
TWT is also disarmingly unsentimental about the Labour Party. Though there is interest in the party’s traditions and history, it tends to be viewed in instrumental terms: as the best institution that happens to be available for pursuing transformative political change. There is profound scepticism about regarding the party’s high-minded view of parliamentary representation. Though often cast as ‘Bennites’ Corbyn’s left is closer to Ralph Miliband’s bracing criticism of ‘parliamentary socialism’ than to Benn’s faith in the capacity of the House of Commons as a vehicle for progressive reform.
Closing in on the mainstream
The intellectual confidence and swagger manifested at this year’s TWT, as bright as the September sunshine, owes everything to the party’s unexpectedly strong showing during June’s General Election. Last year the festival took place in the wake of a bruising Labour leadership election and under the dark clouds of Brexit and Corbyn’s dire poll ratings. This year it was energised by the confident belief that Labour’s strong election showing had vindicated the left’s faith that the party’s route to power lies through the mobilisation of those who don’t typically vote rather than tacking to the centre to appeal to those who do.
TWT 2017 was closer to the party’s mainstream both figuratively and literally: this year most TWT events took place in venues on the conference centre’s doorstep. And it clearly had the leadership’s ear. Both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell made appearances at several TWT events, and Corbyn loyalists such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornberry, Angela Rayner and rising star Laura Pidcock were joined at others by erstwhile sceptics including Lisa Nandy and Jon Ashworth.
Some TWT themes are showing up in Labour policy. The Alternative Models of Ownership report commissioned by McDonnell and published earlier this summer set out a radical blueprint for the promotion of cooperative modes of economic organisation wholly consistent with the festival’s emphasis on workplace democracy. And Corbyn’s leadership speech even included – as they have been swift to note – a striking passage that could have been uttered by any of TWT’s post-capitalists:
We need urgently to face the challenge of automation – robotics that could make so much of contemporary work redundant. That is a threat in the hands of the greedy, but it’s a huge opportunity if it’s managed in the interests of society as a whole … But if they’re publicly managed – to share the benefits – they can be the gateway for a new settlement between work and leisure. A springboard for expanded creativity and culture.
For all that, the movement has much work to do to extend its influence. Labour’s manifesto and Corbyn’s speech set out a bold but thoroughly statist social democratic prospectus prioritising top-down solutions for rewiring the economy and public services, a Corbynism very much from above rather than below. And though its power is growing within the party’s national and local power structures the movement is a long way from convincing great swathes of the party to balance a traditional focus on winning electoral represenation with more grassroots activism.
The movement is acutely aware of the extent of the challenge. Much time was spent at TWT pondering the necessity of developing an organisational and intellectual infrastructure able to further clarify and promote its agenda. A reflection on the festival by the writer Richard Seymour argues for a ‘radical intellectuality’, a ‘fizzing demand for ideas at the base, for political argument conducted at a far higher level than the political class of this country is used to.’
Though the movement has a strong online presence supported by a cluster of influential blogs with intellectual substance, such as Novara Media, New Socialist, Red Pepper and Jacobin (a US publication with close ties to Corbyn’s supporters), and has the backing of influential radical publishing houses including Verso, Pluto Press, Zed and Repeater, there is a pressing need to develop a more robust structure of support within think-tanks and academia. There are signs that Compass, the New Economics Foundation and the newly established Autonomy Institute may emerge as valuable channels for ideas generation (and even, to some extent, the traditionally centre-left IPPR whose recent reports resonate with much of the Corbyn left’s analysis).
There’s much to be done, for sure. Time will tell whether TWT 2017 will be viewed as a signpost to the programme of a future Corbyn government or as a high watermark for a radical optimism that was never fulfilled. Whatever: there was energy and excitement here, and it was fascinating to watch it happen.