They rejected politics as usual.

Photographer: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

The Fresh Appeal of Old-Fashioned Political Activism

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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The landslide election of the left-wing politician Jeremy Corbyn as leader of Britain’s Labour Party last weekend provoked an avalanche of bien pensant opinion. A simple glance at the headlines in Britain’s right-wing press confirms this: “Red and Buried” (Daily Mail); “Bye, Bye Labour” (Daily Express); “Leader Nightmare” (Sun); “Death of Labour” (Telegraph). David Cameron saw it fit to tweet that Corbyn’s election makes the Labour party “a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.”

Such hysterical responses to a supposedly unelectable and hopeless politician are interesting in themselves. They should make us ask deeper questions about the political climate in which an apparent throwback to the 1960s like Corbyn--or the 74-year-old Bernie Sanders in the United States--becomes freshly relevant in the political mainstream.

It has certainly been astonishing to watch the spontaneous mass movement--led by the young--that enthroned an old-style leftist like Corbyn. The most obvious explanation of course is that people are fed up with a professional political class that is too frequently found in bed with big businessmen and financiers.

In this conventional account of rising outsiders and populists, the new media has cleansed public debate of special interests, allowing a figure like Donald Trump to speak above the head of powerful television networks that break or make politicians. 

But such a broad explanation not only obscures the diversity of political sentiment among the young and the old, rich and poor, declining middle class and aspiring lower middle-class. It leaves out the genuine appeal of old-fashioned political activism, and a suspicion of both old and new media among a very young generation in Britain and America, whose members confront a more uncertain economic future than any youthful generation in recent history. They have witnessed, from a sentient age, slick experts and technocrats who made mass participation in democratic politics seem unnecessary. They have grown up with digital media, and its seductive promise of empowering citizens by amplifying their experiences and messages.

Indeed, the victory in 2008 of a rank outsider like Barack Obama showed that the new media could be used effectively to mobilize grassroots supporters and overcome entrenched elites.

It still can, but its limitations have also become clearer to the young. Anyone can now join the chattering class with a Twitter and Facebook account. But this only adds to the general cacophony--a tumult in which the goal of identifying the public good by reasoned debate is replaced by a secondary imperative: to make your voice heard.

At worse, the loudest and more extreme voices hold away. At best, every fact and opinion is smothered in over-interpretation, from all possible positions, by conspiracy-theorists and self-promoters as well as supposed experts.

The ‘old’ media then often re-stages these free-for-all debates. Instead of consolidating, and gathering behind a political party or movement, public opinion splinters. The public good recedes further from sight while ignorant armies clash in the night. The citizen ends up as a consumer of democracy as spectacle, confusing his own ephemeral passions on every possible topic--and the energy spent in commenting, forwarding and rating opinion--with political participation.

The result is intellectual and civic impotence, whose benefits are mostly reaped by those who make money off aggregating opinion.

Such is the impasse brought about by a liberalized media and its raucous bazaar of opinion. Not surprisingly, digitally savvy young people are looking for a path beyond it. They have experienced not only the remote selfishness of technocratic elites but also the bogus intensity of a simulated democracy.

Many of them now invest their faith in unreconstructed old lefties like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn, two unconventional politicians who manifest in their public persona the rare virtues of authenticity and sincerity rather than managerial slickness or poll-tested platitudes.

To ask, as many pundits do, whether Corbyn is electable five years from now is to ignore the historic task he and his youthful supporters have already accomplished: the swift junking, after a humiliating defeat, of a failed mode of electoral politics, and a broad shift to participatory democracy within Britain’s biggest opposition party.

In the vacuum created by the technocracy and media, an old-fashioned kind of politics has appeared, one that promises true political engagement and solidarity to citizens rather than private self-aggrandizement or the pursuit of power at all costs.

The abrupt resurrection of the old-style left is a reminder that big social-economic and political divisions and discontents exist over and beyond their fragmented and distorted representations by professional politicians and their spin masters in the media.

This rude uncovering of a veiled reality is what drives the reigning technocrats and their chums in the right-wing press to hysteria. The inexperienced Corbyn may not survive their hostility. But he has inaugurated what may seem in a few years a momentous transition to a reality-based political community.

(Corrects spelling of Corbyn in first paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net