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Consensus? Jeremy Corbyn in the liberal Cathedral

Corbyn offended the liberal Cathedral, and his socialist ideas need a fair hearing.

Walking up the driveway on my first day of secondary school, I felt an added sense of trepidation on account of the dandyish slip-on shoes I was wearing. As I entered the school buildings I ran the gauntlet of a rowdy phalanx of students, giddy with first-day nerves. They smelt fear.

A piercing cry rang out: “check out the shoes on your man”. A chorus of guffaws followed leaving me red-faced and mute. On returning home that afternoon I dolefully slipped off the offending shoes for the last time, recovering an old, innocuous, pair that would do service for another year. The following day no one noticed my change in footwear as I blended with the crowd, no doubt dispensing my own barbs still suffered silently decades on by others.

I suggest another damaging conformity emanates from a superficially progressive elite that holds back radical change in the UK and Ireland, mostly by controlling media pronouncements, that can ultimately be traced to the educational system.

The ‘alt-right’ which now whispers into us President Trump’s ear comprises a collection of misfits who hark back to a halcyon 1950s landscape of milk bars, jukeboxes, white picket fences and horn-rimmed glasses. The Fourth Turning they imagine is a fiction that invents an enemy in extreme Islamism that appeals to a similar myopic nostalgia among their equally deluded adherents.

Nonetheless, I am drawn to a term coined by an otherwise abhorrent ‘alt-right’ ideologue Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug – ‘the Cathedral’. According to Paul Eliot’s superb account that appeared in May’s issue of Village: “The Cathedral describes a media-academic-cultural consensus with conditions for belonging: members must ascribe to the progressivist religion and must accept dogmas from feminism, multiculturalism and trans-rights activism”.

The ‘alt-right’ are correct nonetheless that what used to be called political correctness excludes certain positions from expression in the liberal fraternity. Witness the former leader of the LibDems, Tim Farron, being hounded from office for his Christian beliefs, and in Ireland the treatment of John Waters by his former colleagues in the Irish Times, or the the ‘group-think’ that impelled RTÉ ‘Prime Time’ journalists to jump to conclusions about a missionary priest.

I agree with the Cathedral on social issues, although I find the shutting down of debate distinctly undemocratic. My difficulty with this broad liberal consensus is that its dogmas extend well beyond issues of personal conscience such as gay or reproductive rights. I suggest the Cathedral now occupies a position on the centre-right that stymies meaningful distribution of wealth, and environmental shifts. In so doing it has ceded space that allows an atavistic right to thrive.

The Cathedral’s candidate in the last US Presidential election was Hillary Clinton, whose victory in the Democratic primaries was stage-managed by party elites, against the surging appeal of Bernie Sanders, the first major candidate in decades to declare himself a socialist. The Cathedral is backed by large corporations in the US who devoted billions to Clinton’s electoral campaign. A sufficient number of a traditional white working class recognised this, and fell prey to Trump’s scoundrel patriotism.

The global income gap between the very richest and the poor has never been greater, and the social conscience which the Cathedral exhibits is rather like George Orwell’s description of the millionaire, who “suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton”. Stark inequalities in the UK have been laid bare by the penny-pinching that appears to have led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

The members of this amorphous Cathedral are not all millionaires. But they are drawn from fields such as law, medicine, education and media, and have reached, or feel themselves capable of reaching, a comfortable level of wealth. They have vested interests in maintaining the status quo, including the price of property.

In the UK, Blair and Cameron apparently brought their parties into the centre ground, but actually affirmed Thatcher’s social revolution. Both New Labour and ‘compassionate’ Conservatism fell in line with the broad thrust of the UK’s distinctive Cathedral. In the process, each party “detoxified” its brand: from union-jack-under-panted jingoism and unabashed capitalism in the case of the Conservatives; and from old-fashioned trade unionism and socialism in the case of Labour. But through the Blair-Brown years, and less surprisingly under ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism, inequality (magnified by rising property prices) actually increased.

The fingerprints of the UK ’s Cathedral was glaringly evident in the UK (and Irish) media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, an unashamed socialist, anti-imperialist and vegetarian in the months after he won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. A Media@LSE report, ‘representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press’ reviewed what was the very opposite of a honeymoon period. Bias emanating from the Murdoch and other right-wing press including The Sun, The Mail, The Express, The Telegraph, and The Times were predictable, but the approach of apparently centre-left publications is more surprising. The authors state at the outset:

“The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper-reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition”.

This would appear to vindicate Ralph Miliband’s view that “the press may well claim to be independent and to fulfill an important watchdog function. What the claim overlooks, however, is the very large fact that it is the left at which the watchdogs generally bark with most ferocity, and what they are above all protecting is the status quo”.

It is remarkable too that in the three apparently left or centrist newspapers, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror, a clear majority of articles were either critical or antagonistic towards him. Perhaps more concerning is the extent to which Corbyn’s own voice was absent: only 40% of articles in the Guardian and The Independent actually quote him. The authors reckon that up to one in five supposedly neutral news reports in The Guardian (as opposed to opinion articles) actually displayed bias against him.

The LSE authors conclude that superficially left-leaning and liberal newspapers provided an “extensive and enthusiastic platform to those forces in the Labour Party that aggressively contested Corbyn and what he stands for”.

It should be borne in mind that censure in the apparently left-of-centre media was occurring at a time when the so-called ‘bearded socialist’ was being subject to an unprecedented level of attack by the right-wing press. The authors found that several commentaries moralised about Corbyn’s personal and romantic life. The ‘broadsheet’ Daily Telegraph heaped scorn on his former relationship with Diane Abbott folding a political critique in with a questioning of what attracted the pair to one another: “lovers of what? Bolshevism? A warm vest to keep out the chill winds of the political wilderness?”.

On the eve of the election a Guardian editorial on Friday 2 June reluctantly put its support behind Labour, but continued to question Corbyn’s fitness for office: “Many see him as a fluke, a fringe candidate who stole the Labour leadership while the rest of his party was asleep. In parliament, he failed to reach beyond his faction. He is not fluent on the issues raised by a modern, sophisticated digital economy”. He is thus portrayed as illegitimate, stealing the Labour leadership from a candidate who would presumably have adopted a more centrist position that preserved the status quo.

He is dismissed as a ‘has been’ who doesn’t understand a sophisticated digital economy, including a neoliberal arrangement in which transnational corporations successfully avoid taxation. Most damningly: “his record of protest explains why some struggle to see him as prime minister”; the Guardian appeared to be more comfortable with a Blairite willing perhaps to support a Neoconservative administration in the US. Of course, since the election and Corbyn’s flowering as a cult figure, – “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” – much of the media has run for cover and transmuted its disdain.

Fortunately, the public was given an opportunity to form its own opinion in the general election itself, when broadcasting rules allowed the Labour leader to connect directly with the electorate. Policies appealing to the idealism of the young set off a social-media storm that almost overcame a massive Tory advantage at the start of the campaign, and which actually displayed a very keen appreciation among his ranks of the power of the new digital media.

To some extent the public service broadcaster was the saviour of democracy in the UK, but the BBC was not immune to the characterisation of Corbyn as a Prime Minister who would give succour to the enemies of the United Kingdom. During the election campaign David Dimbleby publicly asserted that the press had treated Corbyn unfairly, but his intervention during the leaders’ Question Time would have pleased Conservative head office. Soon after coming to power Theresa May said that she would use nuclear weapons as a first strike, which presumably was designed to contrast her steely determination with the protest movement led by Corbyn. #

After repeated questions from the floor on whether Corbyn would be prepared to use a nuclear weapon, Dimbleby as mediator twice pressed Corbyn on the issue. For the BBC’s most eminent journalist to place such emphasis on this issue is troubling. Dimbleby seems to have felt his professional duties required him to denigrate a potential Prime Minister who was not prepared to incinerate millions of people at the touch of a button.

I am inclined to believe that the effort was a reflexive rather than a conscious effort to undermine Corbyn’s credibility on this representative issue. Nuclear war has not been a concern in Britain since the 1980s, and the Labour manifesto actually commits it to maintaining Trident, contrary to Corbyn’s own personal views. Theresa May was not questioned on this issue, for example about whether she could reconcile nuclear annihilation with her apparent Christianity.

It allowed the Cathedral to portray Corbyn as unsafe, and foolhardy, as it became clear that the population was increasingly attracted to his economic policies. The ‘steel’ required to unleash nuclear weapons, was also a major concern for another veteran reporter Andrew Marr when he interviewed Corbyn before the election. But, in an intriguing interview from 1996 that is available on YouTube Noam Chomsky pre-emptively lays bare Marr’s bias. The MIT Professor quoted the passage from George Orwell’s essay ‘literary Censorship in England’ to him: “unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force”. He also referred to how the educational system makes you understand there are certain things you simply don’t say, just as you know that deviations from fashionable norms will be greeted with derision.

Chomsky outlines to Marr how there is “a filtering system” that starts in kindergarten which “selects for obedience and subordination”; removing the ones “who are mad to live”, as Jack Kerouac put it in ‘On the Road’. Thus, the troubled, and often artistic, student finds little encouragement from dominant educational models; and viewpoints that deviate from established norms are held in check.

Chomsky referred to journalists he knew who regarded the media as a sham and played it like a violin: “If they see a little opening they will try and squeeze something in”. Marr protests – “how can you know I am self-censoring?”, to which Chomsky laconically replies: “I am sure you believe everything you are saying”.

In the wake of the seismic shift in popular opinion over the course of the UK General election it has been interesting to read the apologies these troubling times demand that the intelligentsia, who often wear odd-looking clothes, re-engage with politics and proudly assert the radical position over that of the Cathedral from leading radical journalists who abandoned Corbyn, writing him off as ‘unelectable’. A previously ardent supporter Owen Jones wrote after the election:

“I thought people had made their minds up about Corbyn, however unfairly, and their opinion just wouldn’t shift. I wasn’t a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong. Having one foot in the Labour movement and one in the mainstream media undoubtedly left me more susceptible to their groupthink”.

Another who deviated from his early enthusiasm was George Monbiot, who wrote an article entitled: “The election’s biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media who missed the biggest story”. He acknowledged: “the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions”. So:

“The broadcasters echo what the papers say, the papers pick up what the broadcasters say. A narrow group of favoured pundits appear on the news programmes again and again. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion”.

It is interesting that our own Fintan O’Toole recently scooped a George Orwell press award for his coverage of English nationalism during Brexit. The Cathedral, in its favour, is hostile to racism; although a bullish secularism often leads to Islamophobia. Most, however, despair at Theresa May’s lapses which shows how the Cathedral is fracturing in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Some weeks before the election, O’Toole wrote an article entitled: ‘Corbyn’s nostalgia less of a fantasy than May’s’; note how Corbyn was being portrayed – by the subeditor – as a nostalgic fantasist just as the Cathedral would wish. O’Toole underpinned the headline: “Corbyn’s Labour has been characterised by the overwhelmingly Tory press as a throwback to the early 1970s and there is some truth in the accusation”. But what is this throwback to: less inequality? Job security? Public ownership of vital infrastructure? These all appear to be objectives to which O’Toole subscribes in Ireland, and he goes on to commend Labour’s manifesto while still insisting that Corbyn is “nostalgic”.

O’Toole concludes: “Corbyn is a highly problematic leader, not least in his inability to think about how to create a majority in England for this radical social democratic vision”. The problem with Corbyn appeared perhaps to be his effectiveness in putting his point of view across; the old ‘unelectable’ jibe in other words, the has-been beardy-socialist of the wolf-whistling right’s portrayal. Or perhaps Corbyn is simply unfashionably not a social democrat, as O’Toole is, but something more radical.

The other slur levelled against Corbyn by the Cathedral is to blame him for Brexit because he didn’t campaign with sufficient vigour; this despite the fact the British media hardly report what he says, considering him in effect ‘toxic’. Corbyn was being asked to give his idealist’s support for an institution with many flaws for a socialist, an institution which failed to implement the promised ‘social’ Europe, and which was imposing a cruel Austerity over Greece, and Ireland. He supported remain but refused to pretend that everything was rosy about it, giving it a grade of 7/10.

In the UK, the Cathedral comprises almost all graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Whenever I watch programmes devoted to politics on the BBC I try to do an Internet search on the participants. Invariably the politician, journalist, writer or economist is a product of these limiting places. In such circles attendance at a ‘redbrick university’ is a euphemism for intellectual inferiority. Corbyn bungled his A levels and did not attend any university. He’s an outsider with ‘cranky’ socialist and anti-imperialist views that the Cathedral doesn’t tolerate.

The furore over Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the us from the Paris Climate Change deal is instructive. That deal was supposed to have ‘taken care’ of the problem, allowing us to return to giddy consumption. But the uncomfortable reality of the accord is expressed by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh: “the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching one another”. The agreement hardly addresses poverty or inequality and the principle of human superiority over nonhuman remains intact. Both drive Climate Change, along with the idea of economic growth-without-end.

The Irish Cathedral has similar constituents and outlooks, and influence across the false centre of the political spectrum. We don’t have elite universities so the social and professional networks tend to emerge in private schools. It is most obvious in the Irish Times, and to a lesser extent RTÉ.

In Ireland the Cathedral prefers to wage culture wars over issues such as gay marriage, and to an extent the right to abortion, that become overriding concerns which distract from structural and environmental questions. Both Enda Kenny and Bertie Ahern before him proved highly adept at managing the Cathedral’s concerns. The Irish Times now keeps Fintan O’Toole as a mascot for a social conscience. In Ireland, it is only when a serious crisis is apparent – such as homelessness – that the Cathedral agrees to drop a morsel. Otherwise its focus is easy lifestyle issues not issues of structural inequalities.

One wonders how long the broad consensus will last among the main Irish political parties which play pass-the-parcel with political power. At least Leo Varadkar’s Neoliberalism offers a degree of ideological clarity. Genuine radicalism may emerge within parties such as Labour and the Greens. In this respect, the lesson of Corbyn’s success is clear: radicals should remain embedded in party organisations and work via constitutional means, relying on the clued-in and digital-savvy youth to bring about a political revolution.

The Cathedral despairs at the extremism that is evident in the disruptive era of the Internet, but the disenchantment reflects grotesque inequalities, particularly in the Anglosphere of which Ireland remains a part. Jeremy Corbyn seriously challenged these; he was hammered as a result, but ultimately found a way to get through to the electorate. The left might take issue with details of his policies but surely not the thrust, which seeks to give a decent standard of living to all, and to curb the excesses of the super-rich. He also chimes with an environmental movement seeking to curb consumerism.

Orwell wrote: “in countries where there is already a strong liberal tradition, bureaucratic tyranny can perhaps never be complete. The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy”. The disruptive power of the Internet is generating new politics that the Cathedral cannot control, and the intelligentsia have an opportunity to challenge “the striped-trousered ones”.

The Cathedral’s superficial centre cannot hold. Let us hope more beasts such as Trump do not slope towards Bethlehem to be born. These troubling times demand that the intelligentsia, who often wear odd-looking clothes, re-engage with politics and proudly assert the radical position.

Frank Armstrong