8 May 2019

Did the Young Create a New Socialism?

A Review of Liam Young's book "Rise" (2018)

In the political establishment and its media, there is a "baffled air of ignorance surrounding the political engagement and opinions of young people", wrote influential pro-Corbyn Labour Party activist Liam Young in a book last year titled Rise: How Jeremy Corbyn Inspired the Young to Create a New Socialism.

In the 2018 book, the author argues young people have been compelled to get involved in politics because of Conservative-led austerity measures. For such young political campaigners, the motive is personal experience, with each campaigner having their own interest in overcoming student debt, zero-hours contracts and other impacts of government policy on them.

It is tempting to believe the author of Rise, who writes that the vast majority of the young really support Corbyn unflinchingly, even if the statistics in the book seem quite limited. Unfortunately, political apathy (at least when it comes to actually rolling up our sleeves and doing anything) is still prevalent among young people. There is the possibility that many young activists represent little more than a fleeting bubble of students and social media users, whose interest in the Labour Party is chiefly experimental and will pass as quickly as it began.

On the relentless criticism of the Opposition Leader in the media, Young channels the young of the Labour Party when he writes "we were being sold lies by well-known liars". It is indeed a puzzle that the press, supposedly with their finger on the public pulse, are not able to notice their own threadbare credibility and won't try to repair it, even in our times so dominated by the scorns of social media. They seem to know nothing about how normal people think, or what it might take to convince us to agree with them. Lone individual politicians like Corbyn seem to actually have more influence on us than the entire media establishment yapping at his feet, perhaps ever since they shed the last drop of their credibility to support Tony Blair's Iraq War.

One might find a paradox in the author labelling UK mainstream media simultaneously "right-wing" (p. 28) and a "liberal commentariat" (p. 48). However, this choice can be justified if one redefines the reactionary simply as a Macron, the dull yes-man of the reigning liberal state ideology and the hammer of the populists. Whatever worm is picked by the establishment, whether Conservative or Labour, "right" or "left", to oppose the people. Perhaps such a definition helps us also understand why so many apparent supporters of human rights turn out to be NATO tankies and airstrike-supporters willing to brainlessly hurl themselves at the official enemy.

Much-needed points are made in the book regarding the relationship between young political activists and Brexit. The author stated at the time, "There should be no worry within the Labour Party concerning a conflict between its position on Brexit and its support for the young", although flip-flopping on a possible second referendum has occurred anyway since the author wrote those words. The television might want you to think otherwise, but the young were actually much more engaged in support of Corbyn in the 2017 snap general election than they were in the Brexit vote, at least Young's book argues.

Going back a few years, the author notes how young people were betrayed by Nick Clegg after he had successfully mobilised them with his promise to write off student debt. This destroyed his political career, Young claims. It cemented views among the young that politicians are all the same. Corbyn differs from this, and the difference he presents helped rekindle the interest of the young. The pragmatic approach of Miliband is gone, replaced by Corbyn's honest and consistent track record as a dissident.

More than the appeal of his underdog status, Young says Jeremy Corbyn's appeal to 18-24-year-olds rests in his desire to listen. He is receptive and caring, and will ensure the young can decide the policies affecting them rather than accepting the decrees of the "tired establishment". From Corbyn there is no condescension, preaching, or authority. In response one might argue that while such ways are indeed favoured by young people at present, they do not necessarily indicate capable political leadership. Unwillingness so assert authority in the face of numerous challenges and insults far beyond the norm could be considered a weakness, and it is possible that the onslaught of hostility against Corbyn from top individuals within the party is more than most leaders would ever tolerate. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly gentle approach Corbyn takes clearly strengthens his appeal at least with the younger demographic, and through them he has a strong element ever rushing to his support within the party.

The participation of under-24s in the 2017 election was explained poorly by both the Conservatives and many within Labour, and the author of Rise does not forgive them for it. Explanations included the allegation Corbyn bribed students by offering to abolish their tuition fees and cancel debts, and the claim Corbyn only appealed to the liberal young intelligentsia. Such ideas are refuted by some solid statistics presented by the author. Of particular interest is the finding by Young that genuinely working-class young voters, not necessarily from liberal and student circles at all, are undeniably drawn to Corbyn. His appeal to this demographic has been authentic, or so say the book's figures. Contrastingly, Young describes how the interests of younger generations are only weakly and hastily addressed by the Conservatives and excluded from their policies.

The "tired establishment" Young describes in both the government and the opposition parties resent the youth of the country and the social media they so favour. Young believes we can see this in their attempts to forbid such influences in practice and downplay their significance in their rhetoric. Discussing Momentum, Young asserts the group's social media power intimidated the Conservative Party and prompted ill-advised copycats who have yet to demonstrate any similar reach. It is possible however that tech companies, aligned with the same liberal commentariat rejected by Young, will thwart groups like Momentum in an effort to stall the passions of "populism" in favour of fading authorities. Companies like Facebook have been pushed and shoved to become boring censors on behalf of the state and mainstream media to fulfil a highly reactionary role, muffling dissenting views and shadow-banning many. They are onboard with the same MPs and journalists whose own freedom of speech and immunity from prosecution are abused to demand censorship against other people, bemoaning the smallest squeaks of ordinary citizens at the mercy of their power.

One weakness of the book might lie in its unscientific assertions the Conservative Party's views are "dying out along with their voters". This reference to the old comes across as a poor choice. Where is the study showing a staggeringly greater proportion of 18-24 year olds hold radical or anti-mainstream views now than in any other historical period? It may be that the problem for Labour isn't a specific generation of older people who are still alive to vote, as Young seems to argue. Instead, the age issue may indicate many people turn to the political right after becoming homeowners, parents, high-rate taxpayers, pensioners or some other category the Conservatives invest quite a bit in getting votes from. There has probably always been a correlation between university education, radicalism and youth. There is also possibly a correlation between youth, unemployment and anti-Conservative views, although it is not the task of this book review to provide such a study.

The observations in Liam Young's book do not indicate some hypothetical future where people remain youthfully radical despite aging. It is hard to deny we will inevitably change, as political views do change with age. Saying old people who vote Tory will be "dying out" to be replaced with young Labour voters not only defies the simple fact people age but ignores statistics showing the population is aging. Many people of a highly conservative mindset were potentially quite radical in their youth. The Labour Party may have lost the support of such people to the Conservatives over many years, making it a valueless observation or even a weakness for Labour to be enjoying disproportionate loyalty from the young rather than the old.

Saying old people are a "dying breed" is unhelpful. We must assume we will all age and die. Just because elderly people may pass away sooner does not mean their interests and sensibilities can be dismissed in politics. The case for old people is just as strong and convincing as the case for the young. In fact, any claim of old people dying off entirely as a demographic and being unable to decisively influence future elections is an offensive absurdity, unless the author is professing to have invented some plague.

While one can sound wise by repeating the conventional wisdom that young people are the future and the old need to step aside, one can also sound wise by pointing out that the money to fund our future comes from the old. Old people would be right to feel irritated by young people trying to prematurely declare them dead and boldly assert how all the revenues collected from them may be better spent. We must remember that our country itself was inherited from older generations, including people who are literally dead, and this does not diminish it or our obligations to honour them in any way.

As painful as it is to admit it, there is a risk Labour's youth surge is not as decisive as it seems and could backfire. If we are trading in our support of older people in favour of the young, replacing seasoned supporters with a temporary wave of support from curious teens and early 20s, the surge will be transitory and ultimately fade away. If we fight out a battle between age groups, rather than focusing on common ground and compassion between as many varieties of people as possible, it will be pointlessly destructive.

Despite the subtitle of the book, "How Jeremy Corbyn Inspired the Young to Create a New Socialism", Young does not try to explain what "new socialism" is, beyond "opposition to neoliberalism" and "what the people want". Isn't it supposed to be a completed new ideology or doctrine? Since the first World Social Forum in 2001, the global left has tried and struggled to adopt a consensus-based post-Cold War socialist economic model as a strong and compelling alternative to the neoliberal capitalist monolith. Intellectual effort continues to be expended, but a contender has yet to arise from all of this conversation in utopistics. The Labour Party itself has settled more for a soft capitalist economics best described as the entrepreneurial state, with a focus on reinvigorated state-funded science, renationalisation and rejection of private sector "myths" and propaganda. This is hardly a "new socialism". Hope as we may, we are not yet in a position to pronounce the full return of socialism's name to the ideological and economic prominence it was given by so many during the previous century. It may simply never happen, although this admission should be taken as no praise for the political right.

In Rise, we are told the young were "innovating solutions to the problems we face" (p. 232). Like what? The book has argued convincingly that Labour is the best choice for young people, but it has not done anything to show young people came up with any actual political solutions, let alone a new socialism.

Young's case for reducing the voting age to 16 is sound, but it can be safely assumed that many parents will tell these young adults how to vote and are the main influence on younger voters already. This may seem bad so some, while others may argue that the amplifying effect it would have on the voices of poor families can only be a good thing for a state that has done too little for them.

The conclusion of Young's book is still convincing. Opposition to the supposed political consensus and the mainstream media are common to young people. They do want radically competing visions and parties when going to the ballot box rather than dull, risk-free compromises. Support of anti-establishment left movements by young activists has had a global impact, not because young people are somehow becoming a bigger sector of the population or more confident but because their social media skill has allowed them to punch far above their weight. There are parallels between Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, with both of their campaigns alive with power and enthusiasm largely because of the internet.

It is worth finishing by pointing out a "new socialism" as some formal ideology is hardly even necessary in the long term. What we have now is unsustainable. Neoliberalism is a failure. This version of capitalism has unfortunately been a fountain of crisis, poverty and the tired Thatcherite refrain since the 1980s that we have no alternative. That is the only reason anyone needs to hear Corbyn out.

Harry Bentham

Exclusively for The clubof.info Blog

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