Photo source credit Chatham House, London
There’s no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has confounded his critics. When he initially ran for the Labour Party leadership, some of his “support” came from “Tories for Corbyn” who were revelling in the chance to cripple the opposition, perhaps permanently. After a failed leadership challenge, over 12 million votes in a General Election, a Glastonbury slot, and a triumphant Party Conference later, things look slightly different.
How to build a cult
It’s fair to say that the Labour leader is popular. This is partially due to the shambles of a government he opposes and the fact that Labour’s 2017 manifesto and headline policies are carefully crafted for mass appeal (and diverge significantly from Corbyn’s own more radical beliefs). Nevertheless, he is also popular as a person and it is this aspect of his popularity that has become ever more disturbing.
Corbynmania has been present among his core supporters since he secured the Labour leadership in 2015. This is hardly surprising. Compared to his robotic opponents, both in that contest and in 2017’s General Election, Corbyn came across as passionate, sincere, and engaged (although his shadow side emerged during the 2016 EU Referendum). Years of principled languishing on Labour’s backbenches, alongside his modest lifestyle and shambolic aesthetic, has struck a contrast with the seemingly careerist politicians who have dominated the major parties in recent years.
If Corbyn’s popularity is explainable, though, the form it has taken is unfortunate. There is a Corbyn comic book, where he is portrayed as a super hero. Labour’s official online shop has a page devoted to him. As noted, he appeared on the main stage at Glastonbury to address a rapturous crowd. And, of course, there is the obnoxious chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” that is automatically triggered when a sufficient number of devotees gather in one place. Corbyn has reached rock star status, with features of a genuine cult of personality being increasingly apparent.
Interestingly, elements of Labour’s left-wing grassroots are starting to express concerns about this detracting and distracting from Labour’s message. Corbyn himself purports to be, at best, “deeply embarrassed” by the adulation he receives. Ironically, whether or not his modesty is genuine or affected, it is precisely such displays and the insistence on focusing on the political over the personal that has been, and will likely continue to be, behind the fervour of the faithful.
What’s wrong with popularity?
It may not be obvious why this is a problem. Surely there’s nothing wrong with a politician being popular and connecting with a mass audience? Why is this different from other politicians, ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to Winston Churchill to Barrack Obama, who have benefitted from charisma and personal popularity?
Simply put, Corbynmania has gone far beyond what any of the aforementioned enjoyed, particularly before they were elected. It is also partly driven by, and fuels, wider dangerous trends and tendencies on the former fringe of the left and Corbyn’s new younger fans.
It is true that the political right in the US and UK have elevated Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to a revered status. Nevertheless, the idea of a crowd of thousands descending into waving “Oh Margaret Thatcher” banners, let alone “Oh Theresa May”, rightly sounds absurd. Likewise, the sanctification of Reagan has mostly happened after his Presidency and, particularly, after his death. In any case, this has typically focused on (a perhaps idealised or even distorted version of) his record as opposed to his pure virtues as a person. Reverence of Thatcher, likewise, focuses on her purported policy successes.
Corbynmania differs in the sense that it almost does not matter what Corbyn is saying, beyond it being recognisably left-wing and seemingly sincere. It is Corbyn’s conduct, manner, appearance, and vaguely interpreted intentions that have made the difference between popularity and worship. Admittedly, some of the behaviour among grassroots Tories towards Jacob Rees Mogg leans towards something similar, but this is essentially surreal and is unlikely to ever extend beyond a few weird Facebook groups and the sort of people who probably sacrifice goats in the woods anyway.
The other distinguishing feature of Corbynmania provides something of an explanation for why it has been so “infectious” and why it is dangerous. The mania associated with Corbynism only makes sense in the context of a collectivist ideology based on absolutist moral certainty. It is not merely a set of policies, but a mode of identity, as is apparent in the effective, but inherently sinister, slogan, “For the Many, Not the Few”.
All for Corbyn, and Corbyn for all
Collectivism in both its right and left-wing manifestations boils down to the sublimation of the self to the group. The interests of a class or a nation are never, in fact, homogenous or as unified as the collectivist ideology requires them to be. Given that a calculated utilitarian cost-benefit analysis would run counter to the primordial instincts and romanticism of a collective movement, a shared identity and a central direction are necessary. This can, of course, be top-down and hierarchical, as under fascism and state socialism. It can, though, be bottom-up, with an individual being chosen by the masses as the avatar of the cause.
The fact that such a process can be democratic does not make it benign. Idealisation of anyone, especially alongside a perspective that places membership of the movement above individuality, is inherently dangerous. Critical reasoning, debate, and dissent are all at risk where “the struggle” is so central to one’s identity that all other considerations can be disregarded.
There is a very real danger of a leader lacking accountability when they’re treated as a righteous crusader and the sole legitimate voice of “the people”. Indeed, I would suggest that, if anything, even (perhaps especially) those political figures who seem to be pushing for causes you support should be treated with a fundamental and unwavering skepticism and scrutiny. Whatever their rhetoric and even intentions, they are, by definition, seeking power over millions of others.
For the faithful, not the unbelievers
The other danger with collectivism is its inherent tribalism. Where there is an “us”, there is a “them”. Where there is a “many”, there is a “few”. The sublimation of your own self to your group makes it easier to (and perhaps impossible not to) think of your opponents in the same terms. They cease to be individual persons but members or even mere functions of a class, nation, system, or ideology. This is exacerbated by, and shares a mutually reinforcing relationship with, moral certainty. Moving from legitimate disagreements and even anger with Tory policy to demonization, outright hatred, social segregation, and threats of violence against not only Tories but also “collaborators” is what this looks like in action.
To be clear, this is not a comment on all or even most Corbyn supporters. Many just view the alternative as worse. Others may simply find some or all of his policies (or actual beliefs) attractive. If, however, you sincerely consider him the “absolute boy”, enjoy ritualistically chanting his name, have unironically bought things with his face on them, use a special exclusive vocabulary, regard him as beyond the skepticism politicians are usually subject to, and view anyone who opposes him as the enemy, then you’re a cultist.