Some reflections on choosing a leader


Like many of my friends and colleagues I am a fully paid up member of the Groucho  Marxist tendency. I would never join a political party  that would have me as a member. Until now. Because like tens of  thousands of others I  have now paid my three quid to register to vote in the election for a new labour leader, specifically because I did not want a New Labour  leader to be elected. After decades of voting Labour with gritted teeth, because they were the least worst option  (that cynical Churchillian definition of democracy) and without any hope or expectation that their policies would produce any fundamental shift in the balance of power and wealth in our society, I have at last taken the plunge and pressed the submit button to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

I did so with gritted teeth because he is the least worst option and not in any hope or expectation that he will lead the Labour  Party  to power at the next election. Indeed it is clear that  he entirely lacks the personal skills or policies to  unite the different wings of the party, or to  give a convincing performance as a leader of the Her Majesty’s  Opposition and Prime Minister in waiting.  But what he clearly does articulate is a diffuse longing across wide swathes of the electorate for a different way of doing politics, a way that is more open and democratic, not controlled by party machines kowtowing to focus groups and the mediocracy, and responsive to a range of concerns  about the causes and consequences of social  inequality. In a nutshell he would make a good spokesperson for  extra-parliamentary  opposition to austerity politics, but will be a disaster as leader of the PLP.

So why did I vote for him? Why did I tick his box and press the ‘submit’ button?  As a matter of fact ‘submit’ is a  tricky little word. The dictionary definition offers its meaning as : to give over or yield to the power or authority of another; to subject to some kind of  influence ; to present for approval or consideration; to state or urge with deference. Of course I wanted to exert some influence on the  outcome of the election, and for the Labour Party to take my views into consideration  but certainly not out of any sense of deference or of surrendering to its authority! So exactly what was I hoping to  achieve?.

Firstly. the act of registering was primarily to affirm the principle that political decision making should be plebiscitary and involve as many people as possible and not just a minority of activists or an elite of  cadres and professional politicians. Of course on- line voting is not the same thing as direct democracy, but it can inject some element of public participation into what is otherwise a pretty inert and self regarding process. The digital commons can certainly  provide a house for pop up parliaments, a time- delimited  space of deliberation and debate which is neither fully public, in the sense of being accessible to all irrespective of their views (like a referendum or poll) ), nor the private preserve of an elective affinity group. The boundaries of this discoursive space are inevitably difficult to define and it is not surprising that the party got in a bit of a muddle and ended up excluding many of the people it is actively seeking to recruit, e.g. Greens and Ukippers..

This could have been largely avoided if those registering had been required to jump through a few more hoops, like having fill out a questionnaire about their values and beliefs and their reasons for wanting to participate in the election. This would have weeded out all but the most determined entrists.

In general the advent of social media  into the political arena  has created a potential platform for  connecting  particular demands and single issue campaigns to a wider sense of dissatisfaction at the failure of  the political class system to keep  election promises and deliver the goods. Used in a strategic way  social media  can serve to  enfranchise groups, like young people, who are alienated from institutionalist politics, putting into circulation  more or less populist memes, which are, however,  highly unstable in their ideological significance  and are open to rival articulations by the Left as well as the Right. Social media are not a panacea for dealing with withdrawal from civic engagement, they do open up new spaces of deliberation which bypass some of the bottlenecks created by bureaucratised forms of representative democracy.

Populism and Charisma

It is at this point that my rationale for voting Corbyn comes into play. We can see a coalescence of diffuse popular concerns in his  manifesto which does not appear in any of the other candidates statements. This does not necessarily   mean that his programme is ‘populist’ in either form or content. His campaign programme is by definition an intervention in the institutional politics of the Labour Party, not an emergent expression of a grass roots social movement seeking political representation, like Podemos.  The Corbyn platform  brings together a number of traditional left wing causes: neo-keynesian growth  economics, a national investment bank, nationalisation of public utilities without compensation, regulation of the housing  and labour market to eliminate hyper-exploitation, progressive taxation, a crack down on corporate tax avoidance, abandonment of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, and so on. The one explicitly populist feature – ‘people’s’ quantitative easing to finance infrastructure investment, create jobs  and modernise the public realm is probably the least plausible plank in his programme, at least in macro-economic terms. In any case it does not explain the surge in popular support for his candidacy. So how do we explain ‘Corbymania’, the fact that so many people, especially young people, who have never been interested in politics before, have flocked to his colours?

In this context one is tempted to reach for the dictionary of sociology and look up ‘charisma’. Weber defines it as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he  is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader’. As a form of power, charisma  is ‘legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers’.

Leaving aside its masculinist construction for a moment, does any of this apply to Corbyn?  In Weber’s  concept  the exercise of  charismatic authority depends on  thepublic  display of an aura of exceptionality, whether  of vision or  foresight,  linked to an inspirational  presence capable of mobilising  devotion amongst followers. It is easy to see how it applies to cult followings of  mystics, prophets, messianic politicians, oracular poets, and rock stars. But Jeremy is none of these. He is no demagogic orator. He is no public intellectual with a common touch. He doesn’t do hwyl. His vision is  couched in decidedly   prosaic terms. But that may be precisely the reason for his appeal. Weber thought that charismatic authority  was so unstable that it had to become routinised through some process of institutionalisation – through the formation of priestly castes  or intellectual elites, for example. What he did’nt reckon on, because he was writing at a time before the mass media, PR  and the whole apparatus of fame had become properly established, was that charisma would no longer depend on a metaphysics of presence, and its  routinisation could take the form of a perpetual  recycling  of ‘inspirational’ images. What is exceptional about Corbyn is that he is not part of this political spectacle and  the hype machine run by party spin doctors,  and to that extent is seen to be uncorrupted  by power. His moral authority is anti-charismatic and rests on his  perceived integrity  of purpose, which puts political commitment   above personal ambition and shuns sound byte   rhetoric like the verbal plague it is.

An alternative hypothesis, given his age,  is that he is seen as  some kind of elder statesman, and appeals to youth as an ideological mentor, a ‘wise old man’ according to the Jungian archetype. Certainly  in a post- patriarchal society the yearning for sympathetic father figures is unabated.  There are several recent  examples of Leftist   rebels  who have been the bane of the political establishment all their lives but who are welcomed into the pantheon of ‘Grand old Men (and very  occasionally women) in their later years. But Jeremy  Corbyn is no Tony Benn or Eric Hobsbawm! He is however all too easy to demonise as a loony lefty, and the Labour establishment have been quick to join the Tory press in orchestrating a moral panic around his candidature. I think that this is probably the key to his popularity. He is a political anti-hero and the more mud that is thrown at him the higher he rises in public estimation.


From Vocation to Career : the organic crisis of the political class

Weber’s  theory of charisma was first elaborated in his famous lecture on ‘Politics as  Vocation’ and for a very good reason. He want to make a distinction between those who live for politics, for whom politics is a special inner calling or avocation  and whom he associates with the  exercise of charismatic authority and those who live off politics, who pursue it as a professional career, associated with the exercise of bureaucratic authority. This distinction between vocation and career is rather muddied in Weber’s account, and as we will see they are  often conflated in everyday parlance. Moreover the distinction  is not confined to politics, it just as much belongs to the personal sphere. These are two narrative grids thrown over the life course, unfolding quite  distinct principles  of existential periodicity and predicament. Vocation unfolds as an inner directed   quest or drive  for an authentic self, primarily through the realisation of a special gift, talent, or calling. It is associated with the mastery of artistic or spiritual disciplines and with various forms of service. Vocation operates largely within the framework of a moral economy of worth, in which the value of the work performed under its  sign is the means of satisfaction it produces.  Authenticity is its benchmark.  Career, in contrast, unfolds as so many steps  up a  ladder of personal ambition, marked by increments of status and income, often correlated with the achievement of professional qualifications  and other so called  performance indicators.  Career operates entirely within a market economy of  worth, every promotion is indexed to the competitive value of the work within a segmented labour market.  Career is other-directed, it is driven by the desire to outperform one’s peers.  Success is its benchmark.

The professionalization of the political class, the transition from politics as vocation to politics as career, has been well documented. The narrowing social demographic, the extinction of the ‘colourful’ and ‘eccentric’  amateur or conviction  politician, such as Dennis Skinner or Leo Abse, and their replacement by  party robots  is much lamented by  commentators across the political spectrum. However  public disenchantment with Westminster has much more to it than this. It is not even a  reaction to the constant disclosure of endemic  corruption, the expenses scandal, the paedophile ring etc. It is about a much deeper disconnect between the culture of institutional politics and the culture of everyday life and livelihood as it is experienced by most citizens in Britain today.

The organic crisis of the political class consists in the fact that the Westminster regime lacks  popular  legitimacy, not only north but south of the border, and  a new political culture has yet to be born.  This  is  part of a wider crisis of representation, a disconnect between the authorised road maps of  social aspiration disseminated by  the state (especially by the education system) and the actual territories of  blocked, deferred or dislocated transition to full participation in civil society inhabited by large sections of the electorate.

To understand what is happening here we have to look at  a broader set of social changes. While careerism flourishes amongst a small elite, the structures which supported lifelong ambitions and steady progress up a professional ladder have collapsed for large sections of the middle class. Meanwhile vocation has been thoroughly instrumentalised and marketised,  so that  it now refers to narrow forms of training and qualification intended to deliver a flexible and docile workforce for the knowledge economy. This is often  via what is redescribed as ‘apprenticeship’, and covers internships as well as  junior, short term contract positions.  In response vocation has been reinvented as an alternative life style for a section of the ‘creative class’ that chooses a free lance, portfolio mode of working over careers in the corporate sector. As for the de-industrialised working class, concentrated in underfunded public services and  low  wage, low skill sectors of the economy  zero hour contracts and short term on-the-job training  have swept aside the residual culture of trade apprenticeships which hitherto provided some sense of ownership, security  and pride in the job.


Enter the precariat

The emergence of a ‘precariat’  thrown up  by the impact of globalisation  on local labour and housing markets  has been heralded as  a new and potentially revolutionary political force, bringing together a multitude of groups who have good reason to be disaffected with the political economy of neo-liberalism and whose  very existence dramatises the failure of Social Democracy.  This includes  NEETS,  the long term unemployed,  those on welfare or disability benefits and state pensioners, ‘generation rent’ – the, middle class young adults who cannot afford to get on the property ladder or are unlikely to obtain a permanent well paid job to qualify for a mortgage, plus all those performing contingent labour , on short term, part time or‘flexible’ contracts.  It is certainly the case that all these groups experience a great deal of chronic insecurity  in their everyday lives. However this may take many different forms and produce different responses. Ontological insecurity may result in acute anxiety and depression but also mobilise a collective response in the form of identity politics. Material insecurity and the resultant foreclosure of life plans may yield  to fatalism,  nihilism, short run hedonism – living for kicks – or  to frenetic entrepreneurial activity in the pop up or hidden economies.  These responses are over-determined by the fact that the social and cultural capital required to sustain struggles of long duration  and support collective resilience in the face of  set backs, insecurity and hard times has been eaten away  by the aspirational rhetorics of competitive individualism. Now that we are all supposed to be authors of our own lives, who have we to blame but ourselves if the script does not turn out as we were led to wish it would? As a result material and ontological insecurity are much more likely to converge and reinforce their damaging impact.

This has  produced  some contradictory effects. On the one hand there is  a pervasive  desire for quick fixes to very intractable socio-economic problems coupled  with a profound pessimism about whether any of them will work. This is turn traps the political  establishment in a double bind :  they have to offer such fixes  to become electable even though they may  not believe in their efficacy, a lack of conviction which then further alienates the electorate. On the other hand there is a retreat  into a discourse of common sense ‘realism’ that  combines elements of moral and market economies of worth in a peculiarly  perverse way. We can see this happening in the public debate around austerity, debt and the financialisation of every aspect of social life. And,in particular, in George Osborne’s recent espousal of ‘Micawber’ economics.


Debt  and its dual economy  of worth

The key precept of the moral economy is most succinctly stated in Polonious’ advice to Laertes in Hamlet :

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Shakespeare is here drawing on a long theological tradition in Christianity  which condemns usury and is also found in the Old Testament. As Exodus puts it ‘ if you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.’ This was the rationale of the Church of England’s recent intervention against Wonga and other payday loan sharks on account of the extortionate interest rates they  charge to the most vulnerable sections of the working poor.

Borrowing and lending are the life blood of the banks and financial services  and  capitalism could not survive without it. After all it was speculation on sub prime mortgage debt that triggered the financial crisis and recession of 2007/8. Even in so called ‘normal’ times. all advanced economies run high levels of national debt as well as extracting large debt repayments from their trade- and- aid deals with developing countries. We have just seen the political economy of debt revealed in all its brutality in the recent negotiations between the EU troika and the Syriza led Greek government. Equally household debt and student loan debt has reached unprecedented levels and is contributing to a public mood of chronic disquiet about personal futures.

Osborne’s restatement  of the moral economics of the Micawber principle – that earning more than you spend brings happiness and the reverse brings misery- is designed to address these concerns.   As he put it:

‘a settlement where it is accepted across the political spectrum that without sound public finances, there is no economic security for working people; that the people who suffer when governments run unsustainable deficits are not the richest but the poorest; and that therefore, in normal times, governments of the left as well as the right should run a budget surplus to bear down on debt and prepare for an uncertain future’.

Underlying this move is a tacit appeal to the notion that to get into any kind of  debt is a moral failure, which brings shame on family and community  alike. To be enslaved by debt is to be less than fully human. The only honourable course to follow in life is therefore to liberate oneself from any social or economic transactions that might incur debt and instead become self sufficient. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare has Polonious immediately cap his advice to Laertes by spelling out its moral implication in the following terms:

‘This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.’

So to lead an authentic, fully human existence, to sustain an integral sense of identity and be honest in your dealings with others you must be free of debt and its corrupting entanglements.  The Left as well as the Right  have taken up this principle, it can be found active in the formation of the Co-operative movement and in the anarcho-syndicalism of radical artisans   as well as  in Credit Unions and social corporatism.

This is one response to the fact that we have a market economy which thrives on debt and a moral economy which condemns it. But there is another perspective which starts from a very different version of moral economy.  It is one premised on the principle of  reciprocal gift exchange : every gift incurs a debt, which can only  be repaid by another gift. Of course, there are gifts without any such strings attached, such as anonymous donations of money or blood, and there are also false gifts which enslave or establish relations of dominance or deference. But balanced or symmetrical exchange networks  provide an  infrastructure  for  everyday cultures of mutual aid which have  enabled  many disadvantaged communities to survive  the  insecurities of hard times. Baby sitting  neighbours children, lending  the lawn mower or borrowing  the proverbial cup of sugar from next door, these elementary acts of  give- and- take  have also   provided  an  armature of human solidarity to support struggles for a better, less insecure, life.  David Graeber has argued, somewhat tongue in cheek,  that these practices  amount to ‘actually existing communism’  and  certainly  their current erosion  is major cause for concern, and not only on the Left.  Attempts to formalise a sharing economy through the introduction of time bank currencies  for the exchange of services have proved no substitute for informal reciprocities. The introduction of marketised idioms into these transactions only tends to  confuse or alienate  people and leads to trading practices which mirror the competitive individualism it is designed to re-place.

The real issue is how to scale up from any localised mutual aid system to  wider  translocal  networks that are sustainable over time.  Again social media can facilitate this process but are no substitute for it. We  clearly need  more social experimentation  to develop and test a  flat   democratic management structure as an alternative to the hierarchised model of party bureaucracy with its top down command and control apparatus.

Finally, the intricate interplay of  moral and market economics which I have briefly  sketched  has obscured and complicated the whole issue of symbolic debt. What parents and children owe one another, what each can legitimately depend on and bequeath to the other is easily disavowed or ignored as a  purely private matter to be sorted out  within the family. Nevertheless it remains an important factor in the reproduction of inequalities structured around the transmission of wealth, material assets, and cultural, social and intellectual capital between the generations. Legacy politics, the question of who owes what to whom,  is likely to become an increasingly potent  element   in debates around  national  identity at a time when the issue of inheritance is heavily financialised around private property as well as  racialised  around access to public amenity and resource..

Final Submission

It turns out then that we not only need a strategy  to challenge the dominant common sense of austerity politics,  but to  address  the  issue of precarity and debt by  freeing moral  economics from its current forms of marketisation. And we also need to create a new housing of the commons that enfranchises all the disparate groups, white and black, men and women, middle class and working class, young and old, who are being deprived of their human entitlement to a life that has enough adventure in it to make it worth the telling, and enough security in it to make a coherent narration  possible. At present we oscillate between the precautionary principles of ‘the risk society’ and the bipolar boom and bust principles of the financial markets.

What the press have described as ‘Corbymania’ is symptomatic of a deep but hitherto largely repressed desire to break free from the tired rhetorics  of neo-liberal l political economy and  Statist forms of Social Democracy.  A Corbyn victory would certainly spell the death of New Labour  Blairism  and for some of his supporters  that might be enough. It remains to be seen whether it will lead to an inevitably  doomed  attempt to resurrect Old Labour values  around  ‘little islander’ euro-scepticism  and  disregard  for all the issues that have emerged outside the trade union movement.  The suggestion to re-open the mines does not exactly inspire confidence that his approach to global warming is much different from the Tories.  However the logic of the conjuncture itself indicates that something quite else might happen. The momentum created by the Corbyn campaign, if it not allowed to dissipate, could profoundly change the party’s relationship to its multiple communities of potential support, requiring the development of a transversal discourse  linking site-specific issues of precarity to a generalised critique of neo-liberalism.  Corbyn has already succeeded, against all the odds, in returning politics to its proper vocation, which is not as Weber and the other candidates for the Labour leadership think, solely about the capture of power, but, as Hannah Arendt insisted, about creating a stage in which political discourse is the prerogative of all citizens and in which all have an equal voice and stake. On those grounds alone he is the only authentic politician of the bunch.

If politics is the art of the possible, let’s not forget that art is the politics of the impossible.  It is because Corbyn’s intervention has opened  up the tension between the imagination of a better world  and the  strangulating realism of  the British political class, because his campaign pits its  optimism of the will against pessimism of the intellect, that I think it is worth voting for. That is why I put the tick  in that box.  But having done so, I have absolutely no confidence in the outcome should he win. There’s the rub.


Further reading

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition University of Chicago Press 1958

Luc Boltanski and  Laurent  Thevenot   On Justification:economies of worth Princeton University Press

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chapiello  The New Spirit of capitalism Verso 2005

Phil Cohen ‘The Centre will not hold:changing principles of political hope’ Soundings Summer 2015

David Graeber   Debt :the first 5000 years  Melville House 2011

David Graeber Towards an anthropology of value:the false coin of our dreams Palgrave 2001

Antonio Gramsci  Prison Notebooks Lawrence and Wishart 2005

Bruno Gulli Earthly Plenitudes:A study of plenitude and labour Temple University Press 2010

Michael Hardt and Antonio  Negri Commonwealth Harvard Press 2009

Martijn Konings The emotional logic of capitalism :what progressives have missed Stanford University Press 2015

Ernesto Laclau  Post Marxism,populism and critique (edited David Howard) Routledge 2015

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy :towards a radical democratic politics London Verso 2014

Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds) Making things Public:atmospheres of democracy SAGE 2006

Bruno Latour  ‘The Affects of capitalism’ Progressive Geographies2014

Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto :liberties and commons for all  University of California 2008

Isabel Lorey The State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious Verso 2014

Alexander  Mitscherlich  Society with the Father Tavistock 1969

Adrian Randall and Andrew Charlesworth (eds) Moral Economy and Popular protest Macmillan 2000

Guy Standing The precariat: the new dangerous class  Bloomsbury 2014

Richard Sennett The Culture of the New Capitalism  Yale University 2006

E.P. Thompson  ‘The grid of inheritance’ in Jack Goody (ed) The Family and Inheritance Cambridge University Press 1974

Raoul Vaneigem The revolution of everyday life (trans D Nicholson Smith)  2014

Max Weber  ‘ Politics as Vocation’    in  Political Writings  Cambridge University Press 1994