Get Real. That’s the message being sent in almost every piece of media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s one-month-old leadership of the Labour Party, a message which has intensified and become ever more shrill as his speech to the party conference approached. Hyperbolic attacks on Corbyn’s history and political stances (he’s a danger to Britain, he hangs out with people we don’t like, and if you take some of his words out of context, turn them upside down and squint at them through an alcoholic haze, it looks like he once said something tasty about Osama Bin Laden) have done their job, but are limited in their broad efficacy; the segment of the population who lap up this kind of material and internalise its messages are people who were already inclined that way in the first place, and delight in such stories simply because they confirm their pre-existing notions. For the majority of the rest of the UK electorate, who do not wake up in cold sweats at the thought of Reds under their Beds, or simmer with horrified outrage at the slightest departure from the government’s fairytale security narrative, such breathless tales of villainy have a short half-life; they would not survive prolonged contact with the reality of Corbyn’s personality and policies.
What’s much, much more damaging with that group of the electorate – the group Corbyn’s Labour actually needs to care about if it’s to have a hope of winning in 2020 – is the broader base of the Malthusian pyramid of anti-Corbyn media messaging. In the hierarchy of what you need to take down a populist left-wing leader, allegations of shocking Commie wrong-doing are merely the sharp tip of the pyramid; the broad base needs to be made up of a heady mixture of concern trolling and tooth-sucking that can be lumped together under a single headline; Get Real.
Corbyn isn’t realistic. Even if you accept that the ideals proposed by the veteran MP are lovely in theory – a Britain without weapons of mass destruction, with health, education and transport back in public hands, a more robust and caring system of welfare for the sick and the needy, and so on – you are exhorted to accept that they are not realistic in practice. This prong of attack is vital to undermining a return to the left by the Labour party, because survey after survey (with the caveat that I still think that British opinion polling methodology is broken and must be taken with a pinch of salt) shows that a fairly solid majority of the British public actually agrees with Corbyn’s policy prescriptions and stances. These people may be temporarily swayed against New-Again Old Labour (what are we to call the party now?) by personal attacks on Corbyn, but that’s not going to keep them off-side until 2020; there’s a real chance that a Labour party united behind its new leader and with four and a half years to reinforce and market its policy positions could turn enough of those preferences into votes to make a big difference on the political landscape. Heading off that possibility is a matter of convincing those voters to ignore their policy preferences, and thus convincing the Labour party to split and infight, convinced that it cannot win with Corbyn at the helm.
How do you convince voters to ignore their policy preferences when making their political choices? You suck at your teeth, shake your head sadly, and tell them that their preferences would be lovely in an ideal world, but that they are not realistic. The electorate responds strongly to this notion of realism; if you want a dramatic example of that in progress today, look to Japan, where the support rating of the cabinet of prime minister Shinzo Abe has consistently been far above the (vanishingly low) support rating for any of its headline policies. The electorate don’t like the policies, but they have been sold on the notion that they are realistic, or rather, that the alternatives (supporting opposition parties or otherwise demanding change) are unrealistic. Poll after poll confirms that a very significant portion of the Japanese electorate supports Abe’s government despite disliking everything it does. This is much to do with the fragmented and disorganised nature of opposition parties in Japan, but that’s the point, in a sense; the electorate prefers the “realistic” option of the organised, successful, tough-talking LDP, despite disliking its policies, over the “unrealistic” option of the fragmented, bickering opposition parties whose policies they actually like.
That’s what the Get Real message aims to do to Corbyn – to push the electorate into seeing him as a dreamer and a fantasist, someone with ideas that are nice but unrealistic and unsuited to government. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it unique to the UK’s situation; such rhetorical spin is a standard ingredient of neoliberalism everywhere in the world. The great triumph of neoliberalism since the 1980s has been to position its stances as being realistic, essentially coining or laying claim to a whole swathe of phrases which have become commonplace in political discourse. Aside from “realistic”, consider phrases like “taking tough decisions” or “fit for government” – neoliberal spin points baked into our conventional political rhetoric, whose seemingly innocent neutrality disguises the power to put anyone expressing a non-neoliberal point onto the back foot. Discussing a left-wing policy idea almost immediately invites a demand to prove that it is “realistic”, putting the discussant on the defensive; the same demand is almost never made of neoliberal policy ideas, and can be laughed off with ease when it is made – rhetorical weapons, once established, are not easily turned against their creators. Why should proponents of neoliberal policy have to prove that their ideas are “realistic”, when we all know that neoliberalism is realistic?
This is the unspoken assumption at the core of every article telling Jeremy Corbyn (or Bernie Sanders, or Pablo Iglesias, or Alex Tsipras, etc. etc.) to Get Real – an assumption that our current system, the neoliberal economy and society which have been built since the early 1980s, is realistic. Moreover, it is an assumption that the neoliberal institutions and structures of today define the limits of what can “realistically” work. Every idea outside that sphere must justify itself and demonstrate its “realistic” credentials; but the game is rigged, because “realism” is defined in terms of the very neoliberal institutions that the New Left seeks to challenge. If you’re not neo-liberal, you have to prove that you’re realistic, but if you’re realistic, you’re neo-liberal; Catch-22. Thus, “realistic” becomes twisted in its very meaning; it is imbued with innate ideology, becoming a herder’s whip used to drive political thought back towards the present status quo, all the while claiming in wide-eyed innocence that it is free of ideology and merely talking about cold hard facts regarding what is and is not possible.
The hand-wringing authors of articles demanding realism from Corbyn and his shadow cabinet would no doubt bristle at the accusation that they are doing little more than writing in support of a neoliberal status quo – to their minds, they’re just talking about what’s realistic, which is surely, surely, a fixed term whose meaning cannot be subverted or altered through political will? Yet truly it has been subverted, in a way that is most dramatic if viewed across the span of decades. Little by little, neoliberals on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere besides, have pushed further and further to the right – digging in and establishing the boundaries of the “realistic” around their current positions before advancing a little further rightwards, dismantling a little more of the state, introducing a little more of the market, or a distortion of the market, then digging in for long enough for this to become the new “realistic” status quo before moving again. Compare 2015 to 2010 and the movement is apparent (look at how the debate over the NHS has shifted from “no privatisation” to “which bits is it okay to privatise”) but minor. Compare 2015 to 1995 or earlier, though, and it is hugely dramatic; the complete destruction of social housing, the dramatic attacks on support for the sick and disabled, the sweeping privatisation of health, education and even some parts of the nation’s security forces, the extraordinary subsidising of for-profit industries through in-work benefits for underpaid workers; these are all policies which would have been extreme, radical and unrealistic in earlier decades. Today they are government policy, and nobody challenges their realism. The centre has moved; what is realistic has kept pace with where the neoliberal movement has brought us. Today’s neoliberalism is an extreme version of the doctrine of Thatcher or Reagan, yet its grand triumph is in managing to align the political meaning of “realistic” with its own extremism.
Language is important. Hijacking a word like “realism” is an incredibly tricky thing to do (it helps when the owners of most of a nation’s media are on board with your ideology, though), but it affords a huge advantage, one presently being brought to bear on crushing Jeremy Corbyn. Coining your own terms is also a powerful tool; think of terms like “trickle-down”, “personal responsibility”, “wealth creators”, “hard-working families” or on the negative side of the equation, “scroungers”, “benefit cheats” and “something-for-nothing culture”. Once established in the public imagination through constant media repetition, such phrases encapsulate neo-liberal ideologies in bite-sized pieces of daily vocabulary, which are powerful rhetorical tools that are extremely hard to challenge in the popular imagination. Language is how we define the world around us, so creating widely adopted language which defines it according to your ideology is a huge success for any political movement. (It doesn’t always work, of course; look no further than “Big Society” for an example of a neo-liberal catchphrase which never managed to effectively penetrate the popular consciousness and vocabulary, but swam around, unloved and unwanted, in Conservative talking points and speeches for several years before finally being taken out to the back of the woodshed and put out of its misery.)
Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform “realistic”, then? The answer depends largely on how you define “realism” and to what ideological mast you are pinning your colours. Ian Dunt wrote an excellent piece for Politics.co.uk this week about how the Labour conference’s decision to back a like-for-like replacement of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system (which Corbyn had opposed) was taken on the grounds of being “realistic”, yet is, taken on its own merits, a crazy stance which actually risks putting Britain in contravention of its supposedly firmly-held support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here, “realism” has been taken both within and without the Labour Party to mean something ideological, not something actually “real” in a sense that anyone with an empirical view of the world would recognise. The same can be seen in responses to economic, social and geopolitical policies proposed by left-wing leaders the world over. The only thing “realistic” is what we’ve got now – yet what a depressing and bleak world-view that must be to inhabit, since what we’ve got now is failing so many of the country’s inhabitants (and indeed the world’s inhabitants) in such dramatic and harmful ways. Neoliberalism, like its twin deity Globalisation, has had its upsides and its good points, some of them dramatic; but to pretend that it is the only “realistic” game in town is an intellectual dishonesty, one which those genuinely concerned with the future of the left (as distinct from those merely concern-trolling) would do well to abandon.