Let’s face it: the future looks bleak. While the world endures lockdown, the UK seems to be vying for the top death rate in the world while regions with markedly fewer resources cope well with the advent of COVID-19.
But is it any surprise we ended up here? Over the last few years our politics has been infected with the kind of dogmatism that would inevitably falter at its first interaction with reality. Reality and puritanical ideology do not mix well, and no matter who won the 2019 general election, ideology would have won over pragmatism. Pragmatic MPs on the right, like Rory Stewart, had the Conservative whip removed for questioning just how well proposed post-Brexit trade deals would function in reality. Those who placed the truth over sound bites were ejected from mainstream politics. The result is that the Tories are now faced with an international crisis it can’t win by out-sloganing the opposition.
Either way we would have ended up with problems. While Stewart was expunged from the Conservatives, anti-racist pragmatic Labour MPs ditched their party in an attempt to create a new political movement. So the left as well as the right has been purged of many of its pragmatists – and our politics is weaker for it, as is political commentary.
Just a few days ago, left-wing economics commentator Grace Blakeley took to Twitter after the Mail on Sunday had run a story that seemed a futile attempt to attack Keir Starmer for buying his disabled mother a field (and no, I can’t believe I just typed that sentence either). She said, “It’s going to be kinda sad watching all the liberals who genuinely believed that a man who served in Corbyn’s cabinet would be acceptable to Britain’s ruling classes look on in horror as he’s eviscerated by the right wing press. I wonder if the experience will radicalise them…”
It’s going to be kinda sad watching all the liberals who genuinely believed that a man who served in Corbyn’s cabinet would be acceptable to Britain’s ruling classes look on in horror as he’s eviscerated by the right wing press.
I wonder if the experience will radicalise them… https://t.co/ViaNRSrWo2
— Grace Blakeley (@graceblakeley) May 17, 2020
The tweet was more revealing than I imagine she realised. Ignoring the fact that she seems to misunderstand what drives liberals (in my experience, liberals do not play with the idea that ruling classes are to be pitted against those who are less fortunate), she does communicate well one of the fundamental beliefs of Corbynism.
I have dedicated a great deal of my time over the last two years to debunking and fighting the conspiratorial aspects of Corbynism – not least because they can sometimes be conducive to antisemitism. But Corbynism hardly stands alone in being devoted to dividing the world into “good” and “bad” people. Because what really unites the modern left and right is a dedication to conspiracy.
At their core, conspiracies try to perpetuate the claim that a person – or a handful of people – control world events or elements of our politics. Ultimately conspiracies lead to the conclusion that we simpletons, the blue collars and the average people, are completely powerless to do anything about this power dynamic. Taking this idea to its natural conclusion isn’t a stretch: that when world events go against our political ideals, it cannot be our own fault – it is the fault of external powers beyond our reach.
Such ideas may be relatively harmless when limited to small elements of grassroots politics, but when they are held by our national political leaders it’s a different story. When Jeremy Corbyn subjected the Labour Party to its worst electoral defeat since the 1930s, this conspiracism provided the Corbynite commentariat and his followers a handy and comforting cop-out. It cannot have been the pure and kind leader that created this democratic calamity, they argued – it must have been the oligarchs. Or the right-wing press owned by the oligarchs.
The left isn’t alone in pandering to this divisive sentiment. When the UK supreme court ruled Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament unlawful, the language of saboteurs and shady enemies was again deployed, this time by the conspiracist right. The Daily Mail claimed that supreme court judges were “enemies of the people”, and while its devout Farage-supporting readership nodded vigorously, most did not realise that it was showing the same political tendencies as the Corbynites – who, at least superficially, the Daily Mail’s readership would mostly claim to despise. Whether it’s supreme court judges or a right-wing press, the idea is the same: a shadowy elite has conspired against the underdog.
This self-righteousness can be intoxicating. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of political messaging that tries to pit you – a good person, who is always decent and wonderful – against a hypothetical enemy, which is always malevolent, never has a single good thought for anyone, and is constantly working against the good in society. But it also provides an excuse for our political leaders to duck away from criticism. When Corbyn loses, his supporters believe that Corbyn isn’t the person who should be held accountable: it’s the right wing forces in society that are to blame. When Boris Johnson prorogues parliament illegally, or his MPs vote against no-deal Brexit, that isn’t his fault, say his most hardcore supporters: it’s an intellectual, metropolitan elite working to undermine the referendum that should be held to account. Instead of searching for accountability and transparency in our leaders, conspiracies nudge us to pick the ideologically pure at all costs. The ideals we might wish for in our political leaders are tossed aside.
It goes without saying that the comfort-blanket of conspiracism is a democratic cop-out. But this mindset is an intellectual cop-out, too. Most matters in politics, as in life, aren’t simple – they are seldom black-and-white. But conspiracism is conducive to black-and-white thinking. Leader good: adversaries of the leader bad. It is no coincidence that conspiracism can lead to pie-in-the-sky, black-and-white, solutions to the ills in society.
The human condition has a tendency to treasure the absurd. But conspiratorial political movements wouldn’t survive if they depended entirely on falsehoods. When Corbynites shriek about the ills of elements of the right-wing press, they aren’t entirely wrong. Nor are Brexiteers entirely wrong in believing much of society is divided based on class, geography, wealth or education.
But the most dangerous political movements are those that are based on a little truth but no more. Conspiratorial political movements are based entirely on small elements of truth that are taken to polarising, unwavering extremes. Take Corbynism as an example. It isn’t wrong to say that elements of the right-wing press (whose oligarch owners may well be relevant to editorial decisions taken in its newsrooms) have a great impact on British political discourse. But if I were to agree with criticism some elements of the right-wing press have levelled against Corbyn, this would make me (according to followers of this creed) complicit in a national smear campaign against a political leader who can do no wrong.
The question from Corbynites thus becomes “do you dispute the notion that the right wing press is powerful in British society?”, not realising that it is possible to believe that two things can be true at once: elements of the right wing press may well have been biased against Corbyn, but that does not mean the criticism they level at him is not sound. Conspiracism doesn’t allow much scope for this kind of nuance.
Whether it’s coming from the Corbynites or the Brexiteers, ideological conspiracism leads us to the same dark place: blaming convenient scapegoats over the very leaders who should be held to account in a healthy democracy. Because conspiracies do not exist without the presence of a conspirator: conspiracies demand that we create enemies even when there aren’t any. Farage stands in front of a poster titled “Breaking Point”, which shows migrants of colour queuing to enter the UK. Jeremy Corbyn demands the press be held to account for publishing antagonistic articles.
These two camps hate each other. But they have more in common than they realise. Either way the message is the same: we aren’t the problem – it’s them.