If the result of the Labour leadership election shows anything, it is that democracy can make the impossible possible. To have predicted this landslide as recently as three months ago would have risked been considered someone who had lost any sound grasp of reality. Yet, it has happened, in what can only be called a democratic revolution. It is Britain’s Podemos moment.
For capital’s version of reality has seeped into every nook and cranny of our societies (and indeed of the minds of most of us). This is what we call neoliberalism, the primacy of the market over public authority which, for over three decades became the accepted wisdom. And so-called ‘New Labour’ was nothing less than the surrender of the British labour movement to his ‘reality’. With the Corbyn landslide this is now history.
As with Podemos in Spain, this marks the birth of a new ‘demos’, the children of neoliberalism who are finally awakening to the profound vulnerabilities that the rule of grand capital brings to all our lives and our societies. This is the generation that now realises it lives in societies that can no longer promise a better future, greater security, quality education and healthcare, and protection when risks strike. And it realises that the reason is because the market rules, generating gross levels of inequality and benefiting the few over the many.
This is what marks Corbyn’s election as being different from that of Micheal Foot, the last time Labour had a serious left-wing leader. Foot, after all, was elected only by Labour MPs and had the misfortune to become leader just as the neoliberal reformation was beginning to reshape society. Foot’s election generated no new demos; Corbyn’s election has become the catalyst for one finally to emerge into a powerful force for change.
In essence, this is nothing less than a return to the founding principles of democracy itself. For, if democracy means anything, it is the sovereignty of the people. Yet, in complete contradiction to this principle we have for decades now lived in societies in which the market is sovereign, with political leaders and the state itself placing the needs of capital over those of citizens. As in Spain, young people up and down Britain are now saying with determination: ‘This must end’.
Of course, the mighty power of capital will now mobilise to do its utmost to ensure that this never happens. The media will rant and rail against the dangers of the policies Corbyn will seek to promote. They will frighten and threaten citizens and politicians that rising taxes on the rich and on capital, that funding decent public services, that nationalising essential services, and vigorously promoting peace will somehow destroy society.
As we face into the climate summit in Paris in two months time, it has never been more necessary to begin building again a strong state that can curb the destruction that capital is doing to our planet, a state that can mobilise people to move into a new and more collaborative relationship with the biosphere on which we all depend. For it becomes ever clearer that neoliberalism has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, warming the world and causing unpredictable changes to the climate. It is very difficult to see how we can begin any decisive movement towards a low-carbon society as long as the market controls society.
As the contributors to a ground-breaking new book entitled The Politics of Ecosocialism (edited by Kajsa Borgnäs, Teppo Eskelinen, Johanna Perkiö and Rikard Warlenius, Routledge, 2015) convincingly argue, our ecological crisis requires a fundamental re-sharping of the ideas and institutions of our society to take us beyond the era of economic growth and into an ecosocialist future. Is the Corbyn landslide a sign that at long last the politics to lead such a transformation is beginning to emerge?
And what does all this mean for Ireland? Do we see any signs that a new demos is emerging here that might form the basis for a decisive move to the left in our electoral politics? Unfortunately, the water charges campaign, while having successfully mobilised large numbers against austerity, tends to re-inforce rather than challenge the deeply entrenched anti-state and anti-tax instincts bred by decades of Fianna Fáil hegemony and by the power of global capital over our society.
More hopeful was the mobilisation around the marriage equality referendum last May, which bears some similarity to the Corbyn phenomenon. But there are few signs that the wave of democratic activism around marriage equality is being extend to the hard issues of electoral politics: taxation and jobs, decent public services, effective redistribution from rich to poor, development policies both urban and rural, and the immense challenges of climate change. It is difficult to see right now what might make that happen.