People stand next to the wreckages of the Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on 17 July 2014. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Returning the gaze: everyone’s a war reporter in an always-connected world

The internet brings war and conflict into homes around the world more immediately than ever before, but with the torrent of data, images and videos comes confusion and propaganda. It demands a new kind of war reporting – one which can make sense of digital evidence, and use the decentralised web as a tool for undermining the enforced narratives of the powerful.

It’s taken 54 days for the first findings from the investigation into the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur to be released. The preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board features several key points: “high-energy objects penetrated the aircraft from outside”; the plane broke up in mid-air; the pilots in the cockpit were talking normally until the plane was hit, indicating they were taken by surprise; the other black box, which recorded telemetric data, also showed normal data until the flight was suddenly hit.

This is all consistent with the Ukrainian government’s belief that pro-Russian separatists shot MH17 down with a Soviet-era Buk ground-to-air missile launcher, and it contradicts the Russian government’s insinuation that a Ukrainian figher jet was detected “in close proximity” to the plane just before it crashed. It’s also consistent with the work of users of a website called bellingcat, who have been cataloguing and analysing photographs of the MH17 crash site for almost every one of those 54 days. The consensus among them is that MH17 was hit by a Buk launcher with the missile exploding on the front port side of the plane, and the shrapnel causing extensive structural damage and near-instant decompression.

Anyone who disagrees with this assessment is welcome to try and debunk it – the possibility of being wrong is a key part of how bellingcat works. It is, in the words of founder Eliot Higgins – better know by his pen name Brown Moses – an “open source investigation”.

A typical verification thread on bellingcat’s Checkdesk site, with users discussing evidence of damage to the nose and cockpit of MH17.

For those who pay attention to the current conflicts in the Middle East, Brown Moses is likely a familiar name. Working from a laptop in his living room in Leicester, he has produced some of the most important journalism on the Syrian Civil War, and become a lodestar for an emerging kind of online citizen war reporting. His first big scoop came after the chemical gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August 2012, where he used video footage posted online to build a case that the Assad regime was responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,729 people. He cross-referenced the shapes of the canisters which had held the gas with those seen in earlier YouTube videos showing other attacks on rebel positions by regime forces – it was the kind of detail only he, having spent hours obsessively gathering such videos, would recognise.

He has no background in weapons or war – he used to work in finance – but he does have a fastidious, obsessive thoroughness about his work that has led New York Times war correspondent C J Chivers to call him “an indisputable resource”. Human Rights Watch cites his work as “among the best out there”. With the launch of bellingcat Higgins is turning his hobby into a profession, successfully raising more than £50,000 on Kickstarter to fund its launch in August.

“It’s my attempt to solve a problem I’ve seen quite repeatedly in the last couple of years,” he told me. “I’m in an unusual position because I’m outside the normal circles of journalists and NGOs and activists, and they all come to me with these different ideas, and I find these great projects and tools and techniques that have been developed, but they’re just not getting them out there. They’d really work well together, but they don’t know they exist. There might be something an NGO is working on that a tech company could help with, but they’d never communicate with each other because they’re not in that circle. So what I’m trying to do is bring that stuff together in one site.”

In his work, Higgins uses a variety of technological tools to discover and assess evidence. The bellingcat homepage is a rolling almanac of global conflict, where “citizen investigative journalists” collect and post information as it arrives. Social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, mapping software like Google Maps, collaborative tools like chatroom/archive Checkdesk – these are all useful tools in sorting fact from fiction.

“That’s quite important because there are so many reports of things being moved from the site and messed around with. It’s useful to have these photographs recorded somewhere just in case there are discrepancies”, he says. “If we have these discussions on Twitter, in a couple of weeks’ time it’s impossible to find that original discussion, so having a place where it’s recorded and you can see the process of verification is useful. Also, I recognise there are a lot of people out there who aren’t experts, but keen on a subject and who can provide some good, useful contributions to investigations. I want to give those people somewhere they can go to and read about the tools and techniques they can use.”

The Buk launcher which is suspected to have been used to shoot down MH17 was photographed and recorded at different times on the day of the crash by local residents - Higgins reconstructed its movements, creating this map, showing it was within range of the plane at the necessary time.

It feels like there’s a paradox in our understanding of conflict, in the internet era: we’re seeing more of it than ever before, but the more we see, the less we understand. This is about more than Islamic State jihadis tweeting about Robin Williams one day and sharing videos of executions on YouTube the next – it’s about the idea of narrative in conflict, and our understanding of blame, and justice. We are bombarded with primary sources from war zones, but the traditional means of making sense of that information – things like war reporting by media organisation, or investigations by international bodies - are too slow, or missing altogether. It can feel like watching a documentary without a narrator. We know that what we see is meant to mean something, but what?

The crash of MH17 claimed 296 lives, and their fate was a miserable illustration of this. For more than 24 hours a grey train sat idling in the station of the small eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, waiting for permission from someone – it wasn’t clear who – to begin the journey of transporting the victims’ remains to Kharkiv, in government-controlled territory. We, elsewhere, could see the train. Wire agencies carried pictures of it, and those correspondents who were allowed near it noted that it was effectively unguarded. Nearby, the crash site was left open to journalists and rubberneckers to interfere with wreckage and the personal belongings of passengers alike – it was five days before the Dutch investigation team was allowed on site. The chaos of war and the breakdown of judicial authority was made immensely obvious, and it was heartbreaking.

It’s often said that the privilege of living in an always-connected world is that it has lead to the decentralisation of power. We’re no longer beholden to newspapers for news, record companies for music, Hollywood for movies, physical strength for ability, or governments for truth, and in its simplest form that’s a win for everyone who hates feeling like they’re being lied to by someone who knows more than them. Yet it’s damaging, too, to assume that all our new information sources are inherently better or worse than what came before just because they’re new – what we need, more than anything in this situation, is a decentralised way of dealing with a decentralised media environment.

With the crash of MH17, there was a surfeit of photos, videos and social media chatter directly from or about the crash, but very little in the way of clarity, little in the way of truth. What the conflicts of the current era show us is that developing new ways to handle the data we experience is as important as access to it.

“With MH17, the first photographs were taken two or three weeks ago, before the inspectors could get there,” says Higgins. “We’re documenting what’s there, and we can spot things which may have changed, which wouldn’t be obvious if you were an inspector arriving a few weeks later. For example, we’ve got five or six photographs of the missile launcher on the trailer, and we were able to find exactly where those were taken and what time they were taken and show that it travelled through 75km of rebel-held territory to the launch location, and then another 75km out towards the border, and that’s not something people on the ground could maybe piece together. 

“[And] once we’ve established that, journalists on the ground could then follow that up. I think newspapers and news organisations need to be aware that there’s a lot of value in having this kind of intelligence work done for people on the ground, because then they can then be directed to more worthwhile stories.”
 

***
 

“She was kind of obsessed with a fan. It was initially on the ceiling, and she moved it, she moved it to the left, to the right. We didn’t understand why she was so obsessed with this fan. Until she recalled, when we did the walkthrough reconstruction, it was on the blades of the fan that she found human flesh.”

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman is showing me a video of a woman trying to remember the deaths of her family. She’s directing objects within a house – her home – in some off-the-shelf architectural 3D rendering software, the same software used to mock up the posters that hide empty construction pits from the sidewalk in cities around the world with images of laughing couples standing around island units in white marble kitchens. The aesthetic in this instance, however, is decidedly less upwardly-mobile – dirt floors, clay bricks and cheap furniture. There’s a fridge in the living room.

She lived with her family in Mir Ali, a town in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, when the US drone attack took place in October 2010. Her husband and two-year-old son, and three other people, are now dead, and the building no longer exists. The trauma of the event has left her memory incomplete, and her ability to act as a witness has been compromised.

When the render is complete she “enters” it virtually, and her spatial memories revive other, hidden ones. The BBC’s Sherlock uses a stylised “memory palace” as a gimmick to explain Holmes’ exceptional powers of recall, but the idea has its roots in antiquity – classical orators could remember long speeches by imagining a walk through a vast mansion, with the objects in each wing representing specific memories. “When we are building the space where everything happened, in detail, every element – every piece of furniture, utensil, anything – in there, somehow you see how memory kind of re-emerges through these objects and returns through these objects,” Weizman explains.

A still from Forensic Architecture’s Mir Ali report.

This is the work of Forensic Architecture (FA), a research and activist group made up of artists, architects, cultural theorists and legal experts, all seeking to use the evidence of space and structure in the investigation of conflict. Weizman is its leader, having founded it with a grant from the European Research Council in 2011. He’s professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, and something of a notorious figure within his field. In 2002 he presented settlements as his choice of the best of Israeli architecture at the International Union of Architects Congress in Berlin, attracting the ire of the Israeli establishment. His work since then, in books like Hollow Land, has looked at the ways in which violence is conducted with the built environment, with particular attention paid to the West Bank and Gaza. He was a fitting choice of subject for Al Jazeera’s recent series of short films, Rebel Architecture.

The Architecture of Violence, dir: Ana Naomi de Sousa.

There’s a philosophical framework to Forensic Architecture’s work. It’s about “turning the gaze against the state”, using methods of spatial analysis as forensic tools in an “inversion” of the normal judicial process. He calls this forensis, not forensics. (It’s also the title of the Forensic Architecture project book, subtitle: “The Architecture of Public Truth”.)

“There is a feature that is a constant in working against the state with technology, and that is an inversion of the most important and basic forensic principles – that states, ie the police, should see in high resolution, see better than the criminal,” Weizman explained to me over coffee in his east London home. “Because otherwise you have a space of denial, or negation, in which the criminal can always mobilise. Now what happens in forensis, rather than forensics, is an inversion of the forensic gaze. It’s no longer the state and its institutions that are investigating citizens or non-citizens, but society, organisations, individuals and political groups. They are inverting the forensic gaze and looking up to the state, for state crimes. But you’ll always be in epistemological or visual inferiority. You’ll always have less of a resolution.”

He points to drone strikes as an example, where targets are chosen with cameras which have resolution of perhaps a few centimetres, or even millimetres, per pixel. By comparison, commercial satellite imagery has a metre (or maybe only half a metre) per pixel. For anyone trying to use satellites to keep tabs on war zones – be it an individual with Google Maps, or even the UN – the evidence is unavailable because of technological limitations. “What you see is that unlike cases in Darfur, or Gaza, where you can take before and after [images], the UN can take before and after images and see what has been destroyed, [but] in drone strikes the rocket goes through the roof, and leaves a hole in the roof which is smaller than the size of the pixel,” Weizman said.

“A before and after would not show you any difference. That is an example of an epistemological visual inferiority that you have to invert – you have to think, what access do we have? What information do we have? What new modes of thinking allows us to undo that space of denial between the few millimetre pixel and half-millimetre pixel? That’s the space of denial. This is why the state can say it cannot see it – they can say, we neither confirm or deny.”

Forensis is a method of forcing the state to admit to the existence of a crime, even if it won’t admit to culpability. Weizman points to the etymology of the word forensics, meaning “before the forum”, and how physical evidence demands a judicial response. If there’s no evidence, or the evidence is in an inaccessible form, then violence goes unchecked. “Our work happens in frontier zones. Forensis is forensics where there is no law, and in international law, the forum comes after the evidence, and evidence would call forth a forum. The graves of Srebrenica called forth the ICTFY [International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia] to gather around the evidence, for example. This is why the entire universe of international law is very, very fragile.

“It’s being formed around the type of violations that are happening, and it continuously changes as the nature of war is changing and the nature of violations change. New types of weapons, drones for example, or semi-robotic weapons. It requires a different way of evidence gathering, and a different way of presentation.”

FA’s case files show what this means. There’s the “left-to-die boat”, where 63 migrants died in adrift in the Mediterranean in 2011, within an area under the observation of Nato as part of the then-revolution in Libya. Satellite images of the area were used to establish boat movement patterns, and commercial boating data was used to remove the boats with known identities from the picture. Mobile phone signals were used to triangulate the migrant boat’s drift, establishing its presence near many other boats – and therefore providing evidence for the charge that the crews of those boats committed a crime by failing to aid a vessel in distress.

A reconstruction of the drift of the migrant boat, with other vessels charted in the area. Image: Forensic Architecture.

In another example Weizman shows me (as part of a work-in-progress, for a case being prepared for submission to the UN), a shaky handheld video leaked to MSNBC of the aftermath of a drone strike is broken down into a series of still frames. “We build a panorama,” he explains. “So now we have the entire ruin, we look at different features – we see a bend in the road here, we see a high tower here – which are then pieced together to create a full image.” The exterior features place the video in a specific place in Waziristan, while the shadows reveal the time of day the strike happened. The end result is a 3D render of the interior and exterior of the building, down to the locations of the shrapnel holes in the living room walls.

“And then you see here, two shadows where there are less shrapnel,” he points out. “We think that this is the shadow of the people, their body would have absorbed that shrapnel. They have been photographed onto the wall, no? Architecture and the dead body kind of combines here.” These kinds of sources, whether from traditional or social media, are enhanced and turned into evidence with technology – and, in turn, that evidence compels a national or supranational legal authority to listen to a case brought before it.

There’s a kind of cat and mouse game at play here, Weizman says, as every time the public learns to outpace the state, the state teaches itself new methods to reinstate the gap in resolution. “I think that [the state] shouldn’t have the upper hand, and I think social media mobilisation is something that could close that gap. But I think actually it’s never in the technology because the state could scan social media too. It’s in the aesthetic sensibility, or ingenuity in which you mobilise it. This is why our forensic agency is organised with artists, filmmakers and architects. There are no scientists – we are trying to think like artists, and trying to think about it with the aesthetic sensibility of art.”

The erosion of the advantage social media gives us is also a persistent worry with the work of Higgins and bellingcat, and why so much effort is spent on both verifying information and making the process of verification clear for anyone to check. There have been multiple reports of “cyber armies” funded by nations around the world – be they the hackers of the Syrian Electronic Army, the botnet legions of Russia,  or Chinese Twitter accounts spreading anti-Free Tibet propaganda. (This is not something confined to geopolitical opponents of the West, it must be emphasised – intelligence agencies in the US and Europe are also “plugged in” to social media, sifting through it for relevant information, and it would be a surprise if they also were not running their own accounts to influence the online perception of breaking news.)

Higgins places his trust in the open source verification process as a way of eliminating the possibility of manipulated information, working in tandem with those who have proven themselves to be trustworthy gatekeepers. “These are individuals who build up a reputation, like myself, for being reliable,” he said. “People are collaboratively reviewing stuff, but you have the gatekeepers who do the final review, to make a judgement as to whether it's reliable. If you’re a gatekeeper and you start putting out stuff that's wrong, then you very rapidly lose your reputation. That’s the structure that’s developed, organically – the huge amount of information needs lots of people checking it, but also someone trusted to say it’s OK information. For example, if we’re looking at all this metal and the direction of the shrapnel, if we suddenly saw the shrapnel was coming in the other direction then we'd immediately be thinking ‘why is that different?’ That would be highlighted.”

He points to the last year’s work on the gas attacks in Damascus as an example of how “investigating all the things that it’s possible to investigate” creates a stronger case that’s more difficult to undermine with false information. “That involved tonnes of video footage, images, statements from people on the ground. When the White House published their map of who controlled the site on 21 August, the one area which was the likely launch site for the attacks was left blank – I was able to figure out, based on about 25 videos posted by a Russian-language news channel, where the government forces were. Then I was able to find footage from the opposition side attacking government forces in the area, which meant I could establish where the front lines were, and once I’d established the impact locations of the rockets that were fired we had a rough idea of what the range was, and we could say these rockets were in range of this government-controlled area.”

Another potential weakness in decentralised investigations is that their incompleteness can give a misleading impression – an example here being the attempts by users of reddit to identify the person responsible for bombing the Boston Marathon in 2013. It quickly became a witch hunt directed at brown-skinned men wearing backpacks in pictures of the crowd by the finishing line of the race, and fed into a larger panic over domestic terrorism which was eagerly encouraged by the tabloid press. One suspect in particular, a student named Sunil Tripathi, had been reported missing a month before the attack, and his family was distraught that their son was being named as a terrorist on the basis of one user mistakenly saying that they had heard his name mentioned on a police radio scanner. When Tripathi was found dead a week later, an apology from those who had jumped to conclusions did little to assuage their grief.

“It feels like there’s this frustration people have when they see this information on the internet and they don’t see it being reported in traditional news media, or if their government seems to be aware of it,” said Higgins. “It was interesting to see the response after the White House published their report on the 21 August gas attacks – the gap between what was coming out of the White House and what was coming out of my blog was absurd to a lot of people, especially when the UN report went on to agree with what I had.” He praises larger news organisations for “erring on the side of caution” when it comes to publishing source material that has been crowdsourced, and for limiting the loss of nuance as information gets passed from organisation to organisation.

The model for bellingcat isn’t just collaboration between individual armchair investigators, but also collaboration between traditional gatekeepers of information and those who are working outside of that framework – and Higgins believes traditional investigatory bodies will “really need to start engaging” with decentralised, crowdsourced methods of finding and analysing evidence.

Weizman, for his part, is keen to stress that architecture, like all technology, “can be used for good or bad things”, and finding ways to change the direction a piece of technology points is crucial part of his intellectual mission. Maybe – after all, the internet began as a military research project – we can see the work of crowdsourced conflict research as a kind of mob, storming the gates and turning something repressive into something liberating.

“The liberating is how you use it, and it usually happens at the moment of transformation,” he explains. “It happens in the first moment when you storm, or gain hold of, or enter a building that was used as a prison, a settlement, a military base and turn it into something else. I remember when the Palestinians first entered the military base in Beit Sahour [in the West Bank, where Weizman’s practice Decolonising Architecture has a studio] the first thing they wanted was to just smash it, there was something liberating about it. It was an incredibly powerful moment. The Palestinian police were trying to protect it and I thought it was wrong, because you need to let this spontaneous moment happen, that was the moment of transformation. And into those ruins we entered and we tried to convert it into something else.”

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

0800 7318496