ANDREW BRET WALLIS/OCEAN/CORBIS
Show Hide image

The keyboard and the spade

In the overdeveloped West, technology is making us forget what it truly means to be human.

Slit-planting is the easiest way to plant a bare root tree. It needs to be done in winter, when both the tree and the soil are dormant. We planted ours in February, and it was hard work: harder than I realised at the time. I am writing this in June, and my body still hasn’t recovered. My left arm is partly crippled by tendonitis, and my lower back is bad on some days and not so bad on others. My fingers and wrists begin to ache and tingle if I demand too much from them. This means that the acres of grass I have to scythe on my land are going uncut, and the place is running wild. I think I’m going to need to ask our neighbour to graze his horses in our field again, because I can’t do much else with it this year. My hands and my arms are currently not suited to serious physical work, as a direct result of my winter toils with the trees. That, and over twenty years of typing words like this into computers, which has frazzled the tendons and the nerves in my forearms possibly beyond repair. The spade and the keyboard are very different tools, but one thing they have in common is their ability to break the human body.

We planted around five hundred small trees here on our couple of acres in the west of Ireland. Most of them will end up in our woodstove: the idea is to be self-sufficient in heating as soon as possible. For this purpose, we’ve planted several blocks of birch, poplar and willow, which should have a coppice cycle of six or seven years. On top of that, we’ve put in about a hundred sticks of basket willow, in differing colours. We’ve also planted three hedges of native trees – rowan, more birch, spindle, holly, wild cherry, hazel, oak – to create windbreaks, shield us from the lane in front of the house and make some kind of offering for the birds around here. Perhaps it will distract their attention from our vegetable garden, which they are currently digging up daily.

The real work was in clearing the ground, most of which was covered thickly with a deep tangle of brambles and suckering blackthorns. When we moved to this little patch of land, we came with ideals, and one of them was to do our work by hand, with as little impact as possible. So we laid into the thorns and brambles, which must have been growing for decades, with scythes and mattocks and spades and machetes. It took weeks and weeks. The scratches were deep. The industrial-strength gloves we bought were torn to shreds. More than one mattock handle was broken. I have never seen suckers so thick or long, nor root balls so deep and woody. Even after weeks of clearing the ground by hand, we still had to hire a digger for a day to tear out the deepest of the roots and make the ground fit for planting.

After that, the planting itself was a doddle. To slit-plant a tree, you just push your spade into the ground up to the end of the blade, wiggle it back and forth until you have a wide enough slit and then drop the tree root into it. You cover the ground around the tree with newspaper, and then pile wet straw on top of that to mulch it. Finally, if your land attracts both rabbits and hares, which ours does, you wind a plastic spiral tree guard around the tiny trunk, and fortify it with a garden cane against the Atlantic winds.

Do that five hundred times, and you have a little forest. Better, you have a forest planted in a low-impact and ecological way. You have an endless supply of sustainable fuel for your sustainable household, and you have used minimal dirty fossil fuels in order to create it. You have taken some wasteland and made it into a diverse ecosystem. You have created a closed-loop system, and a mini carbon sink. You have also crippled yourself. But it was worth it.

At least, that’s what I thought I would be telling myself at this stage. But I’m not so sure any more.

I don’t mean that it wasn’t worth it. I would have liked to have done it without the consequent pain, but I don’t regret putting the trees in. This is the kind of thing we came here to do, and compared to a lot of what is done to agricultural land, it is a good thing. Maybe I can grow alongside these trees, and learn a little patience from them. Maybe we can leave this place better than we found it.

But I’m kidding myself if I think this was a “low-impact” enterprise, and I’m not just talking about the impact on my musculoskeletal system. It was a two-hour journey in my diesel-powered camper van to collect the trees in the first place. A heavy-duty mini-digger used up a day’s worth of fossil fuel to heave the root balls out of our land. And those are just the most obvious examples of our reliance on not-very-sustainable industrial technologies to put our little forest in. Consider the simple tools: the spade, the mattock, the machete, the scythe. All of them made of steel whose ore was dragged up from some mountain somewhere and smelted, shaped and tempered in a factory, then fixed to a machine-tooled handle made of wood from who-knows-where. All of them, like my gardening gloves and my wellies and my raincoat, and the plastic tree spirals and the newspaper and even the straw, products of a globe-spanning industrial economy which helped us to plant our low-impact trees in our low-impact garden.

Then, of course, there is the awkward fact that in order to plant these trees we had to cut down a lot of . . . trees. The trees that we chopped down were suckering blackthorn and bramble, mainly. They were not useful or attractive to us, whereas the ones we planted were. I give this an ecological gloss by talking up the fact that we have planted a diversity of native species, but whichever way I cut it, we have cleared a wilderness in order to plant crops. The product of those crops might be firewood or basket willow or natural beauty or human contentment or protection against the elements, but they are crops nevertheless, and the things they replaced were wild plants growing without any human intervention.

It turns out that living a simpler life can be quite complicated.

***

I was about a quarter of the way in to What Technology Wants before I realised I was reading a religious text. What Technology Wants is a book published a few years back by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and a significant spokesman for what we might call the Silicon Valley Mindset. It takes the reader through the historical development of technology and into a future in which, Kelly believes, technology will be a living force which controls our destiny.

Kelly starts by leading us on a journey through the development of technology, or perhaps more accurately, the idea of technology. The idea, he suggests, is a fairly new one. Though human beings have been using tools since they first dug holes with sticks, and though the Greeks and Romans invented everything from iron welding and the bellows through to blown glass and watermills, there was no sense that this collection of useful artefacts was anything more than the sum of its parts. “Technology could be found everywhere in the ancient world except in the minds of humans,” writes Kelly. That changed in 1802, when, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, the German professor Johann Beckmann coined the word “technology” to refer to the “systemic order” of tools and machines that were beginning to take over many of the functions previously assumed by humans.

That was just over two hundred years ago. Before that, a spade and mattock were just a spade and a mattock: useful additions to life which made work easier. After that, they were part of something bigger, at least in Kelly’s telling. Kelly is a techno-utopian, and to him, this thing called “technology” is not just a collection of tools and machines but “a living force”. He calls this force “the technium”, and he describes it as a “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”, which is now on the verge of taking on its own life and its own mind.

It is this last claim that makes his book so interesting. You can find plenty of people who will argue, as Kelly does, that technology will save us from pretty much every problem on Earth, if only we would trust it. Techno-utopianism is a subset of the contemporary religion of Progress, into which we are all baptised at birth. In this reading, the benefits of modern technology – fewer deaths in childbirth, dental hygiene, the ability to tweet a picture of what you had for breakfast to someone on the other side of the planet – are talked up, while its drawbacks – nuclear bombs, mass extinction, climate change, viral videos of Korean pop hits – are glossed over. This is the standard narrative of modernity, and arguing against it is likely to see you labelled a “Romantic Luddite” at best and a reactionary hater of “the poor” at worst.

This line, though, usually comes with a denial that our increasingly complex technologies could ever be anything other than inanimate servants. You will hear from its proponents that “technology is neutral”, or that “technologies are neither good nor bad: it depends what we do with them”. This is where Kelly stands out, because he is having none of this. He shares with technology’s sternest critics a controversial but, I think, correct perspective: that the huge web of ­advanced technologies we have built around us is now so central to our lives, so complex and interconnected and fast-evolving, that it is becoming an autonomous thing, separate from humanity, though currently still dependent on it. This thing is the technium.

Kelly claims that the technium is “as great a force in our world as nature”; indeed, it is itself a force of evolution. Technological life, like biological life, tends towards more complexity, interdependence and intelligence, because “technology and life share some fundamental essence”. We are now so symbiotic with technology, so dependent upon it, that “if all technology – down to the very last knife and spear – were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months”. This means that trying to resist the march of the technium is futile and self-defeating. Instead we must “surrender to its advances” and “listen to what it wants”. This will involve us giving up some measures of freedom, but in return, we will “unleash human potential”, which will lead to “deep progress” as we merge with machines and become greater than we could possibly imagine.

If this sounds like the marginal outpourings of a starry-eyed techno-creationist, it’s worth understanding how influential Kelly and his co-thinkers are. His generation of Silicon Valley techno-hippies includes the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, the neo-green coterie who cluster around Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the influential booster of
the post-human future Ray Kurzweil, whose techno-utopianism makes Kevin Kelly looked like a barefoot pilgrim.

Kurzweil is the most famous promoter of the concept of the “Singularity”, through which humanity will merge with machines to create a new super-species. He is looking forward to living for ever, and he is working on technologies that will enable much that is currently inanimate to become a living, web-embedded presence in the physical world. In May this year, he offered up a list of predictions as to where the technium would take us in the near future. Within a decade, he said, self-driving cars, communicating with each other and co-ordinating their own movements, would be ubiquitous on the roads. Before that, within five years, current internet search engines would begin to give way to algorithmic “personal assistants”, which could “annotate reality” for you. They could “listen in to a conversation, giving helpful hints”, or even “suggest an anecdote that would fit into your conversation in real time”.

Not long after, they will be followed by full-immersion virtual-reality computer games. “To fully master the tactile sense, we have to actually tap into the nervous system,” he explains. “We’ll be able to send little devices, nanobots, into the brain and capillaries and they’ll provide additional sensory signals, as if they were coming from your real senses. You could, for example, get together with a friend, even though you are hundreds of thousands of miles apart, and take a virtual walk on a virtual Mediterranean beach and hold their hand and feel the warm spray of the moist air in your face.” By 2040, even that will be bettered by the technium’s ability to help us “stay young for ever”. Once we can get “little robots in the bloodstream that augment your immune system”, immortality won’t be far away.

Once upon a time, this kind of thing was held up by science-fiction writers as a warning about the dangers of human hubris. Today, Ray Kurzweil is the director of engineering at Google. None of us should be in any doubt: this is the future. It has been long planned, and it is under development. The technium is coming for you. How will you advance to meet it?

***

When I was a teenager, I had my head in a science-fiction book much of the time. So when I hear of Kurzweil’s desire to insert tiny robots into his brain so that he can be dropped, Matrix-like, into a perfect simulation of a beach walk with a distant friend, I can understand it at the same time as feeling horrified by it. Back in the day, I was looking forward, as Ray presumably still is, to living for ever and having robot servants and slingshotting around the moons of Jupiter while I watched attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. Seen from one perspective – excited, can-do, replete with a certain kind of uncomplicated modernist optimism – there is nothing more thrilling than this stuff. Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly still see it from this perspective. Why don’t I?

I ask myself this question sometimes, and I think, in the end, it’s because I don’t want to be liberated in the way that they
do. Liberation is a word that occurs again and again in the writings of the apostles of the technium. In this reading, life is a project of progressive liberation, of the throwing off of shackles, of being the best we can be. Evolution is like a giant self-help manual. Kurzweil wants to liberate us from “the outdated software of our bodies”. Kelly wants to go even further: the technium, he says, can free us not only from our limiting physical frames, but from nature and time:

Technology’s dominance ultimately stems not from its birth in human minds but from its origin in the same self-organisation that brought galaxies,

planets, life and minds into existence. It is part of a great asymmetrical arc that begins at the Big Bang and extends into ever more abstract and immaterial forms over time. The arc is the slow yet irreversible liberation from the ancient imperative of matter and energy.

Advanced technology, in other words, will one day liberate us from the universe. It’s an astonishing claim, and it’s worth dwelling on, because this is the point at which the technium becomes a religious concern. Kelly acknowledges that its advance will lead to – indeed, already is leading to – the “erosion of the traditional self” and that the rise of the machine and our increasing dependence upon it “chips away at human dignity”. The ultimate endpoint of this is likely to be the abolition of humanity as we know it, but the flipside of the bargain is that this “liberation” will lead to “increasing the options, choices and possibilities” of all living things.

A transcendent force exists which is beyond the power and understanding of ­humanity, though which is also entwined closely with it. This force can liberate us from earthly misery and transport us into an eternal paradise in which we will be changed, but only if we surrender to its will. Doesn’t this sound like a certain kind of religious story? I can’t help seeing the ­narrative being spun out by Kelly and ­Kurzweil and all of their Silicon Valley stablemates as a new story of silicon transcendence: a story about the death of God and His replacement in the modern mind by machines which can do His, and humanity’s, job better.

***

Planting my trees was a technological endeavour. In using even the basic tools, I was locking myself into a global web of technological interdependence. Does that mean that the innocent project of planting trees is itself a part of the technium, rather than an escape from it? Kelly would say so, and in one sense he’d be right. There is no escape from our tools, from our technologies, from the part of ourselves that we have put into them. We are what we do and what we make and what we use, and everything is dependent upon everything else.

But there is something missing from this perspective. Yes, I was tied in to the industrial economy when I planted my trees. But if the industrial economy were to disappear tomorrow, could I still plant them? Yes, I could, though I may not want to. Both may give you sore arms, but there is a difference between a keyboard and a spade. A spade can still be made fairly simply. It doesn’t need constant energy to keep going. It can last a long time, if you treat it well, rather like your body. A keyboard and a spade are both products of an industrial economy, but not to the same extent, and they do not have the same purpose. One can exist independently, the other cannot. This might be a matter of degrees, but the degrees matter – and so does the intent.

There’s another point too, and perhaps a more important one: nobody ever got addicted to a spade. Yet we are surely addicted to the technium. Walk down a street in any city and count the number of people whose eyes are glued to their smartphones as they walk. Sit in a café and count the number of children who are staring at tablet computers instead of into the eyes of their equally net-bound parents. We are stuck in a web, caught in a net, and I’m not sure we could escape now if we wanted to. But we don’t want to. Our astonishing ability to accept virtually anything the digital world throws at us without questioning its downside sometimes sends shivers down my spine.

I don’t want to sound like I’ve read too much science fiction, but I’m on board with both Kelly and Kurzweil to this extent: this thing is bigger than us now. It is developing a degree of autonomy, and it is using us, somehow, to create itself. I know this sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s not really a theory, it’s more of a hunch: a conspiracy feeling. We are surrendering the freedom to be human in exchange for the freedom to live in confected dreams: dreams in which nature is dead, except for the pretty bits, and bad things never happen, and nobody dies, and there is nothing to life but entertainment, and everything we see we can control, because we have created it. Maybe we long for this pseudo-life. Perhaps we want the beauty and the transcendence without the darkness and the danger. Maybe that’s what the promises of heaven were always about, in the end.

Kevin Kelly and Ray Kurzweil don’t agree on everything, but what they do agree on seems to be shared by the team running Google, by the masters of the hyper-real universe who work in Silicon Valley, and by the intellectual classes across the “devel­oped” world. They agree that the future is hyper-digital, web-embedded and virtual. We are in for a world of wearable technology and smart homes, self-driving cars, synthetic life forms in the fields and forests and an accelerating merger between carbon and silicon, human and machine, natural and artificial, until the boundaries have blurred so much that nobody can tell the difference, and everyone has long since stopped caring.

I’m sure it’s unfair to Kevin Kelly, but halfway through his book I found myself suddenly remembering the anti-modern denunciations of Oliver Mellors, the randy gamekeeper in D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I went to look up the exact words, and they made me smile:

“Motor-cars and cinemas and aeroplanes suck that last bit out of them. I tell you, every generation breeds a more rabbity generation, with indiarubber tubing for guts and tin legs and tin faces. Tin people! It’s all a steady sort of bolshevism just killing off the human thing, and worshipping the mechanical thing . . . All the modern lot get their real kick out of killing the old human feeling out of man . . .”

When I read Kelly on the technium or Kurzweil on the Singularity, when I hear Sergey Brin enthusing over his Google Glasses or see Mark Zuckerberg predicting wearable technology or smart fridges, I can’t help thinking how many more rabbity generations we are further on from old Mellors and his Lady. My generation “needs” technologies my parents never did, and my children’s will “need” even more. Perhaps in the overdeveloped West we’ve just forgotten what it means to be human in the world. Or perhaps this is what it means to be human: innovating, remaking, building until the foundations give way. Perhaps we will all end up as tin people, or silicon people, all the old human feeling killed, and we’ll not know that it was ever different. Perhaps that has already happened.

Maybe Kevin Kelly would say that I have less faith in humanity than he does, but in a way I think I have more. Being human is hard work. It hurts. Being a machine must be a lot easier. Maybe this explains the apparent desire of some of us to merge with our creations. We are becoming machines, and our machines are becoming gods; or we think they are. Kelly certainly does, and I suspect he is not alone. “[W]e can see more of God in a cellphone than in a tree frog,” he contends in his book’s fascinating and disturbing climax:

 

The phone extends the frog’s four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds. Some day we may believe the most convivial technology we can make is not a testament to human ingenuity but a testament of the holy . . . The intricate, unfathomable layers of logic built up over a century, borrowed from rainforest ecosystems and woven together into beauty by millions of active synthetic minds, will say what redwoods say, only louder, more convincingly: “Long before you were here, I am.”

 

***

 

It’s a few weeks now since I began writing this essay. It’s sunny this morning, beautifully so. There are three white mares cropping the grass in our field, and today I spent an hour mowing the grass around the young trees with my scythe. My elbow still hurts, but I have found some exercises which seem to be improving it. We dug a pond next to the alder trees last week and it’s full of water beetles already. I don’t know where they came from. Nature’s ability to rejuvenate itself, to
be born and born and born again, never ceases to come in at me when I least expect it.

You can spend too much time with thoughts of the future. The future, after all, doesn’t exist. Step away from those thoughts, get blisters on the heels of your hands and mess up your arms, and you begin to see what actually does. Your perspective adjusts. Today, sitting here in the sun, I can’t see anything of God in my mobile phone, but He, She or It seems to be dancing all over the buttercups and red clover in the meadow before me. Watching the dance, I think we have far less control over the world than Ray Kurzweil believes we do, and that the future is less ordained than Kevin Kelly wants it to be. I don’t know what’s coming, but I just saw a heron fly past my open window on its way to the river. The grasses are moving in the wind that is coming in from the west. Soon enough, we’ll see. 

Paul Kingsnorth is the author of “The Wake”, which was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A longer version of this essay first appeared in “Technê”, published by the Dark Mountain Project: dark-mountain.net

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

RAY TANGT/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution