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The Islamist zero hour

The unique threat posed by Isis has been analysed in depth. But how should the West respond in practice?

Living under the rule of Da’esh (the self-described Islamic State) would undoubtedly be horrific. Even if you accept that some of those apparent enthusiasts for the Rule of the Saints whom Da’esh interviews in Mosul, Raqqa or Deir az-Zour for its ­sequence of video postings do mean it – and aren’t just worrying about the guys in the background with beards, AK-47s and hunting knives – you have to assume that most people do not want to live in a world where every cigarette, every tune that springs to the lips, every morning shave, every slip of the veil, any expression of disgust at the dropping of helpless men from tall buildings, the enslavement of minorities or a flicker of aberrant sexual desire could lead to instant execution.

Just reading about all of this is bad enough. I do a lot of it for professional reasons. And I sometimes want to scream. It’s not because the quality of the commentary is low. Quite the contrary. There is an impressive debate out there – in a dozen languages – about how Islamic the group is, possible links to the Ba’ath Party and the former Iraqi army, the significance of its particular form of Islamism for the regional and international order, about its relationship to other Islamist groups, what we are doing wrong in countering its model of violent extremism, how it is or isn’t a state, how many fighters it has (30,000? 100,000?), whether it is more or less of a threat than al-Qaeda, why we shouldn’t say it is new and why we should (sometimes in the same piece), about whether religion is a helpful category at all, how we should explain apparently significant levels of popular support and whether political science has all the answers.

Most recently, I’ve read that Da’esh represents a Dostoevskyan revolt against the unenchantment of the world, the bad faith of anomic individualism, global capitalism and that pantomime villain, neoliberalism, with hundreds of millions of wannabe Raskolnikovs pausing on the bridge of ­history before taking their revenge. All of this to ghostly cheers from Carlyle, Schopenhauer and other prophets of the alienation apocalypse.

Yet none of this flood of commentary, it seems to me, has had any impact on real-world policy responses – either regionally, from China, Russia or India, or from the west. Is this a dialogue of the deaf, the usual disconnect between practitioners and the commentariat? Is it the inevitable consequence of some scholars’ distaste for “peddling their wares in the service of the state” (perish the thought). Is it the self-importance of theorists? Is it the sheer pressure of events on policymakers and military planners – or perhaps their ignorance? Or is something more profound going on?

Three months ago, I was in Naypyidaw talking to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about precisely these issues (and yes, we also discussed the Rohingya). We’d had occasional conversations about the Middle East and sacralised extremism when I was British ambassador to Burma between 1999 and 2002, but the topic has a new resonance now. At the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore a few days earlier, the focus had been not just on the expansion of the Sinosphere, as you might expect, but also on the rise of various forms of violent or exclusionary Islamism.

This worries the Muslim-majority states of south-east Asia; it worries Burma and Thailand, which face a visceral reaction from majority Buddhists to the apparent threat; and it worries China, which has problems in Xinjiang and keeps a wary eye on Afghanistan, and whose New Silk Road is designed to drive through the Asian heartlands of Islam to the Gulf and Europe, both of which also face the same apparently intractable threat.

This is no longer some exotic subject, confined to area specialists and policy wonks, and representing a specific material challenge within the context of one or two regional state systems. It is global, surfing world networks of communication, exchange and trade. It is transnational. And above all it is ideational: that is to say, the claims made by certain forms of political Islamism about the nature of the state, the meaning of Islam, the character of the authentically Muslim, the relationship between the sacred and the profane, the ungodliness of human political dispensations, and the religious duty to replace them by force if necessary, represent a more serious and sustained challenge to the stability and security of the Middle East than bombs, missiles, guns and knives. Most of these claims are not new. Many of them figure in disputes that Islamic historiography tells us go back to the earliest days of the faith. But they have resonated down the centuries, shape the expression of 21st-century grievances and are associated with modern forms of communication and political mobilisation that amplify their impact.

In late 2009, a few months before the most important general elections in Iraq since 2003, the so-called De-Ba’athification Committee, the Robespierrean mechanism established under the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 to purge Iraq’s body politic of Ba’athism, was suddenly reactivated. I was the British ambassador at the time. I was warned by Sunni leaders – and by secular Shia politicians such as Iyad Allawi – that this was simply designed to emasculate any opposition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Iranian backers: it represented a resectarianisation of Iraqi politics and would lead to disaster. Some important diplomatic colleagues disagreed. But Allawi and his allies were right. With a few others, I tried to fight against the tide. We failed.

In early 2011, as Maliki strengthened his grip on power with no noticeable impact on the quality of government or provision of services or welfare across the country as a whole, I thought the protests in Baghdad and elsewhere against the government’s failure to govern in the common interest might lead to such pressure that the gov­ernment would be forced to reconstitute itself as a more efficient, less partisan actor. I was wrong. The lure of power was too strong. And the protests, which culminated with the violent clearing of the mass Sunni protest site in Hawija, near Kirkuk, in April 2013, went rogue.

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In Abu Dhabi a few weeks ago, I sat late at night with my old friend Dr Rafi ­al-Issawi, the Sunni former finance minister of Iraq. He was one of the very few senior figures – Sunni or Shia – in Iraq during my time there who was prepared to reach out across sectarian boundaries and think creatively about political solutions to essentially political problems. He still does. Perhaps that is how a medical director who kept his hospital open during the savage battles for Fallujah in 2004, one of the most effective of all the Sunni politicians in Iraq and a man of integrity, is bound to think. His reward? Attempted assassination and then exile on trumped-up charges of supporting terrorism.

We talked of ways to bring the Sunnis back into a political process – as they had been brought back, often by themselves, between 2005 and 2008. I had the same conversation a few days later in Amman, and have done so again in the past week in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, with other Iraqi friends and politicians. Others have identical aspirations. But the Sunni leadership in Iraq, never cohesive, is now even more fragmented than it was in 2011. And the divisions along the lines of identity in Iraq, a country that the distinguished late Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi once characterised as defined by multiple parallel identities, are deeper than ever before.

This represents the triumph of those who have sought to instrumentalise sectarian identities in the pursuit of power: to demonise Sunnis as closet Ba’athists who want revenge, to terrify the Shias with the prospect of renewed oppression, and to claim that security in a state such as Iraq (and by implication the wider region) is assured only through the communal protection afforded by the political expression of essentialist identities. And Da’esh is the flipside. Its appeal in Iraq and elsewhere is powerful. It claims to see through the broken promises and conspiracies of the past decade – ­indeed, the past century, and sometimes the past millennium. It offers a new, sacred, transnational and at the same time territorial model of righteousness. More importantly, it offers a framework within which to construe the pain of dispossession, the loss of power, the rise of others less devout, less deserving, less human. Not only does it claim to answer the question of why sinners’ ways prosper, but by framing the entire issue as one of godliness, it provides a divine dispensation for anything and everything that advances the practical goal of recapturing power and wreaking revenge on an infidel and hostile world. It combines an appeal to faith, tribalism (more precisely to asabiyya, the group solidarity that the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun identified 600 years ago as the driver of cohesion but also of cyclical conflict in the societies he knew), resentment and the promise of glory.

The mobilisation of identity in the service of combatant politics is hardly exclusive to Da’esh. We see it elsewhere: nationalist identity in China, nationalist-Buddhist in the case of Burma, ethno-religious in Malaysia, sectarian and religious in the case of Islamist movements and some states across the Muslim world. We saw it in the Balkans in the 1990s. We also see a wide use of modern communications techniques to create and then exploit allegedly ancient passions and fears; the mobilisation of grievances; the deliberate destruction of individual and social solidarity; and the construction of radically simplified, harshly communal but powerful forms of connectivity.

The use of purposeful and often sacralised narratives to shape the approach to secular political goals may not be new. They were as much a feature of early-17th-century Europe as of Baghdad in 2010 or Cairo in 2013: think Anabaptist Münster or the English Fifth Monarchists.

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But, it seems to me, what is new in the case of Da’esh is the striking combination of a number of features: the clarity of its transnationalism; the speed, professionalism and discipline with which its global religio-identity narratives are produced and flexed; the way these are backed by an encompassing Islamist jurisprudence (look, say, at Turki Binali’s Muqarrar fi al-Tawhid – Da’esh’s basic coursebook); the skill with which they are harnessed to its political goals. There is also the subtlety with which it tracks and shapes opinion (the first message was “we stop genocide in Syria”; then “we champion Sunnis in Iraq”; then “we build a service state”; then “we are a righteous caliphate”); and the effectiveness (so far) of its hybrid military operations in the Syria/Iraq theatre and its stripped-back crowdsourcing model. All these features are linked by a complex thread – the studied marketing of a constructed identity, or performativity, as the theorists say: this is designed to reinforce Da’esh’s self-image as a rightly guided eschatological and millenarian movement, to convey what one analyst calls “a sense of apocalyptic time”, but also to proclaim the temporal success of such an enterprise and communicate purpose while the world watches.

When in July 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stood up in his black robes and turban at the great mosque of Nur ad-Din Zengi in Mosul to proclaim the caliphate, he was implicitly claiming to be the heir of the Abbasids (scourges of Ummayad decadence) and of Nur ad-Din’s celebrated military commander, Salah ad-Din (scourge of the Crusaders) – a righteous religious and secular leader and a conqueror. That resonates in a region where history happened yesterday. This is a movement that wants to seem not just blessed and rooted in a mythical past but also profanely effective in a present that holds a mirror to the past.

It is irrelevant whether any of this reflects reality (whatever that may mean). The Da’esh narrative shows a striking disdain for what most of us understand to be the intractable complexity of the world as it is and the unknowability of the future.

This seems to me profoundly significant. It is not that I think we are helpless in the face of Da’esh and its analogues. We are not – though sometimes it can seem so as news breaks of yet another atrocity or another wilayat declaring its loyalty.

We almost certainly exaggerate its power and its appeal. Da’esh controls strips of the most impoverished and sparsely populated parts of Iraq and Syria. We talk of those Muslims who go to fight: but we do not attempt to explain why most Muslims do not (and may even exaggerate the numbers that do). Those who glimpse the long-awaited revolt of humanity against the Weltgeist fail to explain why so many of those Iraqi Sunnis who fought against the coalition between 2003 and 2007 later fought with the coalition for the right to be part of what they hoped would be a new, pluralist state reintegrated into a global economy. There may be significant sympathy in the region for Da’esh as an expression of Sunni revanchism, and confusion about exactly how Islamic Da’esh is. But all credible opinion polling shows a consistently low level of support for its political project: claims to the contrary are unsourced. Indeed, alongside that sympathy, the widespread belief in the region even among the educated elite, that Da’esh is a US-led conspiracy against Arabs, perhaps reflects both familiar refusal of personal agency and a deep unease that such a project might in fact succeed.

What we saw consistently throughout the so-called Arab spring was that ordinary people throughout the Middle East wanted respect, security for themselves and their families, institutional stability, education for their children, better services and an economy that provided decent jobs. They wanted better practical outcomes, not demented visionaries.

We also underestimate the resilience of the state system in the Middle East. I do not think it is about to disintegrate. Some of it certainly has: but that is more about the failings and the crimes of leaders such as Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein – and because of often ill-judged and uncoordinated interventions by the US, the UK, France, Russia, Iran, Turkey or other regional actors. There is a lot of nonsense talked about Sykes-Picot. All the evidence suggests that people in the Middle East rather like their national identities and generally feel Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Saudi, Bahraini, Emirati and so forth as well as or before feeling Arab or Amazigh or Muslim or Christian. The late Yasser Arafat used to tell me that Palestinian Christians were an essential part of Palestinian society. They were the yeast – al-khamirah – that leavened identity and blended it with the land. Otherwise, the lure of de-territorialised extremism would be too strong. That applies to all unrooted monocultures, which is precisely why Da’esh seeks to create them. But we in the west, policy practitioners and academic analysts alike, can still seem paralysed in the face of this challenge. It is as if we are simply dazzled by the account that Da’esh gives of itself. If we are not dazzled, we are ignorant.

An article in the Guardian last month by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, hailed the Iran nuclear agreement as a “disaster for Isis”. “There is nothing more worrisome to Isis than co-operation between ‘the west’ and the Muslim world,” she wrote, “for it defies the narrative of a clash of civilisations the group is trying to revive.” But Da’esh does not understand the Muslim world in this sense. It is specific: authentic Muslims believe in tawhid (the indivisibility of God and His order) and hakimiyyah (the absolute sovereignty of God, which invalidates human constructs such as non-sharia legal systems and electoral democracy), reject tawaghit (a Quranic word meaning roughly “idolatry” or “an illegitimate object of worship”, used to damn all current Arab regimes) and have nothing to do with kuffar (infidels).

So the sort of co-operation that Mogherini proposes – between those whom Da’esh despises as Rawafid (Shias, therefore infidels or apostates) and Nasarah (Christians, therefore polytheists and infidels) – precisely proves their point. If we are to do better, and we must, then how do we understand the nature of the policy challenge better and what do we and others do about it?

When, after Rangoon, I was posted as consul general to Jerusalem in May 2003, within a couple of months or so there were three major terrorist attacks in the city, two involving suicides and one a car bomb. As ambassador in Baghdad from 2009 to 2011, I became inured to the crump of a car bomb at entrances to the Green Zone or the sudden rush of a mortar overhead. Military colleagues were still being targeted with IEDs, EFPs and RDX. Violence against civilians remained too high. But it had plateaued. Al-Qaeda’s successor, the Islamic State in Iraq, was apparently bankrupt and isolated. Even in 2011 in Libya, when there were at least two attempts by Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s sinister henchman, to blow us up, I thought this was a passing phase, the terror of a dying regime in a single country.

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I was wrong yet again. Nothing comes from nothing. And you have to go back to the beginning to understand properly what we are seeing. That means at least as far as Ismailiya in March 1928: Hassan al-Banna later claimed that it was here he recruited, from the Suez Canal Company, the first six members of his new Muslim Brotherhood, the first mass political movement driven by the idea of religious rather than national identity in a modern Arab state. The Brotherhood did not emerge from a vacuum. It had roots in the Muslim reformist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as in the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the disappointments of the Paris Peace Conference and the compromises of Sèvres. You could trace in their thinking a mix of modernist, Salafi, Sufi, Egyptian nationalist and, indeed, Syrian influences. But they were new in the sense that al-Banna brought all this together for the first time in the Arab world in order, like certain radical European movements of the time, including the Italian Partito Nazionale Fascista and later the Spanish Falange, to pose a bold challenge to a modern state through techniques of mass mobilisation, linked to a set of ideas about tradition that was often invented and informed by a simplified and directly personal way of encountering foundational texts.

The Brotherhood has never been al-Qaeda or Da’esh, though it has often had, in its various manifestations, an ambiguous and situational attitude to sectarianism and use of violence (ask the Alawites who fled Aleppo between 1978 and 1982, Egyptian Christians and Shias, or many Libyans today).

But they and counterparts such as Abul-A’la al-Maududi and Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in Pakistan and India introduced a lasting set of ideas into the mainstream of political debate in the Muslim world – a restored caliphate; sharia as an unchallengeable and eternal body of God-given law regulating individual, social and political behaviours; the vague aspiration for a more authentically Islamic state; Sayyid Qutb’s thinking about jahiliyya (the pre-Islamic state of religious ignorance, reinterpreted to anathematise modern Muslim states); combined with quasi-Gramscian notions of political struggle and national/transnational reculturation. These ideas have provided the template for all subsequent movements, whatever their actual preference for manoeuvre against or frontal assault on the institutions of the modern Arab state.

After the suppression of the Egyptian Brotherhood by Nasser in 1954, its members scattered – across the Middle East, later into Europe and then the United States. In the Gulf in particular, sponsored often by governments for their own purposes, Brotherhood mobilisation and political activism became a model for independent-minded Salafi groups that rejected the accommodationist establishment. In turn, elements of the Brotherhood adopted certain Salafi approaches: a more intense and literalist focus on the foundational texts, an emphasis on the political application of tawhid (which brought politics into the sphere of the divine) and a rigorous conservatism in exegesis, personal behaviour and religious practice. There were parallels in Shia Islam, with Ali Shari‘ati acting as midwife to a heterodox imamism, previously foreign to Twelver Shiism, which hijacked a revolution. Shari‘ati died in Southampton before he could see the full impact of his ideas. Ali Khamenei translated Sayyid Qutb into Persian.

It was out of this intellectual ferment that other streams of activist and often far more violent Islamism arose: al-Jihad, al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya (GaI) and Takfir wal-Hijrah in Egypt, Jamaah Salafiyyah al-Muhtasibah in the Gulf (including Juhaiman al-Otaybi and his group, which sought to seize the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979), various strands of the so-called Islamic Sahwa (“awakening”) in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s and eventually al-Qaeda and its offspring. This is the stage on which Da’esh now struts.

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Yet some respected commentators tell us that perhaps Da’esh isn’t that bad: look at the appalling brutality at the root of all modern European states, with their ritualised and theatrical acts of foundational violence. That didn’t turn out so badly, did it? But cutting people up in the 13th century, or indeed in 1661, was normative. Everybody did it. The Buddhist kings of imperial Burma, like the Turks and their enemies in eastern Europe, impaled their opponents. The Golden Horde made mountains of skulls. In 1571 the defeated Venetian governor of Cyprus, Marcantonio Bragadin, was flayed alive by Lala Mustafa Pasha after a promise of safe conduct. If you were from an English noble family in 1470 you had probably seen half your male relatives beheaded or hacked to death.

But we don’t do this today, and to suppose that what Da’esh does follows in a long tradition of state foundation is wrong. Its use of mediatised terror is deliberately and spectacularly transgressive: that is why we pay attention. Da’esh claims to wish to destroy the state system not just in the region but the entire world. And any practices or institutions of state that it produces in its place are not obviously designed to appeal to a shared past that might, in the eyes of some, become a common future. They seem designed instead to overturn all the assumptions on which we and the states of the region base our notions of civic, social and political behaviour. This is an Islamist Stunde Null (zero hour).

At the same time, nothing Da’esh does is individually new. We’ve seen theatrical brutality before. We’ve seen claims to resurrect the caliphate before: by one count, 19 jihadi proto-states (mostly short-lived) between 1989 and 2015. We’ve seen transnationalism and, at the same time, attempts to expand specific territorial control before. We’ve seen takfirism and religiously inspired eschatological nihilism before. We’ve seen the popular use of social media to spread violent jihad and disaffection from society before. But we haven’t seen these features combined and directed with the clarity, speed and tactical adaptiveness of Da’esh. It has internalised and acted on all the lessons radical jihadi groups have learned, certainly since 1979 and probably since Nasser’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s. The Da’esh forces are market leaders in a form of savage ideological puritanism, designed to appeal not locally or regionally, but to an archipelagic network of supporters and sympathisers scattered throughout the world. We – western and regional governments – talk about lessons learned but mostly only ever succeed in identifying them. We lack nimbleness, we sometimes lack knowledge and we seem to lack determination. Violent extremists have to adapt rapidly or die.

So is it inevitable that western powers, when faced with apparently intransigent movements that sustain the capacity to act, will simply fail? If so, why? If not, what should we do, and how can experts and practitioners help each other?

In the end, Da’esh can be defeated militarily. That has to be our immediate shared objective. Defeat deprives Da’esh of the narrative of success foretold – a common theme among Islamist movements. The consequences of not doing so are terrible, for the peoples of Syria, Iraq and the wider region. I happen to think they are also terrible for the world. Armed conflict between states globally may be shrinking but it is increasing at a destructive, substate level. So are the piles of victims, most of them Muslim and in the Middle East, with over 230,000 in Syria alone. And newly emerging forms of conflict, some cyber-related, create an important non-material dimension.

Da’esh comprehends both the material and the ideological. It may not represent the same threat at the moment to the security of western states as al-Qaeda. But doing nothing to stop it in its heartlands of Iraq and Syria corrodes the very notion of international order, an indispensable aspiration, whatever you may think of the reality.

Such a defeat can be procured only on the back of a new, widely shared understanding of what security means in the region. This cannot be imposed by lectures or arise out of university seminars or pious hopes. It requires patience, partnerships with states in the Middle East sharing the same goals, better command-and-control systems, more effective intelligence collection, the sort of sustained, informed and frank analysis that we have recently lacked – and adequate resourcing. Aid and military force are the handmaidens of politics, not autonomous instruments in their own right; and area experts have a public responsibility at times like these.

It also requires political will and a high level of ambition. This is in short supply after the experiences of Iraq and Libya. The west and the key Sunni Arab states still
often talk past each other. It also requires the US, post the Iran deal, to act as convener. I understand why this might not seem attractive to many Americans or, perhaps, to some in the region. But if you think the Arab and Islamic worlds are important, I don’t see an alternative. Nudges will not work: they usually produce tactical responses and alliances of convenience. And half-hearted containment is an admission of impotence. What is required is full-scale re-engagement.

In a region where there is no natural balance of power, little prospect of one emerging (in my view) and a lack of capacity to deal with a multitude of simultaneous challenges, only the US will do.

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I would love Britain and the European Union to be part of this effort. That will require a more convincing public account of the global common interest than we collectively have at present, when all too often a form of political as well as economic mercantilism reigns on all sides and gestures take the place of thought. And we can do without the narcissism of much foreign-policy posturing.

The basis for such a new coalition can only be found in a new seriousness of purpose that looks not for eye-catching initiatives, but for a sober and sincerely joint appreciation of the threat, together with a commitment by all concerned to see the task through together, buttressed by a recommitment to the international rule of law. That would probably require a reshaped Nato and UN as well. One can dream.

Even then the wider challenge will remain. This is not because Da’esh is materially powerful and will endure. It may collapse under the weight of its own brutal contradictions, even though it seems to have been able so far to replenish combat losses successfully and has developed significant extractive financing mechanisms. It is rather because it represents the latest manifestation of a metastasising idea that has shown an extraordinary capacity to survive and sustain in different shapes a challenge to the legitimacy of the post-colonial state order, not only in the Middle East but in the Islamic world more generally. Whatever you may think of this order, the events of the past four years have shown beyond doubt that a remedy for whatever discontents exist can be found not through radical rupture, revolution or accommodation, but only through collaborative effort, through a willingness to use collective force where force is justified and where force can be effective, and through the sort of socio-political evolution that revolutionary violence makes impossible.

This is fundamentally a struggle within Sunni Islam for ideational hegemony: the power to determine norms. That is precisely why the Taliban in Pakistan have argued that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s claim to a caliphate is non-Islamic, why Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the original Islamic State in Iraq, split with Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s deputy in al-Qaeda, nearly a decade ago, why al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula is competing with Da’esh in Yemen and why Da’esh is fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. It is why there is a shift among certain states to co-opt rather than denounce certain Muslim Brotherhood-related groups and why the competition between states and substate groups for bay’ah (pledges of loyalty) is so fierce.

And this struggle goes, as always, to the heart of politics and power. Only other Muslims can win it, but they cannot do so by appealing to ancient institutions or simply by directing people to believe the right things. For a century, states have sought and failed to co-opt Islam. Da’esh may claim to draw on the great Islamic traditions of scholarly exegesis and jurisprudence. But it does so wilfully, selectively and self-servingly, scorning what it sees as the higher-purpose-and greater-good-based rulings of the orthodox, the scholastic timidity of the Azhar schoolmen, the subordination and Hanbali clericalism of the Saudi ulema, and the radical doubt of intellectuals. It thinks all this serves worldly interests, not the purposes of God. Like Sayyid Qutb, Da’esh insists that God speaks directly and clearly to the individual believer through the sacred texts, which the individual has the right to encounter without the mediation of conventional scholars. It reframes the doctrine of jihad as a collective and individual obligation to take up arms offensively. It claims the right to correct the historical errors of the world Muslim community by violence if necessary. And it makes windows into men’s souls through which to pass judgements about life and death.

Da’esh ideologues are postmodern and millenarian fuqaha’ al mafahim: magicians of meaning. They learned this bricolage from the Muslim Brotherhood, from al-Jihad, from al-Gama’at al-Islamiyya, from al-Banna, Maududi, Qutb, Azzam, al-Maqdisi. And they display it in their lived paradoxes: a state that is not a state, the godly who murder and steal at will, self-proclaimed champions of women who keep women as sexual chattels, instruments of the divine who practise a theology of rape, paladins of the oppressed who oppress in plain view, advocates of God’s freedom who enslave for the sake of true liberation.

This is why, in a world of epistemological instability, at least where religion is concerned you need new and credible forms of canonical authority to prevent others commanding the hermeneutical heights. This matters in a region where faith informs and shapes the politics and sociology of power and legitimacy. If there is such a thing as the classic Islamic state, it recognises a functional difference between the religious and the secular – between ibadah (worship) and mu‘amalat (transactional relationships). That is the often unspoken basis for the entire modern state system in the Arab world. And it is the only basis for the future benign exercise of legitimate power. To put it more brutally, if you think you can hear the voice of God, see a doctor.

Economic success helps. And Da’esh and its analogues undoubtedly emerge from a particular socio-political moment. But materialism is not enough on its own. Any solution will be built on the persuasive articulation of a new relationship between God and the world, religion and political praxis, the state and the individual, the individual and the group, the group and society. Da’esh poses this challenge in the most acute and demanding way that we have so far seen. The only way it can be met successfully is through the existing state system in the region. Anything else is an illusion.

There is another difficulty. The choice that is increasingly posed, and that we see driving wedges between the Sunni states of the Middle East and more widely, is about the relative seriousness of the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran (whose rulers are heirs to the only successful Islamist state seizure in the Middle East) or from sacralised Sunni extremism, and the sequencing of a response. It is true that we cannot combat the threat of the latter without doing something about the former, quite aside from how ever the nuclear deal turns out. But this is not a binary choice. We need to address both issues comprehensively together.

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That is precisely what we have not done since at least 2009, when coalition forces in Iraq last intensively targeted both Sunni and Shia bad guys. For me, the great failure of Iraq was our failure to sustain attention. We in the UK wanted our troops back home almost as soon as we had sent them in. The US-led surge of 2007 to 2008 was a classic counterinsurgency strategy, designed to buy time for politics to kick in.

At the same time the coalition, through the vision and determination of Ryan Crocker and David Petraeus and the efforts of Generals McChrystal, McMaster and Lamb, had begun to reel Sunni militants back into the realm of politics through the so-called Iraqi Sahwa. But then we switched off. We let Iraqi politics become resectarianised and we abandoned those Sunnis who had trusted in us to reconstitute an inclusive Iraqi state. We pretended that order would emerge from disorder without any intervention. We live now with the consequences of that folly. Da’esh simply learned the lessons of the conflict much better than we did. And for us now to turn away and pretend it is nothing to do with us is shameful.

Perhaps the tide is turning. More attention is being paid to strengthening the defence of the Gulf Co-operation Council states, particularly against missile attack, and indeed the Turkish border with Syria. There is more support going to the Iraqi security forces from the US and the UK. A more coherent anti-Da’esh coalition may be emerging. The Turkish government has announced it will let the US use Incirlik Air Base for operations against Da’esh and other extremist groups in Syria. It has also launched strikes against what it says are Da’esh targets inside Syria – and more against the Kurdish PKK. It has cracked down on alleged Da’esh supporters and businesses inside Turkey. And there is talk (which may be just that) of carving out safe territory for the non-Islamist opposition to hold around Aleppo, the great symbol of what Syria was and could be again.

Yet even if miracles happen and all this comes to pass, we need far more. First, we need to remember who our real enemies are. Second, we need a strategy that combines much more co-ordinated intelligence, cyber, interdiction and military action against Da’esh and Jabhat al-Nusra, with similar action against Assad’s forces, who have killed far more people. Whatever the truth about the supplies of military kit to individual groups, inserting a handful of fighters into hostile territory without adequate protection doesn’t really cut it.

This needs to be associated with a new, sustained effort to identify the right political exit: with Assad in recent weeks publicly acknowledging the strain of holding territory, we should think even harder about what a future Syria should look like. We need to stand up an equitable central state in Iraq free from external interference. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is trying to do the right thing but many still don’t have electricity, the displaced people can’t return home, protests continue and Shia militias call the shots. We need more effective humanitarian support for the three million Syrian refugees, whose presence threatens in the long run to destabilise Lebanon and Jordan and cause complications for Turkey, as well as the nearly ten million people internally displaced across Iraq and Syria. We need to recognise that Libya is not a sideshow: in many ways it is a fallback location for Da’esh if it loses ground in the Levant. That the problem has not been addressed is a reproach to a divided Europe, which refuses to equip itself to act forcefully even in its own near abroad. We need to do more to peel away non-Islamists in Misurata (for example) from Islamists and support the Tobruk government more decisively. Above all, we need to push back against Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

We will never win a battle for Sunni hearts and minds with Shia militias – however effective they claim to be in combat. Da’esh has lost ground recently. But between 2005 and 2009 it was Sunnis who rolled back a Sunni insurgency. Their absence now merely guarantees a prolonging of the agony. And this will make it difficult to enlist the leading Sunni states of the region as allies in this fight (as we are seeing already). We also need to guard against thinking that my enemy’s Sunni enemy is also my friend. Any policy that supposes that Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Ansar al-Sharia anywhere, loose affiliates of al-Qaeda in Yemen or the Shura Council of Mujahedin in Derna are appropriate allies in this fight is insane. In the end, these groups represent differing forms of the same ideological deformation as Da’esh. That challenge, in the end, can only be met by stable states, lawful governments and open societies, but these will not emerge overnight, any more than they did in Europe. And in the Middle East beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict – which, as the region turns on its axis and previously unspoken alliances take visible shape, I still think is in urgent need of renewed creative approaches – outsiders have a very limited role in helping them do so.

What we can help provide is a greater sense of collective endeavour and security. Without skin in the game, we have no role. Without security there is no stability. Without stability there is no shared political space. That space may be in short supply everywhere. But it won’t emerge out of civil war, sectarian confrontation, chaos or a sense of abandonment.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as consul general in Jerusalem, as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London and with British diplomatic missions in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia. He is now executive director (Middle East) for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism

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Jeremy Corbyn has attracted "socialism fans", not Labour voters

The leader's project is to transform the Labour party, not win elections. 

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, and (following a vote of no confidence and a leadership challenge) re-elected to the same post in September 2016. In February this year, many of those who had re-elected him expressed disappointment at his effectively unconditional support for Theresa May’s invocation of the Article 50 process to leave the European Union; perhaps to placate them, Corbyn subsequently called for a demonstration in support of those who would suffer the most from EU withdrawal, but then failed to turn up.

Part of the public rationale for Corbyn’s three-line whip on the Brexit vote was that if the party opposed it, then that might lead to a loss of support in predominantly working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands that had voted Leave by large margins: constituencies such as Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, where the party nevertheless went on to lose vote share in by-elections later the same month.

But despite all this — despite Brexit, which Labour Party members and voters had overwhelmingly voted against, and despite what was arguably the worst by-election performance for an opposition party since the late 19th century — Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party are still for the most part Corbyn’s supporters in the Labour Party, and they’re not going anywhere — and neither, therefore, is the man himself.

Asked whether Corbyn’s continued leadership of the party was a good thing, the answer from sidelined deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, was pragmatic: "It doesn’t matter; that is the situation." This impasse will not endure forever: Prime Minister Theresa May has called for an early General Election, and Corbyn (who has been asking for one since December last year) has given his support. But in the six weeks that we have left until the Labour Party is overwhelmingly (and perhaps irreparably) crushed, it may perhaps be worth reflecting on how it got into this appalling mess.

1. A hostile takeover

The best way to find out what a particular group thinks is to survey a random sample of about a thousand of its members — and this is exactly what Ian Warren of Election Data has done, by commissioning a YouGov opinion poll of the Labour Party. Warren’s poll found striking differences between party members who joined before Corbyn became leader and party members who joined afterwards. Among the former group, 28% approve and 62% disapprove of his leadership, but among the latter, 69% approve and 20% disapprove. The poll also found Corbyn’s leadership to have the approval of only 47% of those members who voted Labour in 2015, but of 73% of those who voted for other parties at that time. Both of these findings support the view of Corbynism as a hostile takeover  of the Labour Party.

The party has long been attractive to such takeovers because, since the early 20th century collapse of the Liberal Party, it has consistently been one of the two most dominant parties in the British parliament. However, it was recently made more vulnerable to takeover by rules changes that gave anyone who joined the party or registered as a supporter an equally weighted vote in its internal elections.

Corbynism is the exploitation of that vulnerability in order to increase the influence of a particular faction within the Labour Party. This faction is sometimes referred to as Labour’s "hard left" wing, to distinguish it both from the party’s "centrist" wing (think Tony Blair or Harold Wilson) and the "soft left" that lies between the two (think Ed Miliband or Neil Kinnock). However, it is perhaps more useful to refer to it as the party’s "Bennite" faction. This emphasises its long-term leadership by Tony Benn, father of Melissa Benn, the author; Hilary Benn, the decidedly non-Bennite MP whose sacking from the shadow cabinet prompted the 2016 leadership challenge against Corbyn; and Stephen Benn, the 3rd Viscount Stansgate.

Although originally a centrist, Benn converted to Marxism in the 1970s, acquiring a devoted following among the more radical elements that were by then flowing into the party membership. He was never successful in his attempts to become party leader or deputy leader, but Benn was responsible for the party’s adoption of its most radical manifesto ever: a programme of industrial nationalisation, unilateral nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the EU’s predecessor organisation, the European Community. When Michael Foot, a representative of the party’s "old left" (think Aneurin Bevan or Richard Crossman) led Labour into the 1983 general election on this manifesto, it received its worst defeat since before the Second World War. Foot resigned as leader of the Labour Party and was replaced by Neil Kinnock, a left winger who had not supported Benn.

With the party under Kinnock’s leadership, Benn and his associates — such as Ken Livingstone, who had become leader of the Greater London Council in 1981, and Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to parliament for the first time in that fateful 1983 election — were unable to prevent the expulsion of their allies in Marxist-Leninist groups such as Militant (originally known as the Revolutionary Socialist League), and were increasingly sidelined from the late 1980s onwards. Their defeat seemed cemented in 1995 when Tony Blair amended Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution to replace its commitment to public ownership of industry with a commitment to unspecified "democratic socialist" ideals, subsequently rebranding the party as "New Labour" and (together with his then-ally, Gordon Brown) leading it to an unprecedented run of three general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005.

However, the balance of power shifted with the party’s demoralising 2015 defeat under its "soft left" leader, Ed Miliband. Following Miliband’s resignation, Corbyn — at the time, a largely forgotten Bennite — secured sufficient nominations from fellow MPs to gain a place on the leadership ballot. In accordance with rules changes agreed under Miliband, the ballot was put to members, registered supporters, and affiliate members of the party, whose ranks were swelled by large numbers of people joining specifically in order to vote for Corbyn. Corbyn’s victory was convincing, although it is noteworthy that – despite the influx of new members – he was not the first choice of 50.4 per cent of party members.

After winning this internal election, Corbyn swiftly moved to install his allies at the top of the party. His long-term friend, John McDonnell — another Bennite, who once described Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky as his "most significant" influences — was appointed to the most senior shadow cabinet position, and a number of Marxist-Leninists from outside Parliament were given important posts within the party. Labour centrists often refer to Communists as "Trots", i.e. Trotskyists (that is, supporters of revolutionary proletarian internationalism as represented by the Fourth International). However, the prevailing ideological climate of Corbyn’s circle tends more towards the other primary stream of European Marxism-Leninism, i.e. Stalinism (that is, support for the totalitarian Soviet state as well as — for unclear reasons — its gangster capitalist successor state, the Russian Federation).

The antifascist blogger, Bob from Brockley, explains as follows:

Corbyn has had a weekly column in… the Communist Party of Britain’s Morning Star, and he has used that column to promote a basically Cold War second camp worldview, most recently in promoting Kremlin lies about Ukraine…After leaving Oxford, Seumas Milne [whom Corbyn appointed as the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications] cut his political teeth in a group called Straight Left, whose USP in the small but crowded market of the far left was that it thought most other Communist groups were insufficiently appreciative of Stalin’s achievements. 

Let’s not get carried away, though: whatever the political background of the Labour leader and his circle, there is no need to assume that all those who voted for him are current members of revolutionary Communist organisations. Some sort of Communist influx has undoubtedly occurred, especially within Momentum (the "grassroots" pro-Corbyn organisation founded and owned by Corbyn’s old friend, Jon Lansman, and now riven by conflict between its Trotskyist and Bennite wings. As Colin Talbot has argued, there are very large numbers of aging ex-Communists who may have "turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley".

But Corbynism appeals to a wider (but not that much wider) group of mostly middle class people whose primary cultural identification is with "the Left". Such people are keen to support Corbyn because they see him as one of their own: a vegetarian pacifist who has never been interested in the tedious work of winning elections and scrutinising legislation but who has (as he told Nigel Nelson in the middle of his first leadership election campaign) "always [been] passionate about justice, the environment, and war and peace", and who, in his youth, "got arrested in most countries [he] visited for demonstrating".

Although Corbyn was originally elected with broad support from existing members of the party, his power base within it now primarily consists of people who joined it in order to re-shape it in his image and their own. These people might best be thought of as "socialism fans", and are quite different from traditional Labour Party members and voters. They are people who joined the party not because they agreed with its goals and wanted to help it achieve them, but because they identified with the culture of Leftism and sought an active form of cultural participation — much as theatre buffs might join an amateur dramatics club, or history enthusiasts might join a medieval re-enactment society.

The difference between those who joined the party in order to help its representatives get elected to local and national government and those who joined the party in order to place and keep Corbyn at its helm is as stark as (and in many ways parallels) that which George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier describes between, on the one hand, "the warm-hearted, unthinking Socialist… who only wants to abolish poverty", and, on the other hand, "the foaming denouncers of the bourgeoisie, and the more-water-in-your-beer reformers… and the astute young social-literary climbers… and all that dreary tribe of… sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers" who flock to "Socialist" organisations and drive away ordinary working class people who might otherwise be inclined to join or vote.

It is not just that members who voted for Corbyn in 2016 (i.e. after and despite the bad opinion polls, the dreadful showing in the May elections, the loss of the referendum, and the vote of no confidence from those it was Corbyn’s job to lead) are — as Warren’s YouGov poll shows — far more likely than those who voted against him to engage in low-investment forms of political activity, such as sharing campaign messages on social media, and far less likely to engage in high-investment forms of political activity, such as delivering leaflets or knocking on doors.

It is that they have a very different idea of what the Labour Party is for. They view it not as a party of parliamentary government or opposition but as an opportunity to engage in demonstrations, protests, marches, and rallies — as well as thrilling social media battles against insufficiently radical Labour MPs (and their supporters). These are the people for whom Corbyn was speaking when he said: "We’re all in power. We just don’t realise it. We have the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand."

Engagement with the business of parliament is irrelevant — perhaps even an impediment — to the socialism fan’s enjoyment of such "power". Thus it seems unsurprising that, of those who voted for Corbyn in the 2016 election, only 11 per cent consider "understanding what it takes to win an election" to be among the two or three qualities most necessary for a Labour leader (compared to 55 per cent of those who voted against them), while 30 per cent and 31 per cent respectively consider "mov[ing] the party to the left" and "tak[ing] on powerful interests" to be among them (compared to 2 per cent and 6 per cent of those who voted against him).

The conflict between socialism fans and people with a more direct interest in electoral politics plays out again and again in social media. For example, when Owen Jones last month asked Corbyn supporters on Twitter what they thought of the prospect of an early election, he was told that "transforming the Labour Party" was "never a short-term project". The Corbyn supporter who supplied this answer seemed indifferent to Jones’s objection that the "decimation of Labour" would be the result.

A few days after I observed the above exchange, a Labour Party who had once held the post of Political Education Officer within his CLP used the relatively less public platform of a Facebook group to inform me that it did not matter whether the party lost votes as it turned towards socialism, because votes for a party that was (on his view) insufficiently socialist were no different from votes for the Conservative Party or the Liberal Democrats. As he continued: "I want Labour to be firmly socialist", "I think New Labour must be permanently exterminated", and "the important thing is having Labour as a socialist party and eradicating New Labour for good".

One might wonder what end could be achieved by transforming Labour if it could not then be elected to government? But that is the wrong question: the eradication of Blair’s legacy is an end in itself. This is recognisably the same politics advocated by Corbyn-supporting journalist Paul Mason in conversation with the more sceptical Carole Cadwalladr:

"In America, he says, ‘what the Occupy generation chose to do was to occupy the Democratic party and that’s effectively what [we] have chosen to do here: to occupy the Labour party. … We, on the left of the party, didn’t want this fight. But it’s like what General Sherman said in the American civil war: “You’ve chosen war. We’re going to give you all the war you can take" …I want to lay waste to the whole neoliberal hierarchical tradition that Blairism and Brownism represented’."

We see more of the same in the following, by the influential left-wing author, Richard Seymour, who laid out his vision on Twitter:

1. Regarding "pessimism", a few points of order. The most plausible outcome of Corbyn's leadership has never been socialist triumph.

2. The party apparatus and the wider terrain (media etc) was always going to be set against him.

3. The electoralist goals of Labour would always conflict with the goals of regrowing the grassroots, winning socialist arguments.

4. Because the latter work on a long timeline, whereas elections are short-term, responsive to news cycles, parliamentary squabbles, etc.

5. Even winning an election wouldn't be triumph, because it's a question of what kind of country you govern -- political economy, etc.

6. The best hope for Corbynism was/is that it would transform Labour, democratise it, make it a mass campaigning party.

7. A party capable of organising social power beyond electoral arena -- but that means taking short-term losses, esp middle class votes.

Winning elections is not an objective; losing votes is not a problem; the goal is to transform Labour: to take it out of electoral politics, to refocus it on the exercise of "social power", and above all, to democratise it, i.e. to put it under the control of anyone who wants to join it, rather than those of its representatives who have been elected to parliament or to local and regional government by the general public and who do the day-to-day work that this involves. If that goal is ever achieved, it is hard to imagine what the party would do next. Those who share a desire to take it over do not necessarily share much else in common, besides a hatred of Tony Blair. In fact, the most likely outcome would be a series of splits, for example between those who wish to abolish private property and those who only want to nationalise the railways.

Corbyn’s leadership can be advocated by liberal environmentalists and revolutionary Communists, as well as by mutually opposed sub-groups of the latter, because his own ideology is impossible to pin down beyond a commitment to a "socialism" that he defines only in the vaguest possible terms. "You care for each other, you care for everybody, and everybody cares for everybody else", (another gem from Nelson’s interview) is his clearest statement yet of what the word means when he uses it.

What manner of policies for the governing of a country could one derive from such a position statement? Almost any — which means that all those who wish to, can imagine that Corbyn would govern in accordance with their own preferences. But the defining feature of Corbynism is that it is only incidentally concerned with the outside world. It is primarily a politics of coalition between members of the self-identified "Left", who will be able to work together only as long as there is no goal beyond the defeat of Labour’s centrist and soft left factions.

For example, the Stop the War Coalition, whose president was Tony Benn until 2014, whose chair was Corbyn until 2015, and which retains Corbyn’s full support, is felt by many people to be a front for Britain’s largest Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Workers’ Party or SWP (of which the above-quoted Richard Seymour used to be a member). It seems oddly unbothered by the savagery of Daesh/Islamic State. Meanwhile, the Morning Star is unbothered by the equally barbaric Kremlin-backed Assad regime and likewise retains Corbyn’s support.

What rational sense can this make? It’s not just that these are groups that no reasonable and humane person would want anything to do with. It’s that Trotskyists and Stalinists were at each other’s throats even before Stalin had Trotsky murdered — and that Daesh and the Assad regime are at war. Similarly, Corbyn can insist that "women deserve… unflinching support in the face of violence and abuse", yet ignore his own feminist supporters when they demand that he distance himself from Stand up to Racism over the well-documented willingness of the SWP (for which it is, of course, yet another front organisation) to cover up allegations of sexual violence by its own senior members. Because all the associated speaking and demonstrating and demanding (to return to Corbyn’s above characterisation of the kind of "power" that he and his followers appear to understand themselves to wield) is covered by the umbrella of an amorphous Leftism with no need for ideological coherence, relatively substantial numbers of socialism fans can be recruited to the support of often rather nasty groups even as the majority of the population is repulsed.

Corbyn, with his vague passion for "justice, the environment, and war and peace", is the ideal figurehead for this cultural or aesthetic Leftism and its cynically tactical coalitions - an apparently blank canvas onto which socialism fans can project their fantasies. Since 2015, his own saintly figure has been the focus of perhaps the largest coalition of all, devoted to the single issue of getting the Labour Party out of the government business by installing him as its leader and keeping him there. As the rest of this article will argue, it scarcely matters how particular Corbyn supporters might choose to define their politics, because they all speak the same language in support of this shared goal.

2. The commonplaces of Corbynism

Here is a quote amalgamated (note the ellipses) from three comments that a single individual made on a mutual friend’s Facebook post on 27 February 2017. Between his posting of the second and third comments, I commented that the Labour Party is not primarily a socialist party but has "always had room for socialists — provided that they can reconcile themselves to electoral reality".This comment of mine is referenced in the third of his:

"A centrist-Labour would now be what was once considered right wing. Corbyn is hardly hard left, but mainstream politics has lurched so far to the right it’s normalised the right doctrine and neoliberalism. As Raymond Williams scarily predicted, the values and ideas are of neoliberal capitalism are so normalised it appears to be the only way, the way it’s ‘always been’. … If the only viable choice is a right leaning Labour party, or an extreme right Tory party, dictated mostly by the right wing and corporate owned media, then really democracy and decency are already lost. …‘Electoral reality’ is exactly what Raymond Williams warns about. This is the way it is, there’s no room for change. Corbyn represents a genuine difference. If the choice is between Extreme Tory and Tory-Lite, then what is even the point? Corbyn has repeatedly been on the right side of history, and his policies have genuine popular appeal and yet it’s increasingly clear the media control what people see and hear."

There’s nothing special about the above, but that’s the point: the most striking thing about it is its sheer predictability. Although not all attempt to understand contemporary politics by reference to the work of Marxist literary critics who died three decades ago, Corbynites say more-or-less the same thing on a daily basis, both on social media and off it. For example, the day after the above Facebook comments were made, the aforementioned Morning Star bluntly asserted that "people understand Jeremy’s message to be true" in an editorial published under the headline "The only political leader offering radical change". An article published later the same week in Socialist Worker — the official newspaper of the aforementioned SWP — argued that "Corbyn’s 'hard left' policies seemed normal inside the Labour party when he first became an MP in 1983" but "n]ow they are regarded as very left wing", and, as a result, "most of the media have waged a vicious campaign to undermine Corbyn".

Like those articles, the Facebook comments above are assemblages of what rhetoricians call topoi or "commonplaces": ideas or themes that are — within a particular culture — frequently revisited and rarely challenged. Within particular groups, people adopt the same ways of speaking, which imply the same ways of thinking. The following are clearly recognisable as the kinds of things that Corbynites say:

Jeremy Corbyn’s policies are what the public really wants.

Jeremy Corbyn only seems to be "hard left" because the Labour Party has moved to the right, leaving him behind.

Without Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party would be virtually indistinguishable from the Conservative Party and there would be no point voting for it.

Jeremy Corbyn is different from other politicians.

Jeremy Corbyn brings change that powerful forces seek to prevent.

Jeremy Corbyn has always been "on the right side of history".

If members of the public think they don’t want Jeremy Corbyn, that’s only because of the malign influence of the media.

The only thing missing from the above list is the assertion that Jeremy Corbyn is actually very popular with the British public. If you haven’t heard such lines before, then you haven’t yet met the people who joined the Labour Party in order to get Corbyn into the leader’s office and keep him there — the people for whom Corbyn’s leadership is the only good thing about the Labour Party — the people for whom supporting Corbyn is the very point of being in the Labour Party.

Taken literally, these ideas are a mixed bag. There is never any clarity as to what Corbyn’s "difference" from other politicians consists in, nor as to why it should be considered a good thing. The nature of the "change" he is said to bring is similarly nebulous. The grand-sounding claim about "the right side of history" only means that he voted against the invasion of Iraq. And while some of Corbyn’s policy positions are potentially popular with voters, those are positions that are shared across the Parliamentary Labour Party, including by centrist MPs. As for the idea that Corbyn originally represented the mainstream of the Labour Party, that is true only in the limited sense that his entrance into Parliament was via the disastrous 1983 election, which the party fought on a manifesto that was largely the handiwork of one of its most left-wing MPs. 

But the power of commonplaces arises from repetition, not from rational consideration in relation to empirical evidence. Indeed, their very point is that they are never subjected to critique, serving instead as accepted starting points for trains of thought that reliably loop back to the point of departure. For Corbyn’s supporters, a good argument is an argument both founded upon and re-affirming Corbynite commonplaces, while a deceptive or mistaken or otherwise Blairite argument is an argument that does not.

3. The culture of the Left

One of the most interesting aspects of these commonplaces is their ability to circulate between groups that might otherwise appear to have fairly fundamental disagreements, including supporters and opponents of Britain’s membership of the European Union, as well as both Stalinists and Trotskyists. This is because they have their roots in the culture of the 21st century British Left — which is shared across multiple left wing groups and left-identified individuals unaffiliated with any specific group — rather than in any particular political analysis — which is the sort of thing that socialists and Communists will feud over until the end of time (hence the virtually microscopic size of all British parties to the left of Labour).

Here, for example, is an editorial published nearly two years before the above social media comments in Solidarity, the official newspaper of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty or AWL, a Trotskyist organisation formerly known as Socialist Organiser, membership of which is proscribed for Labour Party members:

"The huge support for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader is a reminder that what seems like an overwhelmingly dominant right-wing ‘consensus’ in bourgeois politics can be limited and unstable. It shows that large numbers of people, including working class and young people, still want a politics that is different to, and to the left of, the consensus of neo-liberalism."

We can read this and the more recent quotations we have already seen almost as a single text. Left politics, identified with Corbyn, are positioned as "different to", "offering radical change" from, or "represent[ing] a genuine difference" with regard to a "normalised" or "consensus" position described as "neoliberal" or "bourgeois" and identified not only with the Conservative Party ("Extreme Tory") but also with all Labour MPs not overtly affiliated with their party’s left wing ("Tory-Lite"). This politics is not really "hard left"; rather, it is "popular", "understood to be true" by "people", and supported by "large numbers of… working class and young people", such that any apparent lack of enthusiasm from the general public must be explained, whether explicitly or otherwise, by conspiracy theories — for example, involving "a vicious campaign" waged by "the media", which has "control [over] what people see and hear".

The latter is particularly important because it functions as an alibi for the failure of the rest. For example, while I was writing this, a message was posted to a popular Labour Party Facebook group using a reference to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent to support the argument that it is not the Labour leadership but the media that need to change. "Labour politics is fine," the poster concluded, and if "a political party that clearly represents the interests of the vast majority of the population cannot obtain the commensurate backing", this can only be explained through media bias.

To accept this line of reasoning is to accept then the Labour Party will never again win elections because it cannot change the media, but to assert that its future defeats won’t matter, because they won’t be the party leader’s fault. If indeed one regards elections in which the general public participates as in any way important – which many enthusiasts of party democracy apparently do not.

Such thinking goes all the way to the top of the current party, with Corbyn’s closest parliamentary ally, McDonnell, informing two journalists at the Guardian — a newspaper that was intensely critical of Blair (especially over the war in Iraq) and that publishes numerous pro-Corbyn commentators — that because their employer "became part of the New Labour [i.e. Blairite] establishment… you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power" and therefore collude in the media’s attempt "to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people". Corbynite commonplaces all the way.

4. "Working class politics"

But what is "the establishment" and who are "the people"? In practice, the former simply means whoever held positions of influence in the Labour Party before Corbyn’s election as its leader, and the latter simply means the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and its allies in various left-wing organisations, some of whose members are banned from joining Labour.

On the subject of organisations proscribed for Labour members, I turn now to an editorial published just after Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader in The Socialist, the official newspaper of the Socialist Party or SP: another Trotskyist organisation that formerly practised entryism under the name of Militant but subsequently shifted to competing against the Labour Party in local and parliamentary elections, latterly in partnership with the SWP as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition or TUSC (from which the SWP recently withdrew in order to focus its efforts on supporting Corbyn). The editorial, which also writes of ‘huge enthusiasm for Corbyn’s pro-worker platform’ argues as follows:

"The battle against Labour’s right is not simply a battle between two wings of a party. Behind them are the class interests of the different participants. The right ultimately represents the capitalist elite, which was delighted with the Blairite transformation of Labour into a party that could be relied on to act on their behalf, and is fighting to turn the wheel of history back to that situation."

It’s worth thinking about this carefully. Its scope is the Labour Party itself (from which ex-members of Militant are banned), and its concern is with whether the party shall remain in the state to which it was transformed by Blairite Labour MPs for the benefit of the "capitalist elite" or shall be re-transformed by Bennite Labour MPs for the benefit of… well, who, exactly? The idea appears to be that Corbyn’s leadership will deprive the "capitalist elite" of the tool that the Labour Party supposedly became under Blair. The Labour Party does not have to win elections for that goal to be achieved. Indeed, it could simply vanish – or fragment into micro-parties indistinguishable from the rest of the British far left.

The image of heroic struggle within the Labour Party is given graphic form in a drawing on the cover of the issue of Solidarity from which I quoted previously, which shows workers (standing on the left, of course!) cheering Corbyn on while senior Labour Party figures (including Blair himself with a badge that reads "Tony Tory") and obese, drunken journalists (naturally standing or sprawled on the right) hysterically condemn him as an "extremist" or a "disaster". The drawing is captioned "The Socialist who stood in a Labour leadership election", and accompanying front page headlines are "Back Corbyn’s campaign" and "Fight for working class politics", while the article quoted above carried the slightly different headline, "Back Corbyn, fight for working-class politics!" From Corbyn’s mouth come vague, policy-free statements of rejection: "I don’t agree with austerity" and "I oppose attacks on the working class and the poor!"

This is, I would suggest, the sum total of the Corbynite project: the installation at the head of the Labour Party of a "socialist", i.e. a person upon whom Marxist-Leninists can pin hopes, and who makes statements aligning himself or herself against right-wing policies (such as "austerity") and with "the working class" and "the poor". What do actual "working class" or "poor" people think of this? They certainly aren’t very keen to vote for it.

In contrast to all the above, and without claiming that it typifies the views of any particular group, I offer the following report of a working-class individual’s discourse on Corbyn, simply to remind my readers of what the Labour Party might look like to those who turn to left-of-centre politics in hope of what George Orwell characterised as "better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about" as opposed to the revolutionary’s "vague threat of future violence":

My Mum, brought up working class in a railway worker’s house, got a phone call today from the Labour Party about her direct debit being cancelled.

She gave them both barrels about how Corbyn was a traitor to the working class by dooming Labour to opposition and bringing about a further decade of Tory government. She said that she would not give another penny to the party until Corbyn had gone. She told the person on the phone that the best government she had ever known was the Blair government and that Gordon Brown saved the world only for this Jeremy Corbyn "tosser" to put it all at risk.

I would like to apologise to the poor bugger who made that phone call as well giving a big shout out to my Mum.

(Taken from the Labour’s Future Facebook group)

Unheard of talk! Blair’s government the best that a "working class" person had ever known? Perhaps the National Minimum Wage and the Sure Start Centres and the extra billions for education and the National Health Service counted for something after all. And Corbyn a "traitor to the working class"? The latter accusation is more typically levelled at Labour Party centrists such as Blair and Brown — the "Tory-Lite" leaders who (we are frequently informed) took the votes of working class people for granted while selling out their interests for the sake of "neoliberal capitalism".

Although Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Bennites alike tend to present Corbyn as the champion of "working class politics", it should be recognised that his programme has very little to offer working class people in the here-and-now. Even in the fantasy scenario of a Corbyn-led government, the hoped-for benefits to the working class would still be indirect: rather than implementing policies to the direct material benefit of actual working class people, a hypothetical Prime Minister Corbyn would — according to the AWL — implement policies to facilitate the working class’s fulfilment of the destiny assigned to it by classical Marxist theory, i.e. the overthrow of the capitalist order and the institution of social ownership of the means of production and exchange, which an elected government could not achieve even "if it wanted to". In the real world and at the present moment, in which the proletariat does not yet acknowledge its revolutionary future role, actually existing working class people are of interest only insofar as representations of them can be conscripted in support of arguments over who will lead the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, those same actually existing working class people repay the compliment by taking little or no interest in the Labour Party. A survey carried out before the 2015 General Election and again in December of the same year found that both before and after the increase in party membership driven by Corbyn’s leadership campaign, over 75 per cent of Labour members lived in households headed by someone in an "ABC1" occupation, i.e. that less than one in four would ordinarily be classified as working class. In socio-economic if not in cultural and political terms, the new membership was indistinguishable from the old membership. The fight to transform Labour from a party seeking to achieve limited although concrete reforms through engagement in the work of local and national government into a social movement more interested in exercising "the power to speak, to influence, to demonstrate, to demand" is therefore probably best understood as a form of middle class identity politics (the identity in question being "left").

The immediate beneficiaries of Corbynism are not working class people per se, but members of "left" political organisations or factions either (a) seeking power within the Labour Party, or (b) directly competing with it in their efforts to win votes in elections and/or to recruit members. Some of those people are working class, but most are not. The Morning Star responded to last summer’s challenge to Corbyn’s leadership with an editorial headlined "Justice must be won for the working class", in which it argued that "[t]he cumulative anger and frustration that’s been building in working-class communities across these lands over the last few decades has found an outlet" in support for Corbyn and opposition to his detractors in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Given the historically low vote share of candidates for Corbyn’s Labour Party in the strongly working class constituencies of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central last month, such assertions should not be taken literally. Retaining Corbyn as Labour leader wins no justice for the working class; it only consolidates power within the Bennite faction of the Labour Party and provides members of Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations such as the SWP and Communist Party of Britain with a path to greater influence within the Labour Party and greater esteem within the wider Left. The anger and frustration that really troubles the Morning Star is that felt within the revolutionary socialist sects that take themselves to be the guardians of the best interests of the working class of Marxist theory and feel aggrieved that the UK’s largest left-of-centre party is not run by the most left-of-centre people in the UK.

5. They, Daniel Blake: the great spoken-on-behalf-of

One of the defining moments of Corbynism was the release of I, Daniel Blake: a critically-acclaimed BBC Films movie about a tragic working class welfare claimant. It was directed by Ken Loach, a long-term friend of Jeremy Corbyn and the creator of an hour-long promo video in support of the latter’s re-election as party leader. I, Daniel Blake had such an impact on Corbyn’s followers that many of them renamed themselves "Daniel Blake" on Twitter in perhaps the quintessential statement of socialist fandom. "We are all Daniel Blake" was another popular slogan, and — coincidentally — the headline of an article that appeared in the same issue of The Socialist as the editorial quoted above. Following the unprecedented drop in Labour’s vote share in the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central by-elections last month, Loach wrote in defence of Corbyn’s leadership in a Guardian article saturated in Corbynite commonplaces.

The article begins with Loach’s recollections of his own visits to Stoke-on-Trent and Whitehaven (the centre of the Copeland district), promoting I, Daniel Blake with Labour Club screenings organised by activists from Momentum, the privately-owned pro-Corbyn organisation briefly discussed above. Having pointedly criticised Labour activists outside Momentum by commending the behaviour of the Momentum activists in question as "a model of how Labour activists should work" and recalled audience complaints of "the failure of Labour governments… and, importantly, Labour councillors", Loach cut to the chase:

"Now let’s ask the real questions. What are the big problems people face? What is the Labour leadership’s analysis and programme? Why is Labour apparently unpopular? Who is responsible for the party’s divisions?

The problems are well rehearsed but rarely related to the leadership question. A vulnerable working class that knows job insecurity, low wages, bogus ‘self-employment’, poverty for many including those in work, whole regions left to rot: these are the consequences of both Tory and New Labour’s free market economics. … The central fact is blindingly obvious: the Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson years were central to this degeneration. That is why Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn and his small group fight the Tories in front and deal with the silent mutiny behind them. Yet the MPs, unrepresentative of the members, are doing immense damage. How come the media don’t put them in the dock? It is they and their backers in the party bureaucracy who have been rejected.

It was their Labour party, not Corbyn’s, that lost Scotland, lost two elections and has seen Labour’s vote shrink inexorably. … If Corbyn can be removed, it will be business as usual, with scant difference between Labour and the Tories. If it is to transform society, the party itself must be transformed."

As we see from the above, the priority for Loach — who in 2013 founded the rival Left Unity party and in 2015 campaigned for it against Labour — is the transformation of the Labour Party (yes, that again). That — on his account as much as on that of the Trotskyists and other Corbynites quoted in previous sections of this essay — must (naturally) precede any significant external politics. What is at stake is not the day-to-day work of parliamentary opposition to the Conservative government, nor the short- to medium-term ambition to replace that government with a Labour government that would implement specific policies for the benefit of actual working class people (say, a higher minimum wage and an improved public health service), nor the still less glamorous equivalents in local and regional government, but the eternal — and fundamentally aesthetic — imperative for ‘difference between Labour and the Tories’, i.e. for Labour to be led by the kind of person for whom a socialism fan would like to vote.

Exactly as in the examples quoted in the previous sections, a historic struggle is said to be in progress, with, on one side, Corbyn and his followers, and on the other, a coalition between the Conservative Party, past Labour leaders and cabinet ministers, and "[Labour] MPs, unrepresentative of the members": because the job of Labour MPs is to represent whoever currently constitutes the majority of the (now very middle class) Labour membership, rather than the ordinary voters whose representatives in Parliament they officially are. But this inversion of democracy is no problem at all, because, under Corbyn’s leadership, the party is not unpopular, but only "apparently unpopular", its true popularity presumably concealed in the voting booth and revealed only at screenings of I, Daniel Blake.

Loach’s essential argument is that the sufferings of working class people require Labour MPs and bureaucrats to submit — and submit enthusiastically, for the quiet resignation with which they accepted the result of the September 2016 leadership election is here condemned as "silent mutiny" — to Corbyn and his circle, who will rule over the party in the name of the working class — that is, of them, Daniel Blake.

6. Selling a piece of St Jeremy

We can see how this plays out on the ground in in John Harris’s short video documentary about the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election. The film is well worth watching as a whole, but the part to which I would like to draw attention is the interaction between a Labour Party activist and a potential voter. Here, PV is the potential voter and LPA is the Labour Party Activist:

PV: What you go- what you gonna do for the community and that?

LPA: What do you think needs to be done for the community?

PV: Pff. I dunno. Like, some better shit, init, like, you know what I mean? Like, build fucking, like, I dunno, like, more youth centres, stop closing shit down.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: Like, help people that are vulnerable and that. Put people in better housing.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean? Stop sending people to jail for stupid shit.

LPA: Yeah.

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Are there any people that you think represent your views, do you feel like the Labour Party represents the, the —

PV: Nah.

LPA: Why not?

PV: ’Coz they’re all full of shit, man, they’re all like upper class people that’ve, you know what I mean? There’s no —

LPA: Yeah.

PV: No people who’ve actually lived it in there, is there?

LPA: Is that something you would vote for? If people were talking about, like, opening more youth centres, and, uhm, making fairer like justice system and things like that?

PV: Yeah.

LPA: Because that is what, uhm, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, stands for at the moment.

PV: But everyone says that, everyone makes, like, promises and that but shit don’t get done, does it?

LPA: One thing I’d say about Jeremy Corbyn is that he’s quite different from politicians that’ve come before – like, do you know that none of the Labour Party want him, basically, like, to be the leader?

PV: No-one wants him ’coz he’s a dick.

LPA: (laughs)

PV: You know what I mean, like?

LPA: Why do you think that?

PV: Well, he was saying stuff like, ah, he doesn’t wanna use our c-, our Trident missiles and all of that shit

LPA: Yeah.

PV: ’Coz if someone come over here and started blowing us up, like, what are you gonna do, pour ’em a cup of tea and be like, "Yeah, crack on."

LPA: But do you not know that Trident costs, like, six hundred billion pounds, so if we didn’t have Trident, all the things that you’ve just said — youth centres, better justice system —

PV: Yeah but the thing is, I don’t actually care, like.

LPA: You do!

PV: But I don’t.

LPA: You do!

I shan’t dwell on the fact that the estimated cost of Trident renewal is not £600bn but £17.5-£23.4bn according to the Ministry of Defence, which supports it, and £100bn according to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which opposes it. It’s easy to make a mistake in the heat of the moment.

It is more helpful to focus on the radical disjunction between the priorities of the activist and the Stoke resident to whom she is speaking. The latter expresses concern for the local community and with things that affect his life directly: local issues such as housing, youth centres, and institutions that have closed down, as well with what he regards as unjustifiably high rates of incarceration among community members.

But instead of talking about what the Labour Party has done for Stoke-on-Trent, or for people like this potential voter, or about what the previous Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central achieved, or about the merits of Gareth Snell, the Labour candidate for whom the activist is nominally canvassing, and about what Snell might yet do to improve this specific Stoke resident’s life, what does the activist choose to talk about? Why, the leader of the Labour Party, of course! Moreover, she talks about him by commending him for his difference from other politicians and she evidences this difference by stating that other Labour Party politicians do not want him to be their leader.

To an individual not steeped in Corbynite commonplaces, it must have seemed a funny sort of praise for a leader — and a still funnier sort of reason to vote for one of the people he will lead. Among Corbynites, the truly great thing about the Labour Party still appears to be that its MPs are led by someone they don’t want to be led by. But in the world of ordinary people, that is not really a hot sell.

Neither is opposition to the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme, which many British people believe to be necessary to their own safety and that of their families. And, given that — in conversation with a potential voter focused on local issues — this particular activist can only argue for the benefits of such opposition through appeals to the attractions of entirely hypothetical policies — Corbyn has never proposed investing money saved from Trident in youth centres, there’s no connection between Trident non-renewal and justice system reforms (which Corbyn has not in fact proposed), and, in any case, the Labour Party voted to renew Trident despite Corbyn’s opposition, so this is all rather beside the point — it is hardly surprising to hear that the potential voter in question doesn’t care about what he’s hearing. The activist doesn’t seem to believe that he doesn’t care, but I do. Why should he care about the virtues of her grey-bearded, white-faced saint? All that has nothing to do with him.

At the end of the day, the activist speaks as she does because she’s there for Corbyn’s sake. The potential voter to whom she speaks responds as he does because he’s not there for Corbyn’s sake, but because it is his home and he lives there. His concerns relate to the conditions of his day-to-day existence; hers, to the internal power struggles of the Labour Party. To a member of the Labour Party, it may matter greatly whether the latter has a representative of the self-described Left for a figurehead, but what can that matter to anybody else?

Indeed, this particular non-member expresses frustration with Labour for being full of what he calls "upper class people" who have never "actually lived it" — which, give or take a quibble over the meaning of "upper class" (which in Britain traditionally refers to members of the hereditary aristocracy, such as Tony Benn, rather than to the merely well-connected and well-heeled), is an accurate description of the wealthy, metropolitan, privately-educated career politician that Corbyn empirically is.

The fight to defend Corbyn’s position as Labour leader may be carried out in this man’s name as a presumable member of the working class, but that doesn’t mean he has a dog in it.

7 The beating heart of Corbynism

During the Cold War era, the Communist Parties of North Korea, China, the Soviet Bloc, and elsewhere gained what legitimacy they had as rulers of their respective territories from their claim to represent the workers — but as everyone but the Stalinists now admits, they only ever represented their own interests as the elite of a now-discredited political system.

Corbynism makes the same false claim, but its ambitions are smaller: rather than aiming to govern a state, it aims only to govern a political party. And while it can’t win an election in which the general public participates, it can probably still count on winning multiple internal leadership elections, because the only people who can vote in those are the kinds of people willing to join a party led by Jeremy Corbyn. I have made no pretence of trying to persuade such people in this essay; if a three-line whip in favour of the Tory Brexit bill and the loss of a safe Labour seat to a Tory candidate are insufficient to dislodge St Jeremy from the special place that he holds in their hearts, then nothing I can say will make a difference.

There are enough socialism fans in the UK to vote Corbyn into the Labour Leader’s office, but not enough to vote him into 10 Downing St, and they’re rotten useless at persuading anybody else that voting for Labour candidates might be a good idea, so this — to be perfectly frank — is where we’re stuck (at least until 8 June).

Corbynism is a paranoid and inward-looking politics, obsessively focused on the relationships between and within the groups that make up the self-identified Left. It has little interest in — and still less to offer — the outside world. While Corbyn alienates most members of the public, enamoured socialism fans regurgitate a stock of commonplace platitudes to anyone who will listen, reassuring themselves that the leader of "their" party is a politician wonderfully unlike all others, and that they are right to support him, and that anything that others might suppose to have gone wrong must have been somebody else’s fault (if indeed it was wrong at all). That’s what they’ve been doing ever since he got onto the leadership ballot, and it’s what they’ll still be doing on 9 June, no matter how many talented and hard-working Labour MPs are reconciling themselves to the end of their political careers.

Because that’s just how socialism fans like it. If it wasn’t, they’d shut up and go home.

Daniel Allington teaches and researches in the School of Media, Communication, and Sociology at the University of Leicester.

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