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  1. The Weekend Essay
13 January 2024

The 2010s: a decade of revolutionaries without a revolution

How the left was made and unmade.

By William Davies

The sexual assault allegations made against Russell Brand last September prompted a reckoning with how the British media and cultural industries had behaved in the early 21st century. Many were aghast at the unabashed celebration of sexual braggadocio and porn chic that hovered around Noughties celebrity culture, and which turned Brand into an icon. The era that produced the musical genre of skinny-jeaned “landfill indie” – which now reverberates around 50th-birthday parties – in retrospect looks cheaply opportunistic, not to mention problematic.

But there was also a Brand mk-II, followed by a Brand mk-III. The global financial crisis of 2008 saw Brand’s reinvention from an all-purpose TV anchor man and comedian, to a public intellectual and activist, feted on the left. His 2013 interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight made headlines for his admission that he had never voted; his accompanying New Statesman editorial demanded nothing less than a “revolution”, a concept that provided the title of his subsequent book. The year 2014 witnessed Brand clambering over the property of Richard Benyon MP, in protest against the Benyon Estate’s rent hikes for low-income families. A few months later, Ed Miliband’s doomed efforts to win the 2015 election included an appearance on Brand’s YouTube channel, in the hope that this might pull in the votes of the young and disaffected.

It was the Covid-19 pandemic that set the stage for Brand’s next reinvention as a highly accomplished online conspiracy theorist. Brand’s YouTube channel now routinely takes aim at the combined forces of the “mainstream media”, “big pharma billionaires”, the “corporatist state”, and a familiar pantheon of global elites. The channel’s 6.7 million subscribers are entreated to “the truth” underlying whatever the media happens to have shown them that week (including, of course, the allegations made against Brand himself).

Looking back on Brand’s career (which is far from over) has provoked shame among many of those who enabled it in various ways. Miliband has expressed regret for the 2015 interview. For several years, Brand was second only to Stephen Fry as the most prolific blurber of non-fiction potboilers; one assumes that any reprints will have these endorsements removed. Brand’s contribution to Jeremy Corbyn and Len McCluskey’s edited anthology, Poetry for the Many, was hastily dropped prior to its publication in November. For the left, Brand’s profile during the 2008-20 period prompts a serious question: what was all that about? Many of us can remember how it felt at the time, and have some inkling as to why a figure such as Brand seemed vital and refreshing. But hindsight is also valuable. Looking back, for all the talk of revolution and “we are the 99 per cent”, what exactly did the left achieve during those years?

Four years on from the dawning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the contours of a complete historical conjuncture, with a beginning, middle and an end, have grown clearer. The banking crisis destroyed the complacency of fin de siècle “globalisation”, without weakening the power of the technocrats who had governed it. The macroeconomic paradigm that followed for much of the West was one of fiscal austerity plus unprecedented monetary largesse, a combination that produced stagnation in productivity and wage growth, but soaring concentrations of wealth. The signature economic policy of this era was “quantitative easing”, where central banks release liquidity into the financial system through asset purchases in the hope of stimulating lending and growth. To the extent that this worked at all, it only did so by pushing up the price of assets (including property) even further, an audacious act of regressive redistribution on the part of unelected elites. In so far as macro-financial policy was concerned, this was a time the economist Daniela Gabor has termed “revolution without revolutionaries”.

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Not all of that cheap money ended up in the housing market. The growth of “platform capitalism” (or “surveillance capitalism”) was achieved on the back of over-abundant financial surpluses struggling to find decent returns. Without so much cheap money swilling around, tech businesses that required rapid and sustained growth, regardless of profitability, never would have seemed viable in the first place. The fact that the global financial crisis coincided, more or less, with the take-off of Facebook, Uber and others, is less of a coincidence than it appears at first glance.

The dawn of this new era was also indicated by the appearance of breathless manifestos, whose titles now appear either prophetic or ironic, given the political decade that followed. In 2008, books like Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky’s paean to the new social media, and Chris Anderson’s Wired article on the “The end of theory”, which proclaimed that “big data” would soon render traditional experts obsolete, were published. Something was clearly shifting in the ecology of media, information and knowledge, though it would take a few more years before the political implications of this would become clear.

One way of understanding Brand’s political prestige in the mid-2010s was in how he expressed a distinct political mood, which engulfed much of the left (and in a different way, the right) during this time. It is the same mood that Vincent Bevins traces in his richly reported history of “the mass-protest decade”, If We Burn, and that Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger confront in their retrospective of the post-2008 left, The Populist Moment. Brand’s declaration on Newsnight that he saw no point in voting wasn’t expressing anything very unusual: more than a third of voters had stayed at home in each of the previous three general elections. The novelty was that this refusal to participate in mainstream politics was suddenly being represented on a mainstream news channel. Not only that, but the refusal itself appeared charismatic and exciting.

As Borriello and Jäger make plain, alienation from representative democracy scarcely originated in 2008. It had been gradually discrediting mainstream parties, leaders and policy platforms over a number of decades. The reason why “populism” was suddenly the word du jour from around 2011 was not that mainstream politicians had never been distrusted or disliked before, but that a variety of start-up parties, campaigns and digital media were available to express that alienation. But what or who was being represented exactly? Populist rhetoric was awash with references to “the people” and “the many not the few”, but the central proposition of populism – whether it be targeted against the media, parliament or judiciary – is that the official liberal mechanisms of representation are broken. This is something on which people manage to agree, even when they can agree on nothing else.

No doubt there was an emotional release, even euphoria, in this moment. In a notorious 2013 article, which would cause him considerable grief, Mark Fisher reacted in just such a way to Brand’s Newsnight appearance: “For some of us, Brand’s forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason.” Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable election to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, and even more improbable electoral surge to destroy the Conservative majority two years later, had a similar effect in shattering established political rules and common sense.

The giddying, immersive experience of saying “no” to formal mechanisms of representation was at the heart of the movements that Bevins narrates, in an account that traverses São Paulo, Cairo, Hong Kong, Paris and much besides, over the course of the 2010s. The vogue of “horizontalism” or “leaderless” democracy, which Bevins traces back to the American New Left and to anarchism, drew vast crowds into the streets and squares as an end in itself, quite aside from whatever demands such movements might (or might not) be able to express. To be on “the left” during this unprecedented flowering of mass protest meant engaging in the demonstration of community with others, to bring bodies into public space, and potentially into violent conflict with police.

Much has been written about the contribution of social media (Twitter in particular) to these mobilisations on the left between 2011 (the year of the Arab Spring) and 2015. Even more has been written about the contribution of social media (Facebook in particular) to the electoral mobilisations that would take place on the right in 2016. Instant analysis was often wrong and subject to a great deal of motivated reasoning by those seeking to explain events on their own terms. But what social media undoubtedly enabled was the sharing of discontents, of a sort that are too inchoate, too weak on policy prescriptions, to have been deemed serious or significant by the institutions of the liberal “mainstream”.

Protests of the sort examined by Bevins and electoral campaigns such as those reviewed by Borriello and Jäger thrive in this discrepancy between “mainstream” representation and affective grievance. Social media platforms may not have triggered the democratic flowering that was so hyped in the immediate wake of the Arab Spring, but they have provided publicity for the extent of alienation and discontent. As visual media, Twitter and Instagram have also helped elevate the nitty-gritty of direct action to the level of spectacle, to the point where violent clashes with police become enticing opportunities for content generation. Bevins reflects wryly on his own experience of this during one street-level escalation of the “free fare” movement in São Paulo in the summer of 2013. Bemused that his own tweeted image of the clash had gone viral, Bevins made a note to himself: “Getting tear-gassed is great for engagement.” One thing that troubles him about the “mass-protest decade” is the possibility that many on the left have come to identify “the state” with “the police”, as if the street is the be all and end all for the exercise – and the contestation – of power.

The “free fare” movement had a simple demand, which was soon granted: to reduce the cost of public transport (alongside examples of the Gilet Jaunes in 2021 and Britain’s fuel tax protests of 2000, there is a thesis to be written about the distinct role of travel costs in the formation of effective protest movements). But it was unable to build from there. The problem with “horizontal” movements that worries Bevins is that, while they are good at saying “no” to things, they rarely if ever coalesce into durable political organisations, capable of representing their own interests. “After looking at events like this across the world, I have come to the conclusion that the horizontally structured, digitally coordinated, leaderless mass protest is fundamentally illegible.”

As the example of Brand testifies, an absence of conventional leaders did not mean there were no opportunities for personalities to rise to the fore. The question is how exactly these differed from mere celebrities, and how – if at all – they represented the swarms of protest and online disaffection that congealed around them. Theories of populism have always acknowledged that charismatic leadership and rhetoric are the necessary means of establishing a “people”, who come to recognise their shared interests, even while these are rarely as simple as class interests. But Borriello and Jäger quote the American political scientist Theda Skocpol, who observes of contemporary movements that they feature “heads without bodies” and “bodies without heads”. Left-populist parties have relied heavily on recognisable figures, such as Jeremy Corbyn or Pablo Iglesias, the long-time figurehead of Podemos in Spain, but the relationship of these leaders to wider movements (especially their online manifestations) is ambiguous.

Looking back upon the 2010s, what becomes clear is that acknowledging and publicising a crisis of representation is only the first step towards resolving it, and possibly the easiest one. The next step would involve the hard work of organisation and constitutional renewal. But as Borriello and Jäger argue, much of the left leapfrogged that bit, moving straight on to a form of “hyper-politics”, in which everything (and therefore potentially nothing) is “political”, posing little threat to the status quo. Brand’s flippant suggestion, that voting wasn’t worth the trouble so it would have to be revolution instead, and the way this was lapped up at the time, expresses this well. If quantitative easing was a “revolution without revolutionaries”, the spectacular online left formed an army of “revolutionaries without revolution”.

As leftist audits of what Borriello and Jäger term the “long 2010s” (roughly the collapse of Lehman Brothers to the lockdown of Wuhan), If We Burn and The Populist Moment reach ambivalent conclusions. Nobody could argue during this period that politics had grown boring or irrelevant, or that the left had become too docile. The heyday of centrist, managerial politics, in which markets were treated as an adequate substitute for democracy, came to a shuddering halt. The language of “socialism” was resuscitated. The problem for the left was a confusion of means and ends. The promise of a left populism, for Borriello and Jäger, wasn’t simply to re-politicise everything, but ultimately to produce new vehicles for the expression of underlying class interests, even if various other interests and cultural values hitched a ride at the same time. By this measure, left populism was a failure, either dissipating into the online ether, or being sucked back into establishment party forms, where the energy of popular movements was neutralised. After the Brownite fag-end of New Labour was snuffed out, Britain’s “long 2010s” were lived entirely under Conservative rule, and concluded with the Starmer leadership eliminating all remnants of Corbynite populism (including Corbyn himself) from the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Bevins’ critique identifies a similar confusion of means and ends, one which in his telling dates the whole way back to the birth of the American New Left in the early 1960s. If mass movements understand themselves as “prefigurative” and “performative” (that is, exemplifying and enacting the society they wish to bring about), the risk is that participation in them becomes an end in itself. The fact that the “long 2010s” coincided with the first wave of social media and smartphones was clearly part of the problem here, adding an element of instrumental rationality to those prefigurations and performances, in the search for clicks. It is thrilling to see and be seen amid the throng of an agitated crowd, but that is not a political project in itself.

Various things brought this conjuncture to a close. In the US, the election of Joe Biden, with the active support of much of the radical left, was both a necessary rearguard action against Trumpism and the launch pad for the most ambitious fiscal interventions in the US since the Second World War. Corbyn’s defeat followed by Britain’s formal departure from the European Union seemed to bring an era of political disorder to a close, before the chaos of Boris Johnson’s leadership destabilised things all over again. Insurgent parties such as Syriza in Greece have lost all of their radical sheen (Podemos comes out of Borriello and Jäger’s account far better). Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was the death knell for any lingering belief in the platform’s latent democratic potential. And the pandemic dramatically elevated the value of competent policymaking all over again, while driving the likes of Brand deeper into their online-only communities.

There are lessons for the left in these books: don’t confuse tactics with strategy, don’t get so caught up in social media hype, don’t confuse violence with power, relearn the old-fashioned art of top-down organisation and political leadership, and get your hands dirty doing politics. At times, it sounds suspiciously like the disappointing Weberian mantra about politics being the “strong and slow boring of hard boards”. Isn’t this the kind of gritty Machiavellian realism that the left now despises the likes of Keir Starmer for? Bevins longs for a more profound, longer-lasting rupture with the status quo (or at least his informants do), of the sort that was once consigned to 19th- and 20th-century history. But that in itself doesn’t answer the question of representation either. In what sense is a revolution any more legible than a mass protest? And in the absence of a vanguard party, how is talk of “revolution” any different from that of Russell Brand circa 2014?

[See also: Are you ready for Elon Musk to read your mind?]

The left could also draw some more discomforting conclusions from the “mass-protest decade”, which cast some light on what has followed. The political story of the 2010s is more often read as a series of victories for the populist right, even if some of these also fizzled out in disappointment and infighting. Indeed, the term “populism” is frequently used as a euphemism for nationalism and authoritarianism, and not a rhetorical toolkit for democratic mobilisation. But in their efforts to debunk the liberal aversion to “populism”, Borriello and Jäger downplay what the left and right did actually share here, and perhaps increasingly so as the decade wore on.

Political scientists agree that a distinguishing feature of all populism is the moralistic distinction it draws between “the elites” (portrayed as corrupt and unrepresentative) and “the people” (portrayed as ordinary and decent). Clearly, the right has an inbuilt advantage when using such rhetoric, as the distinction maps tidily on to a nativist one between footloose globalists, who lack any sense of place or tradition, and the indigenous citizenry. Left populists have flirted with this framing (as when Corbyn launched his 2019 manifesto by taking aim at “150 billionaires” in the UK), but it is not hard to see how it might slide towards the paranoid mindset of Brand mk-III, in which a conspiracy of Davos elites colludes to control “mainstream media” and “big pharma”. As Naomi Klein’s recent book Doppelganger shows, the boundary separating radical left and paranoid right seems to be especially porous when politics is conducted primarily online, as was the case under conditions of lockdown.

Bevins faces up to the rising political ugliness of what appeared in the streets of cities such as São Paulo, Hong Kong and Kharkiv as the decade wore on. The left, it appeared, was good at initiating political disruption, but hopeless at taking advantage of it. Conservative forces, on the other hand, were adept at filling every political vacuum that opened up, in concert with police brutality and far-right activists if needs be. Digitally savvy right-wing protest movements that emerged during this period, such as Movimento Brasil Livre, resembled their leftist opponents in form, only with wealthy allies and much less difficulty agreeing on their political objectives and strategy. The 6 January insurrection in Washington DC was a frightening demonstration of what a “leaderless” network was capable of.

By the decade’s end, some of the most significant movements defied easy distinctions between “left” and “right” altogether. The gilets jaunes, anti-lockdown activists, and the fascist wellness influencers who fuel anti-vax sentiment online (what the British writer Keir Milburn has dubbed the “cosmic right”) all share the belief that liberal institutions are corrupt and deceitful, but are otherwise impossible to classify in conventional political terms. If this is where the critique of representation ends up – if 2023-era Brand was the logical destination of 2013-era Brand – then that critique was badly conceived in the first place. To be fair to proponents of left populism, abstaining from parliamentary politics (as Brand had advocated) was never its point – on the contrary. But the populists of the post-2008 era never produced an adequate answer to the question of representation that they themselves had posed.

A wider lesson for the left, then, is that no transformative political movement can be built purely on resentment towards the “mainstream”, as if recognising the shortcomings of representative democracy were an adequate basis to correct them. The largest protest movements of the last 60 years have arisen in opposition to state violence of one kind or another, be it in Vietnam, Iraq, the US itself (in the case of Black Lives Matter) or Gaza today. Such mobilisations were formative for the New Left in the 1960s, and (given Corbyn’s influences and preoccupations) shaped Britain’s own particular experiment in left populism. The scale of these marches suggests that they must be generative for the left in some way, but that is never guaranteed. Anti-war protests have in the past had a demonstrable impact on election results, though (as Joe Biden may yet discover) rarely the ones that the liberal centre would like. The longer-term effect is that the crisis of representation is deepened, as no doubt happened in Britain after 2003.

The issue here is not just a confusion of means with ends, but a confusion of morality with politics. At the outset of the post-2008 conjuncture, when Twitter was in its infancy and the liberal elites still unchallenged, any time that a critical voice did manage to puncture the mainstream consensus, so as to declare the injustice of the status quo, this seemed extraordinarily refreshing. Books such as Owen Jones’s Chavs (2011) felt to many at the time like someone throwing open a window on a stuffy room. But by the close of the decade, the denunciation of injustices and wrongs had grown into a cacophony of routinised self-righteousness. Common to both populist rhetoric and the Twittersphere is a tendency towards moralism, whereby the speaker seeks to distinguish themselves through their declaration of “right” and “wrong”. But as a long lineage of political realists – from Machiavelli through Hobbes, up to Lenin and Schmitt – have made plain, the pursuit of power is not reducible to the pursuit of goodness; in fact, the two may have precious little to do with each other. Few political figures have demonstrated this as concisely as Corbyn.

There is a parallel strand to the New Left, which perhaps speaks more constructively to some of the concerns raised by Bevins, Borriello and Jäger. This is where movements and “people” are mobilised around the positive demand for representation, rather than just the refusal of its current form. The civil rights movement is clearly the iconic case of this, but so are independence movements, many of which appeal to nationhood in one way or another, as an indispensable ingredient of mass democracy. Tom Nairn was the most notable intellectual exponent of this New Left tradition in the UK, but few have practiced it as consistently as his ally Anthony Barnett, whose affirmation of democratic innovation has produced the constitutional and electoral reform group Charter 88 and openDemocracy, among much else. Pessimistically, Bevins writes, “at a basic level, a protest says ‘I don’t like this – you fix it’.” But some movements, even some protests, rest on demands to become included and involved. For reasons that no doubt have something to do with social media and the “hyper-politics” that it encourages, this is what the 2010s never quite delivered.

Who knows how many of those who attended protest marches or supported left-populist leaders in the 2010s have ended up disappearing down rabbit holes, of the sort offered by Brand today. There is nothing inevitable about this slippage, but it is one inevitable outlet for all that energy, especially now that (for the time being at least) parliamentary pathways seem to have run into the sand. Alternatively, there is the pro-Palestinian movement, whose global scale since 7 October potentially signals an even deeper crisis of liberal legitimation, that is experienced most acutely by centre-left governments of the Global North. A premise of the current protests, like the anti-apartheid movement before them, is that they represent those who are unable to represent themselves. The demands right now are far from illegible: an end to the illegal Israeli occupation, and more urgently an end to its bombardment and slaughter of Palestinians. But what else might this emergent, global left want in the future? How else might it speak, other than the mass mobilisation of bodies in streets? These questions will remain as pertinent as ever.

[See also: The year of voting dangerously]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge