Friday, June 9, 2017

The powerful aren't going to learn any lessons from Corbyn

Against incredible odds and pundit expectations, Jeremy Corbyn has won one of the most stunning victories in British electoral history. He won by running unabashedly to the left, promising nationalization, to tax the rich, to expand public services, and to expand worker rights. And he did all of this not only in opposition to the UK's radical right, but to his critics in the liberal center.

Corbyn's victory has so many direct implications for American politics that it's tempting to think of this as a victory for the American left as well. It demonstrates that instead of simply running to the right and trying to peel off their voters, a party can win by mobilizing voters who prefer left priorities and positions. It demonstrates that voters want to see their basic economic concerns substantively addressed, even in ways that reject capitalist orthodoxy. And it demonstrates that our political operatives, mass media and intellectual elites often have no special insight into political realities - and that they are systematically, overwhelmingly biased against the radical left.

In a sane, rationalistic discourse, this would all have a profound impact on American politics. Corbyn's victory would inform the efforts of our party leaders, policy planners, media managers, and rank-and-file activists, and the result would be a clear and immediate radicalization of American politics.

But this is not, of course, what will actually happen.

What will actually happen is that people who have an interest in learning the wrong lessons will tend to learn the wrong lessons. Liberal centrism has been terrible for most people, but it has been very good to a few, and these people do not want to learn anything that threatens their world. These people live extremely comfortable lives, and they believe that they have earned these comforts through hard work and personal talent. For this reason, they have a powerful incentive to rationalize away any political lessons that could hurt their self-image or take away their privilege.

This point may seem obvious, but its implications are easy to forget when we are immersed in the ideology of liberal rationalism. If you think that the central arena of political struggle is the "marketplace of ideas", and that progress is just a matter of education and intellectual persuasion, then you'll be inclined to downplay the role that motivated reasoning plays in our politics. This is an odd mistake to make, because the research is quite clear about how political bias distorts our perception and reasoning; because Marxist theory explicitly rejects this notion of rationalism; and because our ordinary experience interacting with other people demonstrates the problem constantly. It's extraordinarily rare that anyone changes their mind in a political discussion, or learns anything that radically changes their beliefs.

And unfortunately, this problem of ideological investment is most pronounced among the people who are in the best position to change our politics. If you are a decision-maker in the Democratic party, you almost certainly got to where you are by embracing and fighting for Third Way liberalism. If you make major editorial decisions at a national media outlet, it's probably because you adhered to bourgeois norms of professionalism and insisted on an editorial direction amenable to shareholders and marketers. If you build a career in an influential think tank, you will spend a lot of time deferring to your director, and your director will spend all of her time worrying about political access and large-donor funding. All of these people, moreover, will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts: they'll have a comfortable, stable, well-paying job with good benefits, and they'll constantly be showered in praise for their intelligence, professionalism, diligence, and so on, by networking colleagues and magnanimous bosses.

That's why we're already seeing all kinds of ridiculous, tryhard arguments in America against the obvious lessons of Corbyn. We're hearing that Labour would have done even better than its already spectacular win if it had only run a completely different centrist campaign. That UK voters did not actually care about the issues that affected them at all, but were simply voting for Corbyn as a weird symbolic gesture against Donald Trump. That British politics are so different from what happens in America that there are no lessons to be learned here - even though the same people, when Corbyn was losing, insisted that he was demonstrating the futility of leftist politics in the US.

To be sure, Corbyn's win is a victory of solidarity for the American left, because we have a stake in what happens to our comrades all over the world. And certainly there are people in the US who are not invested in centrist-liberalism, who will see what Corbyn did, and who may decide that it can happen here, too. But the people in control - the people with power - aren't going to change their minds because of Corbyn. Which is why we have to do precisely what the British left just did: take their power away.