In the latest of the interminable media "furores" about Jeremy Corbyn's supposed unfitness to lead Britain's Labour party let alone become prime minister it is easy to forget where we were shortly before he won the support of an overwhelming majority of Labour members to head the party.
In the preceding two years, it was hard to avoid on TV the figure of Russell Brand, a comedian and minor film star who had reinvented himself, after years of battling addiction, as a spiritual guru-cum-political revolutionary.
Brand's fast-talking, plain-speaking criticism of the existing political order, calling it discredited, unaccountable and unrepresentative, was greeted with smirking condescension by the political and media establishment. Nonetheless, in an era before Donald Trump had become president of the United States, the British media were happy to indulge Brand for a while, seemingly believing he or his ideas might prove a ratings winner with younger audiences.
But Brand started to look rather more impressive than anyone could have imagined. He took on supposed media heavyweights like the BBC's Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4's Jon Snow and charmed and shamed them into submission both with his compassion and his thoughtful radicalism. Even in the gladiatorial-style battle of wits so beloved of modern TV, he made these titans of the political interview look mediocre, shallow and out of touch. Videos of these head-to-heads went viral, and Brand won hundreds of thousands of new followers.
Then he overstepped the mark.
Democracy as charade
Instead of simply criticizing the political system, Brand argued that it was in fact so rigged by the powerful, by corporate interests, that western democracy had become a charade. Elections were pointless. Our votes were simply a fig-leaf, concealing the fact that our political leaders were there to represent not us but the interests of globe-spanning corporations. Political and media elites had been captured by unshored corporate money. Our voices had become irrelevant.
Brand didn't just talk the talk. He started committing to direct action. He shamed our do-nothing politicians and corporate media the devastating Grenfell Tower fire had yet to happen by helping to gain attention for a group of poor tenants in London who were taking on the might of a corporation that had become their landlord and wanted to evict them to develop their homes for a much richer clientele. Brand's revolutionary words had turned into revolutionary action.
But just as Brand's rejection of the old politics began to articulate a wider mood, it was stopped in its tracks. After Corbyn was unexpectedly elected Labour leader, offering for the first time in living memory a politics that listened to people before money, Brand's style of rejectionism looked a little too cynical, or at least premature.
While Corbyn's victory marked a sea-change, it is worth recalling, however, that it occurred only because of a mistake. Or perhaps two.
The Corbyn accident
First, a handful of Labour MPs agreed to nominate Corbyn for the leadership contest, scraping him past the threshold needed to get on the ballot paper. Most backed him only because they wanted to give the impression of an election that was fair and open. After his victory, some loudly regretted having assisted him. None had thought a representative of the tiny and besieged left wing of the parliamentary party stood a chance of winning not after Tony Blair and his acolytes had spent more than two decades remaking Labour, using their own version of entryism to eradicate any vestiges of socialism in the party. These "New Labour" MPs were there, just as Brand had noted, to represent the interests of a corporate class, not ordinary people.
Corbyn had very different ideas from most of his colleagues. Over the years he had broken with the consensus of the dominant Blairite faction time and again in parliamentary votes, consistently taking a minority view that later proved to be on the right side of history. He alone among the leadership contenders spoke unequivocally against austerity, regarding it as a way to leech away more public money to enrich the corporations and banks that had already pocketed vast sums from the public coffers so much so that by 2008 they had nearly bankrupted the entire western economic system.
And second, Corbyn won because of a recent change in the party's rulebook one now much regretted by party managers. A new internal balloting system gave more weight to the votes of ordinary members than the parliamentary party. The members, unlike the party machine, wanted Corbyn.
Corbyn's success didn't really prove Brand wrong. Even the best designed systems have flaws, especially when the maintenance of the system's image as benevolent is considered vitally important. It wasn't that Corbyn's election had shown Britain's political system was representative and accountable. It was simply evidence that corporate power had made itself vulnerable to a potential accident by preferring to work out of sight, in the shadows, to maintain the illusion of democracy. Corbyn was that accident.
"Brainwashing under freedom"
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