When the internet first became part of everyday life in the late 1990s, it was celebrated as a wondrous new publishing machine, an amalgam of printing press and broadcaster that would radically democratise the means of communication at virtually zero cost. As any blogger or YouTube star can confirm, this dream didn’t die altogether, but neither did it capture what would turn out to be a more distinctive characteristic of the emerging technology. Twenty years on, it has become clear that the internet is less significant as a means of publishing than a means of archiving. More and more of our behaviour is being captured and stored, from the trace we leave in online searches, the photos we share and ‘like’ on social media platforms to the vast archive of emails and tweets to which we contribute day after day. This massive quantity of information sits there, ready to be interpreted, if only something coherent can be extracted from the fog. It makes possible a new, panoramic way to assess people, now that evidence of their character can be retrieved from the past – a fact that hasn’t escaped consumer credit-rating firms or government border agencies.
YouTube, Spotify, Google Books and so on put decades’ worth, sometimes centuries’ worth, of ‘content’ at our fingertips. One effect of this is the compression of historical time. ‘Is it really fifty years since Sergeant Pepper?’ you may ask. But the time lapse feels immaterial. The internet turns up a perpetual series of anniversaries, disparate moments from disparate epochs, and presents them all as equivalent and accessible in the here and now. ‘In 1981,’ the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher wrote in Ghosts of My Life (2014), ‘the 1960s seemed much further away than they do today.’ Facebook extends this logic to people’s own personal history, informing them of what banal activity they were engaged in this time last year, or eight years ago. The archive isn’t merely available to us; it actively pursues us.
These phenomena have extended well beyond the limits of any particular digital platform, producing a more diffuse cultural logic. This is manifest in the novels of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, where the ‘big data’ mentality of capturing every biographical detail over time is elevated to an artform. This cultural epoch introduces a distinct set of problems. Which event from the past will pop up next? How can a clear narrative be extracted from the deluge of messages and numbers? What does my data trail say about me? Can past judgments of oneself or others be revised or revoked? It can seem as if there are only two options: to immerse oneself entirely, or to not give a damn. The figures who succeed in today’s populist politics are the ones who don’t give a damn. Politicians in the past may have sought ‘authenticity’, but that use of the term was always oxymoronic. If you’re trying too hard, you’re not authentic. When politics was still oriented around analogue television and newspapers, there were specific audiences for politicians’ performances and well-defined opportunities for them to exercise their charm: the TV debate, the interview, the press conference, their relationships with newspaper editors. But now that politicians (like the rest of us) are subject to ceaseless, wide-ranging monitoring, and leave a mountainous archive of evidence behind them, focal points of the traditional sort don’t matter so much. It will all come out anyway.
It is also telling that these successful populists are significantly older than your average 1990s ‘third way’ politician. Where the latter was a man in his early forties (now re-enacted by the even younger Emmanuel Macron), in the last two years we have witnessed the unforeseen rise of Bernie Sanders (75), Jeremy Corbyn (68) and Donald Trump (71), the oldest man ever to become president. These men have lurked on the margins of public life for decades, and a stockpile of images and stories has accumulated around them. Both Corbyn and Sanders have an impressive archive, appearing in photographs as young men being manhandled by police as they protested against racial segregation. It isn’t just their words that persuade people they offer a break from the status quo, their biographies do too. They have accrued the political equivalent of rich credit histories.
One event that did a great deal to push the ‘big data’ sensibility into UK politics, yet had little to do with the internet (it was triggered by a newspaper freedom of information request), was the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. Its significance for our subsequent democratic upheavals hasn’t been fully appreciated. The capacity to peer into our representatives’ lives, find out what curtains they bought, whether they take taxis or the tube, where they go for lunch, circumvented the staged performances on which politicians prefer to be judged. It revealed differences of character and taste, the sort of thing we’re now used to glimpsing via Facebook or Instagram.
Thanks to the tabloids, we have long been accustomed to the interruption of politics by scandal, including stories designed to cause the greatest possible personal embarrassment. But here was something different. In place of the revelation of David Mellor’s bedroom attire came a drip-drip of inane yet telling details of purchases from John Lewis, which didn’t interrupt politics as usual so much as reconfigure it altogether. That Ed Miliband was revealed as the most frugal member of the cabinet, and his brother one of the most extravagant, spoke of something more important than their views on fiscal policy, and whatever it was seeped into the Labour leadership contest the following year.
One of the striking results of this new media ecology is that traditional smears no longer seem to work as effectively as they did. Both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Theresa May in 2017 sought to do down their opponents by drawing attention to their past behaviour. A tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women ‘by the pussy’ was leaked, presumably on the assumption that it would finish off his campaign once and for all. Corbyn was hammered over and over again for his past sympathies with the IRA, with the effect that Labour’s manifesto (and its vulnerabilities on Brexit) went relatively untouched.
The strategy failed because in this new environment, there is something worse than to err, and that is to be two-faced. Trump’s behaviour was shocking but scarcely out of character. Aggression and an overturning of ‘political correctness’ were what fuelled his campaign in the first place. As for Corbyn, his entire political career has been spent challenging Western imperialism and military rule. These smears didn’t tell the public much that they hadn’t already sensed – and could find out by Googling – about the candidates’ characters and priorities. By contrast, ‘liberal elites’ are vulnerable to the charge that their public and private lives don’t match up: they preach public service and altruism, while having two kitchens (Ed Miliband), making $675,000 from speeches to Goldman Sachs (Clinton) or not knowing exactly how many properties they own (David Cameron).
Hannah Arendt remarked in On Violence that rage is less commonly provoked by injustice than by hypocrisy. The difficulty is that politics must involve some degree of hypocrisy, if public and private life aren’t to dissolve into each other. ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ is a useful ethical heuristic, but it doesn’t help judges, civil servants or ministers in taking decisions on behalf of the public. It won’t help Corbyn either if he becomes prime minister, despite his protestations that he would continue to maintain his allotment from Downing Street. Yet in many ways digital media serve to dissolve the division between public and private, allowing a relentless, unforgiving gaze to be cast on every discrepancy between words and actions, words past and words present. In the gladiatorial world of Twitter, the greatest mistake one can make isn’t to be offensive (that can be a virtue) but to contradict an earlier tweet, sometimes even from years ago, which can then be gleefully dug up again by trolls. Under these conditions, public credibility depends on boundless sincerity and obsessive consistency, as well as a disregard for the way one is seen by others. Trump’s archive does him few favours here: his back catalogue of tweets provides a constant source of entertainment in exposing the hypocrisy of his behaviour as president, though primarily for those who never believed him in the first place. This flies in the face of Machiavellian tenets concerning political prowess, which helps explain why non-politicians, marginal politicians and non-parties (En Marche!) are now reaping the electoral benefits.
Given the degree to which conventional notions of leadership had become shaped to suit television and newspapers, the challenge to these notions is long overdue. Silly staged performances of normality must be finished for the time being. What was heartening about the general election was that it suggested a new symbolic status for policy of the sort that technocratic politics was unable to manufacture. Amid all the noise, slogans and smears of the campaign, it seems that Labour’s simple, eye-catching policies (free university tuition, more bank holidays, free school meals for all, more NHS funding, no tax rises for 95 per cent of earners) had the ability to cut through. These policies were crafted to produce a left-populist platform, with the idea in mind that policies can influence voters, but only if they are sufficiently straightforward to be able to hold their shape as they travel around an increasingly complex, chaotic public sphere. New Labour had two sets of experts: one to run its technocratic policy-making machine, the other to handle the media, which it believed could be tamed. But once editorial bottlenecks no longer determine the flow of news, and neurotic control of image is no longer realistic, policies must be designed to spread of their own accord, like internet memes. Trump’s ‘Build a wall!’ did this. Less propitiously, once the phrase ‘dementia tax’ had attached itself to the Tory campaign, it couldn’t be dislodged.
This isn’t to say that Corbyn himself wasn’t instrumental. Given the surge in youth turnout, ‘free university tuition’ may have been decisive in ruining May’s hopes of a majority, especially given Corbyn’s promise to explore ways of alleviating existing debt burdens. But not just any leader could credibly have made this promise: Nick Clegg famously reneged on it in 2010, and no Clegg-alike could have got away with making it in 2017. Centrist Labour figures and their friends in the press continue to believe it is a bad policy, on the grounds that it uses general taxation to subsidise middle-class privileges. Corbyn is different, not because he has a different view of the economics, but because he has a different political biography. What’s more, he has become a valuable asset in the ‘attention economy’ of the digital landscape, as eyes are drawn inexorably towards personal and emotional quirks. As with Trump during his election campaign, Corbyn converts weaknesses into strength. The combination of his avuncular demeanour and the earnest policy-heavy document of the Labour manifesto proved an unexpected hit.
Blairites complain that Corbyn offers simple solutions to complex problems. (They used to complain that he had some plausible policies but was unelectable: it seems that the charge-sheet has now been inverted.) But one of Corbyn’s solutions is difficult to argue with – namely, the resurrection of fiscal policy as a central tool of social and economic transformation, following 25 years in which both parties were paranoid about being tagged as ‘tax and spend’ fanatics. For the last ten years central bankers have pleaded with politicians to use fiscal policy more liberally in order to relieve the macroeconomic burden on monetary policy, but their call has fallen on deaf ears, especially in Europe. Coming in the wake of quantitative easing, one of the most technically obscure economic policies ever devised, the return of fiscal policy is welcome, both economically and politically. Corbyn has forced the Conservatives’ hand on this, turning austerity into a toxic political issue.
During the 1980s and 1990s, theorists such as Fredric Jameson argued that capitalism had brought about a fundamental change in the way cultural and political history are experienced. The distinctively modern sense of chronology, which emerged in the second half of the 19th century, viewed the past as unfolding progressively into the present, and the future as a space of new political and cultural possibilities to be seized by whichever artist, planner or political movement was bold enough. Postmodernity, by contrast, involved a collapse of historical progress into a perpetual present, a constant rehashing and recombining of existing styles and ideas, which put an end to any hope (or fear) that the future might be radically different.
The economic corollary of this was the entrenching of a neoliberal order in which liberal capitalism was treated as the final stage of human history: the only plausible plans were business plans, the only source of innovation was entrepreneurship. This vision still held onto some notion of progress, but it was now tightly bound to improvements in economic efficiency and consumer experiences. When Tony Blair used the word ‘modernisation’, he meant driving competition into public services. The idea of the ‘modern’ was shorn of its utopian or politically disruptive implications, provoking the suggestion that the future no longer existed, at least not as something different from the present.
The years of austerity since the global financial crisis have followed the postmodern script, but with one crucial difference. Postmodernity is typically conceived as repetitive, but playfully so. By contrast, austerity has come to be experienced as an endless, pointless repetition of pain (Yanis Varoufakis described Greece’s bailout conditions as ‘fiscal waterboarding’). With each announcement that austerity will have to be extended because spending cuts have failed once more to reduce the government deficit (just as most economists warned all along they would), the sense of disbelief has grown. In the worst cases, such as Greece, deficit-reduction schemes extend decades into the future. Precarity and rising housing costs trap young people in a state of perpetual pre-adulthood, unable to separate themselves from their parents. The need to escape this loop is ever more pressing, yet all that governments have been promising is more and more of it.
In these circumstances, hope is found in a form of historical revisionism. The successes of Corbyn and Sanders (and, in a different way, Trump) allow us to feel it might be possible to restore and re-evaluate elements of a past which predates neoliberalism. Where the modernist’s view of history would treat the march of Reagan, Thatcher, Blair and Clinton as a necessary stage en route to something better, the current sense seems to be that theirs was a path taken in error. Instead, we must go back to go forward. In the case of Trump, the perceived error goes back much further, to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and before. What is notable about Trump’s brand of conservatism is that it shows little devotion to Reagan or recent conservative history, seeking instead to imagine away much of postwar US history in favour of a hologram of a nation where men manufacture the world’s goods and women iron their shirts.
A large part of the reason Corbyn causes Blairites so much distress – whether or not they dislike his policies or style of leadership – is that he threatens to destroy their narrative of the 1980s and 1990s. In that version of history, the hard left was heroically defeated by Neil Kinnock, setting the stage for the most successful Labour government ever. What if Corbyn were to win a general election? How would that recast the significance of those battles? The coincidence of the Corbyn surge with the horror of Grenfell Tower has created the conditions – and the demand – for a kind of truth and reconciliation commission on forty years of neoliberalism. It is too simple to cast Corbyn as a throwback, but it is undeniable that his appeal and his authority derive partly from his willingness to cast a different, less forgiving light on recent history, so that we don’t have to carry on repeating it.
Reacting to the breakdown of the vote on 8 June, business leaders and conservative commentators have expressed their disquiet at the fact that young people are so enthusiastic about an apparently retrograde left-wing programme. ‘Memo to anyone under 45,’ Digby Jones, the former director general of the CBI, tweeted: ‘You can’t remember last time socialists got control of the cookie jar: everything nationalised & nothing worked.’ To which the rebuke might be made: and you don’t remember how good things were compared to today. Speak to my undergraduate students (many of them born during Blair’s first term) about the 1970s and early 1980s, and you’ll see the wistful look on their faces as they imagine a society in which artists, writers and recent graduates could live independently in Central London, unharassed by student loan companies, workfare contractors or debt collectors. This may be a partial historical view, but it responds to what younger generations are currently cheated of: the opportunity to grow into adulthood without having their entire future mapped out as a financial strategy. A leader who can build a bridge to that past offers the hope of a different future.