In his most recent, marathon blog on Leave’s victory in last year’s referendum, Dominic Cummings makes the well-worn, but oft forgotten point that moments like our decision to leave the EU are by their nature over-determined, the product of a confluence of personalities, freak occurrences and, he admits, underlying forces that brewed beneath the surface for decades.
He is of the view – contra to many quite popular interpretations of the referendum – that if one or two different decisions had been taken by either side, then the result could easily have been very different indeed. Our propensity to falsely and retrospectively project narratives and patterns on to historical events, is one that has been covered by the likes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and has been borne out by the work of Daniel Kahenman and others.
But what does this have to do with Jeremy Corbyn?
When we apply this way of thinking to the plight of social democratic political parties in the UK and on the continent, it is tempting to lay the blame at the feet of inept leaders or bad luck – but I fear the problem runs deeper. While I accept that the unpopularity of social democratic parties – at home and abroad – is the result of a variety of different forces, I do think that they each may have one in common: a failure of ideological renewal.
What if all across Europe – and even in the United States – social democracy has run out ideas? Will posterity view Jeremy Corbyn as a symptom of a deeper, and much more profound malaise within the centre left? If so, what are the implications of this? Should we be worried?
In the current climate, Labour’s current slide into semi-irrelevance is not hard to understand. For one thing, Labour was established to fight for the interests of labour against capital; it was concerned with delivering economic security. What it was not established for was the battle for cultural security. Further, in its reluctance to change, the Labour party is in some ways more ‘small c conservative’ than the Tories; as a party that has historically fought for the rights of minority groups, attempting to reflect the cultural insecurity – which the white majority seems to be in the clutches of – is never going to be a pose that Labour is comfortable holding.
For another thing, freedom of movement presents a fundamental strategic problem; namely, that while the Party’s historical post-industrial constituency are firmly opposed, its voters in larger cities and university towns are firmly in favour.
But all is not lost. I am of the view that, in time, we will need a party with a tradition of fighting for the economic and political right of labour vis-à-vis capital. We will need a labour party.
In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari predicts that the emergence of super-intelligent, non-conscience algorithms will produce an enormous “useless class”. Taking driverless cars, he also argues that automation will result in the concentration of economic and political power into fewer and fewer hands. Today, within the class of ‘uber drivers’ – if we suppose for a moment that such a class exists – political and economic power is diffused evenly.
In a future of driverless cars, however, where one company or individual controls an algorithm that controls all cars, the political and economic power concentrated into their hands would be staggering.
In a future such as this, social democratic renewal becomes more important than ever. In this likely future, where anger over immigration is dwarfed by the disappearance of entire industries, a partys whose founding mission was the leavening of economic and political inequality becomes immediately relevant.
To this end there has been a disappointing lack of thinking on the centre-left. While people like Jonn Cruddas and Tom Watson have signalled that they understand the rising importance of issues like this one, more widely it seems the Labour movement does not.
Yuval Harari offers the further, somewhat chilling thought that the political consequences of technology are not deterministic. Put another way, there is no guarantee that the development of the technology he describes will make for a more just and liberal society. The example he uses is that the internal combustion engine was used in the creation of liberal democracy in the UK, but was also harnessed to establish the Third Reich and the USSR.
So, while the coming changes represent a historical opportunity for social democracy, if it is not up to the task then we all might pay a price. In the absence of a positive vision that seeks to harness technological change to build an inclusive and socially just society, voters may choose a bitter, nostalgic populism. For all our sakes, let’s hope social democracy renews itself.