Digital Democracy Meets the Oligarchs Uptown

03/08/2016 09:32 | Updated 03 August 2016

Since the shock result of the EU referendum, the insights of political academics are suddenly of great interest to people who until very recently had much better things to do with their time. From Plato onwards, political theorists have argued that democracy in any meaningful sense is an impossibility, as the majority of the population lack both the knowledge and motivation to govern themselves. As a result, the only effective form of political power is the rule of the few over the many. The EU referendum could be seen as confirming this patrician theory. If you ask the ignorant and irresponsible to decide the country's future, they will choose the wrong option that wrecks political stability and destroys economic prosperity. David Cameron's big mistake was to forget what he was taught as a PPE undergrad at Oxford. Democracy must be restricted to citizens deciding in infrequent elections which party elite will control the British state. It was his job as a professional politician to sort out the Tories' squabbles over Europe, not to outsource this task to the gullible voters.

Those radicalised by the current crisis aren't impressed by grandstanding in parliamentary debates or slick media soundbites. Instead, they are looking for politicians who will respect them as adults by giving honest answers to difficult questions. This is why so many of them are now joining Labour to support Jeremy Corbyn against the Blairites' attempt to depose him as leader. Since the EU referendum, its membership has grown to over 500,000 which is more than all the other parties in Britain combined.

I've been repeatedly told that the very attributes which his critics argue make Jeremy Corbyn unsuitable to be Labour leader are what his admirers find so attractive. The Blairites in his party were outraged by this off-message opinion that seemed to them like the blunder of an amateur. Yet, it was precisely this admission of the EU's deficiencies combined with a rejection of Brexit which marked out Jeremy Corbyn as a thoughtful and sincere politician to those on the Left who voted for his Remain and reform position on 23rd June.

For academics such as myself, the Blairite coup against Jeremy Corbyn is a textbook example of Robert Michels' theory put into practice. After nine months of false accusations and manufactured scandals, the elite plotters were ready to pounce as soon as the EU referendum result was announced. Their putsch was meticulously choreographed: successive resignations of Shadow Cabinet ministers on an hourly basis with a break for the England-Iceland football match, planted hecklers at Corbyn's public appearances, disruption of the launch of Labour's report into anti-Semitism, opinion pieces calling for the election of a new leader in the Guardian and Daily Mirror, grandees booked onto BBC and Sky News programmes to back up this demand, a secret ballot of no confidence by MPs and, as its grand finale, a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, where their hated enemy would be bullied and humiliated into resignation. The votes of 251,417 Corbynista members in the 2015 contest were worthless compared to the will of a few hundred Blairite politicians and their bag-carriers.

The Blairite plotters are playing according to the old rules of the game where controlling the news agenda of the BBC, Mirror and the Guardian will decide who is the leader of the Labour party. Back in the 1990s heyday of Tony Blair, when political debate was dominated by establishment voices, this spin doctor's strategy was the key to victory. However, his contemporary acolytes are operating within a very different media environment. As soon as the coup was launched, Jeremy Corbyn's supporters began mobilising against the Blairites through their digital networks. Among grassroots members, home brew websites like The Canary, AnotherAngryVoice and Novara Media are more influential than the celebrity commentators of the BBC, Mirror and the Guardian. On multiple occasions, I've been told that Portland Communications - a Blairite PR agency - is organising the coup and its primary motivation was to prevent Jeremy Corbyn - as Labour leader - from using the Chilcot Report to condemn Tony Blair for his disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Whether or not these claims are correct, their ubiquity proves that the mainstream media can no longer monopolise political thinking. In 2016 Britain, the Blairites are old fashioned analogue broadcasting and the Corbynistas are new style digital networking.

Sceptics warn that the corporate owners of social media are becoming the upgraded version of Tory press barons. For instance, Robert Epstein of the American Institute of Behavioral Research is convinced that Google fiddled its page rankings to sway the referendum in favour of Brexit to punish the EU for making this search engine observe personal privacy laws! Even if the US corporations which control social media don't deliberately sabotage a Labour party promising to crack down on tax dodging schemes, their networking software could automatically achieve the same goal. Academic research has shown how these algorithms are creating virtual communities of mutually reinforcing opinions.

Over the summer, the Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith won't just decide the future direction of Britain's main opposition party. It will also reveal whether 'the iron law of oligarchy' is still a valid theory for understanding the Left. Like in 2015, social media will be essential for disseminating the hopeful message of his nationwide tour of public meetings to a wider audience. Ironically, their filter bubbles are more of a help than a hindrance in reaching this electorate of Left activists. Now, in 2016, it has re-emerged from the fringes and moved into the mainstream. For social scientists, the Labour leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith promises to be the closest thing to the laboratory experiments of our natural scientist colleagues. Could the dissolution of managerial elitism in the Labour party anticipate a more participatory form of parliamentary politics? Can social media truly liberate the minds of the masses from the corporate propaganda of the mainstream media? Is it possible to imagine one day that people power might even become the leitmotif of the British state?