By Georgia Elander
CN: Party politics
Something has changed in politics in the last few months – a tectonic shift which only a few anticipated.
I wasn’t one of them. In figures, it has taken Labour from a 20-point poll deficit to a narrow lead, and seen Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings rocket into the positive while Theresa May’s plummet; in policy, it has forced the government to back down over NHS abortions for Northern Irish women, and could see the end of the public sector pay cap. But it has other meanings too: cultural, emotional. The most tangible manifestation of these meanings is in memes.
In the days that followed the election, when it became clear that something quite unexpected had happened, the media commentators who had failed to predict the surge on the left attempted to grapple not only with the politics of the moment but with its new cultural manifestations. A Guardian piece titled ‘Was it the Corbyn memes wot won it?’ pondered the origins of the ‘absolute boy’ and its ‘benevolent laddism’; Guido Fawkes published a ‘guide to Corbynista slang’ which similarly puzzled over the term ‘slugs’: ‘Some Labour etymologists believe it derives from communist ideology, which encourages the dehumanisation of political opponents. Others say it comes from David Brent in The Office.’
What these quasi-satirical analyses fail utterly to grasp about so-called ‘Corbynista’ memes is that they are not about masculinity, or dehumanisation, or even about Jeremy Corbyn himself: they are about joy.
I’ve been involved in politics since I was fifteen and knocking up for Diane Abbott on the night of the 2010 election; I was in the Green Party when the ‘Green Surge’ happened and we saw our vote share triple in 2010 – never in all that time have I felt the kind of hope that I feel now. I think that’s the same for a lot of people. And it’s important.
“After years of emotional austerity, Corbyn memes represent an abundance of joy, an outpouring of mirth that goes beyond reason or argument”
As second-wave feminists say, ‘the personal is political.’ But the reverse is true too: politics is personal. For years, if not decades, we on the left have not been allowed to dream of utopia. We’ve been told to be pragmatic, pander to Tory narratives on economic competence, address legitimate concerns on migration. That has changed, and it hasn’t just changed in terms of policy and messaging: it has changed how people feel. After years of emotional austerity, Corbyn memes represent an abundance of joy, an outpouring of mirth that goes beyond reason or argument and exists for its own sake.
Memes, after all, are the epitome of collectivity: nobody claims ownership of the use of ‘nationalisation’ as a meme; it mutates and gains currency and momentum with every use; there is no scarcity of humour. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn was created by a crowd.
I think too that memes deploy what I cautiously term a kind of ‘radical laziness’ that is a new luxury for the left. The ‘Jeremy Corbyn is PM’ meme works because it is its own defence: we don’t have to bother to explain that actually, it was a good election for Jez because he gained seats and the Tories lost them or that Labour now has a huge amount of leverage over policy because of May’s tiny majority or even mate, calm down, it’s a fucking joke: just, Jeremy Corbyn is the Prime Minister. Because we say so. Also, you’re nationalised.
When Jeremy Corbyn stood on the stage at the Tranmere Rovers ground and said ‘I want a country where everybody can play sport if they want to, every child can learn music and we are brought together by that,’ he wasn’t just making a case for more arts funding. He was recognising the fundamental right of every person to a rich cultural and emotional life. That’s revolutionary.
Memes alone do not a revolution make. But culture is intrinsic to any powerful social movement, and the new lexicon of the left is part of building that movement. Tom Whyman has written wonderfully about the big bag of cans and the spirit of utopia; Ally Fogg wrote this excellent thread about the ‘Jeremy is PM’ meme as situationist praxis. All I have left to add to these analyses is this quote from the journal Baedan which I thought about when a friend and I drunkenly nationalised a street of privately-owned properties, and which I think has something to do with the raucous joy of left twitter discourse:
‘We must insist that our struggle be all at once queer, wild, destructive and joyous.’
Find more of Georgia’s personal and political writing here.