Antitrust from 2001 stars Tim Robbins as a seemingly good guy entrepreneur who turns out to be a control-freak corporate villain. Robbins plays Gary Winston, CEO of a software development corporation NURV (an acronym for ‘Never Underestimate Radical Vision’). He offers Milo Hoffman, played by Ryan Phillippe, a great position in NURV to develop a new programme called Synapse, a global media distribution network, with complete creative freedom. It is clear who Robbins is channelling for the part. There is a nice moment when Milo asks Gary about some neat bit of tech equipment and comments that Bill Gates must have one of those; ‘Bill who?’ says Gary. Milo moves with his girlfriend Alice to Portland to work on the project, but things quickly go sour after it turns out that the source code that Winston supplied Milo has been stolen from other indie programmers that NURV has then rubbed out.
The twists and turns in the thriller plot include revelations that Alice and another co-worker Lisa, who Milo allies with to figure out what is going on in the corporation, are in cahoots with NURV. Alice has been working with Gary Winston from the outset, and Lisa is also a double agent who turns Milo in to the corporation when he is getting close to the truth. The film, which carried the tag-line ‘Trust is not an option’, pits the idealistic high-tech every-youth Milo – ‘Human knowledge belongs to the world’ is his driver – against the Gary Bill Gates character who is a complex typical corporate mixture of bad faith altruism and instrumental power-hound; ‘Are we making chemical weapons, kiddie porn, are we strip-mining?, he complains at one point, ‘No! Why are they after me?’
This is a pro open-source film, with the real good guys – that’s what Milo stands for – drawn into a corporate world in which knowledge and organisational control go hand in hand. The film pitched itself as part an ethical collective alternative to instrumentalist politics and against the reduction of truth to pragmatics and competitive manoeuvres. In this sense the film is about the breaking of trust in new technological forms of networking and is ‘anti-trust’, against monopoly in the field of information and ‘radical vision’. There is even a culture-nature sub-text, in which Milo is almost killed off in a seduction scene by Alice with a secret stash of sesame seeds that Milo is allergic to.
Mobilisation for Jeremy Corbyn through technological networks quickly became one of the signature strategies of Momentum. Originally a network formed during the internal Labour Party campaign to get Jeremy elected leader in 2015, it then crystallised into an organisation under the control of Jon Lansman, a new bogyman for the right wing press. They should have admired him for his new tech corporate savvy manoeuvring. Lansman established Momentum as a private company. It flew, quickly drawing in thousands of members, and so Momentum expressed and channelled the hopes of a grassroots movement around Corbyn inside the Labour Party, and was even open in its early days to those outside the party too. Soon it began meeting and gathering together the range of activists who had been drawn in by what promised to be a new kind of politics, including many of those who had been involved in Left Unity outside the party. Meeting and gathering was good for Milo, but soon this would all change.
It was not so much that we were all Corbyn – the bar for that kind of direct identification with Saint Jeremy was set much too high – but that we could all be Milo, and maybe Ryan Phillippe will stand in for us supporters in the future biopic of the Corbyn movement. Lansman will be played by Tim Robbins. The Alice and Lisa characters, unfortunately but tellingly in a left-landscape still populated by ambitious young men who reduce women activists to bit parts, will give a sexist aspect to the story of the rise and fall of Momentum, onlookers who are recruited and then ditched in the course of the interplay between different forms of power. Momentum was fantastically successful in the immediate aftermath of Corbyn’s victory inside the Labour Party, peaking at a membership of 24,000, and drawing in many of the new activists that had been enthused by a radical alternative, a membership that way out-numbered the profusion of little sects that hoped to feed on Left Unity and then swarmed into Labour to recruit new members there. One problem Momentum had to confront was how to organise these new ‘Corbynistas’ without allowing them to be picked off and used by seasoned far-left organisers.
There were thus three forms of organisation at work in this process – big, middle-sized and little corporate entities, each with their own varieties of Bill Gates’ smiley but wily leadership – that is, first, the Labour Party as a massive bureaucratic apparatus and host organisation determined to strangle the Corbyn movement at birth, second, Momentum itself under the direct control of Lansman, and third, Momentum groups around the country who, in different measure depending on the location, attracted and then resisted the rise of little Bills.
Some of the local groups, the one in Manchester as a case in point, were seized by little Bills who were loyal to London. Some intensive mobilising around the 2016 AGM which played to a new cohort of middle-class members who were suspicious of organised politics and what they claimed were ‘inward-looking’ old Labour and Trotskyist politics led to a shock victory for the Lansman-loyal right wing of Manchester Momentum. Dishonest attacks on activists from the Trades Council, those who had made a valiant effort to keep Momentum locally to the left and out of the grips of Lansman, and even channelling of claims of antisemitism when the left dared to support Jackie Walker at the AGM, were all put in the mix. As a result, most of the left have abandoned this group, left them to it, while some key figures in Manchester Momentum have pitched in with new left initiatives.
Meanwhile, high-tech Jon has battened down the hatches on the mother-ship by using ‘new technology’ and ‘new forms of organising’ to suspend all the structures of Momentum and turn decision-making into ‘consultation’ exercises, one of the favourite ruses of corporate management. This is politics reduced to business, and then the business ethos takes over. Meetings now come a poor second – window dressing – to media distribution.
What is the real momentum of this organisation now? In some places this Momentum is all there is of the defeated Corbyn movement, and the left has to make the best of it, but they must beware; trust has given way to an atmosphere of antitrust. In some places now Momentum is still the name of the game for ‘Corbynism’, self-organised and independent of London (and Lansman), and effectively operating as local franchises that have spun out of control of the main organisation. In some places Momentum has been wracked by internal conflicts, and by the emergence of ‘Grassroots Momentum’ onto which some of the tinier groups like Labour Briefing have lashed themselves as it sinks into its own self-created sectarian swamp. This mini-momentum without a ruthless CEO – the only thing to recommend it over its parent company – is already a feeding ground for the myriad of tiny Leninist groups for whom ‘democratic centralism’ operates as name for robotic and dishonest manipulation of any other bigger network they can get their hands on. 2020 saw a proliferation of other left interventions inside Momentum itself, including ‘Forward Momentum‘ and ‘Momentum Internationalists‘, hopeless take-over bids.
In many other places, fortunately, and this is the case in Manchester, new networks of the left, including from the Trades Council, have completely bypassed Momentum. Some of those involved ‘Withington Labour Left’ (formerly, until 2020, ‘Withington for Corbyn’) and other parallel groups around Manchester still remember the founding meeting of Manchester Momentum where the chair referred to the group by mistake as ‘Monument’. Many activists stuck with it for a while, tried to make it work, and then sought out better company.
This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the English Left through Film project.