Momentum

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 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 swarm into Labour to recruit new members there. The 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, have been seized by little Bills who are 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 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, and 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 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.

In many other places, fortunately, and this is the case in Manchester, new networks of the left, including activists from the Trades Council, have completely bypassed Momentum. Some of those involved in ‘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’. They 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 British Left through Film project.

 

 

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Socialist Equality Party

La La Land released in 2016 was a musical comedy romance filmed against a backdrop of violence that was both implicit in the film itself and in the directorial history that preceded it. The film shot into the headlines, first in the flash of hype which successfully publicised its launch, and made out that it was a more substantial reflection of Hollywood life than the light froth it turned out to be, and then in the embarrassed mistaken announcement of best picture award at the Oscars through which it almost eclipsed the success of the black and queer film Moonlight. Just as much as Moonlight was about the weight of history, about the multiple forms of oppression that condition contemporary politics, so La La Land was about the erasure of history and its replacement with a glossy surface and the pretence that an image of success should be enough to win out in the end, even if that was a bitter-sweet image of success haunted by the regret of its two main characters at their actual failure to make it into the big time.

The film traces the interwoven wannabe-celebrity life trajectories of Emma Stone as ‘Mia Dolan’, and Ryan Gosling as ‘Sebastian Wilder’. They meet and fight and part and meet again in a sequence of elaborate dance numbers which conjure up the heyday of the entertainment industry they themselves want to break into, and there are a number of faux-reflexive reminders that they really are actors, including their own film date when they see Rebel Without a Cause before going to the planetarium which also features in that classic film. Emma wants to be an actress, which entails a running pretend in-joke for the audience as she struggles at auditions and then fails with her own one-woman show. Ryan, meanwhile, wants to perform at his own jazz club, for which he is eventually rewarded with a cringe-making final scene in which he hosts and stars at the piano as a nice white guy surrounded by black musicians as his employees, and that involves a darker joke in which Ryan replicates the recuperation of jazz by white mass culture and sidelining of its history.

The opening scene has Mia and Sebastian enacting a first missed encounter during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles highway, during which the first big stage number ‘Another Day of Sun’ sees drivers leaping from their cars and dancing across the bonnets and roofs as they sing of their aspiration to make it in Hollywood and of unfulfilled dreams. One cannot watch this six-minute single take – fake, it turns out, for it was stitched together from three separate shots with some clever cuts – without thinking that these poor saps pouring their hearts into the opening number are the self-same characters they are performing, a very postmodern replication of what is represented that most Marxists hate. Class is pretty much missing from the film, replaced with aspiration, a self-admiring film about two narcissists who we are supposed to sob over when they are unable to get it together. As well as this implicit symbolic violence in the texture of the film, there is the violent quasi-prequel in the director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash two years earlier which stages sadistic coaching of a jazz student in which the message is no pain no gain, lots of pain and humiliation.

The big oft-repeated accusation in the mainstream media against revolutionary Marxists is that they live in some kind of La La Land, doomed to hope for somewhere over the rainbow where their dream of another world beyond capitalism might come about, and it is unfortunately true that some left groups do actually already live there. Some groups really do fit the bill, hallucinating into existence a version of the world as they would like it to be so their own version of Marxism can be made to appear foolproof. Meet the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), formed out of the ruins of what was once one of the largest Trotskyist groups in Britain, the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) led by Gerry Healy – a plum part for Ryan Gosling coming up – who danced on the international stage of far-left politics until the mid-1980s with his best friend Vanessa Redgrave, who will one day perhaps be played by Emma Stone. They have gone their different ways now – Gerry to the great Fourth International in the sky, and Vanessa in other political and artistic directions (with fanfare launches of the now defunct ‘Marxist Party’ and then the ‘Peace and Progress Party’).

Those were the days. Those old WRP years were years of steady industrial implantation from its formation as ‘The Club’ in 1947 which was encouraged by the Fourth International (FI) to split from the Revolutionary Communist Party (then the British section of the FI) and work inside the Labour Party. The Club recruited leading Communist Party activists after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then announced a jazzier new name, the ‘Socialist Labour League’ in 1959 before its final incarnation as the WRP in 1973. By that time the WRP had broken from the Fourth International to become a key player in its own ‘International Committee of the Fourth International’ (ICFI) in 1953, and it then refused to take part in the reunification of the FI in 1963. It was from that experience that it hallucinated into existence its favourite bugbear ‘Pabloism’ (the argument named after Michel Pablo that the FI should participate in larger organisations in order to win activists to a revolutionary programme).

That old WRP is not to be confused, SEP and WSWS supporters will remind you, with the treacherous splitters of the present-day so-called fake rival WRP which still publishes the old WRP newspaper ‘Newsline’ (founded in 1976 as successor to ‘Workers Press’). The SEP insists that it and it alone is the ICFI, as do the current WRP. The disintegration of the WRP was a tragic, slow-burning spectacle staged for the rest of the left through the 1970s and then dramatically fast in 1985. Fantasy displaced reality as the WRP turned into a kind of cult, and Gerry Healy began to give lectures on ‘dialectics’ during which a correct Marxist account of the world was advanced to explain, for example, that there could not possibly have been a revolution in Cuba because there was no revolutionary party.

The rest of the British far left knew there were serious problems, that the glittery promises of the WRP to its actor members that they would have their own clubs were empty. Corin Redgrave had bought them White Meadows Villa in Derbyshire in 1975 for ‘training’, but finance also came from the brutal regimes in Iraq and Libya in return for favourable coverage in its press. 1976 saw the launch of the WRP ‘Security and the Fourth International’ investigation and a campaign which saw a stepping up of violence against other groups that were viewed as complicit in the death of Trotsky. This crazy conspiracy theory carries on today in the fevered imagination of the Socialist Equality Party and in  WSWS accusations against rival groups.

The WRP industrial base was bit by bit eclipsed by the influx of revolutionary luvvies attracted by the passion for Gerry by Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin who at one point made serious inroads into the actors union ‘Equity’. Equity members who joined the WRP would then get a taste of the humiliation that had been metered out to other petty bourgeois types, well, actually to anyone who disagreed with Gerry, and some of them seemed to enjoy it. It might be a public tongue-lashing or, if you were lucky, you might even be slapped by the great man. The all-singing all-dancing dream crashed as the violence came to a head in revelations that Gerry Healy had sexually abused young women in the organisation during what the British tabloid press called the ‘Red in the Bed’ events.

They were all already heading for La La Land, whether that included buying Trotsky’s death-mask and displaying it at rallies, or using Richard Burton’s photo as Trotsky in public literature in place of a picture of the real thing. Today the SEP and WSWS lurches from fantasy to fantasy, including bizarre reflexively ironic attacks on postmodernism, which they now seem to hate almost as much as Pabloism. They were once a serious industrial force and did good anti-racist work which won black youth to their party, but now all the SEP and WSWS really seems to rebel against is the rest of the left, and reality has been left far behind.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.

 

 

 

Left Unity

Looking for Eric, a Ken Loach film from 2009, sees Manchester postal worker Eric Bishop (played by ex-Fall bass guitar player and palindrome Steve Evets) at the end of his tether. He is messing up his job and his life, and it will be the collective mobilisation of his fellow postal workers that finally brings him back to reality. There are two kinds of reality in this film. The first is a fuzzy cannabis-induced dream state, false solutions to his problems in which his work comrades mix some stupid therapeutic self-help encouragement for Eric with time chilling out on pot. It is then, from this safe space, that Eric first encounters his hero, one-time Manchester United philosophical poetic footballer Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona becomes a kind of super-charged ideal of Eric Bishop, his spirit-guide mentor, and big footballer Eric gives little postal-worker Eric the advice and strength to trust himself and his mates. Ken Loach uses a cinematic directorial device in the film that has marked a number of his films, one in which he springs a surprise on the actor to get a more authentic reaction, in this case on Steve Evets who never imagined that he would actually meet big Eric. The turning point is in little Eric’s bedroom when he appeals to a life-size poster asking big Eric for advice, turns around, and finds your man standing there in the room. Loach aims to dissolve boundaries between cinema and reality, for the actors and for viewers who he clearly hopes will also become actors on the stage of life.

The second reality is one that little real-world Eric is now ready to confront, the grim reality of harder drug-gangs, gun-violence and YouTube blackmail. Now he is ready, with the big hallucinatory Eric’s advice, to take on the gang leader, and does this by mobilising his worker-comrades and other Manchester United supporters in ‘Operation Cantona’; in a glorious collective rebellion, they all descend on the house of the gang leader wearing Eric Cantona face-masks, trash the place and make it clear that they won’t take any more shit, forcing the baddies to pull the incriminating clips from social media. Solidarity is the watchword of this film, and Eric Cantona, who approached Loach and part-funded the film, is but a mediating fiction, something that will galvanise our Eric into action, to take control of his life again. It’s a great political comedy through which Ken Loach makes use of the big screen to re-energise non-celebrities, making use of figures like Cantona to build something different from the base up. But the rebellion is still cinematic rather than realistic; staged and feel-good, it is unclear how this dream-mobilisation will play out after the fun is over, giving us an inspiring moral tale in which we don’t know what will happen when big Eric leaves the field, no pointers to what to do next. Could the next step be to form a political party?

We had to wait for Loach’s 2013 The Spirit of ’45 about the formation and erosion of the National Health Service to spark an alliance of left groups and individuals pissed off with mainstream politics to try to build something different. Loach’s call for a new party to the left of the Labour Party led to the founding of Left Unity (LU) later that year after his call was signed by over 10,000 people. The Eric Cantona figure in the history of LU, and Cantona should be first-choice to play our hero in any future bio-pic, our hero who is, of course, Ken Loach. Ken was the inspiration and guide of LU, attending the founding conference and other key events, until, that is, the nucleus of a new party to the left of Labour started to appear in a most unexpected place, inside the Labour Party itself with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015. Then Ken had done his work for all the little Erics in LU, marched them up the hill and down again to leave them to it, up the creek without a paddle, without a strategy, the fun and the party all but over.

As a result, LU is now suspended somewhere between two dream-worlds, between the optimistic heights of its influence with over 2000 members in the two years between 2013 and 2015 and a harsher more disappointing time of plummeting membership as people have drifted, along with Ken Loach himself, into the new Jeremy fan-club and old-style party-political bureaucratic hell. The first dream-world was bad enough, and in some LU branch meetings a good deal worse than staggering through a smoky weed-garden. Would-be ‘policy-makers’ seized control of different commissions in the new party, spending months hammering out pie-in-the-sky proposals which would, everyone involved knew, never be put into practice. These folks jostled alongside individuals who had either been burnt once by the far-left and who, understandably, never really wanted to be in a left party ever again and hardened apparatchiks of some of the worst of the existing revolutionary organisations who piled in, either to raid LU for new members or to steer it to a full revolutionary programme (that is, theirs).

In the middle of all this for these two years, the hey-day of LU, were individuals who really did, in the words of the tag-line of the party, want to ‘do politics differently’, and that included feminist and anti-racist activists who also wanted this to be a different kind of space, safe to talk, to share ideas and organise without being shouted down. This argument for much-parodied therapeutic ‘safe spaces’ in LU became one of the bug-bears of the hard-faced old left, particularly the little robotic battalions of the sects who used their paper to name and shame anyone they disagreed with. LU as a consequence became very unsafe for a lot of people, a bit like coming down after a bad trip. Social media spaces for LU rapidly degenerated from being opportunities for debate into arenas for recrimination and threat, lurching from one ridiculous topic to the next (with one notorious Facebook discussion thread devoted to whether we should have the right to masturbate at work). It looked like we would be dragged back into the first fuzzy reality when nothing really happened, waiting hopelessly for the call to action, for the breakthrough into the second reality of collective resistance.

Presiding uneasily over these different kinds of politico-head very keen to give stupid and misleading advice about the way forward were Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson; now the captains of the ship trying to keep it afloat. Helping them in the first two years was Socialist Resistance (SR), a group reluctant to lead and spending most of its energies trying to stop LU going too far to the left, to keep it functioning as a broad left alternative to Labour. This was a group that eventually jumped ship and many of its members found what they thought would be a safer home in the Labour Party, along with mentor spirit-guide Ken. So loyal were SR to Ken that members of rival groups accused him of being a member of SR. He was not, and, if anything, was viewed by many in SR as being ‘ultra-left’.

LU was waiting for ‘Operation Ken’, but Corbyn’s election did for that hope, and now the dwindling party is left on the rocks, still ‘Looking for Ken’. Perhaps he was no more than a dream, evoking no more than the ‘spirit’ of free health care and a welfare state, welfare that is efficiently being demolished. The brute reality is that the Labour Party apparatus seems unable or unwilling to build a campaign against austerity, hobbled by its loyalty to local Labour-led councils that are implementing the cuts, even when Corbyn himself built up the Labour vote on a radical vote during the election campaign. LU is still an alternative, the best alternative in complex times, but now struggling to find the plot, and will have to do it on its own, a diminished but necessary force outside the Labour Party. The nasty surprise now is that, when members of Left Unity appeal to their posters of Ken Loach for advice on their bedroom walls today they then turn around and, they find that he is not there.

 

This is part of the FIIMG Mapping the British Left through Film project.