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Digital democracy meets the oligarchs uptown

If Labour is to win the next general election, these activists must enthuse those who aren't their Facebook friends, Twitter followers or blog readers.

Rekar Baber, 15, from Iraq procures Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's autograph during a visit to the Dunkirk Grand Synthe Camp in France, January 2016. Tom Pugh / Press Association. All rights reserved.These are exciting times to be teaching politics for a living! Since the shock result of the EU referendum, the insights of my chosen profession are now suddenly of great interest to people who until very recently had much better things to do with their time.

When they ask for my academic wisdom, I've been telling them that – from Plato onwards - the most influential political theorists have argued that democracy in any meaningful sense is an impossibility. 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. As the new prime minister, Theresa May now has the unenviable duty of informing her party's supporters that Brexit can't happen without breaking apart the UK and cratering the British economy.

Not surprisingly, when I describe this academic orthodoxy, almost everyone is disgusted by its cynical reasoning. Remain voters might be comforted by my prediction that the political elite will do almost anything to keep us in the EU, but they - like those who opted for Leave - don't share this contempt for democracy which justifies the reversal of the referendum result.

On the contrary, there is now a profound sense amongst large sections of the British population that Westminster politicians are responsible for not only the Brexit debacle, but also a long succession of other catastrophes from the invasion of Iraq through the bailing out of the banks to the imposition of neoliberal austerity. 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. In contrast with the false promises and hyperbolic rhetoric of both the Remain and Leave referendum campaigns, he famously responded to a request by the Last Leg TV show to rate the EU institutions on a scale of 1-to-10 with the score of 7.5 and a wry smile to indicate he was being on the generous side.

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 June 23. As we're all now discovering to our cost, complex problems can't be fixed by simple solutions.

Again and again, I've been asked if Jeremy Corbyn - or any other honest politician - can prevail over the corruption and lies of the Westminster system. I reply that academics teach a pessimistic theory which casts serious doubt on whether Labour can ever become a truly democratic party that champions the views of its membership. Over a century ago, reflecting on his disillusioning experiences as a socialist militant in Germany, Robert Michels updated Plato by arguing that all political institutions are subject to what he called 'the iron law of oligarchy'.

Crucially, despite their emancipatory ideals, left parties - like their rivals on the right - will always be dominated by small self-serving cliques. The numbers of the membership can't counter the managerial skills of professional politicians and full-time officials. 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 Jeremy 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. As Plato insisted and Michels predicted, oligarchy must triumph over democracy.

Mainstream media get their come uppance?

Fortunately, there are some strong indications that Politics teachers might soon have to revise their reading lists. More than anything else, what has struck me from my conversations over the last month is the waning influence of the mainstream media over public opinion. 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.

The patrician pundits are all agreed that Jeremy Corbyn is a loser and its plebeian membership must meekly accept their verdict. 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. Ignored by the mainstream media, their own anger at these MPs' disloyalty is confirmed by the algorithmic interconnectivity of Facebook, Twitter and Google. They can now collectively bond by sharing and commenting on their hero's public speeches and TV interviews, photos and videos of Corbynista meetings and rallies, appeals to sign on-line petitions for the cause, hilarious memes mocking the conspirators and learned analyses of Labour politics.

Amongst 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 that 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. In 2016 Britain, the Blairites are old fashioned analogue broadcasting and the Corbynistas are new style digital networking.

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.

When Labour supporters become too enthusiastic about the emancipatory potential of social media, I always point out that some smart academics don't share their optimism. The Corbynistas are building their on-line activism upon the proprietary algorithms of Facebook, Twitter and Google which connect like- minded people with each other.

Hidden from any public scrutiny, this software could easily be tweaked to manipulate which links are given top priority and who is encouraged to network with whom. 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. Ironically, while castigating the Blairites for living inside the Westminster bubble, the Corbynistas are now in danger of being trapped within their own filter bubble. Ironically, while castigating the Blairites for living inside the Westminster bubble, the Corbynistas are now in danger of being trapped within their own filter bubble.

If Labour is to win the next general election, these activists must enthuse those who aren't their Facebook friends, Twitter followers or blog readers. Canvassing, leafleting, posters and public meetings are still effective analogue methods of political persuasion in this digital age.

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. For Politics teachers, it will also reveal whether 'the iron law of oligarchy' is still a valid theory for understanding the left. The Blairites' candidate starts with the advantages of an establishment insider, including most notoriously the exclusion of recent recruits from the ballot and a ban on constituency party meetings. Above all, Owen Smith will benefit from sympathetic coverage by the mainstream media.

As the recent Media@LSE report confirmed, their journalists are on a mission to oust the socialist outsider who now leads the Labour party. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn is placing his trust in the grassroots members who are enthused by his firm opposition to austerity economics and foreign wars. Like in 2015, social media will be essential for disseminating the hopeful message of his nationwide tour of public meetings to a wider audience. Paradoxically, their filter bubbles are more of a help than a hindrance in reaching this electorate of left activists.

Traditional Labour wisdom

What fascinates academics like myself is whether this bottom-up mobilisation of Labour members will once again be enough to overcome the top-down Westminster system. Robert Michel's pessimistic theory predicts its inevitable failure. Yet, Politics courses also teach the intellectual mentor of the socialists who founded the Labour party in 1900: Karl Marx. At the beginning of the last century, this European migrant's theory told his British admirers to be confident about the democratic power of collective organisation both inside and outside parliament.

However, during the long Blairite ascendency, this traditional Labour wisdom was almost forgotten. Now, in 2016, it has reemerged 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.

Over this summer, I'm sure that I'll be repeatedly interrogated about how its outcome will impact upon the day-to-day politics of Westminster, especially the Brexit crisis. My response will be to think like an academic. The rival theories of Karl Marx and Robert Michels are about to be put to the test in the field. Labour must choose either bottom-up democracy or top-down oligarchy as its guiding principle. Of course, it is important to discuss which leadership candidate looks more like a potential prime minster and can perform better at PMQs. But, this teacher of Politics is more interested in the political awakening that is now taking place outside the Westminster bubble. If, as the polls indicate, Labour does reject the 'iron law of oligarchy', the restricted vision of democracy taught as academic orthodoxy will be disproved.

Its replacement will have to answer the trending research questions of another Corbyn victory. 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? No wonder that these are exciting times to be teaching politics for a living ...

About the author

Richard Barbrook is a senior lecturer in the school of social sciences, humanities and languages at the University of Westminster, London.

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