The Corbyn Effect

It’s dangerous to pay too much attention to politics, because one can get caught up in caring who wins and who loses, which is a deeply unproductive distraction.

However, the details of political conflicts are of significance to the  extent that they inform our understanding of the structure of government and of society, and the trends applying to them.

It’s in that spirit that I look at the phenomenon of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. It might help to imagine you are reading about something a century in the past, to achieve the appropriate detachment from popular controversies.

An underappreciated element of Corbyn’s appeal is that the general standard of the candidates is so low. This is a consequence of the fact that for decades, the most able and ambitious people do not go into politics. That is by no means a phenomenon restricted to the Labour Party. Cameron is marginally adequate as politician, but the Conservatives waited years for him; from the fall of Thatcher in 1990 to Cameron’s nomination in 2005, the weakness of the leading personalities was the  most striking thing about the party. The only figure who looked and  acted like a Prime Minister was Michael Hesletine, who would certainly have been leader were it not for the minor fact that everybody else in the party hated him. The leaders and near-leaders they ended up with were either decent people lacking force and ambition, like Major and Duncan-Smith, or oddities like Hague and Howard. Today, there are no plausible rivals to Cameron. (The fact that people talk about another oddity, Boris Johnson, as a future Prime Minister is evidence enough of that).

Labour is in the same boat. Whatever the circumstances are that are favouring Corbyn, he would not be the front-runner if there were a rival candidate with the status markers of Cameron, Blair, or even Kinnoch.

The same phenomenon is visible in the United States. The last President who you could have pointed to at a young age as a plausible future  President was Clinton, though Gore would have counted had he managed a few more votes in 2000. Neither Bush 43 nor Obama had the same kind of ambition or strength of personality; they are both fairly ordinary men who ended up in office more or less by default, on family momentum in one case and via a lucky path through America’s racial dynamics in the other. Bush 43 to an extent rose to the demands of the job, becoming more presidential than many would have expected, while Obama strikingly failed to do the same, but it is ludicrous to compare either of them to truly top-class politicians like Reagan, Clinton or Nixon.

It is a complex question why the likes of Clinton or Nixon no longer appear on the political stage, but among many reasons, the most important is that it has been becoming more obvious to potential recruits that party politics is not where the real power is. Business, academia, journalism, or pressure-group politics are more reliable mechanisms for turning personal superiority into influence and status than competing for votes. (The decline of machine politics, as described by Jonathan Rauch, may be another reason).

It is in this environment of relatively unremarkable men running for office: Millibands, Obamas, George Osbornes and Liz Kendalls, that any kind of perceived radicalism, whether ideological like Corbyn’s or personal like Donald Trump’s or Boris Johnson’s, starts to become attractive to voters.

Moving on to Corbyn specifically, I think Tim Stanley’s view of his  support as essentially nostalgic for the 1970s is largely right. Corbyn is anything but a firebrand—he does not resemble an actual radical leader like Tony Benn or Ken Livingstone, he is just a time-server of the hard-left committee circuit. Dennis the Peasant, not Spartacus. But his position calls to mind the time before globalization,  privatisation, outsourcing and leveraged buy-outs. Also, strikingly, the time before diversity co-ordinators, microaggressions, paternity leave and intersectionalism. His recent proposal to carry women-only carriages on trains is a hilarious demonstration of how out of touch he is with today’s left. It is actually perfectly reasonable to suggest that women should have safe spaces protected from men, but, aside from the practical difficulty of enforcing them on unpoliced and near-empty passenger trains, it is far too traditionalist and conservative an idea for the Tories or UKIP, never mind the Labour Party.

The struggle most associated with Corbyn, on the other hand, is  anti-colonialism. It is that which has produced all the photographs of Corbyn standing with or shaking hands with half the world’s best-known terrorists. In a world without a Soviet Union providing propaganda support for rebels and separatists, that looks like being a bigger obstacle to his electoral chances than marxist economics.

So there are two interesting things to draw from the election. First, the shift in quality of personnel in top-level national politics. This is potentially huge, because of the impact on the popular perception of the functioning of democracy. Democracy continues fine when people hate their leader, but it stumbles when they despise him, and it seems quite likely that the next Prime Minister after Cameron, and the next US President after Obama, will be very widely despised (as was Bush). The intrusion of outsiders like Trump into the political arena is also destabilising to the legitimacy of the process.

The second thing is that if Corbyn does become Labour leader, with his radical-left credentials he could lend a kind of respectability to a more sceptical attitude to political correctness and identity politics. That depends on how he fares as leader, which depends in part on whether there is an outright split in Labour—a pitched battle between left and right, or even an SDP-style breakaway.

Again, the point is not to predict the outcome (the feedbacks in the system are so powerful and chaotic that any development might end up triggering the opposite effect as a backlash larger than the trigging event), still  less to guide any kind of political intervention (passivism, do you speak it?), but to understand the forces at work in the modern representative democracy.

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Marriage and Family Illustrated

When Your Husband Sleeps with the Nanny

TL;DR : couple who had been together for 20 years get a 22-year-old au pair to look after the children; husband dumps wife to be with au pair.

Part of the modern western mythology of romance is that we fall in love with people for who they are inside. There is a tiny piece of truth in that, but mostly we love people for what they do, and how they do it. We fall in love with people who give us attention and who act as if we are important to them.

Abigail, the wife in this story, was the same person who had married Ben fifteen years previously. But she wasn’t doing the same things that had attracted him. Nor was what she was doing a natural development of those things: she hadn’t become a housewife and mother, she had become a “project co-ordinator” who didn’t have time or energy for him, or even much interest in him.

The pair were married for nearly a decade before having children, and it seems that as a couple they never really adapted to being parents. The kind of office career that she followed does not usually get easier over time; it gets more demanding, more pressured. You can be 24, and “going to work” is just one thing you do among many, but when you are 38 your job is the biggest part of your life, and anything else is a little extra that you might have time and energy for. Since she was going out to work but he was working from home, the nanny was closer to him in every way than the wife.

The husband felt closer to the nanny who looked after his house and his children, than to the “project co-ordinator” he was theoretically married to.

He was probably a more significant part of the nanny’s life than he was of his wife’s, who was too tired at the age of 38 and with a full-time job to go out dancing with him.

Basically, Ben and Anna, the husband and the nanny, had the normal relationship of a traditional family,  except that at night he was, for no obvious reason, sleeping with Abigail, some other woman who happened to be sharing his house. After a year, the pointlessness of that distraction became evident. You could even say that Ben was being unfaithful to Anna, the woman who spent leisure time with him, looked after his house and his children, by going to bed with Abigail.

This is just one story, reported in the Daily Mail, so not necessarily accurate, and not necessarily representative even if it is accurate. I’m looking at it as a story, rather than as a set of facts. What it provides in terms of evidence is that telling this story makes sense to people. The background of a woman who meets a man at 18, marries him, has two children in her thirties, goes to work full time while her husband works from home, gets an au pair to look after the children—this strikes readers of the Daily Mail as a reasonable sort of life.

Here’s the point: it isn’t. The proper response to the story is not “oh dear, it all went wrong, how sad”, it’s “How could anyone expect that to work? How many other couples are pretending to be a family in the shape of sleeping arrangements, but not actually living as a family, or even living almost as a family with other people?”

The traditional western nuclear family is not a natural social phenomenon innate to humanity, but it is something which evolved and proved to work in an environment not very far removed from our own. It is by no means the only workable arrangement, but on the other hand some random combination of features is unlikely to be as effective.

It is expected to start with a strong mutual physical attraction between two young people. The dark truth of young humans is that such strong physical attractions are not hard to come by. It is not putting much difficulty in the way of forming a marriage to require an attraction of this kind.

The strong attraction will not last in the same form for long enough to sustain the marriage. In particular, it will fade for the man. The different development of attractive features of men and women are such that, even if the man is 30 and the woman is 20, he is becoming more attractive and she is becoming less attractive.

This need not matter, because the traditional development is for the couple to become mutually dependent. The wife makes the home, has children, and nurtures the children. The husband supports the family economically. The wife will have friends who are also wives, and the husband will have friends and colleagues who are also husbands. Neither partner will have any remotely sexual contact with anyone but each other. The woman becomes less attractive, but men stay interested in sex into old age, and, whatever the husband’s past, over time sex comes to mean, for him, sex with his wife. Her main role is running the home, with his help. His main role is his job, and ideally she would help with that. The physical attraction of the early years has morphed into a familiar closeness and a mutual dependency.

Going nearly a decade without children weakens this pattern. The wife having a full time job as a project co-ordinator, working with other men, totally blows it out of the water. Bringing a 22-year-old girl into the house to look after the children, reckless as it seems, is just the straw that broke the camel’s back: it seems pretty clear that, without that, the split would have come anyway. By Anna’s own account, there was nothing much in the arrangement for her, anyway. Why does a woman with a full-time job and children she doesn’t have time to raise need a husband? Again, by both accounts, if she had wanted him, he would have stayed with her: it was when he realised that Anna’s company was actually a bigger part of his life than Abigail’s that he pulled the plug.
“all five of us took a day trip to Belgium and, suddenly, I felt like the outsider.” Objectively, she’d been an outsider for years.