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24 October 2017

Why the time has come for “Acid Corbynism”

The term has provoked fascination, mystification and derision in almost equal measure.

By Jeremy Gilbert

What is “Acid Corbynism”? The term – coined a few months ago by the Labour activist Matthew Phull – has already provoked fascination, mystification and derision in almost equal measure. Even the Guardian’s Pass Notes column has had a go at it.

The phrase emerged during the planning stage of the World Transformed (TWT), the parallel “festival of politics, art, music and culture” that took place in September alongside Labour’s official conference. Phull and some of the TWT organisers were discussing the possibility of holding a session that would focus on the political legacy of the 1960s counterculture, the possibilities of political “consciousness-raising” in the 21st century and the politics of dance music culture.

They also wanted to honour the late theorist Mark Fisher, who had used the phrase “Acid Communism” in recent years to refer to the countercultural politics of the 1960s and 1970s. Acid Corbynism was the deliberately provocative, evocative title for this meeting, which TWT invited me to organise and host, as someone who had written extensively about all of these themes.

But what do these terms mean? “Acid”, in this instance, doesn’t designate a commitment to the use of psychedelic drugs. What it refers to is a belief that animated both the psychedelic movement and the more politicised sections of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture: that the liberation of human consciousness from the norms of capitalist society is a desirable, achievable and pleasurable objective.

For Mark Fisher, Acid Communism designated a kind of utopian politics that we might associate with projects such as the commune movement. It sought to replace the drab world of postwar welfare capitalism with one in which the potential of human beings to live free, co-operative and creative lives would be vastly increased by new political and technological arrangements. Acid Corbynism, then, is a phrase that asks a question: can we imagine a politics informed by the same kind of utopian, egalitarian, democratic impulses that might yet find a home in the Labour Party?

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If it could, what would an Acid Corbynist politics look like? For one thing, it would take a particular historical proposition seriously: that the counterculture had been asking all the right questions in the 1960s and 1970s, and that they are not ones that a 21st-century left can afford to ignore.

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It has been a largely unchallenged assumption in the British mainstream that while the 1960s might have been fun, the political radicalism of the 1970s went too far. This hasn’t just informed the attitudes of metropolitan lifestyle journalists. It has also been central to the culture of Labour since the late 1980s, when smart blue suits became de rigueur for the party’s politicians, and the idea that we should defend progressive, child-centred education in schools – instead of colluding with the Tories to crush it – came to be characterised as “loony left” nonsense.

But where has all this got us? Our children are some of the unhappiest in the developed world. Neoliberalism has destroyed our social fabric. Our air isn’t fit to breathe. Were those hippies and radicals wrong to suggest that unless we found a different way to live, we were destined for trouble? Does anyone now think that we can save the planet without radically changing our attitudes to how we consume and how we think of ourselves?

On a practical level, Acid Corbynism would seek to revive the core elements of the radical political programme of the 1970s and early 1980s. Rather than just building council houses, or creating millions more owner-occupiers, we would work to extend the co-operative housing sector. We would keep in mind the empirical fact that the most successful education system in the world – Finland’s – is still one that is informed by the values of the progressive movement, eschewing exams (until the age of 16), standardised testing and competitive league tables for participatory learning and mixed-ability classes.

As our discussion at TWT concluded, an Acid Corbynist politics would put forward the argument that government has a responsibility to facilitate the development of real artistic and social creativity among all of its people – and that a generous and forward-looking welfare system is indispensable for that.

Above all, Acid Corbynism would emulate Margaret Thatcher’s strategy. “Economics are the method,” she once declared. “The object is to change the heart and soul.” Thatcher wanted to use economic policy – privatisation, tax cuts for the rich, anti-trade union laws – to turn us into a nation of selfish, competitive entrepreneurs. She largely succeeded and in the process made most of us miserable.

An Acid Corbynist politics would ask what it might take to turn us into a different sort of people, a people comfortable in the complex world of the 21st century, able to share resources and preserve them for our children. If that makes me sound like a crazy hippy, it’s because Thatcher and her allies were so successful in banishing such aspirations from the public realm. If Acid Corbynism means anything, it refers to a powerful and necessary determination to bring them back. 

Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London

This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions