Democracy, Media, Radical democracy, UK

May the force be with us! Hope for a Copernican revolution in leadership

A couple of months ago, in the early stages of the protracted campaign for the Labour Party leadership, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone could mock up a meme of Jeremy Corbyn as Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars with the line: ‘Help us, Jeremy, you’re our only hope’. My FB pal J. Craig Melia duly obliged, and what a great job he did!…

JC as OBK 2

JC as OBK 1

Now that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Labour leader with overwhelming and widespread support, it has dawned on me that the Obi Wan analogy has more to it. Let us first swiftly recall the Star Wars story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The evil and brutal Empire, led by the Emperor and his faithful commander Darth Vader, enjoys almost complete control of the galaxy. Only a small band of rebels maintain resistance. It is Princess Leia, one of the leaders of the rebels, whose recorded message is smuggled out of her captured spaceship by two droids and brought to Obi Wan Kenobi on the desert planet of Tattoine: ‘Help us, Obi Wan! You’re our only hope!’

But, of course, OBK is not the only hope. There is another, younger hope whom Obi Wan must train in the ways of ‘the force’ to become a Jedi knight capable of defeating Darth Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire. That ‘new hope’ is, of course, Luke Skywalker. Obi Wan Kenobi knows his task is to help rebuild the resistance and to train Luke. He knows that his own mortal fate is to sacrifice his life at the hands of Darth Vader, so that he may continue in death to serve as Luke’s spiritual guide. ‘If you strike me down, I will come back more powerful than you can possibly imagine’ are his final words to Vader before he is struck down by Vader’s lightsabre. Luke leads the rebels to victory in a battle in which the Empire’s ‘Death Star’ is destroyed…

Now, what the hell has this got to do with politics in the UK in 2015!? Bear with me! I think it could help us predict what might happen to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and the wider movement for social justice…

An older, bearded man, a long-time fighter, is called out of the wilderness by the few remaining leaders of the resistance against the all-powerful evil Empire. Despite the odds being hugely stacked against him, he uses all his experience, wisdom, and stoicism to great effect and helps to build a revitalised resistance movement. See, JC and OBK share a common narrative! And it goes on.

OBK was the older, wiser man willing to engage the leaders of the enemy directly in order to give his younger colleagues the opportunity to claim a huge strategic victory and turn the whole course of history. And we might interpret Corbyn’s role in a similar light. Throughout his campaign, Corbyn was quick to detract from making it a campaign about him and, instead, to emphasize the central importance of the wider social movement for justice. Just like OBK, Jeremy is a seasoned campaigner. He can take whatever muck the ‘dark side’ that the collective political, business, and media elites comprise can throw at him. He can take that for the team and, in the process, can help reveal just how dark this corrupt and murderous system is – not that they need much help, it seems! But, again like OBK, this act of bold leadership and generous self-sacrifice will most probably end in his own political death. I doubt that Corbyn will become Prime Minister; not because the policies and principles he espouses make him unelectable, but because he may well need to pass on the baton to a new hope.

However, again, I, like Jeremy himself, do not want to put the focus on leadership. Leadership will always be important, but this new leader will succeed or fail depending on the extent to which she (let’s hope!) puts total faith in the real force, namely the people, the ‘demos’. If, during his leadership, Corbyn can lead a true democratisation of the ultimate party machine, the Labour Party, and can help to galvanise and unite a nationwide social movement then he will also help to instigate a democratisation of the very institution of leadership itself. Here, then, is how Jeremy Corbyn may come to be like yet another bearded man back from the wilderness who returned to die so that we may all live! And they even share the same initials! To be clear to those Christians reading this, I don’t mean in any way to compare directly Jeremy Corbyn with Jesus Christ. I’m simply arguing that Corbyn’s political role may be one of self-sacrifice for a wider and deeper common good.

There is a scene in Bertold Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo where the students of Galileo have just heard that their venerated teacher has actually bowed to the Catholic Church’s pressure to renounce his own ‘blasphemous’ heliocentric (Sun-centred, i.e. the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun) theory of the world and to maintain their geocentric (Earth-centred) dogma. They feel completely betrayed. When Galileo returns home one of his beloved students cannot contain his anger and pain: ‘Unhappy is the land with no heroes!’ cries the student. ‘No!’ replies Galileo, ‘unhappy is the land that needs heroes!’

This maxim should guide us today. Yes, we need our leaders – to inspire us, to unite us, to speak out, and to try to win power to effect real change. But, we must not invest too much hope or expectation in any one individual or group of individuals. This, clearly, is one of the lessons we can draw from Greece’s recent experience of Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras. Instead, our leaders shall be our leaders only to the extent that they derive their legitimacy from us, the demos, the force. Ultimately, it is up to us to come together not just to demand social change, but to build it ourselves.

I recognise that the evocation of a unified people here is simplistic and problematic. What I really mean is that politics and democratic leadership are about listening to, giving voice to, and pursuing justice and equality for the uncounted, the unseen, the unheard. The democratic revolution will be just as profound as the Copernican1 one for it is an empathetic revolution that requires the realisation at various levels – physical, political, spiritual, and metaphysical – that the world does not revolve around us as individuals, but is made by, made for, and made up of every one of us equally. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to read out ordinary citizens’ questions at his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons bodes well symbolically (if not entirely strategically) in this light.

It’s wonderful that Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership of the Labour Party, but let’s use it to redouble our efforts: to educate ourselves, to rebuild our communities and the social fabric, and to create a new society from the ashes of this dying one. This is the best way to help him succeed in what I think his real task might be – the democratization of the institution of leadership. May the force be with us!
DC and Death Star

1By ‘Copernican’, I refer to Nicolaus Copernicus, the 15th Century Polish scientist who was the first person in European history to offer a theory with the Sun rather than the Earth in the centre of the ‘solar’ system.

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