Richard Barbrook played a key role devising Corbyn’s radical digital democracy manifesto. He was in town giving a talk at the recent Critical Media Conference. Martin Leen braved Storm Brian and ventured out to leafy ballsbridge for the lowdown on how to hack a general election.
You were deeply in involved in Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election campaign, Could you tell us how you hacked the election with all the press against you?
People did blogs, Facebook posts. We made a game called Corbyn Run. It got 1.6 million impressions and hundreds of thousands of downloads. The game is basically Jeremy chasing after Tories and bankers who avoid paying taxes shaking them down for money. As you accumulate more money you can release more manifesto pledges and more and more people join the great upsurge in the Labour Party.
It’s a fun game to play but it’s got a message. Like how you could pay for the Labour Party manifesto, how we’ll shake down the Tories and bankers who avoid taxes. It became kind of a symbol of the campaign and showed that the Labour Party could politically engage with people in a different way.
We figured out how to hack Facebook by having loads of people liking and sharing the kind of posts that can overwhelm the algorithm. Lots of people were doing this spontaneously and this took off so much that I had an ex-student who is a card carrying Tory telling me that her Facebook feed got overwhelmed by Labour propaganda.
What was powerful about it was that it was being shared by people organically. Labour had their own social media department buying ads but the real thing that has impact is people creating stuff, liking and sharing it themselves from bottom up rather than top down.
Why were the so called left-wing media, especially papers like The Guardian and such a huge proportion of the politicians so against him?
Because he didn’t go to their dinner parties. He was seen as an eccentric. In the Blairite autobiographies people like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonald were always described as a small group of left wing rebels, who they had in the Labour Party as a kind of decoration just to have a few lefties there. They never took them seriously. They all live in a bubble, all live in the same area of London, all went to Oxbridge, and their kids go to the same schools.
Even though he’s a North London MP he’s outside of that circle. When they were glad-handling it with rich and powerful people and so on he was in dusty halls talking to fifty people about Palestine or Kurdistan or something. There was a concerted campaign against him. He was seen as a threat.
The right of the party is so much about the bubble of Westminster that it forgot where it came from, that it’s a labour movement. Labour is a labour movement as well as a Labour Party. It only works if it’s a movement. A lot of the Blairites were horrified with Jeremy because they see the Labour Party as a group of politicians who get into power and then just wheel and deal on behalf of the people, and then they wonder how they end up like Tories, because they have no links with the wider world.
And what about The Guardian?
They are in the same bubble. They hated him because he’s a socialist and they’re a liberal paper and because he’s gone beyond what’s permissible in their idea of what left is. They’re called The Guardian because they guard how far left you can go. The same with the BBC which is supposed to be a public service broadcaster and supposed to be balanced, but their idea of balance is to have three Tories, one right wing Labour Blairite and one of us.
We had all the media against us and yet we managed to get within 2% of winning. Instead of the Tories having a landslide they now are a minority government, and within the next eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn will be the most popular politician and Labour will come into power on the most left wing program since 1945.
To what do you attribute the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign? Why do you think he did so well against the odds?
Those of us in the left of the party realised that if we had proper left wing policies, we’d get lots of new people into the Labour Party, and if you give people a proper choice they will come out and vote. When I was out canvassing for the 2010 election people were saying there is no difference between the political parties which was true.
They were all neo-liberal economics and in favour of liberal intervention in some form, even the Lib-Dems by that point had given up on their pacifist thing. So in that election your choice were red neo-liberals, yellow neo-liberals and blue neo-liberals.
That kind of solved the Brexit thing too because a lot of the Labour voters who voted for Brexit did so as a kind of protest against neo-liberal economics. If you offer a proper anti-austerity reflationary policy, because austerity is a con, then people will support it.
How do you respond to the leftist critique that by using platforms like Facebook etc you are enabling monopoly capitalism?
Well monopoly capitalism is there and you just have to deal with it. It’s like any war game you have to fight with the tools you have and on the terrain, you are on. Technology is just a tool. The corporations will try to make it into one thing; we will try to make it into another. It’s a site of conflict. Facebook is a huge monopoly corporation but it allowed us to take on the might of the Tory establishment and the right-wing press by subverting it and hacking it.
In the digital democracy manifesto, you talk about platform cooperatives. What do you mean by this?
This was a phrase invented by our American comrades and it basically means replacing Uber and AIRBNB with co-operatives. It has now become Labour policy. The traditional left policy has always been to replace private ownership with state ownership, state capitalism they used to call it. This is a problem because its democratic only in a very vague sense, the management is usually very autocratic and because it’s separated from the workers then it’s easy to privatise.
Co-operatives are a way to democratise this. So platform co-operatives is for example rather than having huge companies organising these apps drivers have their own co-operative, their own app, without having to give Uber 40% of the fee.
One of the key points in the digital manifesto is massive multi-person on line deliberation to make popular participation in the democratic process easy and inclusive. How does that work?
What we are talking about is using technologies to build out from the centre. If you think about the Labour Party they have branch meetings, they have commissions and other things. But if you want to write the next manifesto, how do you get the members to write the next manifesto or at least input their ideas. One thing we learnt is that most of the expertise is out there, and if you give people permission to contribute their ideas and expertise they will.
But you have to do it so it’s scalable. A good example is if you are a doctor, have a busy job, have kids and a busy life and have knowledge that is very useful to contribute. You need to have a platform so that you can do it while you are on the bus. I mean voting is great, meetings are great, but what if you have disabilities, or kids or a busy life.
These are not practical. You need to find a way to include people these people they have a lot to offer. So it’s not just us sending messages downwards but people sending messages up, and people starting to run their own lives.
The goal of any left political project should not be just to replace one bunch of bureaucrats with another, but to shift power and wealth from the few to the many. It’s not just a political slogan.
Can you tell us about cybernetic communism and the origins of the internet?
The myth of the internet is that it was founded by hippies as some kind of utopian information society ideal. It came out of cold war competition between America and Russia over who would own the future. The Russians sent the first man and woman into space and they were beating the Americans. So the Americans said what is the next thing is after the space race? The CIA had heard about the Russians building cybernetic communism, a computer network society. So the Americans identified this as the next point of humiliation.
So there was a race to develop it. The Soviet Union abandoned it because they were scared of what it was going to do, they saw that it was going to lead to post-industrialisation and the end of the party. But the Americans kept pouring money and research into it until eventually, it escaped from the laboratory.
The hippy myth bit is between it escaping from the military-industrial complex and entering into the corporate world.
Richard Barbrook is the author of Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines To The Global Village. Put it on your Xmash reading list.