Thursday, 4 August 2016

UKIP, Momentum and the SNP are no more cults than the Liberal Democrats

I know it sometimes looks that way. Especially if you spend too much time paddling in the more febrile parts of social media. But politics has not become a contest between competing cults - Corbyn's success isn't cultic nor is euroscepticism or Scottish nationalism.

Although some seem to think so:

The political faithful dream of a glorious future: a Scotland free of English tutelage, an England free of the domination of Brussels, a Britain free of greed and poverty. Like the great religious dreams of the past, these causes take over lives. But all present formidable difficulties. In political as in religious cults, believers must be insulated against doubts. The most effective method is to blacken the outside world, and make alternative sources of information appear like the Devil’s seductions that tempt the godly into darkness. As Professors Dennis Tourish and Tim Wohlforth put it in their study of political sectarianism: “There is only one truth — that espoused by the cult. Competing explanations are not merely inaccurate but degenerate”.

Calling the forces challenging your world view a cult is a convenient excuse for worldly wise Guardian readers safe in their well-paid publicly-funded jobs. Now it's true that these causes do take over the lives of a few people - all of the causes and their leaders have a collection of fan-children, resplendent with badges, hands tightly clutching banners, faces suffused with joy at the sight of their campaign's human manifestation. But the people turning out to a damp Corbyn rally, sitting on uncomfortable village hall chair waiting for Nigel Farage or handing out yellow and black leaflets to Glasgow commuters - these folk aren't members of a cult but really do want things to change.

Nicola Sturgeon, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn aren't the leaders of cults but are the fortunate beneficiaries of people's political will - admittedly not all the people (so far it seems only Farage can lay claim to success in his campaign) but enough people to challenge the certainties of managerialist and technocratic centre-ground politics. Calling supporters of Scottish nationalism, UK independence or state socialism cultists may be jolly fun on Twitter or in your column in New Statesman or The Guardian. But it simply isn't true - or at least no more true than calling Blairites a cult - or, for that matter, doing the same for the growing band of Remain refuseniks and Brexit deniers.

It is true that we gather with people of like mind - I follow and am followed by far more West Ham fans than you because I'm a West Ham fan. And, in amongst the banter and vigorous discussion of why we haven't got a right back, we behave very similarly to those political in-groups with particular enemies and consistent lines of comment. Indeed, that group of West Ham fans will moan about how we're always last on Match of the Day, how teams like Chelsea and Liverpool get far too much coverage, and how the football authorities have it in for us. This doesn't make us a cult any more than very similar assertions by followers of Corbyn or over-enthusiastic cybernats makes them a cult.

The real point about cults - from the Manson Family and Jonestown through to Scientology - is that they get people to two things: cut themselves off from normal society to live within the cult; and get people to do things they wouldn't otherwise have done ('free love', suicide, even murder). And cults are characterised by leaders who control and direct the actions of members - none of the political leaders we've mentioned fit this characterisation.

For all the adulation afforded Corbyn, Farage and Sturgeon they are not leaders of cults. Rather they are the vehicles through which the political mission is delivered - Scottish independence, leaving the EU and a socialist Labour Party. So long as these leaders deliver - or seem to deliver - success their position is assured. Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister of Scotland giving nationalists the hope that the mission is still achievable. And Corbyn looks likely to have his leadership affirmed by Labour members - a victory that, in the view of Momentum supporters, sustains that momentum towards 'socialism' (however loosely defined). If, for whatever reason, either of these positions falters does anyone think supporters won't turn to a different leader to take up the cause?

Cults are not made by confirmation bias or the clustering of people as communities of interest. Cults are deliberate creations that use ideologies - religious or political - as the vehicle for gaining and securing power for power's sake (although what is meant by power will vary). The adulation, the conspiracy theories, the aggressive defence of the mission, and a 'you're either with us or agin us' attitude that we see with political movements such as separatism are not features that define a cult even if they are things we'd superficially associate with cults.

What the solid, dependable centrists need to understand is that, very often, they fit the same pattern and description (if you don't believe me check out Liberal Democrat social media). Just because your mission is defined as 'mainstream' doesn't mean it doesn't take on those same cultic characters - clustering with like minds, aggression, adulation of leaders - that are falsely attached to separatist, far-left and right-wing causes.


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