What this highlights is the determination to ascribe a cultural significance to social media on a par with railways or penicillin. But social media is old wine in new bottles: traditional modes of sociability turbo-boosted by genuinely significant general-purpose technologies (computers, cell networks). Facebook is very successful, but it's just an application that rubs along with the human grain. It's cultural significance is closer to Coke or Styrofoam. The company's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, inevitably lathered on the guff: "Look closely, and you'll see more than a number. It's moms and little brothers and cousins and cousins of cousins. There's Sam, Dante, Ingrid and Lawrence. It's camping trips, religion ... there's likes, loves and unfortunately still some hate. Look past the number. You'll find friendships". This is the bog-standard categorisation (and thus monetisation) of human relationships. If you look past the number you might also note the assumption of a particular, conservative social ideal: moms, camping trips, religion; which had me thinking of Alan Sherman's Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.
For all the claims of "Twitter revolutions", the consensus is that social media have mainly boosted "political inactivism", in which the loud denouncing of evils serves as an alternative to change and "liking" becomes a form of free-riding by which solidarity loses out to self-actualisation. This is not to suggest that showing support is without value or always self-indulgent, but that the ease with which that support can now be shown, from retweets to online petitions, lowers the opportunity cost to the individual and thus dilutes the significance of the act as it becomes routinised and commoditised. But we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that this is an unfortunate, accidental byproduct of new technology. We live in an age characterised by managed opinion - customer feedback, performance reviews, opinion polls - while networks are inescapably political because of the choices made in their design. Social applications not only reflect the learned behaviours of opinion giving and taking, they also reflect an underlying paradigm of dispersed knowledge, dynamic routing and negotiation. The "market" is encoded in the Internet.
Social media's bias towards expression has some interesting implications for political organisations, which can be usefully addressed via Albert Hirschman's famous trinity of exit, voice and loyalty. The ideal of mass-membership, to which professionalised parties like Labour pay lip-service but are increasingly wary of, has been channelled into the weak loyalty of "registered supporters" and public "campaigns", an approach intended to keep the mass away from policy formulation and exploit them as social media fodder. This has had two results: it has amplified voice (the expectation that people's opinions matter) and it has cheapened both entry and exit. The first is problematic for party hierarchies committed to being "on message", and implicit in the woolly formulation of "sharing the party's aims and values", which in practice is nothing more than loyalty - i.e. if you ever expressed support for anyone else, yer barred. The second has turned affiliation into a passing fancy. The point of Toby Young's "sabotage" is that no Tory would have bothered to do this in the past because the cost (in terms of time rather than money) was too high. It is only in the age of social media that commitment has become sufficiently throwaway to be the basis of a wind-up.
Resigning your membership of a party was traditionally a high-profile act of protest or disappointment. In reality, most memberships lapsed on the quiet, because disappointment was more often the spur than protest, but even these acts represented a significant choice for the individuals. Now, we see performative exits, in which people dramatise their choice and seek approbation (stylistically, these renunciations are often similar to those of football fans who have decided to give up going to matches: the game has left me etc). A characteristic of cheap entry is that it usually marks the limit of a person's commitment. In years gone by, you knew that joining a party was an implicit agreement to do at least some leafleting and canvassing. Now the expectation is to do little more than follow the party's Twitter account. That constituency Labour parties are having little luck getting the incoming tide of newly-registered supporters to participate beyond the leadership election should come as no surprise. Given that the median monthly charitable donation is about a tenner, £3 looks like a bargain for a premium-class "like" that can be emblazoned across the individual's social media space. The party's problem is not entryist Trots or Tories, but that other T: trivialisation.
As the Urban Dictionary helpfully notes, "Inactivists will often point to the root or cause of a social issue without directing the audience toward a course of action or even a coherent alternative viewpoint". The highlighting of this gap, between the accuracy and insight of the condemnation and the coherence of the proposed solution, is a traditional rhetorical defence of the status quo that goes back to the biblical dichotomy of prophets and kings. It is effective because there may well be substance to the charge - some of Jeremy Corbyn's policy prescriptions are clearly sketchy or unimaginative - but it also serves to support the idea that ruling requires inside knowledge. As that echt insider Tony Blair put it recently, the gap lies between "telling it like it is" and "decision-making in an imperfect world", with the implication that the latter requires an understanding quite different to the former. Inactivism widens the gap because "telling it like it is" becomes easier, due to social media, which paradoxically means that criticism of the gap (i.e. the kingly criticism of the unworldly prophet) becomes more difficult and may even be counterproductive. A vexed Blair described the response as: "Screw you, stop patronising me. I know what I’m doing" (the styling of your critics as self-absorbed teenagers is revealing in itself).
In criticising the "fantasists", the former believer in Iraqi WMD casually lumped Corbyn together with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Alexis Tsipras. Blair's politics still bear the Manichean imprint of the early 00s: you are either with us or against us, "I only know what I believe" etc. This lack of discrimination is part of a worldview that sees all species of dissent from the status quo as equally illegitimate. You can criticise the coherence of Corbyn's and Sanders' programmes, essentially to avoid addressing their analysis of our current ills, but Trump has at least the virtue of consistency in that both his analysis and platform are "as sounding brass": there is no gap. Tispras can be criticised for converting from prophet to king under pressure from the Eurogroup, but this very act is an admission of the gap and thus the "imperfect world" of which Blair is an intimate. As for Le Pen, fascists may be driven by irrational manias, such as racism or antisemitism, but their political practice is wholly opportunistic. The challenge they present to democracies is a lack of sincerity, and not even his worst enemy would accuse Corbyn of being insincere. What Blair doesn't get is that the real fantasy is to reduce the complexity and messiness of the world to binary simplicity.
Though it appears optimistic, in its belief that a loud-enough clamour will produce action in the real world, inactivism is actually pessimistic in its acceptance of the limits of human knowledge. The "wisdom of the crowd" rests on the belief that individuals have insufficient wisdom and that we'd be better off leaving policy to the data-aggregation abilities of the market. The problem is that the market can disseminate and amplify both errors and facts, something we've known since at least 1841, when George Mackay published Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The frustration of the political caste at Corbynmania is not merely the perception that social media has made such "crazes" more common (it hasn't, it's just made life easier for journalists, giving rise to a new structural bias). It also reflects one of the central contradictions of neoliberalism: that the encouragement of political inactivism (and it has been encouraged), and the associated commoditisation of expression, has given rise to a political consumer who is flighty, obstreperous and unpredictable (that bloody teenager again). Consider the recent volte-face by some old media outlets in respect of migrants: from characterising them as benefit scroungers to eulogising them as martyrs, which clearly reflects a swing in social media sentiment.
The end-game of political inactivism is the further constraint of democracy (there are hints aplenty in the establishment response to Corbyn) in the interests of "good order" and "sensible" policy. Much as the Syriza political programme was ruled out of bounds from day one and its representatives publicly delegitimised by the Eurogroup, the medium-term consequences of the Corbyn insurgency - win or lose - may be the further delegitimisation of socialism. This is not pessimism about the possibility of a leftward shift, merely the suspicion that Corbyn lacks both the strategic imagination and the tactical cunning to bring it about. If he wins, the activism of right-wing MPs seeking to undermine him (with wall-to-wall media support) will probably reverse the very modest shift in the Overton Window that occurred under Miliband. If a centrist wins, the appeals to unity and a "broad church" will drown out anything unorthodox.
For example, Yvette Cooper's proposal to rewrite clause IV of the party's constitution to explicitly target inequality, apparently by reviving Sure Start and "empowering parents" rather than by any nonsense to do with taxation, represents a further move away from principle to retail. Her coincidental criticism of David Cameron over Britain's unwillingness to take more Syrian refugees bears all the hallmarks of political inactivism: an insistence that "something must be done" without being specific about what; a self-regarding claim that "the British way of doing things is to provide help", as if our priority should be to avoid embarrassment through negative comparison with the Germans; and a preference for the street-theatre of voluntary action through "communities, churches and councils" rather than the hostage-to-media-fortune that would be an EU-agreed quota. Perhaps she'll ask Sheryl Sandberg to help craft the wording of the new clause IV. Something about mums and school trips.