It was with some trepidation that I agreed to interview Dr Aaron Bastani. To some he is known as the co-founder of Novara Media, a left-wing organisation aimed at rupturing Britain’s journalistic mould. To others, however, he has gained notoriety through Twitter, as one of the far-left’s most vocal proponents. A Bournemouth-born, one-time seller of tomatoes in a London farmers’ market, Bastani has risen to command significant political influence, authoring a book, publishing YouTube videos (with titles like ‘Corbyn Is The Absolute Boy’) and making frequent television appearances.
His online presence, as one might expect, is unapologetically subversive; he has entered into such vexed controversies as the wearing of the Remembrance Day poppy (which he claims is a ‘racist’ symbol), and the Labour party’s initial rejection of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism (a move he supported). He does not strive for palatability, but appears to revel in overturning the apple cart. From his antics at an anti-austerity march, which left him with a suspended sentence and community service, to his appearance on BBC Daily Politics, in which he held up a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “I am literally a communist”, it is clear Bastani does not play by the rule book.
We met after his participation in the ‘The Left is Losing its Way’ debate at the Cambridge Union. Naturally, he spoke against the motion. As I sat down beside him and we began the interview, I was struck precisely by his unassuming nature. Far from meeting my expectations of a revolutionary firebrand, he answered my questions in a calm, measured manner, apologising in advance at one point for his “violent language” in describing the Leave Vote as a “punch in the stomach of the EU”, and sheepishly premising his response to my question on further education as “not very radical”.
I began our discussion by diving in deep. Does he regret voting ‘remain’ in the 2017 referendum, a decision he made despite his vocal criticism of the EU? No- while he first supported leaving on the basis that “we could stay in the single market and stay in something like the EEA” at the same time as sending a clear message of discontent to the European bureaucrats, he soon came to see that leaving the EU would constitute “a huge rupture”. He concluded, “so that’s why I voted remain because I don’t think people realise what they were voting for as we’re probably now finding out”.
We moved to immigration policy. Could he, an advocate of the Marxist dictum of ‘no borders’, not be accused of a lack of responsivity to working-class concerns, particularly over the issue of uncontrolled migration? On the contrary, in his opinion immigration is something of a non-issue. Anti-immigration attitudes were “time specific”; “we had an incredibly strong currency. That’s now gone. We had a very welcoming economy, that’s now gone. So, when you look at Poland and its really rampant economic growth, the Euro is strengthening to the pound, Poles aren’t going to come here […] We did have a transformation in many parts of this country in the early 2000s and actually the liberal intelligentsia was blind to that. But I would submit that probably was a one off.”
With regard to his own personal views on immigration, I found his responses somewhat incoherent. Having first stressed, rather impassively, that he does not regard immigrants as “anything other than a net neutral”, he later went on to assert that immigration is “a social good” that goes “hand-in-hand with developmental policy”. His wavering response is perhaps symptomatic of the far-left’s general struggle to define its stance on immigration, with Corbyn aware of the need to balance his own internationalist tendencies with the demands of the electorate, for many of whom immigration is a key area of concern.
We moved to matters closer to home. What is the role of universities such as Cambridge in the creation of inequality? Perhaps his sole provocation, Bastani answered this question by quoting Marx: “Marx said a great quote, he said ‘we make history but not under conditions of our own making’. The people that are studying here are making history but they’re making history under conditions where Cambridge is clearly being a nexus for the reproduction of elite interests.” However, he does not believe in an outright boycott. “Thinking critically and acting decisively […] does not just mean not going to Cambridge. It clearly means changing Cambridge”. Students should “use their privilege wisely and try and change what it does”, at the same time as encouraging a broader “cultural change” whereby universities outside of the Oxbridge bubble, such as UCL (his alma mater), are elevated to the same hallowed status. Despite his own academic achievements, Bastani was clear that further education is not imperative: “I don’t really care about everybody going to university”. But, perhaps in reference to fellow Union speaker, the actor Eddie Marsan, who has just received an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia, he added “I do care about 50-year-olds wanting to go to university”.
I left the Union puzzling over Bastani’s contradictory character. As a London-based, PhD-educated political commentator, he is part of, or at the very least dependent upon, what he decried in our interview as the “intelligentsia”. In order to gain a public platform for his communist views, he has adopted the lifestyle and habits of a political class he claims to despise, a fact only reinforced by the esteemed setting of our interview and his suited appearance. And yet, perhaps this is merely a reflection of his role as political disruptor, with he himself escaping neat categorisation.
Rather than looking to union leaders and traditional communist party structures, is Novara Media the future of the far-left? While the days of general strikes and picket lines may be over, my impression is that Bastani and his footloose, technology-driven politics are just getting started.