This is a cautionary tale.
The poet Kenneth Koch once wrote a description of the pleasure of crushing a baby’s head. It was not that he would ever do this, but like all of us he occasionally had evil thoughts, and found a way to make this unacceptable thought digestible. According to Adam Phillips, he credited his poetic liberation to the Freudian legacy, and the way that it seemingly broadened the horizon of what it was possible to say. If you’re a Freudian, that is just what creative writing is for; making the unacceptable thought, not just acceptable, but also thrilling, haunting, moving, mysterious, or even amusing. But it’s also often what ordinary conversation is for, what dreaming is for, what jokes are about.
As if human beings are just poetic creatures, constantly striving to say the unsayable, and the truly unacceptable statement is just a form of failed poetry. As if a really bad Frankie Boyle joke is just one displaying insufficient virtuosity in the ars poetica. But it would make existence a lot of effort if we had to constantly disguise our thoughts or hedge them lest they be misunderstood, constantly safeguarding against the slippage of metaphors. So we also have our ‘safe spaces,’ friendship and familial circles, political comrades and allies, with whom we can sometimes decompress and indulge in the transgressive joke or figure of speech without carefully hedging or disguising the thought. In politics, too, we have allies and comrades, with whom we can speak in a particular idiom without the same safeguards.
This essay, then, is partly about where that space ends. It is about what happens when, in unguarded moments, you say things like “If Simon Weston knew anything, he’d still have his face”, in fleeting annoyance at his defence of the British claim to the Malvinas. Or, in a different mood, that a “journalist” calling for IDF repression in the West Bank should have his throat cut. I have left it a while before addressing this for a number of reasons. First of all, this story is in some ways a case study in how the first, heat-of-the-moment reaction is rarely the one you want to go with. Second, a quick reaction would probably have to be conducted on the terms of trolls and churnalists, and it would become an exercise in self-justification, as if justification was required. It would either be a “poor me” or a craven “mea culpa”, or both: self-lacerating apology as a form of self-pity and narcissism. There will be ample room for self-criticism here, but just not on those terms. And it must be obvious that any concession to that form of trolling, harassment and despondent churnalism would not be the last. There’s a reason why they say “don’t feed the trolls”. I want to engage, then, not your morbid fascination with public shaming rituals and the unpleasant little details they feast upon, but your interest in their conditions of possibility.
A few weeks ago, a journalist emailed to inquire about a comment apparently made on Facebook last year, attributed to me. Something about cutting someone’s throat? Did I remember making it? Did I have any comment? I wanted to reply, channelling Lisa Simpson: “do you remember when you lost your passion for this work?” A private Facebook comment, I thought. No, no, this is vitally important for the future of the nation – you must, intrepid reporter, do your duty by Queen and Country. And so they did. Headlines appeared not only in the alt-right silo, but also in The Guardian, The Independent and the Jewish News. Soon, someone from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was in touch, on the same day that Guardian journalist Nicholas Lezard was being publicly shamed for a Facebook comment calling for the “crowd-funded assassination” of Jeremy Corbyn. As much as I dislike the sensationalism of such reporting, it occurred to me that there was a whole complex of issues tangled up in it that needed to be disentangled.
I like to think I am not naïve. I’m aware that we live in a time in which people are being pulled up all the time for unguarded comments on social media. I’m acutely aware that when Corbyn is being denounced for a perfectly unexceptionable tweet about the September 11th attacks, Emily Thornberry is still reviled for tweeting a photograph of a flag-bedraggled house, and ordinary Labour members are being accused of racism, sexism or bullying on often tendentious grounds, anything you say on social media can become a weapon. And yet, here we are. Two off-hand, off-colour comments of mine – because yes, in fact I did, casually and unguardedly, bang them out – one a joke about Simon Weston and the other a disgusted and furious expostulation about someone calling – with what struck me as staggering, swaggering colonial chauvinism – for IDF repression of Palestinians in the West Bank, have been weaponised. It turns out that I am more naïve than I would have thought.
I made a rookie error. My unconscious assumption, at odds with everything I already knew about the internet, was that I was talking to friends in a private context. Of course, we tend to agree that there are responsibilities attached to public discourse that don’t apply in the same way when speaking in private. And it is a common mistake to assume that Facebook threads, where you’re talking to ‘friends,’ are at least not entirely public. Even on Twitter, you can think, “but I’m not anyone important, no one is going to monitor the things I say,” until the Twitter-tsunami descends on you. But this is, to repeat, the mistake of an amateur. And it can work as an object-lesson in why you should never, ever use even the most seemingly intimate social media settings to say something that you would not say publicly, or at least be able to defend in public.
Because, Facebook is a marketing platform characterised by a spurious intimacy. You have access to people’s photographs, relationships, current moods, thoughts, career trajectories, sexual propensities, often their crises and breakdowns. And these are your ‘friends’. It is very easy, if foolish, to believe that you are in fact talking to friends when you make a comment on Facebook. Even if the person with whom you are dialoguing is a ‘real life’ friend – and the distinction between online and offline friends is obviously not straightforward – the potential audience for what you say, isn’t. The potential audience for anything posted on the internet, is the entire internet, plus the audience of any print or broadcast media that takes it up. The trappings of privacy settings and ‘friending’ and ‘unfriending’ and ‘blocking’ might make Facebook appear less of a public platform than, say, Twitter. But it only takes one person to screencap or save a comment thrown off in haste, and it can appear on any other platform within seconds. And to reiterate, the potential audience for anything you say on any internet platform, is the entire internet. The internet, which is filled with stalkers, provocateurs, and bored, aggressive, small-minded people looking for the next crusade.
So, with that said, let me come to the heart of the matter. The sorts of comments I am being asked to talk about were not intended for public consumption. So much so that my reflex is either to cringe even talking about them, precisely because you weren’t supposed to see them, or evince a kind of swaggering defensiveness. They were not, as I think you will already have intuited, intended to be taken literally. They were not attempts to use my public position to attack Simon Weston, or call for violence against a “journalist” (more on those scare quotes later). Nor did I seek out people who would take these things literally, or who would be hurt or offended, and display such thoughts to them.
Rather, I was doing what almost everyone does at some point, which was to dispose of a feeling of irritation or outrage by making a malicious, Mock The Week-style joke, or by exhaling the worst sentiment that I could think of. This practice is not only ubiquitous, but just part of what it is to be human. We all speak in different registers of seriousness and with varying nuances of meaning, and we all find ways to say the unsayable. And this means that there is a certain quantum of bullshit, priggishness and moralism in some of the easy and hasty outrage about such things. Even if you are not the sort of person who would watch a comedy roast and snigger at a completely unacceptable joke, download a Frankie Boyle gig, watch the The Aristocrats, or whatever, it is a racing certainty that you can call to mind remarks of yours that you would not dare publicise. You can be thankful that your friends or family or work colleagues took these remarks in the non-literal way intended. This is why it is fortunate that we have a space for ‘offensive’ humour in public (age restrictions, the television watershed, etc) and negotiations around specific questions of taste (‘too soon?’), just as it is useful that we have a role for ‘inflammatory’ political speech in the right context.
I am not, of course, to blame for the use that others made of my comments, or the fact that they sought to instrumentalise them to manipulate, hurt and anger people whom I wasn’t trying to reach. It strikes me as a particular irony that the people most outraged about my comments did most to ensure that people would be hurt by them, as if they didn’t see their own sadistic investment in doing so. The Weston joke was actually, to my mortification, put under the nose of Simon Weston to see if by wounding him he could be somehow conscripted into one of those little crusades that social media users are susceptible to. Strikingly, his dignified response, urging people to pay no attention to it, was ignored by his valiant defenders. Let me be clear. I have no idea whether Weston was bothered or hurt by what I said. There is a chance that he was, and I am sorry for that. Even if he was not, still I rue that a private joke was publicised in this way, with the obvious intention of causing hurt. It is also infuriating that the backwash of spite caused distress and inconvenience to people I do know, both colleagues and friends, who had nothing to do with it. And even if I’m not to blame for the specific instrumentalisation of that joke, the careless misjudgement of the terrain is my responsibility. To repeat and underline, I made a rookie error when I had reason to know better.
It remains to say something about how these comments were then used. In both cases, it only took someone petty and resentful enough to screencap them and circulate them to all and sundry, with the idea of creating a controversy. A right-wing blog was, however, the major vector through which they gained a widespread audience. There’s a small irony that Paul Staines, the libertarian-right proprietor of the tabloid site, ‘Guido Fawkes,’ has chosen to publish this stuff. I had only months earlier recorded a ‘media review’ segment broadcast on TeleSUR, which cheerfully described Staines as an amoral right-wing crackpot and cynic, and mocked his practice of smearing MPs and lefties and others he didn’t like by publishing rumours or tidbits from social media. For example, one of his stories concerned a minor local Green Party candidate who made a joke about Nigel Farage having only one ball, which was reported as “Green Party candidate in Sick Nazi Cancer Slur”. This was described in propagandistic tones as “the true face of the hard left” – as if the average Green is a class-struggle militant. As if Farage, a man who is happy to incite racist frenzy, defame entire nations of people, and make capital at the expense of the NHS over his lost testicle, can’t live with someone he has never heard of making a joke about same.
I find this sort of ‘news’ both laughable and sinister; laughable to the extent that you can’t take it seriously, sinister to that extent that some people actually do. In the segment, anyway, I traced the origin of this kind of hackneyed smear-job to his work alongside the shady right-wing operative David Hart when he was part of the anticommunist struggle in Angola and Central America, and with whom he co-produced a far-right smear sheet called British Briefing. The blog’s smears work in exactly the same way. They are supposed to ‘expose’ the ‘hard left’ as well as naïve liberals, but they basically work by trying to humiliate and destroy mainstream centrist or left-of-centre politicians and others, often in a personalised and vindictive way. You could look at the baseless attempt to slander the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock as some sort of KGB agent. Or the publicising of an alleged extramarital affair on the part of John Prescott, and naming the woman involved. Or the joking insinuation that Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten was a paedophile, and then claiming ‘credit’ for the eventual revelation that Mark Oaten had slept with male sex workers – as if ‘paedophile’ and ‘gay’ were the same thing. This infantile pot-pourri of scurrilous nastiness feeds into a culture in the comments threads where commenters recommend stoning, circumcision or having their mouths sewn up for uppity women. Anyway, Staines seems to have viewed the segment, left a nondescript comment on my blog about it, and that was that. Or wasn’t.
For in the age of the internet, one doesn’t rifle through bins: one scours social media content. And using some basic techniques of persuasion well-known to tabloid editors, it is easy to make it look as though you’re bringing something important to light. It is often the headlines that do it: most of what people take from an article is shaped by the first line with the biggest font. But the images do important work too. Thus, when someone screencapped and circulated my Weston joke, the Guido Fawkes blog knew how to make it more interesting. They took a photo of myself from the internet, one where I’m looking perhaps especially arrogant and preening, and put it next to a picture of Weston, who has a well-known down-to-earth charisma. Between those two, who would you side with? Even before you had seen the headline, you would already know to hate the bearded poser. The headline then set up the argument: “Guardian Writer’s Vile Slur Against Falkland Hero”. I had officially stopped writing for The Guardian on contract in February 2014, well over a year before this story was written, but the point of including that reference was to inflate the importance of the story so that many people would assume that Weston had been publicly attacked, in The Guardian no less. Then they would read what I actually said. Blood would boil. “Who does he think he is? How dare he? How utterly typical of the ungrateful leftie whingers in this country!” And so on.
On the strength of this, the story was circulated on alt-right sites like Breitbart, as well as on a range of military fora. I know for a fact that many of the people who read it assumed that there had been a public, invidious attack on Weston published in a mainstream newspaper. I know this because, in the thousands and thousands of angry, unhinged and/or threatening messages I received as a result of the story and subsequent orchestrated harassment campaigns, many of them expressly complained about ‘an article’. I initially responded to most of the tweets and messages with contemptuous bravado. “Yes, of course I said it; I’ve said worse. Mind your own business. Fuck off.” Or, thinking of the late Bill Hicks, “I am also available for children’s parties.” That would have been the instinctive response even if they weren’t amped up on sanctimony and glory-hunting, because I thought and still think that the idea of writing to a complete stranger about a Facebook comment that you shouldn’t have seen, is utterly bizarre. But then I briefly tried to have it out with some of them. You realise, I pointed out, that you are writing to me, whom you don’t know, about a comment casually made on the Facebook thread of someone else, whom you also don’t know, on a wet afternoon some long time ago? A comment that you should never have seen? A comment that you would not have seen had not some idiot with a grudge screencapped it and shared it specifically to get people angry? A comment that a seasoned right-wing provocateur then sexed up and broadcast, just to give the red meat of red-hate to his audience? How would you react if something you had said in the moment in a low-key interaction with friends, were broadcast to the world, and complete strangers started to demand explanations and apologies? Might you not find something else to be outraged about?
Many of the people I tried to engage took the point and bowed out gracefully, suggesting that I take more care in who I’m friends with on Facebook – which is almost right – and also thinking, perhaps, “there but for the grace of god…”. The more diagnostically interesting cases were those who were positively buzzing with malicious glee, giddy with self-righteous spite, enjoying their fury immensely. There was certainly no talking to them, and not because they didn’t have their own disavowed “there but for the grace of god…” thought lurking. Rather because they were either too busy harassing people who knew me, professional contacts or employers, or because they were busy wishing me inventive physical harm, or because they were promising to inflict it themselves, or with stagey foreboding alluding to the gangs of men who would hunt me down and inflict it. Beyond the fantasists, some of these people were, or claimed to be, squaddies, and thus certainly credible in the could-kill-me stakes. But, apart from those psychotic and amoral enough to literally contemplate murder for the crime of a joke on a Facebook thread – “Behead Those Who Insult the War Hero” – perhaps most of them were just venting because they had been made to feel a particular way. And it was easy for me to dismiss this above as belligerent small-mindedness, but it is about a lot more than that.
The fact that these harassment campaigns were powerfully overdetermined can be inferred from the vast disproportion between action and consequence, between even what they believed had taken place and what they seem to have literally thought would be a fitting response. No one who is happy and well responds to an off-piste Facebook joke in this fashion. Most would respond, I suspect, as I would to a joke about someone I like: with a shrug, a snarl, a joke in kind, or just by shaking it off or ignoring it (as, indeed, Weston gracefully did in this case). We are talking about a generalised cultural and political depression. The kinds of people who would take this so thoroughly to heart are the kinds of people who are already keenly attuned to the prospect of humiliation.
You could say that humiliation is a way of constantly having your hopes raised and dashed. You can’t be humiliated if you don’t expect anything else. And many people are inhabiting an atmosphere of bathetic decline. They are being constantly reminded of the gap between what they have been told to value as sacred – let us say, national, familial or martial values – and the negligible store set in them not only by other people but by the authorities. And they resent the people who remind them of that, and of their humiliation. Insofar as they’re of the Right, they tend to think that the whole of society, or at least the liberal elites, the lefties, the feminists, the multiculturalists, the peaceniks, the scum, have been taking the piss for far too long. They tend to think that the Left is desecrating the values that we all supposedly respect, and the social bond these values are supposed to make possible. That the students and intellectuals are having fun at everyone else’s expense. That uppity minorities are enjoying life, by making the ‘silent majority’ miserable. Twitterstorms and harassment campaigns are displacement activities, conferring a temporary feeling of power – and one or two of the participants get so addicted to that feeling that they never seem to be able to let it go. Obviously I don’t enjoy being the target of these projections, but this attitude is dangerous for much broader reasons.
On the brighter side of this, you could say that a letter always arrives at its destination. One woman sent me a genuinely angry tirade, which I didn’t respond to. A few weeks later, she sent another message responding to her own initial tirade, which she had rediscovered and, in a muddle, read as to, not from, her. She demanded to know who the bloody hell I was, what I was on about, and why I was bothering her? I modestly said, “you do know you’re responding to your own message?” She, to her credit, was embarrassed. Alas, not everyone gets the revelation of seeing their own spite or swaggering bravado reflected back at them as she had (and as, in a different way, I had too), and most of those who have joined the harassment are probably still convinced of their rectitude.
The second story was presented more insidiously. Rather than lead with “Guardian Writer,” the Guido Fawkes blog managed to make it a story about Jeremy Corbyn. Noticing that I would be speaking at the large, five-day The World Transformed conference about my book on Corbyn, and that Corbyn would also be at the conference, speaking at a different meeting, the Fawkes blog wrote: “Corbyn To Attend Momentum Event With Vile Internet Troll”. The image juxtaposed myself, in a differently bearded pose, alongside Corbyn and a Soviet flag, with a colourful extract from my Facebook comment in block capitals: “Fuck him, they should cut his throat”. Oddly, the swear-word was asterisked out, as if the angry older men who frequent that blog and fill its threads with rape threats, death threats and racist exhortation, among other things, can’t bear to be exposed to the full force of the word ‘fuck’. Again, basic techniques of persuasion were at work here. Calling me a “troll” and a “keyboard warrior” this time, rather than a “Guardian writer,” tapped into a shopworn cliche about Corbyn’s supporters. It also misleadingly made it appear that I'd deliberately sought out attention for my comment, to inflame and incite. They repeated the words “Jewish journalist” twice, without explaining why they thought this was relevant, because the mere insinuation, the mere tantalising possibility that this was a motivation is confirmation enough for some people – ‘he’s a loony leftie, and we know how they think’.
Of course, I gave them the opportunity to make that vile insinuation. But in the interests of not letting this bullshit fly, let us just unpack the argument here. I had been asked by a friend to comment on a video recording of someone with an American accent based in the colonies of the West Bank, who was complaining about the insufficient presence of IDF troops to keep the Palestinians in line. Very few words could really articulate the pellets of fury that exploded in my chest watching that, and thinking about the smarmy auto-victimisation of the coloniser, and the sadism, supremacism, and bloody repression that it implied. When he complained about “Arabs” bearing cinder blocks, I was reminded of Albert Memmi, who pointed out that the coloniser has his arsenals, but the discovery of even one rusty weapon among the colonised is a scandal. Even the way that he casually referred to “the Arabs” in the video description illustrated the racism involved.
Nor, of course, is this an isolated instance. The culture of racist repression, often to the point of exterminatory violence, is so pervasive in Israel and particularly in the colonies, that it is no surprise when the defence minister promises a ‘Shoah’ against the Palestinians, or when Michael Ben-Ari stands in front of crowds demanding that the army be allowed to “exterminate,” or when Moishe Feiglin calls for the annexation of Gaza and the construction of concentration camps. Even in this country, the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle doesn’t hesitate to publish Geoffrey Alderman exulting in the murder of the Palestine solidarity activist Victor Arrigoni, simpering that “few events ... have caused me greater pleasure in recent weeks than news of the death” of Arrigoni, someone he spuriously and foully claimed was a “Jew-hater,” “like Adolf Hitler” because he was trying to break Israel’s death-dealing blockade of Gaza.
Now, the “journalist” in question is not someone I had ever heard of when I viewed the video. He turns out to be a settler and hasbara activist, who runs an American-Israeli PR firm, and whose work is self-consciously an effort to support and justify Israeli expansionism. But as I saw it, viewing the video, he was simply the bearer of a murderous ideology posing as victimhood, and I wanted to spit righteous venom at it; to speak, one might say, with Holy Ghost language. Instead what came out was surprisingly and childishly incoherent in its helpless rage: “He makes me sick. He’s a piece of shit. He’s standing there complaining that the army isn’t helping the colonists keep the Palestinians in their place. Fuck him, they should cut his throat.” The problem is not that they don’t metaphorise. ‘Cut his throat’ is a metaphor or substitution short-cutting through a complex of conflicting thoughts and responses. But while my friend would have got that, not everyone else would have, and ‘everyone else’ was exactly who could end up seeing the comment. However, even inferring the worst from it, the groundless insinuation of antisemitism is just that. It is an insinuation because it has no basis in evidence. But, again, not to give smears their breeding ground in the first place, it is always best to count to ten, and not to respond even to that which is truly sickening in its cruelty, by spitting out the worst thing that one can momentarily think of.
Still, the Fawkes story was a very effective montage, which – however threadbare in its substance – pushed all the right media buttons. There is a strong demand in certain newspapers for stories incriminating Corbyn by association with trolls, extremism, and antisemitism, and the story was duly taken up by The Guardian and The Independent, among others. Most of the journalists who regurgitated the Fawkes story simply engaged in churnalism, accepting the blog's talking points and rewriting them in their own language. One of them went so far as to claim that I had “threatened” the ‘journalist’ in question, a distortion that even the inventive Fawkes team didn’t think of. The Guardian was a slight exception, in that the journalist emailed me for comment (I didn’t reply), and then wrote an article weirdly linking the reported comments to my last article for the paper calling for the Greens to discover their ‘dark side’. As if, perhaps, to say: “this must be what he means by a ‘dark side’”. For the record, and because we lamentably appear to need this clarification, it really isn't.
This, in all fairness, had little to do with me, and everything to do with throwing one more thing at the leader of the official opposition. I was just what they threw. As if the coup wasn't quite enough, but this scandal of guilt-by-association-through-shared-conference-attendance-with-author-who-said-a-bad-thing-on-social-media might finally finish him off. There is something quite deranged about this state of affairs. I am not just talking about the famous anti-Corbyn ‘bias,’ which is rather like describing white sharks as biased against sea lions. I mean more particularly the idea that casual conversation can be reported as news on a par with public statements and interventions, and invoked as evidence of someone’s, let us say, agenda. As if one might report as news something that a tipsy Polly Toynbee said at a Scrabble evening, and use that to damn Tom Watson. Yes, of course, part of the point of this post is that whatever its intimacies, Facebook has to be treated as public. But even so, it is still journalistically degraded to report cribbed extracts from casual Facebook exchanges for the purposes of guilt-by-association in this way. It says something about the truly lamentable state of British journalism, so much of it done quickly and on the cheap, that it can even happen.
This is a cautionary tale. Two comments, each fired off in less than half a minute, intemperately, in pique or fury, to a small audience of friends, neither of them intended for public consumption, neither intended – any more than are the performances of Frankie Boyle or that thing you said to your friends yesterday – in the strict and literal way taken, have been used to goad thousands of people into harassing me and people who know me, lobbying employers, and sending me threats of injury and death. They have been used to attack the leader of the opposition and generate a spurious, fleeting controversy around an important left-wing event. And this stuff is toxic. It makes real conversation, real debate, impossible. It injects a malicious lack of rigour or care into every discussion, a jouissance-laden unseriousness that sends ethics, particularly journalistic or political ethics, packing. It seeps into everything. Certainly, there are grey areas: there just are occasions where people plead ‘privacy’ to cover legitimately awful behaviour: bullying, harassment, domestic abuse, and so on. There are also occasions where the private ‘tasteless’ remark actually does merit wider attention, regardless of whom it was intended for. Just because Ron Atkinson didn’t mean his racist remark to be caught by the microphone doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth commenting on. And yet, we have to be able to make room for that and for the fact that there is bad-faith vendetta-mongering and lousy, sensationalist churnalism.
There are, at any rate, only so many times that one can make this type of error without getting the point, and there are several points to get here. First of all, whatever these comments were supposed to do, they certainly weren’t worth the trouble incurred for people who didn’t make them. The way in which the comments were used to entice and incite outrage and hurt, and the way the malevolent backlash then affected friends and colleagues, was possible because my initial misjudgement gave the creeps an opportunity. That is on me.
Secondly, it is not just that social media is not private. Increasingly we find that there is no real ‘private sphere,’ or never really was. People finding their Tinder messages reproduced on Facebook, sexts and photographs posted on porn sites, messages screencapped and memed, know this intimately. Or, to put it like this, if there is an operative private sphere, it is a tentatively negotiated space with trusted people, guarded as well as possible by enclosed spaces, good firewalls and anti-surveillance software. It is an artifice and one that is, of course, historically far from innocent in the ways it has helped divvy up power to the advantage of white bourgeois males and the disempowerment of all others. But if privacy has a constructive purpose, it is fragile: and anything you say, do, or write down, can be recorded in one way or other, and become part of a public conversation.
‘This is all just common sense, surely,’ some might object. But what we acknowledge as ‘common sense’ is not at all the same as the assumptions and axioms guiding what we actually do. ‘Common sense’ is both something we know, and somehow don’t know. The fact that social media is based on an addictive property, the regular hit of narcissistic supply – ‘likes’ for our thoughts, photographs, and so on – means that we get drawn into a kind of bad faith deal with ourselves to treat it as if it were private enough for us to be comfortable with the things we end up saying on it. What’s more, the incentive of a reward means that there is an imperative not to wait before writing, but to write quickly, concisely, memorably if possible. To peacock and swagger. And that is a trap. And if you’re political and loquacious, it is likely that there is some enemy somewhere hunting for the means by which to hurt you. Whatever is uncovered, thanks to your making it easy for them by posting it on social media, its political substance will be distorted or invented, because that’s a price that those seeking the gratification of a malicious take-down are willing to pay. And there are always plenty of others willing to vicariously participate in and extend the take-down, if they can.
Finally, journalism is only infrequently a field where the truth matters, at all. Its degradation, driven by the traditional news media’s economic crises, is part of its growing articulation with the most sensationalist and linkbaity forms of online writing. You even see this on the left, with various alt-media news sites producing continents of utter garbage either because they’re desperate for traffic or because their writers are paid ‘per click’. Of course, pay-per-click at least sounds vaguely meritocratic compared to the quasi-feudal league of pampered journalists whom people stopped reading long ago, but its effects are likely to be ruinous. Worse still, since those very same writers largely aspire to write under newspaper mastheads and eventually graduate to aforesaid quasi-feudal league of pampered journalists, there will surely be a fusion of the two tendencies. So if the potential audience for anything you say on the internet, or elsewhere, is the entire internet plus the audience of the news media that re-broadcast it, and if even nice young anti-war activists are going to be defamed on that terrain, then you can’t expect a fair and nuanced appreciation of the different registers in which everyone speaks when they say bad things. It is vile, it is toxic, but it just is the media we have.
I don’t want it to appear that I’m recommending a self-denying ordinance. People do get something out of social media beyond the addictive hit, and not everyone needs the kind of morality tale I am offering. And I certainly don’t think anyone should internalise the forces of priggish and moralistic repression, as if most of the big guns weren’t on that side already. Half of political wisdom and almost all culture depends upon what one must never say. But if there is an art to saying the unsayable and making it acceptable without just insulting or hurting people, the negotiations around doing so are terribly fraught. And if there are spaces in which we can decompress, the safeguards of privacy are not terribly secure. And if we mean to use the public property of language to be vocal and politically committed, then our ‘private’ uses of it are too easily drawn into the frame, and too readily susceptible to distortion and innuendo. And this is just an argument for resisting the celerity of the internet. For pausing, for waiting. It is also an argument for creative sublimation, which is where the essay began. And it is to that extent a case for one more revision, one more edit, one more interpretation, one more qualification, before pressing ‘send’.
A number of journalists have been in touch about comments I was reported to have made on Facebook a long time ago. I was in the process of writing a lengthy essay about it all, because I am interested in exploring the issues involved. However, in the interests of avoiding endless back-and-forth, this is a statement that they can use.
"The disingenuous reports circulating on the alt-right blogs are based on off-hand, off-colour statements made over a year ago in what I had assumed were private exchanges. These exchanges involved, as far as I was aware, a small number of friends who would know from the context that they were not intended literally or maliciously. That was obviously a naive assumption on my part. I should have realised that the tasteless remark, the dark joke, that disappears as soon as it is uttered in a pub conversation, can quickly be preserved and distorted if uttered on Facebook. Because of that rookie's error, some bloggers and trolls have used my comments, quite disingenuously, to hurt people.
"To be absolutely clear. I do not think that Simon Weston’s injuries deserve ridicule. I emphatically do not think that people who advocate for the West Bank settlers should have their throats cut. I certainly didn’t mention or even consider the ethnicity of the individual in question, and the attempts to imply that this was a factor in the original statement are invidious and dishonest. I at no point sought a public audience for these comments, and never sought to solicit anyone’s anguish. I am, of course, very sorry to anyone who was hurt.
"I also note that the Guardian journalist Nicholas Lezard is just today being publicly shamed for a Facebook joke about a “crowd-funded assassination” of Corbyn. Although I profoundly disagree with his express sentiments, I do not think that he should be monstered for decompressing and joking among friends, particularly when he is clearly not being literal. It is a real shame that some of the media are allowing their agenda to be driven by the most trivial, sensation-hunting, traffic-driven pseudo-journalism of the blogs and the pay-per-click sites."
There is an awful lot of fashionable talk about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. And while I understand the thrust of this to be moving in the right direction, I think it's a conception of which we have to be slightly critical and interrogative. In fact, surely we already have reason to be sceptical given the way the term 'social movement' is tossed around so lightly to describe what turn out to be normal electoral campaigns (Obamamania, Sandernismo) or just average party political activity (Luke Akehurst's facile claim that New Labour was a 'social movement'). If we don't want to keep talking loosely and in a way that gives opportunities to our political opponents, we need to problematise what I will call "social movement talk".
This is in part because no one really knows what a social movement is, or agrees on its defining characteristics. It is one of those terms, like 'terrorism,' that we sometimes have to use because there isn't a widely current alternative, but which is nonetheless troublingly vague. The idea of a 'social movement' has its origins, in part, in an attempt to overcome the limitations of an older sociological conceit, which is that mass movements are driven by irrational mob passions. Social movement studies tends to stress the constructive, civic role of such movements, and their rational, computational element. There is an obvious benefit from such an approach.
The focus of social movement studies, however, as well as its explicit formulations, has often tended to imply a number of unsustainable ideas. The first is the easiest to disprove: that social movements are clearly located on the political left, and are about promoting social change. The history of right-wing social movements from interwar Europe to the Tea Party, which aim to actively suppress social change, really doesn't permit that conclusion. The second is that social movements exist in opposition to, and autonomously from, public authorities. The state, in this perspective, is usually straightforwardly an opponent of such movements. But even the archetypally successful social movement, Civil Rights, depended in significant degree on mobilising state capacities and forming alliances within the field of the state state, as well as beyond it. Obviously its Massive Resistance nemesis was also very well articulated with localised sites of state power. The third is particular to 'new social movement' approaches, which is that the 'social movement' constitute a novel type of political organisation, moving beyond narrow 'materialist' and class-based approaches. This isn't really sustainable, and involves a questionable dichotomy between the 'material' and 'post-material' (as if to say that gay rights, or nuclear weapons, aren't obviously material interests for millions of people).
Obviously, social movements scholars have responded to this problem by loosening the definition of a social movement. In broad strokes, then, we could define a social movement as: i.) a sustained, organised public effort involving some non- or extra-institutional action making a claim upon public authorities, ii.) using a particular repertoire of contentious tactics, iii.) to promote or oppose social change. We could then add various other characteristics such as the fact that a social movement usually consists of dense informal networks, forges a distinctive collective identity, and so on. The problem here is that the definition operates at a purely empirical and descriptive level, and depends upon theoretical generalisations that are so indeterminate as to be of questionable utility. What does it mean to say that something is 'sustained', for example? In what sense does any form of political organisation define itself without either promoting or opposing social change? What form of political organisation doesn't make claims on public authorities? Or doesn't form a distinctive collective identity or involve dense informal networks? What is the difference between a campaign and a social movement in this context? What organisations count as 'institutions'?
I don't want to make too much of these questions. Some degree of indeterminacy in the social sciences is inevitable. And, for example, 'sustained' can be defined in relative historical terms - social movements historically emerged at the point where the concentrated centralisation of state power ensured that sudden local riots and mob violence were no longer effective - without being precise. But I suggest that we've tended to take the category of 'social movement' for granted, but once you try to pin it down with reference to any of its supposedly determinate characteristics, it becomes incredibly slippery. What has happened here is that a series of social outcomes have been taken to constitute a unitary empirical object, given the label 'social movement', and then presumed to explain the phenomena in question rather than being something that demands explanation. This is what is known as reification.
One of the most interesting theories of reification came from Gaston Bachelard who, in his Psychoanalysis of Fire, proposed that there sometimes exist "epistemological obstacles" built into the phenomena themselves, which can make it difficult to apprehend them properly and which permit an unscientific or incorrect apprehension of them to shape the experience of them. Fire was such a phenomenon, inasmuch as its materiality inclines one to view it as a substance or, perhaps, as some sort of spirit. The palpable experience of fire as an 'object' includes of course the appearance and the physical sensations it gives rise to when 'touched'. And once these qualities have been fixed by a certain symbolisation, once we've said that fire is in fact a definite thing - a substance, or an animistic entity - these sensations are experienced as palpable confirmations of the symbolisation. And so it might be with the concept of 'social movements'. The palpable experience of the social movement, then - the familiar displays of 'worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment' above all - can appear as confirmations of the category, so that there only remains the task of working out what essence, historical subjectivity or functional relation coheres all of the various and contradictory manifestations that are attributable to social movements.
The category of 'social movement' describes a series of outcomes, so it would be useful to think about the processes of which they are outcomes. Only in that way can we break with the reification, and then realistically think about the conditions for both effective mobilisation and success. So I would propose the following as premises:
i. The most basic social unit is not the individual, which is merely a politico-juridical effect of power relations, but the relation. Nothing social happens until there is a relationship (be it political, ideological or economic) between at least two types of agent.
ii. These relations are organised within a particular mode of production, which assigns agents within them particular capacities and powers, depending on their dominance or subjugation.
iii. The dominant relations in a given mode of production, insofar as it is characterised by exploitation, are antagonistic, thus leaving the social field cross-sected by struggles.
iv. The mode of production is never fully 'realised'. It is always only realised to an extent within an open, complex and generative structure-in-difference, or social formation. It is the social formation in a given conjuncture, not the mode of production, that is the terrain of action of social forces.
v. For relations to persist, they must be reproduced, and thus the manner of their reproduction, as well as the productive forces available to them to continue doing so, is decisive.
These premises stress a processual perspective, and it in that perspective that we can start to locate the social movement. First of all, we can say that a condition for the emergence of a social movement is that the reproduction of a given social relationship has been put into question. Thus, a movement will be concerned with the conservation, disruption, reform, abolition or expanded reproduction of a set of social relations. That allows us to broadly comprehend the character of social movements (as reactionary, conservative, reformist, revolutionary, etc). A second condition for the emergence of a social movement is that social groups who are in an antagonistic relationship with one another come into direct (though overdetermined) conflict.
In addition, and given that the reproduction of a social relation is necessarily a political issue, a third condition is that the emerging combatants must have some reference to political power - that is the state - the nature of which is structured by the differential access of classes and social groups to the state and the opportunities for mobilisation it provides. A fourth is that, given the overdetermination of political struggles, the participants in the conflict extend beyond those directly involved in the antagonistic relationship in question, and draws into movement those who have heterogeneous interests and ideologies. This necessitates what Gramsci termed a 'system of alliances' governed by a shared structure of meaning (sometimes called 'framing') which may extend well beyond the specific politicality of the movement and even involve a richly complex 'way of life' or several (like cooperativism, unionism, membership of military clubs, 'Klankraft', etc).
The specific social capacities arising from social relations whose reproduction has been put into question must be activated in that conflict - this is the fifth condition. These can be class capacities, endowed by one's place in the relations of production (capitalists enjoy control of markets, workers enjoy collective strength, etc) but one can also speak more generally (following Piven and Cloward) of 'disruptive capacities' which follow from one's ability to withdraw one's contribution to the reproduction of society. Since these capacities are distributed unevenly, and formed in relation to different identities and ways of life, the specific organisation of these capacities is subordinate to the political and ideological aspects of coalition forming.
Finally, these social capacities can only be convoked in particular spatial contexts (say, big urban settings) in which economic, political and ideological relations are concentrated. As Manuel Castells wrote, the segmentation of social and political space is a way of organising production relations, consumption patterns, sociality, social reproduction, and so on. That is to say, there is necessarily a territoriality to the action of social movements, which structures their options and prospects. They make a claim to the 'national' space, but they operate only within definite enclaves. If you think about this in relation to the most famous social movement, Civil Rights, it was very much a movement of big cities, whereas Massive Resistance was a movement of small towns and the rural Delta. Given that white-supremacy was organised primarily on the basis of the 'internal frontier', mapping race to place, the social-demographic shifts of African Americans to urban areas provided unique opportunities to break the old authority structures and produce new forms of collectivity. Arguably, Massive Resistance was limited by its rootedness in most places (not Arkansas, for interesting reasons) in the declining rural terrain.
So, looking at it like this, we could say that a social movement occurs where the reproduction of a social relation has been put into question; the antagonism between social groups has been forced into outright conflict; and the conflict has drawn in combatants from beyond those directly affected and given rise to a complex system of alliances between people with heterogeneous interests, ideologies and social capacities. Its chances of success depend a great deal on how those capacities are distributed and spatially assembled, and also on how the combatants are politically and ideologically unified despite great variations.
This obviously poses a number of problems for "social movement talk". This kind of talk almost always implies a kind of voluntarism, as if one can just summon a political movement into existence, or as if it's just a matter of the correct techniques. In a way, when you read a lot of social movement literature, it almost does appear as if it's just a political technology, since the outcomes it embodies have been subtracted from the social processes they emerged from. One can emulate the aesthetic and methods of movement-building, participate in movements, and support the development of movements, but one can't make a social movement come into existence any more than one can force a crisis in the relations of production.
And the conflation of social movements with normal electioneering or party activity may be a by-product of the reification, which produces definitions so vague that the mere appearance of a series of big crowd waving signs, or even the existence of a large group of people organised somewhere, somehow, is taken as a 'social movement'. But an election campaign has only one goal, and that is to elect the candidate, and while movement-like phenomena can arise in the context of such a campaign, if it shuts down the second the campaign is over then it wasn't a social movement.
By the same token, a political party is both broader and narrower than a social movement. A party doesn't restrict its purview to the reproduction (or not) of one problematic social relation, but has a programme for the whole extended reproduction (or not) of the social formation and its entire future direction. It is necessarily less ideologically heterogeneous on this account than a social movement. And it is necessarily routinised, bureaucratised and hierarchically arranged, especially to the extent that it is integrated into the state, in a way that would be far less exhaustively true of the social movement, which exceeds both its politicality and its formal organisation. A party can therefore be 'powered' by a social movement - you can have "people powered politics" provided there are actually people in movement - but it can't be the movement.
One could go on. At best, "social movement talk" is a way of metaphorically addressing the urgent need to remedy the lack of democracy in our political structures, the need to reverse the effective exclusion of millions of people from politics in the neoliberal era, and the need for any party aspiring to social change to ground itself in the organisation and mobilisation of heterogeneous masses. It's a way of saying that there is more - much more - to social power than just getting the right team elected to office. And there's nothing wrong with that. But we shouldn't be hypnotised by the apparent phenomena of social movements, the "palpable confirmations", the appearance of committed and unified people in numbers, as if that was the movement. And we shouldn't lose sight of how beholden any authentic social movement strategy is to factors and contexts that lie beyond anyone's control, and how vainglorious it potentially is to decide in advance that we are a social movement.
Corbyn's critics do have a point, at least. It is not in Labour's tradition, as a governing party, to oppose nuclear weapons. And until now, its governing caste could have relied upon the party membership and unions to support it in its pro-nuclear stance.
One of those inconvenient aspects of the Spirit of 1945 that we tend not to talk about is the Attlee administration's decision to lead Britain into the nuclear part of the special relationship with the United States. This followed logically ineluctably from the decision of the first majority Labour government to continue the foreign policy of the wartime coalition government. Attlee himself had already said in a 1943 cabinet meeting that any government he headed would not preside over the dissolution of the empire. During the Potsdam negotiations, Secretary of State James Byrne was terribly pleased to note that "Britain's stance on the issues ... was not altered in the slightest". And so it was that the Labour government, the most radical in history, signed the UK up to participation in a nuclear weapons system without consulting parliament. That part of its gift to the world is what is now likely to be challenged by a majority of Labour Party members.
It should be stressed the extent to which the nuclear alliance is part of the relationship with the United States, and the orientation of power to which a declining colonial power gave all of its weight in the aftermath of the Second World War. Ever since the 1958 Mutual Defense Agreement, the UK has leased its nuclear weapons systems from the United States. It purchases access to, but doesn't own, a pool of nuclear weapons produced by Lockheed Martin. It purchases 'off the shelf' components that it doesn't have the capacity to produce. It cooperates with US nuclear research laboratories, bases its nuclear deterrence programme on the strategic logic of NATO membership, and takes its targeting strategy from US deterrence doctrine.
So what is Britain's participation in the nuclear weapons programme supposed to be good for? We are often told that the weapons would be used purely in self-defence, and that there would be 'no first use'. Many commentators have pointed out the absurdity of irradiating an urban population centre as a response to the nuclear annihilation of a part of the United Kingdom. Now this automatically conscripts all of us into a war that we did not ask for, and haven't really been informed about. All we are allowed to know is that our defence posture is that we are potentially, at any moment, in a nuclear war with another country, that we are all in the fucking trenches, and that our only solaces should we or loved ones be exterminated are: 1) the brain stem will be destroyed before we feel any pain; and 2) any surviving military infrastructure will immediately be mobilised to inflict the same devastation on other unwitting conscripts.
But it is actually worse than you think. The 'no first strike' policy has never been the position of the United States or the United Kingdom. The nuclear defence posture is based upon the credible threat that it could deliver a first strike, including "the launch of one or a limited number of missiles against an adversary as a means of conveying a political message, warning or demonstration of resolve"
. Trident must be able to deliver a first strike, as an essential part of the rationale for possessing it. It is important to bear this in mind when politicians are asked whether they would push the button and answer, effusively, "yes".
We are also given to believe that the use of nuclear weapons necessarily constitutes a special case, that we would not be looking at their wider use, and that effectively they would act as a kind of security blanket: a reassurance to the world that the British state could, if seriously screwed with, deliver an insanely disproportionate mass murder and that it would stand vindicated before its citizens with its justifying doctrines intact. This isn't necessarily the case; it depends on US policy.
There has been, it is fair to say, the beginnings of a shift in US defence doctrine, such that the military establishment increasingly regards nuclear weapons as a liability rather than as an asset. That is in part because the strength of nuclear weapons depends upon a form of sovereign power that is increasingly displaced. Assymetrical warfare, with different scales of kinetic force used by networked agents linked on a capillary basis rather than through state hierarchies, has been changing the game - slowly, but tangibly. You could use nuclear weapons in a world war, to hasten the demise of a rival. You could dangle it over a non-nuclear state to ensure its acquiescence, provided you were prepared to use it. You could conceivably nuke every single member of Daesh if your scope was wide enough. But in the latter case, that would probably guarantee their replication on a grander and more vicious and millenarian scale. And any such mutation might well get hold of some sort of nuclear capacity. What is more, when imperial power depends more and more on the political dominance of the US Treasury and Wall Street, with military power there as a permanent enforcer rather than as the foremost principle of international order, it is questionable what use nuclear weapons are. Obama's high-profile anti-nuclear speeches reflected this, and he introduced a number of policy shifts intended to scale back US stockpiling.
Of course, far more effort was put into frustrating the development of notional non-US nuclear weapons - the Iran deal - and while the existing US stockpile has been marginally reduced (and at the same rate as it had been diminishing already), $1tn has been committed to a significant upgrade
. Now, one of the legacies of the Bush administration was to begin the process of eroding the distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons. The idea was that as the nuclear weapons system was upgraded, the arsenal should be diversified to endow the US with the capacity to inflict varying grades of nuclear-armed destruction on rivals, which would increase the chances that weapons with a thermonuclear payload could be used. And the fact is that the development of new variations and destabilising types of nuclear weapon
have continued to be developed under the Obama administration. And Obama's final gesture as President was to throw money at everything the Pentagon wanted in nuclear terms
So what we're talking about here is a system that is designed for first use, and increasingly liable to be re-calibrated so that it can potentially be used in more 'conventional' warfare. There is, of course, some hypocrisy in all this, and everyone can see it. Part of the global stratification of the states system, its constituents 'formally equal' and all that, takes place on the axis of entitlement to nuclear weapons. Those states which are allowed to be thermonuclear states, also happen to be the ones entitled to sanction, diplomatically belabour and sabre-rattle against those which are not. Of course, the right to this kind of violence is still to some extent organised and structured by a colonial world order that no longer obtains. The predominant states in the thermonuclear caste are the legatees of colonial power.
But the world moves, over the longue duree, away from those antiquated forms of sovereignty. Empire progressively adopts a different format, though clearly not the 'decentred' kind imagined by Hardt/Negri. The technological monopolies shaping and distributing access to this form of death-dealing potency are breaking down. The forward-thinking elements of the US and British
military establishments are beginning to regard nuclear weapons as a dangerous and expensive anachronism. Therefore, while Corbyn's principled opposition to nuclear genocide is certainly out of kilter with the parliamentary mainstream, and so at odds with the practical history of the Labour Party's governing practice, it might just be that the "yes" men and women are political dinosaurs. It might just be that they are busting every sinew to support a defence capacity, an industry and a global production system that increasingly its supposed beneficiaries are not sure they want.
This is the Brexit that none of those who supported it, rallied for it, campaigned for it, voted for it, really wanted.
I am not here referring to the so-called 'Bregrets' (please stop this) expressed by about 7% of those who voted to Leave
. Those regrets are clearly not enough to get people to support a new referendum, which is very strongly opposed in polls
. (Also, please don't try to get around this difficulty by talking about how 'we are a parliamentary sovereignty' for god's sake.) I am talking about the fact that the number one issue, by far, among Leave voters, was the fear of immigration
. It was the question of the free movement of labour within the European Union that harnessed the energies of the Leave.
It was, you will recall, a question of quality not just quantity. All those Romanians. All those Bulgarians. All those Poles. All those Turks looming over the horizon. NHS under threat
. 'Breaking point'. Not that most of those who voted Leave had much experience of migration - the areas with the highest numbers of EU nationals living in them were also those with the strongest Remain votes. But that is how it usually works with race politics in the UK.
And yet, strange to relate, it now appears that the majority of British voters want EU nationals to stay
. Leading Brexiters like Douglas Carswell have now openly campaigned for their rights to stay on. And even Nigel Farage
has joined those condemning Theresa May for refusing to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK
to stay here. So, to be absolutely clear: you don't
want the Poles to be 'sent back'? You don't
want the Bulgarians to be 'sent back'? You don't
want the Romanians to be 'sent back'? You don't
think we're at 'breaking point'?
And as for the free movement of labour, even so far right a Brexiter as Daniel Hannan admits
that a free movement system is necessary
if you want access to the common market. He is not wrong about this, of course. He is absolutely correct, and the EU has signalled this in the strongest possible terms
. And of course Britain is going to seek access to the common market as a bare minimum in the coming years, because there is simply no ready alternative to the UK's extensive trade within the common market. Practically every serious commentator knew before the referendum that if there was a Brexit outcome, there would be an immediate negotiation toward a partial re-entry.
But what strikes me about all this is that there seems to be a very clear guilt reflex on the Right. The Boris Johnson panic and meltdown, George Osborne relinquishing his emergency austerian budget and giving up on the 'fiscal rule', the confessions from leading Brexiters that they had no plan for the outcome, the sudden rush to prevent a lapse into barbarism on the question of migration and in the treatment of existing EU nationals, all has the feel of a kind of dismal morning-after mopping up operation. As if, at each stew of vomit, at each alcoholic stain or piece of tumbled furniture, a fresh memory returns with sudden painful clarity, and they're thinking, "oh god... I didn't... I didn't...". Well, yes you did.
And look at what might now happen. Austerity could be a busted flush, as Osborne gives up on eradicating the deficit (which, of course, was never really a plausible outcome or even the objective), May pragmatically concedes the point, and Crabb promises massive deficit-financing of public investment. Scotland is likely to secede from the Union, and re-join the EU, thus finally drawing Britain to an appropriate anticlimax. Free movement of labour, with some reforms or restrictions, might actually be consecrated, as part of a consensus ranging from John McDonnell to Daniel Hannan, designed to avoid total clusterfucking disaster. And with property markets nosediving
, house prices no longer able to subsidise incomes for the vaguely affluent and housed, there will likely be far more pressure to actually address the housing crisis and stop the whole system from being run on the basis of enforced scarcity. What then will become of the property-owning democracy underpinning the Conservative vote? What will become of England?
Obviously, this is slightly glossing things to annoy Tories and right-Brexiters. In reality, the coming period will be one of painful, difficult and contested transitions. It will be one in which triumphant reaction will seek to exact the maximum cost in human flesh. It will be one in which bitter struggle over a diminished social product will be fought out in the most unexpected, unpredictable ways. The financial crises and the loss of economic growth will be paid for by the poorest, as such things always are, until they decide they're tired of it and rebel. There is nothing to be chipper about here. But the point is that we are in terra incognita. The stable fixtures of Tory Britain, having been in decline for some time, are now looking more fragile than ever. This
Brexit, vile though its victory has been, risks inflicting worse damage to the Conservative Party in the long term than Black Wednesday. This Brexit is the monkey's paw of Brexits, a cursed charm, whose appalling consequences might overwhelm their supposed beneficiaries.
And look. Don't lose sight of the danger. Don't forget who loses most from this situation. But, if he can hold on. If double, double toil and trouble doesn't consume him. Something Corbyn this way comes.
Addendum: Remember when I said years ago that Cameron's 'promise' to cut immigration by a certain amount was dangerous and deceitful bullshit
? Remember when I said it would probably contribute to ending his career and propelling a new, right-wing leadership to power
? Why didn't he listen to me? Why does no one ever listen to me? Why am I howling into a void?
I point out that the media and political classes are obsessed with the idea that Corbynism is a repetition of the 1980s, and that therefore they can reprise the tactics, repertoires of countersubversion, and ideological formations, that they deployed back then. Roy Hattersley was the most egregious offender, indulging in a lachrymose recapitulation of his glory days as a Cold Warrior against the Militant Tendency and the Bennites.
Now, as we see elements of the Labour Right tacitly threatening a split, the spectre of the 1980s looms over us once more. The threat is that, once more, they can force a change in the electoral landscape, hand several victories to the Conservatives, and wait for the demoralised Labour Party to come to heel. I think the Labour Right are delusional in this pursuit of a 1980s re-enactment. I think it's a bad miscalculation on their part. And if the Labour Left doesn't lose its head, and start panicking, it can call their bluff. Here are a number of reasons why.
1.) Corbynism is not Bennism, and everyone can see this. While Jeremy Corbyn, the bearded socialist, is a Bennite in ideology, Corbynism as a political formation steers toward the historic centre of Labourism. Nothing that Corbyn proposes, bar his opposition to Trident, should in principle be disagreeable to old right-wing social democrats. For all that Labour MPs and pundits think they're staring at the abyss of Marxist-Leninism, or crypto-Trotskyism, anyone not trapped in those self-serving illusions can see that Corbyn is taking Labour gently and moderately toward a form of retooled social democracy. His support base, moreover, while including networks of the radical Left, is largely built upon a coalition of people for whom those old struggles are completely opaque.
2.) There isn't a generalised anti-socialist climate in the UK at the moment. There are plenty of morbid symptoms, and many trajectories toward reaction, but there is no 'winter of discontent' upon which a New Right can build a founding myth, no overweening union strength against which to define a reactionary agenda, and no recent history of left-wing militancy. The urgency of the Labour Right, in the early Eighties, and its ability to draw allies toward itself from the soft Left, owed itself to the perception that these truculent forces were destroying Labour, and that their backward cultural and political habits had to be broken. Today, all their urgency is about a presumed right to rule Labour, regardless of the outcome of elections conducted under a system that they actually fought for. Given this, the tendency has been for the soft Left to support Corbyn (with some fraying now, to be sure, but mostly not in a way that leads to a fusion with the party's right-wing).
3.) As several columnists favourable to the Labour Right have pointed out, there simply isn't the public appetite for a new centre party today. This is John Rentoul, The Independent
's resident Blairite polemicist, on the subject: "The conditions for a new centre-left party are less favourable than they were when the Social Democratic Party was launched in 1981 - then, the Conservatives had moved to the right while the London liberal middle class and the media were all for a new party." I don't see much of that today. So who is actually going to split? Who has the appetite for that? They can't even bring themselves to challenge Corbyn in a democratic election contest. According to the magazine, Labour Insider
, Corbynites estimate that the total number of MPs currently favouring a split, is about twenty. Twenty is not a small number of MPs, and we could allow for any prospective split being larger than that. Nonetheless, two dozen seems to be in the right ball park. How many trade unions would go with them? Probably none - why should they leave their party, the party they founded? How many councillors? Maybe a proportion of the hundreds who want Corbyn to resign. How many members? Rather few, I suspect. And how many Labour voters would be grateful to such a split? How many would cheerfully defect, just because these people couldn't put up with the members imposing a leadership they didn't like?
4.) The Tories are not on the ascendancy, hovering somewhere around the low Thirties at the moment. They have been undergoing their own secular decline, partly pivoted on the issue of Europe, but more basically having to do with a schism between a centre-seeking, pro-business establishment and the traditionally hard-right base. The irony is that with Ukip on the rise, the Right has been doing quite well overall, but it is electorally split in such a way that a first-past-the-post system will work against it. It is frankly absurd, given that even the SDP Mark I didn't have this effect, to claim that a split by the Labour Right today would result in "decades" of Tory rule. I'm not even terribly confident that the Conservatives will exist
in their current form for decades. The reality is that "under this electoral system," the Tories don't have an advantage because their side is on the decline. As such, a right-wing split could not bank on cultural and politically regnant Toryism to terrorise the Labour Party into submission.
None of this means that a split, should it come, is something anyone in the Labour Party should welcome. It would be unspeakably selfish and venal, conducted for the most narrow, short-sighted and base of motives. And the mere fact that it would be intended
to trash Labour, to hurt it so badly that it returns to obedience, should inspire rage and contempt. But it does mean that those who are making the prospect of a split their red line, as it were, are entirely wrong in their focus. The coup plotters have started this process, in a pre-meditated way, and don't have a roadmap out of the situation they have created. The responsibility is on them to negotiate their retreat, to make peace with their defeat, and to work with whichever leadership the party members wish to elect. If a small number of those MPs, having gained careers and power on the back of the labour movement, and on the back of the Labour Party, are prepared to try to wreck it when they don't get their way - well, then, to hell with them. Let them go, and see how far they get. They will lose.
"The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don't rejoice too soon at your escape -
The womb he crawled from is still going strong."
― Bertolt Brecht, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Nigel Farage has resigned. He has been, undeniably, the best leader that Ukip is ever likely to have. Imagine, if you can, Paul Nuttall or Godfrey Bloom pulling off his showmanship. As for Douglas Carswell, there is a Sherlock Holmes lookalike contest with his name on it - but he is too fundamentally principled to be an effective demagogue. And with its primary political objective achieved - a break with the European Union followed by a shift to the Atlanticist hard-right in the Conservative Party - the party is likely to begin a slow diminuendo.
This heteroclite assortment of racists, conspiracy theorists, eco-denialists, eugenicists, homophobes and closeted fascists has been the most dynamic force in British politics since 2013. It was the major force shaping the 2015 general election, pulling the agenda to the Right so that Cameron didn't have to. Farage did the job of any good outrider, by driving immigration up the agenda so as to keep the Labour leadership on the defensive. And even if he was condemned for campaigning against "foreigners with HIV" in the last weeks of the campaign, doing so helped harden up* his support base, and he gained 4 million votes for his trouble, or 12.6 per cent of the total.
Because many of those votes came from former Tories, BNPers and English Democrats in Labour heartlands - Ukip effectively becoming the official opposition in these areas - the geographical spread of its support prevented it from gaining much representation. However, it came second in 120 constituencies, and a proportional system would have awarded it some 83 seats. What Farage calls the Ukip "people's army," a coalition between the batshit, the blue-rinse, the bomber-jackets and the bores, was subsequently integral to winning the EU referendum campaign.
It is important to register just how improbable all of this is. Ukip began as a small group of random Tory defectors led by Alan Sked of the Bruges Group and the British American Project. The doctrine of this group was essentially that articulated by Thatcher in her Bruges speech in September 1988, ‘We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level’. The 'Anti-Federalist League,' as the new group was initially called, was clearly pinioned to the hard-right, leaning on support from Enoch Powell and rousing old nationalist themes about Blighty being under threat from a new Hitler. In this embryonic phase, the AFL certainly adverted to a growing schism within Conservatism, but it was by far its least important manifestation. Generally polling fewer votes than the Monster Raving Loony Party, it had to relaunch as the UK Independence Party in 1993.
The terrain was not promising. While euroscepticism was as common as anti-migrant attitudes, Europe was way down the list of popular priorities, as was immigration. The Tories were cracking up in the post-Cold War world, their old unity against the militant left, the IRA, the ANC and Moscow having given way to a major strategic divide over Europe - but the Tories (and Ukip) were the only ones obsessing about this. Ukip thus sought to broaden its agenda, linking opposition to the EU to a range of traditionally rightist concerns, such as immigration controls and the promotion of a nationalist education system.
But it is the emergence of Nigel Farage as a key player that begins to change everything for Ukip. Farage was a former Conservative activist and City trader, who had something more of a feel for politics than the academic dogmatist, Sked. Farage was shrewd, and energetic. He was the only Ukipper to keep his deposit in the 1997 election, in which Ukip performed badly. He came to lead party's group of MEPs. And having played a canny and leading role in ousting the Sked leadership, he was central to Ukip's nuptials with Sir James Goldsmith's vehicle, the Referendum Party, which resulted in there being only one significant eurosceptic party in the UK. They were able to attract more members, more voters, a leading Tory donor named Paul Sykes, and a former Tory minister Roger Knapman, who became the party's leader in 2002. They adapted well to the 'war on terror' climate, somehow simultaneously playing off Islamophobia while positioning themselves as a 'libertarian' opponent of excessive New Labour authoritarianism.
The next episode in which Farage would play a key role was when Ukip recruited the betangoed broadcaster and Islamophobic columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk - a sort of Trump avant la lettre. Kilroy, with all of his customary subtlety, embarked on an attempt to depose the Knapman leadership and argued that Ukip should stand against all Conservative MPs whether eurosceptic or not. At this point, this struck experienced Ukippers as reckless adventurism: the idea had always been to convert the Conservative Party to euroscepticism. Farage and his allies saw him as a loose cannon, crushed the attempted coup and forced Kilroy's resignation. The short-term loss of membership and donor funding was vindicated when Kilroy's new group, Veritas, cruised to an undignified and terminal splat in 2008.
Farage was rewarded for his loyalty and ability when he won the leadership in 2006. This came at an opportune moment, as the Tories had just bet everything on a centrist, media-friendly leadership, thus accelerating the alienation of the party's traditional hard-right. Farage's leadership saw the party's rightist agenda broaden, with a focus on climate denial, tax cuts and support for traditional grammar schools. He began to attract a new layer of Tory donors and businessmen such as Stuart Wheeler and Lord Young. And it was under his leadership that Ukip began to consolidate itself into a party challenging for power, rather than a pressure group.
And yet. Farage, for reasons which remain obscure, chose this moment to step down from the leadership - supposedly to focus on contesting the Buckingham seat of the liberal Tory John Bercow. Whatever the reason, he ducked a punch with uncanny precision. The 2010 general election was a terrible one for Ukip. All the movement in that election was to the centre. Even the BNP, which had been surging for years, saw its first signs of decline in that election. Meanwhile, Ukip's standard 'free market' pitch was unappealing in the era of the credit crunch. Lord Pearson, an old Etonian of the Cold War Right, and a bit of an anti-Muslim obsessive, was an unlikely populist. Moreover, his willingness to campaign for eurosceptic Tories brought him into conflict with a lot of the party faithful, and with the official slogan which invited voters to 'Sod the Lot'.
When Farage returned in August 2010, he couldn't have anticipated the explosions that would create such a convivial atmosphere for Ukip. Certainly, the disintegration of other far right parties, above all the BNP, suggested that there would be plenty of spare votes for Ukip. But it was the authoritarian racism unleashed by the England riots which really broke the stalemate of post-credit crunch politics and demonstrated that all the anxious, pent up energies would be canalised to the racist Right. Ukip thus pounced on a series of moral panics with alacrity - the Rotherham paedophile rings in 2012, the anti-Romanian and anti-Bulgarian scare stories in 2013, the 'Operation Trojan Horse' conspiracy theory in 2014, the halal meat food scare and the Scottish threat to Britishness the same year, and so on. All of the fears that had been incubated in the previous era, in part thanks to New Labour's own policy thematics, exploded in this one. Farage smelled out the angles with appalling keenness of perception and a sociopathic lack of restraint: child abuse, he said, was a result of Labour's "sacrificing the innocence of children" on "the altar of multiculturalism". There, he invoked the classic racial trope of white childhood sullied by dark-skinned savagery, without explicitly mentioning race. Through interventions such as these, Ukip became the effective official opposition across a series of northern cities.
It has become a media mainstay to claim that Ukip assembled mainly the votes of white workers and those 'left behind' by globalisation. This was Farage's greatest spin. By claiming that he was parking his tanks on Labour's lawn, and that Ukip was not about right and left, but "right and wrong," he tapped into the worst fears and the dumbest electoral cliches of social democracy. With Miliband and his allies desperate to rebuild Labour's working class vote, and altogether too confident in their belief that workers are fundamentally a bit racist, the Farage offensive ensured that Labour would waste their time trying to placate anti-immigrant racism rather than challenging it. This is not to say that Ukip didn't win over a lot of Labour voters; it is to say that this wasn't their main source of support. It is also to say that Ukip's support, according to most research, is far more spread across classes than that of most parties, and certainly isn't restricted to the 'left behinds' of globalisation. But for Ukip to position itself as an 'anti-establishment' party, rather than as just a particularly hard-right Tory party, it was necessary that it should persuade the media and other political parties to talk about it in that way.
Farage's greatest achievement as party leader was his media persona. Unlike just about every other conceivable spokesperson, bar Carswell, he has managed to articulate Ukip-style bigotry with a pat 'frankness', and without so obviously reeking of old school racist battiness as to put off potential converts. He has positioned himself as a constant presence in the media, as an oppositional advocate, someone who speaks up for the rights of provincials and suburbanites and seaside dwellers to enjoy their traditional British racism without the condescension of metropolitan elites. He has willingly toned down his pro-privatisation, pro-market views where necessary, and even been willing to appear to attack Labour from the left on issues like NHS charges. And of course, as I have repeatedly argued elsewhere, he has very effectively turned the issue of immigration into a morality tale, one which expresses exactly how it is that the governing elites have been captured by a cosmopolitan, liberal, internationalist bureaucracy, remote from the common sense of the 'British people'. Restoring Britishness, beginning with a withdrawal from Europe and 'sending them back', would allow the people to 'take back control'. The reptilian cunning with which Farage consistently hit the racist sweet spot without ever losing his ability to connect to broader audiences is a tribute to his political marksmanship.
Ukip has always had a certain inherent fragility. The feuding between Farage and Carswell factions merely expresses in its own ways the ambiguous nature of a project that tries to be both populist and free market, both anti-politically correct while formally within the bounds of acceptable liberal-democratic politics, both pro- and anti-big business, both Thatcherite and somehow beyond left and right. Farage's abilities as a politician enabled Ukip to navigate these contradictions more or less efficiently. I'm not convinced that anyone else could have done that job. And so, he is an object-lesson in how much individual leadership can matter, particularly when the entire political terrain is structured around the spectacle, and when the traditionally dominant forces are in decline.
At the end of my Socialist Register article
about Ukip last year, I pointed out that Ukip's chances of success had a certain time limitation on them. "as a disproportionately ageing, white, male party, Ukip has the disadvantage of being associated with a generation and a bevy of values that are on the decline. It also finds a natural opponent in a younger generation that is socially egalitarian. ... Whatever ‘Britishness’ means to them, it doesn’t mean cultural and demographic autarky." The EU referendum result was probably their last hurrah. There have been, since the outcome, numerous large and almost spontaneous protests against Brexit. At the base of this is a pro-immigrant, anti-racist, anti-Tory politics. Those carrying pro-EU signs, however much one may regret their enthusiasm for the institution, were not demonstrating for Angela Merkel and continent-wide austerity. And they are probably the Britain of ten years hence. It is not necessary to collapse into demographic determinism to understand how difficult it will be to sustain these forms of politics over a long period of time.
So in the short-term, Britain is likely to be an increasingly nasty and hateful place to live, thanks in no small part to Farage's accomplishments as a politician; in the long-term, Farage was very much a product of his moment, that spasm of backlash on the part of declining socio-demographic layers still steeped in a colonial culture, which is unlikely to be repeated. With Farage at its helm, Ukip operated adroitly on the accumulating dysfunctions and crises of British politics, finally convoking a popular bulwark that pulled Britain further to the right than it has been since the 1970s. And in the next few years, the reactionaries will seek to use their victory to achieve maximum damage, maximum reversal on all fronts. And there will be other sources of reaction in the coming decades. Yet, Farage's resignation signals the looming end of this end of the pier show. Even if Britain survives as such, this
Britain is finished.