Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Unforbidden Politics posted by Richard SeymourAdam Phillips, in his latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, quotes Oscar Wilde to the effect that the trouble with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings. This quip reminds us, he says, "that there may always be things that we care more about than the things we care most about".
Most activists will recognise the dilemma. Anyone with an experience in revolutionary politics, in particular, can call to mind the brutal slog of windswept Saturday afternoons, freezing early morning appointments outside factory gates and tube stations, long walkabouts with a couple of dozen demonstrators, door-to-door campaigning for no-hope electoral projects, and terrified, adrenaline-fuelled vigils against parading neo-Nazis. Is it a particular disappointment if much of that energy (not all of it, but a lot of it) was wasted? Is it so terrible that most of these rituals of activism (not all, but most) for most of the time had long since ceased to be an effective use of energy and resources, to the extent that they ever were? Do we really need to mourn the hours wasted on activities that were mainly, from an organisational perspective, about sustaining party identity and discipline? Not necessarily. There is something to be gained from that kind of discipline, at least for a while. There is something to be accumulated from regularly trying to interact with members of the public, and forge a rapport on the basis of the most limited contact, be it self-confidence, patience, or a certain knowhow.
The trouble is that it does tend to make politics more forbidding than it needs to be. Socialism will always take up too many evenings, even without the bullshit. And in the context of revolutionary politics, it usually segues into a punitive moralism, the currency of which is how 'active' you are. In the first sect to which I belonged, great stress was placed on being 'active'. If someone fell out of favour and became a subject of gossip, the worst thing that could be said about them was that they had become 'very inactive' and thus, concomitantly, 'pessimistic'. People who broke with the party during one of its many crises could be cheaply explained away in these terms. People who were being difficult could be guilted about not being active enough - because, implicitly, no one is ever active enough, not even a full-timer. One can always sacrifice more of one's life. The more you give in to this logic, this revolutionary guilt, the stronger its grip becomes. You don't alleviate it by becoming 'more active,' but by reconsidering the ends of active politics.
In the second sect to which I belonged, of course, the axis of moralism often shifted to that of one's supposed or actual 'privilege'. Even today, one can find the now dispersed constituents of that sect either apologising for, or sneering at, 'privilege' construed in its broadest possible sense. If you have a one-bedroom flat, a job, access to an NHS hospital, a living wage, etc etc., you can be considered 'privileged'. And in a sense that is true: these are, relative to worse-off conditions, privileges. And I think that privilege is a category that we have to try to work with and apply rigorously, notwithstanding its difficulties. And if someone 'checks your privilege,' sometimes you have to stop and think about how privilege in some sense could be affecting your language or behaviour. The problem with the confessional mode of privilege politics, however, is that in the broad sense in which privilege is used, everyone is privileged relative to someone else. It becomes tedious and recursive to continually invoke this category either by way of explanation or critique. And if it becomes the basis of individual guilt-mongering and gossip, then in some ways it is actually worse than moralism about 'activism'. One can at least strive to be more active or make excuses for not doing so; the only way to deal with being 'privileged' is to confess it, continually, to preface everything one says with "I know I'm privileged, but...". At its worst, this becomes (quite logically) both self-pitying and masochistic: "I wish my privilege didn't impose such blinders on me, it's such a disability, it impedes my activism every day, I'm so unfortunate for being so fortunate, please, I need you all to call me out on my fuck-ups, thank you so much." You notice how the difference between self-indulgence and self-laceration collapses here, just as the gap between spiting others and spiting oneself tends to be lost.
If socialist politics is necessarily somewhat forbidding, then, the left has always found ingenious ways to make it more so, to intricate it with the logic of punishment, to convert passionate political commitment into a soul-deadening and exhausting ordeal, to turn comrades vicious, to sap humour and elan, and to turn neurotic self-immolation and guilt into a political principle. Feeding such a tyrannical political superego has little to do with being effective or successful, of course, but the lure of moralism is that it touches on something real. We all could be more active, and we all feel bad about that. We all recognise ways in which our life situation necessarily distorts and frames our perspectives. We all know that we are subjectively imbricated with structures of oppression, that class, race, gender, sexuality and other axes of injustice are also part of the substrate upon which our subjectivity is formed. And sometimes we do, in fact, fuck up. Even with the most thoroughgoing change in the economy of one's desire achieved by politicisation, purity is never on the cards. It is the left equivalent of original sin, a weakness or susceptibility that marks even the most experienced cadres. And it makes us strangely submissive, compliant, easy to order about or be silenced, ready to accept and internalise spite. And if not that, then overly dependent on dogma as a crutch, guaranteeing us a seemingly unassailable position from which to speak. And if not that, then thinly rebellious and contrarian in ways that are profoundly invested in the political superego that is being rebelled against. It doesn't bring out the best in anyone.
Notably, these tendencies are at their worst in periods of defeat and stasis, when nothing exciting seems to be happening and nothing engages the desire that brought one into political activity in the first place. The periods of excitement and tantalising possibility give us a brief sense of what an unforbidden politics might look like, and what we might do with ourselves if we weren't worshipping at the feet of a ridiculous political superego.