I am a “lefty”. I have voted Labour all my life. I believe in the abolition of public schools and the inviolability of the NHS, and that the renewal of Trident is a vanity project. I believe the state must work to ensure equality of opportunity for all: women, the LBGT “community”, those with disabilities, those of minority cultures and ethnicities, and the working class. The Guardian has been my newspaper forever. I was glad to see the back of the Sun’s Page 3, and I believe there should be more all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats. I believe immigration is more of a positive force than a negative one.
(Tim Lott, “If leftwingers like me are condemned as rightwing, then what’s left”, The Guardian, March 2015)
Claiming some responsibility for the reproduction of oppressive norms, material or discursive, was once considered a ritualistic exercise in [Western] left-wing confession. Lefties melt into their guilt, or so the stereotype suggested: of course I don’t do enough, it’s hard, I’m sorry, I try, it’s not enough, we need to start somewhere, I try. It was a well-worn cliché that left-wingers were only so eager to brand white supremacist imperialist patriarchy, and the writer’s own inevitable complicity, the scourge of progressive movements the world over. It also made for symmetrical counterpoints between the left and the right. The right-wing retort to this was convincing enough to be repeated ad infinitum on most all “below-the-line” threads on any center-left newspaper website: the confession of hand-wringing leftists paradoxically reifies a lack of perceived agency among the disenfranchised, and is therefore patronising and self-serving. When taken to the level of foreign policy, narratives which could always veer towards tales of cartoonish Western evil and the imbricated plight of the “developing” world (e.g. the United States as the sole arbiter of violence in modern times), were recast as self-aggrandising immaturity on behalf of the left, which ignored the flows and exchange which constitute all global development.
This mockery provides a useful introduction to the latest series of internal schisms besetting the leftist commentariat. Useful, because rather than the likes of Guido Fawkes (the productive, effective and slimy pseudonym of Paul Staines, recently unpicked rather impressively by Richard Seymour) it is a [not-too-disparate] grouping of left-wingers who have deployed the same tactics against dissenting voices in their midst. The particulars of this conflict will be explored below. In a manner similar to the faux-furore that surrounded Zamora’s speculations on Foucault, and his relationship with neoliberal ideology, I posit: is the controversy surrounding “social justice warriors” and the “professionally outraged” really all that controversial? And, accordingly, how are we to better understand this development; from the clichéd “confessional leftist” as a shut-down device used by the right-wing, to one more readily associated with leftwingers who feel victimised by recent trends in the[ir] discourse?
Who is dissenting? Who is outraged?
My interest in internecine left-wing sniping was piqued especially after reading Tim Lott’s piece quoted above. The article stuck with me for a number of reasons. Having observed the regular bouts of disagreement online – especially on Twitter – it was unsurprising to see another piece written by a self-identifying “victim” of the “mob”. Equally predictable was the gushing praise offered by the initial comments below the line. Lott’s talent in his piece was how succinctly he managed to showcase the repetitive process of these disagreements.
Several card-carrying lefties, some of whom are, or have been, fixtures of mainstream left-of-center discourse, have found themselves accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and/or ableism. Revealingly, many of those same figures have had their positions ultimately re-confirmed by this type of criticism. An incident involving Stephen Colbert encapsulates the dual impact. When his satirical put-down of the Washington Redskins was itself accused of using racist norms as comedy sans sincere critique, Colbert was soon enough being celebrated as somehow supra-brave, tackling the initial racism as a matter of course, while also standing firm against the braying “political correctness gone mad” mob. In a not un-important aside, Suey Park, the figure most associated with the initial problematisation of Colbert, faced an avalanche of online abuse, while Colbert is now preparing to take over from David Letterman.
In and of itself this phenomenon is unremarkable, and I have written about the myths of “political correctness” elsewhere. What I do find interesting is the migration of this dynamic from a cross-spectrum, right/left dialogue, to one that is contested between those claiming “leftwing” orientation. Another stereotype of lefties – that people compete to reject their privileges and “prove” themselves more worthy of a radical, anti-establishment ethos – is shown increasingly as redundant, other than as an accusation made by left-wingers. Crucially, while there is little in the way of disagreement regarding the existence of racist, sexist et al structures, nor any question that they operate and are reproduced via multiple channels, there has emerged a vicious clash between those who see the left-wing mainstream as an influential node operating towards that reproduction, and those who lambast such claims as an example of self-immolation and desertion of a willingness to “debate” any position.
The “defence” often utilised by those facing accusations (from their own kin) hinges on two simple, I argue interlinked, commitments. First, an aggressive denial of the complicity inherent to some leftist critique of racist-sexist structures. The confessional nature of the leftist archetype has left the building; while there remains an agreement of the inevitability of “compromise” with the social environment, those who put forth leftist critiques are rarely, in the present moment, accountable for their reproduction. Second, “it’s not that bad.” This brazenly de-politicising tactic of defence is less explicitly communicated, but remains an important facet of the narrative through which the original accusation is both sidestepped, and then belittled. The “fault” of a leftist position (e.g. the suggestion that Sandi Toksvig’s new, explicitly feminist political party, “The Women’s Equality Party”, might do well to put front and center the racial and bodied means through which patriarchy constantly reasserts itself) is thus dismantled: (1) a feminist party cannot be complicit in racist discourse, (2) the “problem” is one of perception; there is no racial “blindness” sufficient enough to justify such a critique. In sum, the problem is in the eye of the [problem-] spotter.
I seek an exploration of the outrage that these accusations (e.g. “Russell Brand perpetuates gendered discourses”; “the New Statesman has concentrated on an exclusive branch of feminist theory”) continue to provoke. I hope to open a discursive space that avoids the typical captures that so many responses fall into; (1) that the “victims” of these critiques are victims at all; marginalised and in need of support, and (2) that these same people are simply dinosaurs of a cyber age, wherein 140 character denunciations carry more weight than academic papers and national newspapers. Instead, I will refer to the subsumption of traditional leftist politics by neoliberal ideology. Far more attuned to the accelerated proliferation of identity as an anchoring/malleable demarcation of meaning in the 21st Century, my conclusion is that this type of schism in the left is symptomatic of the failure of Anglo-American leftist politics in the last forty years.
“I find myself holding a “transgressive” body of beliefs and doubts alongside my blue-chip leftwing ones that are liable to get me branded a misogynist, an Islamophobe and a Little Englander – at least by people on my Twitter feed, and others of my peer group… These “beliefs” [of mine] are more like questions, largely about identity politics” (Lott)
What is profound about Lott’s construction of this dynamic is the breadth of its horizon; in many ways it resembles the most absolute rebuttal to his critics since Mark Fisher’s infamous “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle”, itself the work of a mind seemingly in complete despair as to the impulses of the tumblr-savvy left. Fisher lambasts the aggression of, among others, intersectional feminists who ethnographically problematized his (not to mention Owen Jones’, the aforementioned Brand’s, Germaine Greer’s etc) work. Work which, I should add, was and is of great interest and use to me; “Capitalist Realism” remains a fantastic – if flawed – struggle with adjustment to what Dardot & Laval call the “New Way of the World”, and the neoliberal subject. Lott’s piece, as I read it, serves as a decaffeinated, introductory guide to the despair of the well-intentioned leftwinger who just can’t seem to avoid being accused of carrying latent prejudice – or, more accurately, being accused of an inability to perceive this prejudice.
Re-reading “…Vampire’s Castle” now, I’m struck anew by the tension in Fisher’s writing. For instance, directly following an admission that “The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and gender” he creates an unusual straw man, wherein the horizon of the “vampires” is not, as he would have it, “a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification” but rather:
“…back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.”
Extricating from the detritus why intersectional approaches to feminism, whose great proponents (e.g. Kimberly Crenshaw) sought constantly to foreground identities as the basis of an unashamedly emancipatory project, is far from Fisher’s caricature, has been accomplished professionally elsewhere. Instead, it’s worthwhile to just underline Fisher’s vision of freedom: utopian, free of identitarian classification (albeit, as he problematically but appropriately details later, with a central focus on class identities) and anti-capitalist.
Much to the chagrin of “rational” thinkers everywhere, it’s not, in practice, a matter of whether the accusations that Lott and Fisher feel threatened by are positively “correct”. I’ve read pieces that make wholly impressive ethnographic critiques of leftist figures – and some considerably less refined ones. The to-and-froing over whether or not someone like Richard Dawkins reproduces racist or Islamophobic tropes under the pretence of objective scientific discovery is endless, and secondary to the dynamic at play in these debates. The momentum of the “intersectional” approach is towards proving and centering the exclusionary epistemic configurations that occupy such a schizophrenic position in the landscape of leftist politics. These epistemic gaps (which is not to say “blindness”; absence is always subject to power) are there – this we know; this knowledge we largely share – but they are permanently peripheral to the mainstream leftist vision. They are caveats, imperfections to be rectified another day. A different approach is gaining traction, and in my understanding permits a thorough, radical rethink of what we claim as resistance to dominant ideology (remembering, at all times, bell hooks’ injunction that “to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression”). It is also the approach from which the threats to Lott and Fisher spring. Eloquently expressed in Gradient Lair:
This is one of the reasons why I think that Black trans women and Black LGBQIA people and their conceptions of feminism has to be centered in womanism. If they can be free, all Black women can be free. If All Black women and all Black people can be free, all people can be free. The most marginalized have to be centered not excluded.
This degree of self-reflexivity, the obligation to deconstruct the writer’s own “womanist” identity, is a lesson in radicalism that the likes of Lott seem unwilling (or unable) to engage in.
So are the likes of Lott and Fisher victims? It is important to assert first and foremost that these figures explicitly ascribe themselves victimhood. Sub-editing notwithstanding, the title of Lott’s piece (as well as that of Fisher and many others) is instructive here. It’s a genius headline, encapsulating the transfer from a position of defence (“Leftwingers like me”) to an aggressive one (“then what’s left?”) via an inflated sense of threat (“condemned”). As I will argue below, the more pressing threat/defeat to/of these figures is the broader socio-economic environment in which they find themselves. It is, however, a seductive idea; these bona fide left-wingers, often proclaiming a liberal function of being open to debate any idea, with any person, are simply being shut down. It is therefore another non-surprise that the clarion call of “freedom of speech” is so regularly utilised in these debates:
I believe more in free speech than I do in “safe spaces” in universities. I do not think people with unpleasant opinions should be prosecuted, or even denied a platform, unless they directly threaten to incite violence or lawbreaking. (Lott)
The key question ought to be: who is in power here; who is shaping the debate? If the likes of Lott represent a disenfranchised, discriminated minority without mainstream platforms, perhaps they are victims after all. Of course, they are far from a minority. The most glaring – and damning – sign of the overreach in Lott’s diagnosis is that, in the vast majority of cases, those (like Lott) who accuse their accusers of being too aggressive in their claims, occupy the discursive platform denied the other. Crucially, this is as true for the cisgendered white male who works at Burger King shocked by their own vilification when they are called out on, say, transphobia. Often, the exact defences will be utilised as those made by Lott in his article: “It’s not what I meant” and “It isn’t that bad”.
And, to some extent, the Tim Lotts of the world are victims. Their declarations of liberal, pro-Enlightenment values, the umbrage with which they greet “illegitimate” or “irrational” criticism and the subsequent celebration of those original, provocative practices – wherever you stand with regards to their non-/discriminatory nature – are surely condemned. The condemnation arises not however from those critiquing them (the anti-logic intersectional brigade). Rather, the ultimate condemnation is supplied by their own abandonment of radicalism; that is, the implicit acquiescence with the dominant neoliberal imaginary with regards to what constitutes oppositional politics in 2015 – more of which below. This has a great deal more to do with the deep successes of “third way” constructions, which have made a victim of all-manner of radicals, from within the feminist to the neo-Marxist movements. From this perspective, the argument of Lott’s piece becomes a circuitous search for a leftist praxis that no long – that can no longer – exist.
We have undermined the common [mis]conception that the majority of leftist figures “called out” on latent prejudices are “victims”. Are they then simply too old, too threatened by new dynamics of communication and political correctness, for them to function seamlessly in leftist 2015? The altered, sinking sands of media gatekeeping – especially the mainstreaming and primacy of social media and its auxiliary, user-generated content – have no doubt contributed to a recent mushrooming of back-and-forths such as those decried in Lott’s article. Quite clearly, temporal acceleration has continued unabated into the 21st Century, and is shown in the resurgence of interest in the works of, among others, Paul Virilio. It is a truism of some merit that the transfer from analogue, to digital migrant, to digital native experience is one engaged in varying degrees by the entire public. This phenomenon and its potential implications have been abandoned as a seriously co-constitutive aspect of political debate, understandably so given its compatibility with critiques which simplistically explain away conflict as consequences of acceleration, as if our current moment exists in an unprecendented vacuum. As Virilio points out:
“For thirty years now, the phenomenon of History accelerating has been negated, together with the fact that this acceleration has been the prime cause of the proliferation of major accidents” (Paul Virilio : “Le krach actuel représente l’accident intégral par excellence”, 2009)
Be that as it may, we can learn from this abbreviated analysis, while re-configuring our accepted contextual environment and how it shapes our politics. When considering the subject of this article, for instance, our understanding of temporal acceleration – and anxiety – should be married to an acknowledgement of the pyrrhic success of “third way” [“leftist”] politics, and the victories of neoliberal ideology in the body politic. In this way we can hopefully avoid essentializing these changes (e.g. the rise of internet spaces as a less hierarchical medium) by using them as a base from which to open new ideational spaces regarding leftist struggle.
The recent spate of outrage-anxiety cannot simply be a symptom of social media echo-chambers, as much as the myths of the medium point in this direction. For a whole generation of internet users, acquainted if not necessarily enamoured with the likes of 4chan, reddit et al, it was always going to be a stretch to convincingly portray even the worst excesses of internet cultures as simply bias confirmation or herd mentality, or at least as any more susceptible to these phenomena as any other mass participatory logic (e.g. democratic elections!). Amidst the chaos of /b/ there were always threads; sometimes reflective, regularly malicious, but threads nonetheless. I recall these kind of experiences primarily because it has been proven easy to forget that cyber-deluges are not, in any real sense, a recent invention – they go back at least to the early years of this century, a substantial length of material-ideational time in an age of acceleration. This is a historical process, and it is to the detriment of such recent, otherwise intriguing publications like “So You’ve Been Publically Shamed” by Jon Ronson that it is not explored more thoroughly.
More than simply being a hyperbolic diagnosis of contemporary dialogue however, doesn’t the consensual narrative regarding, say politics on Twitter, seem half-baked? Assuming that (A) the effects that acceleration has had on dialogue have isolated and anachronised mainstays of the leftist commentariat, thus making them appear clumsy and steeped in prejudice, or (B) that acceleration has perverted honest dialogue itself to such an extent that it is impossible to be anything but accused of epistemic discrimination, does a serious disservice to both the “victim” and whomever is “calling out.” Surely we can find an alternative framework.
“I am a lefty” in neoliberal times
“…In all of the absurd and traumatic twitterstorms about privilege earlier this year it was noticeable that the discussion of class privilege was entirely absent. The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race – but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.” (Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, 2013)
I began this piece highlighting the typical dynamic which constitutes much intra-leftist conflict, but rejecting the delimiting tropes of identification which ascribe simple definitions of the actors in play (e.g. “dinosaurs and victims” or “Twitter mobs and ritualistic shamers”). I shall attempt to conclude it with an equally accessible model of understanding, but one which centers the success of neoliberal ideology on the cultural and economic – which is to say political – turf in which leftism must craft an oppositional “answer”. Hopefully by doing this I can make decipherable the vitriolic condescension with which the likes of Fisher, as quoted above, treats so much of what constitutes the most provocative currents in Western left-wing politics.
The phrase that stuck in my head after watching the retrospectively somewhat tragic Ed Miliband / Russell Brand conversation, was the then Labour leader and prospective Prime Minister’s reflection that: “I’m not looking for euphoria… [but] it’s international.” He was discussing the need for greater control of labour markets, the spread of zero hour contracts and the like; his admission that “it’s international” reveals the utopian, which is to say politically suicidal, desire to respond to contemporary global economies with anything other than a euphoric radicalism. The rub with this, and what I deem to be problematic in Miliband’s doomed half-Blair, half-Kinnock approach to electioneering, as well as Fisher’s desire for a return to 20th Century concepts of opposition, is that they do not – can not – move beyond this binary of “third way”, business/democracy-friendly Labour, and socialist, dirigiste state intervention (e.g. energy price freezes). The former represents the best short term strategy for the left to gain office, with the obvious sacrifice being any semblance of leftism. In the case of the latter, the conditions simply do not exist: the business world is in no mood to put more pressure on the already painful profitability crisis, and mass mobilisation in favour of such measures is kept tightly controlled. An accelerated ethos has been multi-scalar in its influence; precarity as a common ailment pre-empts the desire to promote the same model of unionisation as before. These options are both then lost, and pursuing either as pathways to a horizon of radicalism is a hopeless task. What we need then, are new tools of opposition, and to do that we need a forward-thinking understanding of society, however atomised, however different.
Recognising neoliberal victory as an influential backdrop to these conflicts thus also goes some way towards making sense of the opprobrium thrown – particularly by the accused. At one point Lott decries “identity politics” as “dangerous rift valleys of the left”. Perhaps a more honest appraisal would point out that the biggest proven danger to Leftist politics, certainly in the UK, is a dogmatic refusal to map, and eventually navigate, those valleys. Most poignantly, while Lott is on to something regarding the cracks in neoliberalism’s production of “choice” as a depoliticising tool, he errs away from accepting what has been defeated by this production; the old left’s utopian vision to which he still clings. To refer back to Žižek:
“You should have the outburst of violence, and you should direct it at yourself”
(Žižek, “The Perverts Guide to Ideology” 2012)
And how often what is not said reveals so much more about the speaker: which is most under threat by neoliberalisation, the “ridiculous” impulses of those demanding recognition of cis-, queer-, genderfluid-, trans-, identities, or those fantasising about a return of pro-union, pro-manufacturing working class centered solidarity? It should not need spelling out to anyone that future mass-participatory opposition to neoliberal logic, while it will write a chapter in the same book, will not look like that of the 30s, the 60s or even the 80s. In another example of Fisher’s infuriatingly brilliant diagnoses, he correctly asserts in a recent, post-election blogpost that:
Capitalist realism is not about people positively identifying with neoliberalism; it is about the naturalisation and therefore the depoliticisation of the neoliberal worldview. The Tories’ pitch is in tune with this ambient neoliberalisation, with its apparently commonsensical emphasis on choice, opportunity and the dignity of labour, and its emotional appeal to negative solidarity
Reading the above, I nodded enthusiastically. This is, of course, the beautiful absorption of neoliberalism in ideational terms. You want a “gender queer” option on your facebook profile? No problem. Gay marriage? We might have to deal with some of those small-c conservative actors who cling to the 20th Century incarnation of conservatism, but deal with it we shall. And as a bonus, the weird moralising that accompanies neoliberal logic will assure/pressurise us with its response: with such individual choice, not afforded to those in “pre-modern” societies, we have the [atomised] capacity to rectify any problems we then experience. Fisher’s response to this trap however is, again, that the co-option of fragmentation under neoliberal momentum must be rejected and avoided as purely another example of capitalist-realist process. This strikes me as an approach without a future, in the same way as those which dismiss Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism as an aberration of emancipatory radicalism fail to note that precisely these circumstances require weaponizing, not abandoning (as if such a feat were possible), if a widely decipherable alternative is to be constructed.
In the world of semio-/communicative- capitalism (and Fisher is right to cite Berardi and Dean here), and under the permanently hybridised ideology-that-dare-not-speak-its-name neoliberalism, it seems pointless to reject as smoke and mirrors the logic of moralising individualism. So it is particularly frustrating when a writer like Fisher, who eloquently describes this environment, fails to “turn the violence on himself”. He, and more obviously people like Lott, are otherwise destined to be the victims of this terrain; their cause would surely be better served by working with the wonky, caveated freedoms that neoliberalism deigns to provide. I only have half-baked ideas as to what this will look like – and the question of re-configuring the subjectivity of solidarity after the 2015 election is laudable and necessary – but I feel confident in claiming that Fisher’s own lukewarm list of suggestions (e.g. “Talk to opponents”) (A) aren’t anything we haven’t heard before and (B) won’t excite the left, grassroots or not. By choosing to sidestep neoliberal utilisation of the postmodernity inherent in TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) it becomes quite easy to shoot down leftist politics as anachronistic and as a meek spectre of 20th Century socialism:
The underlying meaning of the left’s hostility to the sale of council houses back then, and its hostility to the sale of housing association homes today, is a dread of ordinary people getting control over their own lives. (James Heartfield, “Why Shouldn’t Working People Own Their Homes”, Spiked Magazine, 15th April 2015)
Where does this leave the victims and miscreants of today’s left? It leaves them stuck in a false opposition, obviously. It leaves those who claim their victimhood at the hands of haughty, cooler-than-thou tumblr-lefties fighting a phantom enemy, and easily fobbed off as too attached to the history books to countenance a leftwing that absolutely centers the neoliberal logic which it is, like it or not, pickled in and birthed from. It leaves the progressive currents of leftism unable to forge links into platforms of power, and the time for reflection which a less bitter dispute would allow for. But it does highlight one integral issue, which might just be the basis for a rejuvenated left: it can no longer ignore the unashamedly neoliberal environment in which it is very much part of the furniture.
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