On a panel at Literature Must Fall, poet Talha Ahsan said that leaving prison was like moving from a maximum security prison to a lower security prison. The intake of breath was sharp with unwanted recognition. Talha had spent over 7 years in prison, 6 of them in the UK, where he was held without charge before being extradited to a Supermax prison in the USA. When a man who has seen what Talha has seen tells you that we live in a prison, believe him. Britain today is volatile, thick with surveillance, poised for violence. We live paranoid and atomized. While the liberals in their hubris try to turn back the clock, our own hunger for protection, for logic and sense, has a longer and more fractious history with no such easy solutions.
Though threatening, the authoritarian turn is small and mean: for all the stomp and clatter, fascism produces an army of small, petty men, a seething swarm of ressentiment. This smallness and meanness, its evident absurdity, make it all the harder to fight. It is toxic to the spirit to have to fight trolls and fools and petty brutes, it is taxing to struggle in a country run by expensively educated bullies with silly names and ugly ideas. It is terrifying to see it all unfold and have no idea how to stop it.
The last two weekends, I’ve been at events that felt like a bright and bracing glimpse of an alternative. On the 21st, I took the train to Brighton to catch the first day of The World Transformed, the socialist festival that runs alongside the Labour Party Conference. I’ve been knocking around various bits of the left for 15 years and at TWT, there was a new focus and energy. It was like during an action, when you’re working against the clock and it’s all hands on deck to pull it off. It was also outward facing and confident, militant in its political desires but generous in how it expressed them.
The pressure of an election — the fight of our lives — on the horizon could have made us cornered and defensive, plotting a nervous retreat to more familiar ground. But, thanks to incredible programming, among other things, the commitment to anti racism, solidarity across and against borders, trans-inclusive feminism, prison abolition, radical internationalism, climate justice and, above all, the redistribution of power and resources was extended, not curtailed. Whatever the Blairites believe, triangulation is over and there is no going back. When the last few cranks of the left, who we often let derail the conversation, showed up with their wacky positions (a man came to a panel on serious youth violence and interjected with ‘when I took ayahuasca, I really saw that we’re all connected on a deeper level…’) they were politely ignored — we had more important things to worry about.
Across all the events I attended, the Labour Party itself, the Corbyn project, was understood to be the vehicle but not the end goal. At a panel on Crimes for Humanity, Jeremy Corbyn made a gesture unimaginable by most politicians by sharing a platform with activists convicted of terrorism charges or awaiting trial for their attempts to facilitate safe passage or prevent deportations. But though Corbyn’s gesture was seen and its sincerity felt, it was the activists he spoke alongside — Ben Smoke, Neha Shah, Anouk van Gestel, Haidi Sadik, and Sean Binder — who insisted that the socialist adage ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ is meaningless if it stops at the border.
When trying to work out why TWT was so good, a friend suggested that it somehow avoided the corniness that pervades the left. I think one of the ways it managed this was its scale: dozens of events running over 4 days across 15 venues was a welcome reminder that, whatever the media say, the left is not a tiny, marginal affair, but a serious political force. The proximity of the Labour Party conference and the bursts of news about what motions had passed confirmed this sense: that our most radical demands could be turned into viable policy had for so long seemed impossible; now, it is firmly within our grasp. The actions of ordinary people and the ideas that emerge when we work together matter, and it’s at our peril that we allow ourselves be convinced otherwise.
The next weekend I took the train to Birmingham for Literature Must Fall, much smaller in scale than TWT but conceptually ambitious, aiming to dismantle literature rather than hold it up for admiration. It was held in the Impact Hub, a co-working space that feels like the diametric opposite of every Nathan Barley nightmare that term invokes. It felt like a cross between a community centre and a workshop. As co-founded Imandeep Kaur wryly explained, they just get on with doing things, like providing childcare and prayer space, that other people like to theorise about but rarely put into practice. A bit like The World Transformed, the space felt busy and industrious, buzzing with a seriousness of purpose, but not at all worthy or corny.
The festival itself was unlike any mainstream literary event I’ve ever encountered. There was little distinction between speaker and audience, and the majority of participants were women of colour. Looking at the programme, it seemed to be for people who were critical about the white publishing industry, but just as skeptical about the diversity initiatives that sought to include us. If the implicit rationale of most literature festival turns on the civilizing potential of art, Literature Must Fall asked how writing could help to bring down what passes for civilization. The conversations were expansive and ballsy. There was no grandstanding, no celebrity-worship. Some of the familiar tropes got an airing (the white gaze, exoticisation etc) but even these ideas were given new life in an atmosphere that allowed for genuine disagreement without rancor.
When lazy references to an idealised precolonial past (or an idealised homeland) crept into the room, they were firmly contested: there was no going back. Romantic visions of culture or community were roundly problematized. In fact, Nafeesa Hamid opened the day with a gorgeous poem about Alum Rock, and then immediately questioned the poem’s nostalgic tone. On a panel entitled Muslims, Writing, Resistance, the speakers brought a theological perspective on literature and politics, allowing for metaphysics and faith to displace the shallow certainties of identity, and its vulnerability to liberal fetishisation.
The day pushed back on the identity talk that characterises much of the diversity discourse, including its intersectional offshoots. Instead, people hunted for new paradigms and thought collectively about the limitations of postcolonial theory, confessional literature, folk stories, narrating our experiences, trauma, and the written word itself.
Over the course of Literature Must Fall, many of the writers brought us gently back to the theme of imagination, reminding us of its singular relationship to freedom and the intellectual and political limitations of allowing our ideas to cleave too closely to the present moment. It was clear that the defence of the imagination is too important to be left in the slippery hands of liberals. As the material and political circumstances worsen, we need to think of our imagination as a resource — one that is potentially infinite but which requires collective care and cultivation.
Above all, the festival was an exercise in collective contemplation. For the first time, I could see how this simple act of being and thinking together was a kind of anti-fascism. The new fascism engulfing the country hates ideas, it hates difficulty and complexity, it wants a world crushed into stupidy, drained of ambiguity and possibility. Spending the day talking about writing — not Literature with a capital L, but the more humble and everyday ways we work with words — was a way to live together in uncertainty. I don’t just mean the current political uncertainty, but the more expansive and intimate turmoil in which we locate our lives and our histories.
Events like TWT and Literature Must Fall are a flash of possibility, and more vital to our collective psychic and political life than at any other time I can remember. They are a way to build ideas rather than sell them, to extend what might be possible rather than defend our territory. There is no substitute for gathering together, no short cut to collective thought. Above all, there is no going back. What happens next depends on what we can do together.