Lines Written in Dejection
But with a growing optimism for the future.
On Wednesday 20th September, I was delighted to be invited as a guest speaker at the school’s new Working Lunch initiative, in which interested students can opt to have lunch with and pose questions to the guest on whichever topic area has been selected. I was there to chunter on about political activism, what it looks like, and why we should do it.
Without treading familiar ground, I do feel that some of the excellent questions posed to me could use further clarity and enlightenment. For example, Gianluca Curti asked what it was about my own background that drove me into leftwing activism. Well, when singer-songwriter and leftist firebrand Billy Bragg was asked, at the Manchester People’s Assembly People’s Question Time that I attended in February 2015, whether music could change the world, he answered that, of course, that was impossible. He should know, he said, since he’d been trying long enough! However, when he saw The Clash play the Rock Against Racism concert in Victoria Park in 1978 — a factory worker in a workplace in which casual racism and casual sexism were commonplace — he realised that he wasn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable with these attitudes and that he had a responsibility to speak out. I guess some of our opinions and beliefs are just the way we are, and you don’t realise you don’t belong and don’t agree until you do.
This is the direction I was going down when I suggested that I don’t believe people can really be separated into left or right (a spectrum so outdated that the supposed radical left of Bernie Sanders would have been slightly to the right of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952), or liberal and conservative, but instead into honest or dishonest with oneself. We, as humans, are highly proficient at internalising values that are convenient. No one wants to look themselves in the mirror and admit to incompetence or corruption. It’s far easier to internalise the required values. But the difference between those intellectuals I would categorise as the libertarian left and the rest is the ability to be honest. Do I really deserve the success and wealth I have? Or, more pertinently, do the poor all really deserve their lot? The problem with the concept of meritocracy — that success is a consequence only of intelligence and hard work — is that it doesn’t exist. Tony Blair claimed that under New Labour Britain was a meritocracy. But then he thought the median wage was 60,000 pounds (it was about 18,000 at the time). In answer, then, to Ioan Bishop’s startling question of whether I’d rather be ruled by a benevolent dictator or a corrupt democracy, my answer would have to consider class consciousness, the means of communication, and how corrupt a democracy has to be before it is no longer a democracy. After all, all the democratic theorists from Aristotle to James Madison, Karl Marx to John Dewey understood that you can’t have great poverty in a democracy if you want to avoid those same poor people using their voting rights to overthrow and redistribute. Aristotle advocated for a welfare state more plentiful and generous than today — he would have been in favour of a universal basic income, for one thing — while Madison believed we should just limit democracy. “Press your button to choose between two cheeks of the same arse” — to slightly misquote George Galloway — “once every four years, then go home and shut up.” This is such a limited form of democracy as to be almost worthless. With elections and candidates marked by the public relations industry, and with the newspapers owned by billionaires tubthumping and pretending that a real choice is involved, and that we have an authentic and functioning, free and democratic state, it is little wonder that people don’t see much difference — indeed may find it preferable — were they living in a dictatorship.
With the current state of the UK with Brexit looming and threatening prosperity and inclusivity, not to mention normalising racism — an issue for which, sorry Maia Salmon, I have no certain answers or ideas for what might be a solution — but also at a time when a country, recently more closely aligned to the United States in its free-market fundamentalism than the (slightly) more mixed-economics and international open-mindedness of continental Europe, has moved leftwards and appears to be creating grassroots socialist activism under Corbyn’s Labour Party (witness the almost anarcho-syndicalist organisation of Momentum, and the way the politburo of New Labour has almost entirely been dismantled in two years, opening more and more of the levers of Party power to ordinary members and activists), it is interesting to notice the individuals gaining popular appeal. Just like Corbyn, Yanis Varoufakis and Bernie Sanders on the left, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen amongst others on the right, the new darling of Conservative activists is the unlikely figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg (pictured). In response to excellent insight from Levent Ciceker, I would say with his archaic views on the role of women, homosexuality and abortion, it seems as surprising that Rees-Mogg is causing a storm as it was that Trump’s “locker room chat” didn’t harm his electoral chances, except when you consider that the electorates have become so sick of people spouting Party lines, corporate jargon, meaningless soundbites or simply triangulating every time they speak that they sound more like robots than people. Rees-Mogg, however abhorrent his views, says what he thinks and sounds like a person. And in a world dripping in neoliberal groupthink and so starved of authenticity, this is becoming appealing again.
It brings me to my final point and my answer to Dana Rentenaar’s question about what being an activist actually entails. Yes, I support organisations financially, sometimes in writing, conceptually in my teaching, but beyond that what does one actually do. To clarify here, I claimed that I didn’t know what it would take to actually lead such an organisation towards effective activism. Well, that’s not true. I do. This is where the entire state-capitalist system systemically controls dissent. What you need, beyond organising capacity, a strong message and skills of persuasion, is time. And money. At least enough money so you don’t need to work. As soon as you reach my age, have a house, children, and a regular salary, have bills to pay and are, to all intents and purposes, what was known in the 19th Century as a “wage slave” (believe it or not, the opposition to wage slavery was so mainstream that it was the platform of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party!), you cannot lead this kind of change. You can read, think, and challenge; you can inspire others, perhaps; but you simply cannot take a key organising role. But, given what I’ve said previously, it is an institutional fact that the primary goal of any leader is to reinforce their own power. And it is another fact that there will always be an army of people ready to internalise the values of the leadership in order to promote their own cause, thus the status quo will usually be able to reinforce itself without much opposition (and thus the few can rule over the many with surprising ease as David Hume said during the Enlightenment). So if young people like yourselves, like the five who joined me for the lightest of lunches (my body is a temple, after all), are not going to speak up against power whatever the personal cost (and you will be marginalised for doing so — institutional fact #3), and if you don’t take a leading role in this change now, I truly fear for the values of internationalism and the future of the planet and our species.