The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.

The revolution will not be retweeted: perspectives on pro-Palestine activism and social media.
It’s common knowledge that activism and social media go hand in hand, but what purpose does social media hold for activists?

On February 14th, 2016, a group of Israeli soldiers confronted pro-Palestinian activists in the West Bank. An altercation between the activists and the military occurred, and the soldiers seized a young woman activist by the scruff of her neck, threw her on the ground, and then dragged her away, violently striking other activists who tried to free her. This story was barely covered by major news outlets (partially, a bleak testament to how regularly this happens to pro-Palestinian activists on the ground) but the video footage of the assault was viewed by well over a million people, after being uploaded onto the Facebook page “Days of Palestine”, and shared several hundred thousand times. A few months ago, my Facebook feed filled with friends “checking in” at Standing Rock, North Dakota, in a solidarity gesture with Native American activists protesting the against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. Later that day, I read an article which cited both the sharing of the video and the “checking in” as “Slacktivism,” a catch-all-term regularly used to suggest that any form of activism that doesn’t take place via “traditional” means (face to face meetings, campaign stalls, picketing and the like) is somehow illegitimate. While it is true that social media alone cannot change the world, this does not play down its importance for activists – one only needs to look at the way Twitter and YouTube were utilised by activists in the Arab Spring. But what role does social media play for activists, and what role could it play?

This article explores the ways in which pro-Palestine activists use social media for positive and negative ends. It is based partly on my PhD research into the culture of radical left movements, partially on a series of informal interviews with pro-Palestine activists in Leeds, Manchester, London and Cambridge, and partly on my own experiences as a pro-Palestine activist. Where I quote activists, I have given them assumed names at their request.

The presence of social media has broken down many of the barriers between activists based in Palestine and those based in the UK. Where before information might only be available through traditional news media, activists in the UK can now connect with activists in Palestine and the Middle East with comparative ease. This, as noted elsewhere on this site, contributes to the age old Israel/Palestine conflict now being played out in European states, as well as online. Indeed, the possibilities of resistance offered by social media are evidenced by the way that repressive states try to limit access to the internet: During the 2012 offensive on Gaza, Israel cut internet access, preventing activists within Gaza from using social media to give the world a real-time picture of events as they unfolded. Earlier this year, the Indian government cut off the internet during a crackdown in Kashmir. At time of writing, The Independent is reporting that Facebook, YouTube and Whatsapp have apparently be banned by the Turkish state, another repressive policy in apparent response to a failed coup in July. Activists work within networks, and social media and the internet allows those networks to cross borders, nationalities, and, theoretically, allow information to be disseminated freely. There are, of course, questions of whether social media platforms are “neutral” spaces for information distribution. In September, for example, Facebook was forced to apologise for suspending the accounts of Palestinian journalists, and Glenn Greenwald, writing for The Intercept provides some evidence to suggest Facebook had been collaborating with the Israeli government on censorship.

But for UK based pro-Palestine activists, social media is not simply a place for gathering and sharing information. Feminist Philosopher Nancy Fraser has critiqued the idea that there is a single “public sphere.” Instead, there are multiple publics that exist outside of the mainstream, spaces (both online and offline) which she refers to as “subaltern counterpublics.” These counterpublics are often formed by groups who have a shared interest, or experience of oppression (Fraser herself uses the example of feminist movements). However, counterpublics are not separatist, but a space for people within them to recuperate and form new strategies for resistance that can be implemented in the “main” public. Subaltern counterpublics in this sense are spaces for pro-Palestine activists to discuss news, come up with new forms of language, new methods of advancing their political aims. The advent of social media as a key organising tool means that subaltern counterpublics for pro-Palestinian activists are not limited to physical meetings of local solidarity groups, but increasingly now are based online. These allow activists to engage in the process of recuperation and reconfigurations regardless of where they are in the world, provided they have access to the internet.

Activist and academic James Gilbert, in his 2008 book Anticapitalism and Culture, argues that activism has a strongly performative element to it. Drawing on the work of feminist Judith Butler, who argued that gender was performed, rather than lived, Gilbert argues that activist engaged in a constant process of identity building. James, an activist based in Lewisham, also identified how pro-Palestinian activists perform their identities:

“Lots of us wear keffiyehs to show our support, or we have a flag badge pinned to our coats or bags…it’s not like a uniform as such, but just little things to show what we believe.”

This performance of activism happens online as well as offline – this might be a small feature such as a Palestine flag Twibbon, or the changing of a profile picture temporarily to a Palestine flag, or the regular sharing of media by pro-Palestinian media sources like Electronic Infidia. Performance, however, is an ongoing process and tied its own power dynamic. Many of the activists I spoke to related how within social media spaces dedicated to Palestinian activism (secret Facebook groups, reddit threads etc) are sites for activists to discipline other activists. Molly, student and activist, described one particular occasion of this:

We were arguing in the [campus Palestinian Solidarity Group] about the line we needed to take for an article. Someone, quite new in the group, wanted us to write about the two state solution. Immediately a bunch of others started commenting aggressively, calling this kid all kinds of names, saying that he didn’t know anything, that he was pro-Israeli, that kinda thing. No one seemed to want to engage with the substance of what he was saying, and he left the group after that.

Molly’s story was echoed in those related to me by other activists. Online discussion forums regularly became a space where a very rigid conception of activism was performed. This is not something unique to pro-Palestinian spaces – my own PhD research into the radical left in the UK shows how online spaces can be both recuperative and also antagonistic spaces. Mark, a veteran pro-Palestine activist, was harshly critical of antagonism in some of the social media spaces:

“I don’t engage in debates on Facebook or Twitter – it gets very personal, very quickly. Sometimes I just look at the arguments and think, fucking hell, we’re all on the same side aren’t we, can’t we just have a reasonable discussion?”

The tendency for online activist spaces to become internally hostile is a well-documented phenomenon, and by no means unique to the Palestinian solidarity movement, but it does raise a serious question: what is the use of having support bases for Palestinian activism in the UK if those spaces are exclusionary for some activists? Surely this undermines, to a significant degree, the benefit of having those counterpublics?

Social media opens new horizons for UK based pro-Palestinian activists. Their access to information, their connection to activists and movements within Palestine, is strong than before. But additionally, there are pitfalls. Social media may be used by the people, but it is not run by the people – media can be censored by corporate interests working with governmental agendas. Furthermore, the culture of online activism must balance the disagreement with acceptance. What does matter, however, is that through social media, we as pro-Palestine activists have the tools for new strategies of resistance, and the importance of that cannot be under emphasised.

Now what do we say?

I don’t normally write this sort of thing, but this isn’t a normal sort of day is it. I’d hoped that today I’d write some sort of cynical analysis of US politics, but instead, I’m writing this, as an open letter of sorts. This is a letter to people who voted for Donald Trump. This a letter for people who are celebrating his election on social media. This is a letter to those who are saying that people who are afraid of a Trump presidency or need to “get over it.”

Ahem

Hi

I know you’re angry. I know not all of you are bad people. Some of you are. You know who you are, so if you wouldn’t mind, treat yourself to a holiday. Somewhere near a volcano. Or in one. But to the rest of you, I have one question, really. Now that the USA will be led by a man who branded Mexican as rapists, who wants to ban Muslims for entering the country, who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, roll back Roe vs Wade, end fragile stability with Cuba, bomb the family members of ISIS, and who thinks his status allows him to sexually assault women….

What am I supposed to say?

What am I supposed to say to the kids I tutor? Those four year 9 boys, decent kids mostly, who come to me for advice on Shakespeare, who I overheard talking in a sexist manner about a girl in their class? We had a long chat after a lesson about respecting women, about using the privileged position as men to fight for a better world, and they listened and they learned. They look to me for guidance. They listened to me when I told them not to be a bully. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say to some of the young girls I work with, who have opened up to me about sexual harassment they get, about how they feel afraid to talk their desires, hopes and dreams, about how they get pestered to send nudes, how they get groped, how they don’t feel comfortable asking questions in case because of the sniggering of the boys. They’re 13. I tell them that they can find strength in solidarity, that they can value themselves, that they can respect themselves. What am I supposed to say to them now?

What am I supposed to say now to the American girl I met, who is queer, and half Mexican, and whom I have spoken to for hours today, because she wanted to take her own life, because she is now afraid of going home, afraid she will not have a home, afraid that she will be attacked as soon as she gets off the plane? What am I supposed to say to her, now?

Revel in your victory. Be a troll. Plant yourself on an ironic, detached pedestal and laugh at “snowflakes.”

You still can’t give me an answer can you?

I’m waiting.

Chris.

 

 

 

In Defense of Safe Spaces

In Defense of Safe Spaces

Safe spaces. Who’d have them? A fair number of students unions and leftist campaigns would, but the list of people who wouldn’t includes, in no particular order, Stephen Fry, the Guardian,and Theresa May, a list that is coincidentally the world’s most disturbing and confusing game of shag, marry, avoid. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to speak for safe spaces, but the list of people to speak against them is long and acerbic in their condemnation. If you knew nothing about them, you’d think that safe spaces were some sort of ungodly bogeyman responsible for all evil in the world; Theresa May brands safe spaces as “self censorship” and even went as far as to blame them for potential problems in the UK economy ( a little bit rich from the mostly not elected leader of a party which has presided over a £555 billion increase in the national debt ). According to The Atlantic, safe spaces are part and parcel of an extremist agenda. More commonly, we hear the claim that safe spaces impinge on freedom of speech, and are the product of “molly coddled” or “snowflake” students who want to live in a bubble, isolated from the sober realities of the world. It’s funny, really; one of the principles of free speech, as I understand it, is that you try to understand your opponent’s rationale, and it seems in majority of cases, the free speech advocates haven’t bothered to do this with safe spaces. So, now, let’s speak for safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are a sometimes clumsy, but vital part of enriched public discussion and political participation.

Let’s begin with a few distinctions. People have a tendency to elide “safe spaces” with “no platform” policies. While these are correlated, they are not the same. “No platform” (a refusal to permit someone a public stage or forum) as a political concept originates from the anti-fascist movement, as a way of preventing the dissemination of racist ideas. This in itself is not a concept which is divorced from wider societal expectations – we do, after all, have a legally enshrined concept of racial hate speech, and provision within law to take away the liberty of who racially abuse others. Since the 1980s, no platforming has spread to prevent those who advocate hate or violence to marginalised groups from gaining a platform, and there’s a separate debate to be had about that and the concept in general. Safe spaces, on the other hand, arose from the LGBT movement. It was, in essence, a policy proposal to allow LGBT students in particular to find “spaces” (whether these be physical spaces such as rooms in a university building, or metaphorical spaces like a social movement) where they could escape from homophobia and transphobia. This is principled on, for example, encouragement to modify language, to think before you speak, to never presume experience on another person’s behalf, and to be reflexive and supportive. From there, the concept of safe spaces have grown to be incorporated by feminist movements, BME movements, leftist organisations, and beyond. I, for example, attend an alcohol support group which isn’t remotely connected to any university environment, where we are reminded that within that space of a church hall in South Leeds for one hour every fornight, we are in a safe space, a space where we can talk about our addictions, where we will not be judged for them, and where we must not judge others. At least in principle, safe spaces are based on the idea of consideration and solidarity. What’s so wrong about that?

Part of the criticism of safe spaces is that people who want them do not want to engage with the difficult issues of life, and instead live in fantasy. This is a rather simplified way of looking at things. If anything, people use safe spaces as a method of engaging with difficult issues, often to do with deeply personal topics such as discrimination, rape, ostracism and so on, in a different way. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that we tend to think that there is only one “public sphere” which we are all part of, and this is fundamentally incorrect. While there is a “public sphere” each individual and group forms their own “counterpublics” where the rest of the actors in the public sphere are not, necessarily, welcome – your home, for example, is a counterpublic in this sense. Fraser argues that social movements, feminist organisations and the like, function as counterpublics for people with some shared political aim or experience of discrimination. These counterpublics, however, are not seperatist organisations but spaces for recuperation, a place where individuals and groups can think about how best to face the issues in the public sphere. Within certain forms of psychiatry, there is a similar concept of the therapeutic community. This is a place, or group, outside of the usual therapeutic setting (i.e, the hospital or the counselling service) where individuals may find some sort of escape from the issues which affect them in daily life. This may be a gym, a community group, or even family. These communities are not separatist, but, rather like safe spaces, are positioned as a place of temporary withdrawal, and recuperation. What is so grossly offensive about that? Fraser writes:

Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including “sexism,” “the double shift,” sexual harassment,” and “marital, date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the extent of our disadvantage in official public sphere.

Safe spaces, in this sense, allow for groups to come up with new tools for political engagement in the public sphere, new strategies of resistance. Consider, based on Fraser’s example, how our public discourse is vastly improved for the fact that we have concepts of sexism and so on. Are safe spaces perfect in implementation? No. Rather like political correctness, they are a clumsy, but ultimately well meaning attempt to build a more inclusive society. What’s so bad about that?

Nine Years Ago

Our eyes first met in May 2007.

I had happened to glance up in the library at the same time as she had, while I had been trying to get my head around Robert Frost’s obscure metaphors, and she’d been trying to understand the McDonald’s business model (“That’s not a real thing to study,” I said to her later. At that point in my life I was much more snobbish, and in many ways more stupid. “Well, sorry, I’m only smart enough for Business Studies,” she had retorted good naturedly. I still feel bad about that comment to this day). I’d noticed that she was wearing an Avenged Sevenfold T shirt (it was 2007, that was considered acceptable). She noticed that I was wearing an open white shirt, waistcoat, and long motorbike boots. “You look like Mad Max the Pirate,” she’d said later. To be honest, I looked like an idiot. I still have the boots somewhere in the attic. I think a mouse lives in them now.

The first conversation we had was when I slipped out of my creative writing class on Wednesday (we were given half a day off for “career enrichment”) and wondered down the little sidestreet next to the drama department to have a smoke. None of my usual friends were there, and I had intended to read quietly for a few moments, but instead I’d seen her, smoking a Chesterfield and tapping on her phone. I realised I didn’t have a lighter, and so I’d shuffled up, awkwardly, and asked for a light.

We’d smoked together until the air began to fug with both the smoke and the awkwardness of it all, before I’d managed to splutter: “You have really cool – nice! – hair.” The stop start delivery that had taken the place of the much better opening line I had been rehearsing in my head managed to make the mutual awkwardness start in surprise and try to come to terms with the newer, purer form of awkward. She smiled, handed me a zippo with Jack Skellington engraved on it (“A 16th birthday present,” she told me later,) and, after a moment, told me her name. I pronounced it correctly on the fifth attempt.

I was thinner then. Even thinner than I am now. I weighed around 8 stone for most of 6th form, and stood six foot two. I didn’t have the beard, or any of the piercings, and my glasses were rounder, and my face, while thin, didn’t have the gauntness that haunts it today. Looking back on then, I’m struck by just how ridiculous I was as a person. Yet in spite of my absurdity, when I said “do you fancy a coffee?” she replied “Yes.”

*
“You gonna fuck her or what mate?”
“I’m sorry?”
“I said ‘you gonna fuck her or what mate’?”
I looked up from my script. We’d been intently studying scripts (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) for about twenty minutes in relative silence, breaking it only to compare suggestions on staging. Our A2 drama practical mock was coming up, and the scene, a mocking mimicry of the Night of Long Knives, was to be learned, blocked and staged in a matter of days. It was 2008 by this point, and winter. Rain spattered aggressively against the windows of the drama studio in a way that only Mancunian rain can.
My friend who’d asked the question was clearly bored of practising his American accent under his breath. The others in our group now turned to look at me.
“I…um, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I said, rather pathetically.
He smirked a bit a me. Not in an unkind way. In his own way, he wanted what he thought was best. “You just need to get laid, mate,” was what he’d say, periodically, as we sat next to each other on the bus, or as we rolled cigarettes on the way to the library. Sex seemed to be a cure all for him, a kind of magic bullet that would blast through any depression, illness or anxiety. We had about two months between us in age, but seemed worlds apart. He could drive, smoked copious amounts of dope, was extremely well read in anarchist theory, and his levels of sexual experience vastly dwarfed my own. I’d been hazy with him on the topic of my own virginity. My first kiss had been only a few months before, an unpleasantly damp and tonguey affair in the common room. He, on the other hand, had been through almost a dozen women, as he liked to phrase it. In hindsight, my feelings of inadequacy about lack of sexual experience were ludicrous. People have sex whenever they want, or don’t. There’s no minimum or maximum age. Of course, the 17 year me wouldn’t have this epiphany for a few years yet. My friend reminded me of the absence of my sex life on a regular basis, though whether this was deliberate or not I couldn’t say. He’s married now, and is moving to Japan with his partner. His baby daughter periodically appears on my Facebook newsfeed, and stares perplexedly out from the screen, presumably wondering what the hell happened and whether there was any chance of going back in the womb, if only to avoid having phones and bright lights thrust in her face every few moments.
(If you’re reading this – your baby is lovely. But please stop instagramming her. I can see that she has a face, as can all 1200 friends of yours. We’d like a break.)
“Aw, come on, Chris. She’s properly fit.” My friend, ever the master at reading tone, continued. “You guys have been together for AAAAAAGES.”
I wanted to correct him. We hadn’t been together for ages. Had we? At what point did it start to count? After two dozen coffees in the little vegan delicatessen in Manchester’s North Quarter? After three trips to the cinema (the last one had been Iron Man, a film neither of us had enjoyed until the Black Sabbath song came on over the credits), and one trip to the theatre (“I have a spare ticket to Macbeth!” I had lied, having in fact begged, stolen and borrowed to afford an extortionate ticket to the Royal Exchange theatre). Did it start to count when you touched someone else? Our contact had been limited. Did it count when someone hugged you for longer that was considered socially acceptable at the bus stop? Did it count when you kicked yourself for not sweeping her off her feet like some manly noir era hero, though knowing you and how fucking clumsy you were, that would probably result in you throwing her in the path of oncoming traffic.
My lack of response to the question clearly struck a nerve. He dropped his script in exasperation. “Chris, you need to cheer up. Relax. Live a little, go out and -“
“- get laid. I know.” I repeated. “I’ve just got a lot on my mind,”
“What, like Cambridge?” someone else said, with a sneer.
Cambridge. Yes, I did have Cambridge on my mind. It had been three days since my interview, and five months since my English teacher, a potbellied, bearded Santa Clause like man, had finally, after months of pestering, got me to put “Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge,” as one of my UCAS options. Actually, I lie. What had really got me to make that final call, and start a chain of events that led me to the city that I would still be a resident of eight long years later, was:
Scene: Picadilly Gardens, Manchester. 
 
Two teenagers sitting on the grass. One pretending to read Bleak House, the other picking her nail polish off and drumming her fingers on the cover of the book.
 
Her: “So are you going to apply to Cambridge?” 
Me: “Fuck knows.”
Her:”You should.”
Me: “What’s the point?”
Her: “The point, Chris, is that if anyone can get into Cambridge, it’s you.”
Me: “Would you like it if I applied?”
Her: “I would like it very much. Now stop reading that book and let’s go do something fun.”
 
Three days before, I had found myself sitting on the Ely to Manchester train (a journey I would become depressingly familiar with in later years) at around six pm. I check my phone for the first time that day. A text from my Dad (When will you be home.) and one from her:
How did it go? x
 
I hesitated, then wrote: Weird. The guy interviewing me had the same name as me. x
 
Lol! Was he anything like u? x
 
Only if I gained a hundred pounds and played the lute x
 
(If you happen to be reading this, Professor Chris Page, I am so sorry. I was a dick when I was 17. But I also changed my name, so hopefully you aren’t still getting my post).
Do u think u got in? x
 
Another pause. I honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. It was my 18th birthday in a week’s time, and that offered more dread to me than an archaisms of Cambridge’s admissions process.
Guess we’ll see. What have you been up to? x
 
Missing you. x
 
Sometimes words can have a particular charge. They can make butterflies spring to life in your stomach, and make your skin flush and your heart skip a beat.The first time I felt it was somewhere between Chesterfield and Sheffield on a horrible damp day in December 2008. It took me a good fifteen minutes to summon the courage to write:
I miss you too x
 
Wut time does ur train get in? x
 
About 7.30 x
 
Do u want 2 see me? x
 
Yes x
 
The following year I deleted every text we’d ever sent one another, with one exception: Missing you x. The intensity of those two words comforted me and also burned me. At the end of my first year at Cambridge, I was mugged, and my phone was stolen. I regretted the loss of the text far more than the loss of my wallet.
*
Fast forward to August 2009. It had been a rough summer. I had become very isolated.
I hadn’t heard from her for a week. That worried me. Hence, when I got the text: (Need u x) I dropped what I was doing, dodged past the inevitable question (“are you trying to see what whore again?”) and got the first train to Manchester.
 
What’s wrong? You ok? x
 
Talk 2 u in person. meet me @ afflecks x
 
Afflecks Palace is a department store in the North Quarter of Manchester, part goth shop, part vintage fair, part insight into the mind of a late 2010s emo kid. I found her sitting in the cafe on the top floor. I had run from the station, and then up four flights of stairs. She was sitting by a window, her hands wrapped around a large mug of black coffee.
“Hey! How are you?” breathless and red in the face (I need to stop smoking, I said to myself, a mantra I would be repeating until the age of twenty five).
She didn’t reply, or meet my eye. She was stirring the coffee with the tip of her finger, a habit I’d always considered extremely unhygienic, but rather endearing. “How are you?”
“Fine. Awful. Who cares. You’re doing that thing I do.”
“What thing?”
“The turning the question around thing. Back off, that’s mine.”
I tried to be funny. It didn’t have the desired effect. She continued to stir her coffee. I took off my coat and fanned myself with a menu. Something was amiss. Not just in her behaviour, but in her dress. She was wearing a Slipknot t shirt (a present from me) but also something I’d never seen her wear before.
“Nice armwarmers.” I said, trying a different tact.
She flinched at my words, and I started to panic and question what I’d done wrong.
“Thanks.” Her voice was so soft as to be imperceptible.
“When…when did you start wearing those?” I hesitantly reached out a finger to stroke the hand holding the mug. She drew it closer to her. I dropped my hand to the table and began to tap my fingers nervously.
There was silence. I tried desperately to think of something to say or do.
“I can’t see you anymore.”
“What?”
“I said I can’t see you anymore.”
“…why?”
She finally looked up. She had been crying. Her eyeshadow was smeared, and her lip was bloody from where she’d been biting it.
“Is anyone watching us?” she asked.
“I -?” I frantically looked around, confused, and feeling a growing nausea. “I dunno! What’s going on -“
She rolled back the armwarmers. Her skin was pockmarked with angry red circular marks on both arms. I knew exactly what those were. In my darker moments, I’d inflicted them on myself.
“Who did this to you?” I said. “Who…burned you?”
“My brothers.” she replied.
“Why?”
“Because…” a long pause. The cigarette burns gleamed angrily in the stark light of the cafe. “Because someone told them about us kissing.”
The kiss. It had happened two weeks before. A Level results day. I had opened my envelope to find four A’s written on cream paper, and those four little letters had meant I had met and exceeded my Cambridge offer, and was going south. I ran to find her. She was with a group of her friends, posing for a photo. I drew her to one side, and whispered in her ear: “I did it!”
She pulled away, smiled, and kissed me. It was the first, and only, time we ever kissed.
These days I find it hard to get angry. It’s perhaps one of my greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses. I am non-aggressive but terrible at standing up for myself. Swings and roundabouts, really. Perhaps the reason I got put off anger was because of furious intensity of the white hot rage I felt at that point.
“Why.” It wasn’t a question. It was a demand.
“Because you’re not Muslim.”
“Why does that fucking matter?”
“Do you think that matters to me?”
“I’ll kill them.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Go to the Police.”
“No.”
“They assaulted you!”
“They’re my brothers.”
“I don’t give a fuck!”
“I do.”
Silence. The arm warmers were rolled down. She got up.
“I’m sorry, Chris. You have a future without me in it. I…” she stopped. My fists were clenched on the table so tightly I thought my knuckles would break.
She never finished that sentence. She just walked away. Her coffee remained on the table, steaming quietly to itself. I didn’t move for a very, very long time. Those burns had lit a spark somewhere in my mind. It would fizzle there for another four months until a chance encounter would provide the powder that blew me apart from the inside out.
*
January 2015. It is just after 3 am in the morning. My  then-partner is asleep next to me. The rhythm of her breathing is rather comforting during this particular bout of insomnia. The cat is curled up between my legs on the bedsheet, and were I in a more optimistic mood, I would be reflecting on how lucky I was to share a bed with two precious beings.
Instead, I scrolled through Facebook. It was a soul destroying endless road that led precisely nowhere. When I had realised I wouldn’t be sleeping that night, I’d decided to be productive and write up a PhD proposal. Next to Facebook were multiple tabs to JSTOR articles. I’d read abstracts, gotten too depressed, told myself I was an idiot and wasn’t worth a PhD, and had returned to watching my newsfeed update itself with its eclectic blend of leftist articles, cat pictures, and various comedians complaining about PBH Free Fringe. Again.
Suddenly, in the little side bar of friend suggestions, a name popped up. I almost thought I’d imagined it. I clicked on the profile. She looked pretty much the same. Happier, though. She was smiling diagonally in the selfie, which had been artistically rendered in monochrome. She was still wearing long sleeves. Perhaps the burns were still haunting her.
Two mutual friends. Is that all that’s left? God, my friend purges were getting more ruthless by the day. Her timeline was mostly hidden due to privacy settings. I looked through it anyway. In 2009, I found a picture – A Level results day. A large group of mostly unknown students waving their AQA certificates in the air like flags of surrender. She was slightly off to one side, raising her certificate, but also listening to someone with their back to the camera who was whispering in her ear. Me. My 18 year old head half blocked her face.
Very little remained of the 18 year old me. I’d dismantled him and put away bits of him in a box, and replaced those bits with new bits born out of the sludgy and at times horrifying experience of growing up. What remained of her? She lived in Birmingham now. Good. That was at least a distance away from her family.
I write this is October 2016, in a very different place. The partner cheated and left and took the cat, and I got the hell out of Cambridge. I moved north again, and began that long slow journey of a PhD. Too much happened between January 2015 and October 2016 for me to process it properly, but I do recall this, this one thing: The dawn chorus is singing  . My then-partner stirs and rolls over. I sigh deeply, take a deep breath, and click: “send friend request.”
To this day, I haven’t had a response.
But here’s hoping.

Reminiscing about Cambridge

Reminiscing about Cambridge
  1. I arrived in Cambridge in 2009, thin to the point of sickness, ragingingly bipolar, heavily theatrical, and possessed by a horrifying feeling that I had lost all control over my life. I left Cambridge in 2016, thin to the point of sickness, savagely depressed, heavily pierced and possessed by a horrifying feeling that I still had not found control over my life.
  2. The oddest people stick in my mind. One in particular, in fact. I’d waited for them on the bridge in King’s College, looking out at Queens’ Gardens, my old smoking spot, the Mathematical Bridge. It was the first time I had not tried to find the face of the one I was to meet while still at a distance, because I knew that if I had caught the sparks flying from their gaze as I tried to catch their eye, I would have gone up like an ammo dump.
  3. During the years 2009-2012, I was taught many things; the names of the post structuralists, the nature of exegesis, the methodologies laid down by William Empson and I.A. Richards, yet the one thing I learned, during those years, was that I was not who I had expected to be.
  4. 2012, June – I smuggled 32 people onto the roof above my set in C Staircase, Sidney Sussex. Here, we sat furtively, smoked cigarettes, and watched the sky explode with the fireworks of St John’s. It was that night I realised that I fell in love with the wrong woman, as the red glow of sparks illuminated her long, blonde hair.
  5. It was at Cambridge that I realised I was a Labour man, but that my Labour was one that existed in some halcyon fantasy that I projected into the past. I have always been a lifelong member of Labour, with only a slight pause between 1990 and whenever it was that Jeremy Corbyn announced he was standing for the leadership.
  6. Pets: one tortoise I didn’t tell anyone about, two guinea pigs, a cat that I was accused of stealing after it was temporarily abandoned in my house, a cat I was sad to lose, and a growing sense of unease.
  7. Cambridge has a tradition called May Week, which confusingly doesn’t occur in May and is longer than one week. You get up late, drink Pimms in the garden, bemoan the lack of cava in Sainsburys, and then go to all night balls to queue for bland burgers and listen to music by people who may have gotten to number one once in 1996 in Uzbekistan. This follows on immediately after the Exam Term, where you do nothing but work, and develop a healthy hatred for yourself for doing nothing but work, and also not doing enough work. The transition between these two modes of being has no warning, and is akin to Christian austerity of Lent bursting unexpected into the full indulgence of Easter. It leaves you feeling exhausted, though it is presumably someone’s idea of fun.
  8. I spent most of December 2010 living in the Combination Room of the Old Schools, because someone somewhere thought education was worth both nothing and lots at the same time. About a week in, amidst the solidarity from lecturers and townsfolk, a Ceilidh band appeared and we danced till 3 am. The Left always have the best parties. A friend told me that, the same night, that the Right were doing a crossword, and weren’t enjoying it.
  9. Cigarettes – 67,881 smoked over the course of four years. Bottles of wine: 567 downed, with a dramatic increase in consumption after August 2015. Amount of weight lost: lots. Amount of friends lost: lots. Amount of books purchased: lots. Amount of questions answers: None.
  10. In late 2015, I lost the ability to walk. I became reliant on crutches for all mobility, moving with the ponderous lethargy of an elephant from a Salvador Dali painting, walking on spindly metal legs. I hobbled to work, struggled with stairs, and tried to ignore the excruciating pain. On the 2nd of November, as I was hobbling past the entrance to St John’s College, a friend approached me. She spat in my face and kicked my crutches out from underneath me. Three day later, while at an ATM on Sidney Street, another friend did the same thing. Some weeks later, I watched the grainy, silent CCTV footage of the assault. It is disorientating to watch the face of someone you had been close to wide with rage. Even more so, perhaps, because I was none of the things I was accused of. I did not leave my house for almost two months after that.  
  11. There is a passage leading off King’s Parade I find rather charming. You dodge between Campkins and the King’s College shop, and past the entrance of Corpus Playroom and before you know it you find yourself staring uncomprehendingly at the Guildhall. I walked this route thousands of times, each time hoping I might emerge is some other dream kingdom, kept away from the prying eyes of the academics. There, perhaps, I would find evidence for all those golden reminiscences of Cambridge I’d read.
  12. In 2016, the United Kingdom, or at least bits of it, voted to leave the European Union. Since I believe in knowing your enemy (not in the biblical sense), I had spent much of previous years familiarising myself with the recent history of the Tory Party, and was struck by the fact that the referendum was as much about a feud between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, as it was about questions of sovereignty and immigration. The two had been rivals since Oxford, and that rivalry now had blossomed into a situation where, by year’s end, I should wager there would be an independent Scotland, a flare in sectarian violence in Ireland, and a dramatic increase in racial crime. This perspective on Brexit was perhaps more terrifying than any other, because as a student, I had witnessed those feuds beginning in hushed whispers over the sticky tables of my college bar, and hinted at in the bright corridors of the Cambridge Union Society, which stood in defence of free speech for the reasonable price of £170 for student membership. Was this the future? Were the smooth faced, red trousered drinking society boys (whom I’d served pints to as I’d worked my college bar to survive), future ministers, members of cabinets, or even PMs? When Scotland leave, I shall send a polite letter asking if I can go with them, clinging onto the Mull of Kintyre like an urchin onto a tailcoat.
  13. Time works very differently in Cambridge. Terms are short (8 weeks at a time), Freshers Week lasts 3 days, and despite your best efforts you’ll inevitably fall behind and feel like you’re out of time, aware of time roaring on ahead of you like a raging bull. The Cambridge supervision system is a fine form of teaching – when else do you get to have an intimate intellectual discussion with a world leading expert? – but my constant feeling was that I could never fully enjoy these experiences because I was always painfully aware that I could be working on something else and that no matter how good the supervision, it would result with more work being set and thus a small fragment of my future being written off. No matter how much I kept on top of work I was always out of time because the person I became at 25 was arguably the person I needed to be at 18: Not happy but high functioning. That’s as much as anyone can ask for at Cambridge.
  14. There’s no way to really leave Cambridge. A short jaunt will get you on a train to London, or a bus to Oxford, or perhaps a friend will offer to drive you as far as Ely; you never truly leave. Cambridge becomes the centrifugal point to the lives of everyone who has ever lived there for any significant amount of time. No matter how far you go, you will always be drawn back as if by gravity itself, to find familiar cobbles beneath your feet, known spires piercing the sky, and at the hour, the discordant bong of a thousand college clocks sounding their own hour. As I write this, I swore I would never return. I’d left too much of myself there, and that absence haunts me. But as I made this oath to myself, I knew that before the end of my days, I would inevitably find myself sitting crossed legged on the low wall on King’s Parade, blowing plumes of vape into the dry winter air.
  15. Christ knows how many books I own. I acquired thousands while I was at Cambridge. Only a few hundred of them survived the journey north. A practical measure, really.
  16. Packing is always an odd experience; it feels like the most awkward form of archeology. You dig around under your bed, and you discover, for instance, the remains of a packet of baccy nine months after you gave up fags; a Greek phrase book; more socks than any sane man should reasonably own, but it’s the pictures that bother me the most. Photos, mostly. The permanence of photos of happier times are offensive in their indelicacy. I’ll be sure not to display them in future.
  17. For a brief period during my time in Cambridge, I considered myself polyamorous, though I ultimately felt that way for entirely the wrong reasons. While I have every philosophical sympathy with polyamory, I can no longer live my life that way. I suppose a lot of that comes down to the poly crowd in Cambridge. Decent folk, mostly, but every now and again I’d meet the same man over and over; charismatic, warm, funny, possessing a rather striking gaze – enough to make even the most resolutely heterosexual gentleman have second thoughts – and also an utter bastard. Monogamy is, I’m told, boring, but I’ll take boredom over narcissism any day.
  18. Someone said to me a phrase I considered extremely wise: “When you look at the world through rose tinted glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” They told me it was something said by Auden, or Cummings. Turns out it’s from Bojack Horseman, and it took all of my strength to ignore Cambridge’s elitist mindset and still consider it wise.
  19. Speaking of Auden, what he did once say was “I was put on this earth to be kind to people. What the other people are here for, I just don’t know.” Words to live, by those.
  20. So what, exactly, did I gain from being in Cambridge? A pair of degrees, one of which I was reliably informed wasn’t up to much because I “didn’t quite get that first.” A fairly mixed tapestry of experiences. Thirteen facial piercings. Three tattoos. Five hundred and fifty stand up shows. Countless demos. Too many books. Harassment. Never quite punted to Grantchester. A sense that I had made both the right, and wrong, decisions, all at once. Most of all, I realised the gigantic truth of someone, who, much wiser than me, once wrote: “We read such golden reminiscences of Cambridge…but I must include this other kind of fact; Cambridge can break you up, to no good purpose: confuse you, sicken you, wring you dry.” I consider myself well wrung.

 

What even is “the left”?

What even is “the left”?

This is the first in a series of posts I’m working on which will focus on studying and (hopefully) understanding the left. Partly, this is based on my experience of studying the left academically via Social Movement Studies, but also from my own experience of being “on the left”.

What even is the left?

There’s a tendency when talking or writing about politics to use totalising political terms. We imagine a political landscape where “the left” stands in opposition to “the right.” Mainstream media political writing, no matter how good, tends to use such totalising terms without interrogation. There’s a good piece in the morning’s Guardian about the future of the left, which is a fine article in of itself, and can be found here, but never once tries to unpack what is meant by the left, beyond a very cursory analysis.

Part of the problem comes from the fact we tend to use what are meant to be economic terms to define entire political entities and ideologies. A very simple way of mapping out politics can be seen in the image below:

6883046573_d6b573bf92_b

Implicit in this horizontal model of politics is the belief that the further you go from the centre, the more extreme social and economic control becomes. Authoritarianism lurks on the edges, ergo those who are on the far left or far right tend to favour control of the economy or civil liberties of individuals by either a monarch, or the party apparatus of state Communism. This model of politics also idealises the centre ground, a seemingly legendary area which obsesses the political classes.

Of course, this model is flawed, because it interweaves economic and social politics together. Historical and contemporary events suggests that parties and movements cannot be fitted onto this neat scale; for instance, until around 1922, the Bolshevik party of the Soviet Union operated on a model of extremely liberal sexual politics, arguably more so than, say, the US Democrat Party of the same period.

political-compass-zones

The above diagram is often referred to as the political compass, and maps out the position of parties, ideologies and individuals based on a scale that measures not just the economic position, but also the social position. Based on the work of Wilhelm Reich and Theodor Adorno, the political compass model shows how, when left/right are terms confined to economic analysis, that the distinctions between groups can be blurred. A party may be economically on the far left, but deeply socially conservative, or vice versa, or somewhere in between.

uk2015

Above in a map of the UK political parties during the 2015 General Election. A couple of things are notable; the so-called populist protest “party of the people” UKIP actually sits very much on the conservative, authoritarian right. Interestingly, the often lazily labelled “extreme right” BNP is only slightly more authoritarian than UKIP, economically closer to the middle ground. Of the “left” parties, we actually see a pretty bleak picture: Labour’s 2015 manifesto only put them slight less to the right, and slightly less authoritarian, than the Conservative Party. The SNP’s left credentials are questionable, given their economic positions, and only the Green Party occupied the place where most would assume left parties exist: economically left, socially libertarian.

Hopefully, this method of thinking about politics is clear. What I’m going to do now is trying to categorize and position left parties and social movements on this compass. Some generalizing is necessary for this to work, but I hope to illustrate the heterogeneity of the left in this way. After that, I’ll try to explain why I think all of this is so important.

Two notes on terminology:

1)”Radical” or “Extreme”

In the second half of this post, I’m going to make the point that the naming of things in mainstream political commentary is often lazy and misleading, leading to grotesque misunderstandings of the nature of parties and movements. One I’d like to address straight away is the descriptors “radical” and “extreme”. These are terms often used in journalistic political reporting: (“Extreme Leftists hope to lock Jeremy Corbyn in power” –The Telegraph; “Meet the Radical Rightwing Activists waging social media war for Trump,” –I News). The two words are often used interchangeably, which I believe is problematic. To my mind, a radical party is very different from an extreme party, and the distinction I offer here is what is commonly agreed in the field of Social Movement Studies.

Extreme parties or social movements are those who operate in contempt of the principles of liberal democracy. They tend to eschew parliamentary politics all together, and engage in political praxis via direct action, protest, and in certain cases actual of political terrorism. A group like Daesh, therefore, can be seen as an extreme political organisation. Their political programme will only be implemented through methods that exist outside of the democratic framework. Certain extreme organisations can have parliamentary wings – a good example of this is the relationship between the Irish Republican Army and Sinn Fein.

Radical groups on the other hand tend to operate within the framework of liberal democracy, but are deeply critical of elements of it. This is by far and away the more common form of political organisation. The Greek SYRIZA party, for instance, is the governing party within the Hellenic Parliament, but also organises street demonstrations, protest actions, community political initiatives and so on.

It is worth noting, however, that certain groups can be both radical and extreme. The Greek Golden Dawn party is a good example: while it holds seats in the Hellenic Parliament, it is also not above using violence, arson, and even murder, to terrorise its political opponents.

2) Pejoratives

Political terminology is very commonly used as a pejorative. The best example of this is the term “Nazi” or “Fascist” which I have heard applied to everything from the Golden Dawn Party to the UK Independence Party, Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, and even in one case, myself. “Fascist” in common discourse, tends to just be another way of saying “someone I don’t like who may or may not have an authoritarian element to them.” Overuse of “Fascist” is quite dangerous in my experience, as it tends to water down antifascist messages. There are, certainly, some accurate uses for these words: the Golden Dawn Party is called Neo-Nazi because it simply is; it follows a Hitlerist philosophy, updated for a Greek Political context. Indeed, as I am going to argue in a future post, Trump’s political philosophy is if not fascist then certainly fascistic.

(I should add that defining fascism can be very tricky, and I am using Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur Fascism” as a starting point for any discussions of fascism – because it is very good. I’ll explore Eco’s theories of fascism, and how I think they apply to Trump, in a later post, but you can read Eco’s original essay here and if you really want, you can see how fascism has become linked into heteronormativity – in my humble opinion, at least – here)

More recently, words like “Trot” (a diminutive of “Trotskyist”) has become a pejorative among mainstream political writers in the UK when writing about the Labour Party. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are lumped together under this term, with all its implications of loony leftism, soviet political organizing and the like. As I hope to suggest below, Corbyn himself is not a Trotskyist, or even a Marxist, and you can read some of my thoughts on the Labour Party here, and here.

Communism(s)

communisms

In the Western World, there are very few major organisations that actually espouse state socialism as seen under the actually existing communist states. The Communist Party of Great Britain, for instance, while it is the descendent of the old Communist Party which pledged loyalty to Moscow, is now more on the libertarian left. This is in contrast to the KKE (the Greek Communist Party). The KKE is on the edge of the left of the economic spectrum, but is, confusingly, deeply conservative on social issues. In 2015 the KKE voted against civil partnerships for gay couples. The Party’s position on marriage  was outlined as “It includes social protection of children, who are biologically the result of sexual relations between a man and a woman. With the formation of a socialist-communist society, a new type of partnership will undoubtedly be formed—a relatively stable heterosexual relationship and reproduction.” (Source here). Ironically, then, the KKE ended up voting against their seemingly more natural political bedfellows, the Coalition of the Radical Left (or SYRIZA) and instead siding on LGBT rights with the Socially Conservative Nationalist ANEL party, and also the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. KKE embodies a phenomena which is known as “Conservative Communism.” Those of us who have studied or been part of the left will know this well; economically left, but socially conservative and authoritarian, the old Communist Parties embody the common understanding of communism as a totalitarian ideology as opposed to an emancipatory one. Sexual and gender issues seemed to be the main sticking point for Conservative Communists; the French Communist Party, PCF, branded both homosexuality and feminism as “capitalist” indulgences, and until well into the 1970s were virulently homophobic and anti-feminist.

It is perhaps worth making the point here that “communism” is often equated with “Marxist-Leninism”. Not all communists are Marxist-Leninist – take, for instance, the anarcho-communist and libertarian communist movements. Furthermore, not all Marxist-Leninist movements use the term “communism” or “communist” (this is especially the case in Eastern European states where communism is often associated with the totalitarian barbarism of the Soviet Union.)

Far Left/Hard Left

Terms like “hard left” or “far left” are rarely found in academic discourse, or, indeed, in use by left groups themselves. These terms are unhelpful from the perspective of critical analysis, as they are intended to be read emotively, and with certain connotations. A “Hard” leftist is someone who perhaps operates on a rigid, militaristic, uncompromising political ideology, whereas someone of the “far” left is by their very naming, on the fringes of the political spectrum, and should therefore be treated with suspicion. Further more, “far” left can be tricky to justify as some left parties are not actually that far to the left economically, even if they sit at the far libertarian end of the political compass.

Left Parties and Left Populism

There is has been an increasing movement within the European left to dispense within any sort of premodifier all together and just define themselves as “left”. The German “Die Linke” (which translates literally as “The Left”) is prominent example of this. Kate Hudson, the current General Secretary of the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament, and visiting Research Fellow at London South Bank University, charts this reclaiming of the stand alone “left” in her book The New European Left: a socialism for the twenty-first century? and additionally is the National Secretary of Left Unity. Left Unity is an interesting example within the UK Left. The Party is committed to “anti-capitalism” (more on that below) and also to “socialism” but draws many of its members from Trotskyist groups like the Alliance for Workers Liberty (a group I was once involved in, see here) and Socialist Alliance. Left Unity was formed by film director Ken Loach, who believed that only the Green Party was speaking for the Left in the UK. Left Unity, currently, still exists but has encouraged its membership to join the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn (this is not really entryism in the sense fantasied about by rightist commentators, since most of the members of Left Unity were, in fact, former Labour party activists anyway.

One potential flaw in parties defining themselves simply as “left” is that they implicitly suggest that the have the monopoly over leftism. There is inherently an appeal towards a kind of authenticity of leftism in this self-designation which elides, say, Green parties, which can more often than not be more “left” than left parties (but more on that later).

It’s interesting as well that the rise of self-defined “left” parties is a symptom of the resurgence of left populism. Generally speaking, media coverage has focused on right populist movements and parties (as exemplar, UKIP, and, indeed, populism doesn’t really naturally find a home with either the left or the right. Cas Mudde defines poplurism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that populism is not a doctrine, as much as symptom of a certain kind of politics. Right wing populist groups have traditionally built on working class dissatisfaction with existing left movements, for instance the gains of UKIP from Labour after the latter’s rightward shift, or of Front Nationale at the expense of the PCF (French Communist Party). Left populists often utilize the people versus corrupt elite narrative as an extension of the orthodox Marxist view on class war – it takes very little to apply the interests of the urban proletariat to the people at large. Populists want to speak for the people, and thus, perhaps an attempt to claim the title “left” for themselves is part of some conception of building a people led mass movement.

Direct Action Networks

Ask people to think about left movements as opposed to left parties, and what they generally think of are Direct Action Networks, or DANs. Occupy was one, and some would argue that Black Lives Matter and Queer Lives Matter are similar. DANs are political movements which do not have a direct involvement in parliamentary politics, though individuals within them may stand for political office, although this can sometimes be more to make a statement of political intent. Generally, DANs act outside of the parliamentary sphere, and prioritize direct action of some form of another. The Occupy protest camps of 2011-12 are an example of this, or the protests and marches of the Black Lives Matter movement.

DANs can be single or multi-issue, though single issue DANs are more common. For example, Black Lives Matter is often characterised by the media as a left-wing social movement, yet I cannot find any evidence of a left economic policy programme within the group (if there is, and I’ve just missed it, please post a source in the comments below). DANs tend to have more success than political parties linguistically, in that their slogans tend to enter common political dialect. “We are the 99%” is one of the most famous examples, and its various derivatives, and the discourse of 1% vs 99% has become a part of the language of those interested in economic justice. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement has given its own name huge political weight, and has also been bastardized by reactionary forces under the ironic “all lives matter.” Comparably, the linguistic interventions of political parties tend to not have the same impact, or are often referred to cynically – take the Conservatives “We’re all in this together” (a phrase I have only ever uttered sarcastically) or, going back further, Tony Blair’s “education, education, education,” a phrase which only ever provokes a cringe. This linguistic interventionism on the part of DANs is extremely interesting, and requires further analysis, though I suspect commonness of social media as a tool for organizing and propagandizing has some strong role within in.

Parties vs Social Movements

In the clusterfuck that is the Labour Party’s internal battle, an interesting trend has emerged from the pro-Corbyn camp: to try to rebrand the Labour Party (at least in part) as a social movement. In an interview with Novara Media, Paul Mason linked the idea of Labour as a social movement to a pathway to electoral success (you can watch the full interview, which is immensely interesting in and of itself, here ). Jeremy Corbyn himself announced the intriguing idea of academies for ʟabour activists (source here). Training activists is a very common feature of social movements (there is, for example, among radical left social movements, importance placed upon “activist educationals”). Putting aside the inevitable hysteria that greets anything Corbyn says or does, there is a question here of the differences between a party and a social movement. This is a question that I will dedicate its own post to, since this one is now nearly 3000 words long, but a few thoughts are necessary at this point.

Generally speaking, academics have seen a clear divide between a party (which has the goal of winning electorally) and a social movement (which may have a myriad of vaguer goals relating to awareness raising, changing public consciousness, and the like). There is a traditional wisdom (of which I am sceptical) in Social Movement Studies which suggests that the growth of social movements arises from dissatisfaction with political parties, and is therefore representative of a crisis in liberal democratic party politics. Occupy, for example, is often cited as an example of the failures of socialist and social democratic parties to deliver on electoral politics. The main reason for my skepticism about this argument is that it imagines that engagement with political parties and social movements are two mutually exclusive and totally irreconcilable forms of political praxis. This is simply not the case; I am, for example, a member of the Labour Party (a parliamentary party) and also a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (a social movement) and the interests and political goals of the two overlap regularly.

But can something be both a party and a social movement at the same time? The only example I can think of currently is the Italian Five Star Movement, the populist group which claims that it is not a party (source here, in Italian) , yet has 91 seats in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and recently won key mayoral elections in Rome and Turin. The Five Star Movement is rather hard to categorise on the political left-right spectrum, since on the one hand it is committed to environmentalism, sustainable development and transport and LGBT rights (policies traditionally found in the social democratic project) yet it is part of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the EU Parliament,  a membership it shares with UKIP, the xenophobic Swedish Democrats, and the classical liberal Czech Party of Free Citizens. Regardless, though, the Five Star Movement’s successes suggest that a dual party/social movement identity can work, and to great effect.

Concluding remarks: 

I hope this post has gone some way towards unpacking what we mean by “the left”. All thoughts and comments welcome below. The next post in these series will explore the difference between a party and a movement, and after that, I’ll try to explore what gender means to the radical left.

 

The mockery of male tears

mdij5uq8l3fiykrehdnz

Consider the above meme. I see it a lot on my Facebook feed, and have, sometimes, shared it myself when trying to make a point in a tongue in cheek manner. The meme articulates a fairly valid point: a tendency by some men to tried to sideline the views of other, less privileged people. Which happens, a lot, on the internet especially. The image is obviously meant to be semi joking, yet there’s a part of me, when I look at it, that makes me feel uncomfortable.

This kind of humour, though it’s something I’ve used, and laughed at, is the slightest bit raw for me. In my last relationship, as an birthday present for my ex, I engraved a hip flask with the words “delicious male tears.” It was, in all honesty, a joke. We used that line all the time, and I wanted to give her something that felt personal. Some months later, when the relationship ended, my ex informed me that I was “too depressed” to love anymore, and then proceeded to tell everyone who’d listen how awfully depressed I was, how totally non functional I was. I was, evidently non functional. I just completed a masters and was holding down a job, co-running a comedy night, writing thousands of words of blog posts and writing a novel. I was depressed. I always had been, but I was also getting care, support, and dealing as best any depressed person could. In the months that followed, I found that my depression, my tendency to sometimes be sad for days at a time and yes – shock, horror – yes, cry sometimes, was public knowledge, and was used to mock me, even in supposedly radical circles. I had opened myself up, emotionally, in that relationship, in a way I never had with another person, and after that scarring experience, I felt unable to be open with anyone, really. For some reason, when I think back to this time, that hipflask, with its tongue in cheek slogan that I had engraved by hand, came back to haunt me. I shed my fair share of tears over it all, which tends to happen when you feel that your mental health problems, the things you’ve shared emotionally, have been weaponised against you.

My own experience aside, the real question I must ask is this: are we doing something damaging by mocking male sadness?

Masculinity can be hard to define, which is precisely why I am spending three years doing a PhD on the subject. Raewyen Connell, arguably the originator of the study of masculinity, has argued that masculinities are contingent. Hegemonic Masculinity – the dominant ideal form of masculinity in any given social order is based on “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answers to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy.” Unchecked Masculinity, then, is inherently tied to dominance, and subordination of women, and also other men, which explains the often violent (and I use the term violent here to encompass physical, emotional, and psychological forms of violence) way that men interact with other men, or women. This violence however is a sign of the imperfection of masculinity – if you are in control of a situation, why be violent in any way? Masculinities, though they can be contingent on social orders (the masculine performance of a soldier is different from the masculine performance of say, a stock trader) but masculinities have some universal features. Self control is one of these; this is often couched in terms of an almost military repression of emotions and feelings in favour of utility. Historically, various attempts to build a new masculinity have held onto this repressive element of manhood, even if they have tried to right some of the wrongs of masculinity in general. Trotsky, in Literature & Revolution, writes of the New Soviet Man, who, under communism:

…will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

The creation of the ideal man, then, requires a certain amount of repression in order to “master his own feelings.” That’s all very well and good but it does tie into a mindset which stigmatizes male displays of emotion as unmasculine. Consider the two phrases “boys don’t cry” and “man up”, phrases so common place that they have become bywords for male self regulation. Note the phraseology; it’s not a imperative “stop crying” but a declarative, linked to an individual’s gender identity. If you do not self-regulate your emotions, it suggests, you cannot be a man. And this is irrevocably tied into the maintenance of patriarchy. If socialized masculinity is about maintaining power, then men who feel must be silenced. Stepping away from theoretical terms for a moment, the inability of men to speak about, relate to, and deal with, sadness is both common, and dangerous.

I’d like to think that I’m relatively open about my mental health issues. But I do find them deeply isolating. In writing this, I became very conscious of the way in which my own masculinity plays into the public and private nature of my psychological state. Ask people who know me, and they’ll describe me as high functioning, (mostly) level headed, adaptable, resourceful, and the like. Combine that with a certain degree of empathy and sensitivity, and people end up liking me much more than I expect. That, however, is the public face. Here’s a little fact: I cry. A lot. Most days, in fact. Crying is something I do behind closed doors with alarming ease. The same with lots of other signs of sadness; I currently haven’t eaten for two days, because I’ve genuinely felt too sad to eat. I am, currently, consuming 10-12 units of alcohol a night. I’ve recently gotten back into going to the gym regularly, and tend to do heavy cardio work outs; last night I cycled 65 km, and I’m going back to the gym to do the same thing again when this blog post in finished. I have a horrible feeling I’m not so much doing this for the exercise as much as doing athlete level training when your body is running on an entirely liquid diet hurts and if my Catholic upbringing taught me anything, its that we all deserve to be hurt, and feel guilty about it.

In short, I’m really quite sad.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50, with higher risk of suicide in men aged 18-26. You can read the latest report on suicides in the United Kingdom, courtesy of the Samaritans, here. In general, men tend to find it harder to talk about mental health issues. Laurie Penny writes that: “Asking for help is seen as an affront to masculinity.This is deeply, deeply troubling, because it means when you’re taking that first step when you’re suffering a mental health difficulty, reaching out for help is made doubly hard. The rules of masculinity prevent you from asking for help or talking about feelings.”(source here). This is compounded for gay, bisexual and transgender men, according to Richard Lane of Stonewall: It’s so much wider than gay or bisexual men .Men hear ‘man up’ and ‘stop being such a poof’. It’s a real barrier in talking about mental health issues.” Owen Jones identifies this trend for men to be at greater risk of suicide to ” an element of “gender policing”, of abuse directed at men who do not conform to a stereotype of masculinity.” (source here). According to MIND, men are more likely to turn to self medication via drugs and alcohol (you can read a study on the reasons for this, and also why men are more likely to be alcoholics here).

My own experience of being a man who has been suicidal, and does abuse alcohol, and does live with mental health conditions, is still one of agonized silence, no matter how much I blog about it. The self regulatory elements of masculinity, which I spoke about above, are present through both external and internal means. Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine, who is in a word lovely, an excellent activist and empathetic person all round. After opening up to her about some of my issues, I was surprised when she told me that I was being “needy.” She later apologized for this, but it articulated one of my gravest fears. I don’t want to be needy. I pride myself on my resilience, and my own masculinity is very much tied to my strength. I frequently find myself telling friends that I am “made of steel.” Partially, this is a joke, but it has a serious core. More often than not, one of the reasons why I don’t reach out to people, and endure my dark periods alone, is that I don’t want to be thought of as needy, as an attention seeker, as perennially sad, as the kind of person with whom conversations are mired in their own depression. As much as I can see the absurdity of self regulation, of repressing what I’m really thinking and feeling, it’s a part of men, part of ny conception of whom I am, of what makes me a man.

Which brings me back to jokes about male sadness. There has to be a way that we can make a valid point about societal inequality, epistemic injustice, the silencing of minorities and the like which doesn’t buy into a discourse of mocking male sadness. Am I, in any way, suggesting that if you share a meme like the one above, you are consciousness reinforcing a discourse that prevents men from feeling? No, not at all. Humour can be a radical act when it makes a valid societal criticism, and I think that the meme above is making such a criticism, calling to attention the lack of understanding in men about the nature of privilege. But I fear it is a double edged sword – while articulating one valid critique, it is, perhaps, buying to another, regressive one.

What I am saying is that I worrying that mocking male sadness – even if you are making a good point about societal inequality – is feeding into the discourse – a discourse which is an integral part of patriarchy, I should note – that does silence men.

 

What do you think? Do I have a point? Or am I making a fuss out of nothing? Let me know in the comments.