Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Right Way To Be "Left"

One Cause, One Tribe

At Easter weekend, I went to the talk by Spiral Tribe members at Mensch Meier.  Taking place in a wood paneled bar area that was full of yellow-lit smoke and boozy air, the talk had the ambiance of being at a 1920's meeting of banned radicals in some working man’s club (albeit one that was plastered in absurdist posters and satirical signs from modern Berlin).

Instead of working men, the place was bustling with a restless, flushed cluster of Generation Y techno hippies.  The strikingly youthful Tribe members didn’t look much older than their audience, despite being part of a much earlier rave generation.

They were energetic and chatty and seemed up for a debate, but it wasn't forthcoming from the crowd which was awed and sitting back in typical German reverence, allowing the speakers to say their piece, and the wisdom to seep in.

One comment sticks in my mind, which was made by Debbie of Spiral Tribe. She said,  “We’ve been together for 25 years and it hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole time. There are some big personalities in the collective. We haven’t always gotten along.  It takes a lot of hard work to stick together.”

It resonated with an off-the-cuff comment made by Laurie Penny, two weeks later, when she was speaking at HAU.  It was something to the effect of, “We should avoid perfectionism in left wing.” About a third of the people in the audience sat up and started nodding their heads in affirmation. 

Maybe it's because Penny's talk was also taking place in a wood-paneled theatre with a 1920's ambience - a place where you could imagine Rosa Luxemburg giving a speech to a disgruntled crowd, back in the day - but I connected her words with what the Tribe members had said two weeks earlier. A new consensus seemed to be suffusing Berlin's linke scene about the right way to be left. 

There is good reason for people on the left to have divisiveness on their minds, lately.  On the news, and on social media, the leftists that we see most often are those who take a critical stance: ranting and raging at each other, calling each other out over this badly-phrased thought or that impulsive tweet, exposing one another as less liberal or tolerant than their comrades are.  We're also regularly force fed images of 'activists' who are dressed identically in black and who are attacking cops that seem to be dressed for a round on Robot Wars.

There is a common theme underlying both kinds of coverage: in it, we only ever see the left wing in a state of attack and rejection, rather than a state of defense and inclusion. At a subconscious level, this preconditions us to view activism as a war on order, a retaliation, a negation: removing and destroying what it says is 'bad' rather than creating and implementing what it says is 'good'. This isn't a balanced view, but perhaps it's the only view that the media is capable of giving us. Media is a mirror that only reflects what it knows how to see, and conformist execs who sacrifice their lives to the 'cause' of higher ratings will tend to identify more closely with activists who seem to behave the same way.

The modern anarchist scene, especially, has been reduced in the media's lens to a one trick pony that uses purely aggressive means to achieve 'the revolution'. Unfortunately there are anarchists who definitely embrace that view, and the media welcomes them all with open arms; each act of vandalism they take part in is recorded and replayed gleefully.  The media pounces on such incidents - not, as some activists like to think, because they are scary or even newsworthy, but because they reinforce the popular view that anarchism is a fringe movement, depriving it of the mass appeal that could make it a real threat.

By limiting themselves to forms of attack that the authorities are perfectly equipped to repel, these kinds of anarchists are an absolute godsend to the system. To watch them in action is to believe that everything that exists beyond the confines of capitalism is bleak and angry, humourless, painted black and, usually, on fire with its windows smashed in.  Who would ever really want to live there, let alone stand in solidarity with the people who already do?

Many anarchists would tell you that capitalism's underlying mentality is the one that truly is bleak and deadly. Indeed the likes of McDonalds, Primark, Ikea et al, shield themselves with a carnivalesque array of products in a rainbow of colours, tastes and sounds that mask their destructive business ethos; they paint their brands in shades as vibrant as the planet used to be before capitalism came along.  While not every activist out there feels the need eschew everything that's beautiful and enjoyable - fine arts, music or even happiness and hope - in their efforts to distance themselves from the system, those that do tend to get a lot more representation in the media. The more repellent the better, seems to be the mantra.

Instead of fighting back against this marginalization though, I increasingly see activists mirroring the mass media's approach: cherry-picking the traits that they like best from within their own scenes, and discarding those that don't reflect a rather purist ideal of perfection.  For example, I recently heard about a certain queer collective in Berlin that is refusing to admit anyone who wears dreadlocks or ear plugs, on the grounds that such styles amount to 'cultural appropriation'.

Leaving aside the question of which culture can claim to the be the true originator of dreads or plugs, is that even a practical model of how the left can achieve meaningful social change - through exclusion based on looks alone? Or is it another case of leftists slotting themselves into a pre-exisiting media construct, limiting their efforts to negation and division?

Being More Than Just "Against"

Stories like the one above make me want to put my head in my hands.  In my own activist lifespan, I’ve witnessed materialist anarchists bashing pagan anarchists; first-wave feminists being trashed by third-wave feminists; queers trashing trans people; vegans getting trashed by vegetarians.  For a while, all this griping and sniping nearly put me off politics altogether.

Eventually, though, I realized that rejection is is just the first step on a long road that takes you from the lesser person that society says you are, to the better person that you can be. Recognizing a bad pattern of behaviour is the first step, but dealing with it is the essential second one. Attack, denial and avoidance are all just ways of postponing the hard work that's involved in doing that... but again, they are the only modes of reaction that the media ever presents us with.  Little wonder, then, that some destructive behaviour sinks in to the best of us.

In an age where people socialize alone, through the medium of a computer screen, the habit of unfriending and blocking people who one disagrees with has become an almost unquestioning first resort for dealing with disagreement, using a third party server to whitewash undesirables instead of facing them head-on.  Each time this happens, the prospect of true unity - which takes effort, as Spiral Tribe so effortlessly explained - grows dimmer.

This tendency to reject rather than reform is hardly a modern issue for activism, nor is it even a Berlin issue. Way back in the 1940's, Orwell was already griping about the hyper-critical tendencies of his contemporary lefties:

"The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power." [From 'England Your England', 1941]

Besides, arguing over the "right" way to be feminist, socialist, environmentalist seems like it's kind of a waste of energy when there's an ever-present threat that one might be beaten, raped, exploited and murdered.  But maybe that's just my weirdly subjective view, getting in the way of the bigger picture...?

However, I also don't believe that the left wing scene should turn a blind eye to unethical behaviour in its own ranks - just that it should try confronting it instead of shouting it down or shutting the door in its face.  We all have colleagues, school friends, neighbours and family members who sometimes say racist, sexist or other stupid things, but we carry on making the effort to relate to them a) because we have to and b) because we want to.  We’re deeply enough entwined in their existence that we can see the benefits as well as the drawbacks in the relationship.  Why should it be any different with our fellow activists?

Even as I'm writing these words though, I'm aware that they also sort of fall into the category of critical statements. So far, I haven't actually said anything about what the left wing activist scene can do to become more balanced.

Perhaps action groups could try organizing meetings where the only goal is for people to share their personal, everyday experiences and backstories... without judgement.  A safe and non-defensive space for leftists is sorely lacking in activism today, and it has been as far back as I can remember - except for that short period of time when Reclaim the Streets was active in London.  Their approach was entirely flexible, leaving decisions and reactions up to everyone; the only mandate seemed to be to stick together and stay on the streets.

Activists still need that kind of a space where they can just be together; where the ever-present pressure to be the "best" or the "most egalitarian" person is gone.  They need a place where they can create a balanced scene by being a balanced person, who is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs.  And they need space to experiment, too, instead of expecting to hammer out the perfect rhetoric and then go about fixing the world without any doubts or hesitations whatsoever. Rhetoric has a dangerous tendency to narrow the world down to blacks and whites, when it's mostly made up of grey areas. 

Any unstructured meet-up could achieve that same result as a street reclaiming action.  Hanging out, making music together, having a picnic or party. Alternatively, one could organize a 'talking stick' group where people take turns to talk freely about any subject that comes to mind without fear of accusation or rejection.   This would make it easier for activists to see each other as people, works in progress rather than just symbols of a cause.

The above map from Muckety.com shows some of the business interests and politicians that are linked to Monsanto

It's funny how the leading corporate and political bodies never seem to limit themselves to working with people that have the exact same sets of beliefs that they do. They don't just choose Christian or white male partners to work with, either at home or abroad. The Bush administration was infamously happy to work with the Taliban until September 11th happened, and competing companies merge to increase their profits all the time. The powerful aren't closed minded about exploring all avenues and alliances to get what they want. They definitely don't limit themselves to meeting up at massive conferences full of allies they barely know and swapping strategy tips - which is what many left wing meetings and protests are like.

No: they also meet in restaurants and bars, go on holidays together, and party together. They sleep together, have families together, and live in communities that they established together. They also argue together... and then stay together in spite of it all, much as Spiral Tribe itself has done.   In fact, you could say that the super-wealthy are a sort of dark twin of freewheeling music collectives like Spiral Tribe.  They spend an inordinate amount of time in direct personal contact and stick together no matter what kinds of scandals hit them.  The capitalists of the world are defined by a tendency to form larger and larger alliances, not to subdivide and self-segregate as the left wing currently does. 

Now look at how they tell us plebians to act, by comparison; they say, "Vote on our own.  Stand on our own two feet.  Express yourself.  Rely on yourself.  Be your own boss.  Strike out on your own. Stand out from the crowd. Be unique."  And all the while they speak as a faceless & unified collective.  It's a stark an illustration of, 'Do as I say, not as I do' as there can be.  Why? Because they know that, if we did as they did, we’d suddenly become a force to be reckoned with.  

In order for any activist movement to be as effective at attracting and maintaining the support of the masses as capitalism has been, it would have to be just as integrated, and become as relevant on every level of our lives as capitalism currently seems to be.  No matter how "unrelated" to the cause an activity might seem, if people are doing it, it should be incorporated into the rhetoric... somehow. And if it cannot be incorporated, then it's probably the rhetoric that needs to change, not the people.

Many modern activists seem to believe that it should be the other way around - that they should abandon any parts of their lives that don't fit the rhetoric.  This is a surefire way to open up a chasm between the cause and the people affected by it.

The left wing really can't afford to be elitist, in times like these. There aren't enough Spiral Tribes around, but there are countless Money And Power Tribes in the world and the only way to even out that balance is to find a way to work together, even when it's hard. Especially when it's hard. The answer isn't to diss the tribal mentality or 'rise above it', it is to embrace it. When the media is so clearly desperate to fragment society at the grassroots level, then the only possible defence is to become even more whole.  

It also just makes sense. Because, eventually, you run out of things to stop, reject and be against.  After that, you’re left with whatever you are and the strange, discomfiting fact that it is all that you will ever have to work with.  That's when the real work starts to happen. 

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals.


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