Cure worse than the disease
The left should have no truck with clampdowns on the ‘abuse’ of politicians, argues Paul Demarty.
Only weeks after Boris Johnson’s use of words like ‘surrender’ and ‘traitor’ set the good people of parliament into a paroxysm of pearl-clutching, his success in obtaining a general election for December 12 looks set to provoke a huge Black Friday order of smelling salts all over again.
Once more the newspapers are full of horror stories about abuse hurled at MPs, at MPs being told that they must not hold surgeries for their physical safety, and who knows what else? They are threatened with death, or the death of family members; so it goes on. Such incivility is frightfully unBritish, we are led to surmise, and ‘something should be done’ about it.
Our own views on this matter are clear enough. MPs have no reasonable expectation of immunity from extremely unflattering and awkward communications with their constituents, and all attempts to ‘do something about’ the ‘abuse’ of MPs should be treated with extreme scepticism. This is doubtless a less than wholly satisfactory account of all the issues involved, however, and we will flesh things out after a detour through the pages of Solidarity - the organ of the squalid, pro-imperialist cult, the Alliance for Workers Liberty - for an object lesson in how not to approach the question.
AWL author Jem Vale is extremely concerned over the entry of Salma Yaqoob into the race to be Labour’s candidate for the new West Midlands elected mayoralty. Like a street tough with a faceful of scars and half his teeth left, the AWL never forgets a grudge; and we should say at the outset that its beef with Yaqoob is down to her origins as a young Muslim spokeswoman for the anti-war movement, and then her participation for many years in Respect. That is not Vale’s complaint, however; rather it is that Yaqoob is alleged by Bradford MP Naz Shah to have been very, very mean to her when attempting to unseat her in 2017, leaving Shah “feeling suicidal”. Shah “accuses Yaqoob of ‘honour abuse’, of failing to challenge men who slut-shamed her (Shah) at campaign events and of suggesting voters should back her at the polls because she wore a hijab and Shah didn’t.”1
You may remember that name from somewhere, and indeed it was Ms Shah herself whose choice of Facebook posts gave the powers-that-be their excuse to launch a witch-hunt of the pro-Palestinian left of the Labour Party (Ken Livingstone’s suspension followed directly). Shah herself capitulated and grovelled for forgiveness and, whatever else one might think of comrade Yaqoob, she is unlikely to fold so easily when it comes to the cause of Palestinian liberation (another thing likely to alienate her from the affections of the smear-happy Zionists of the AWL; and if its output a couple of years ago did not leave Shah contemplating hara-kiri, it is only thanks to its obscurity).
We could think of this as an AWL hatchet job to order and nothing more, but for all the world it is starting to look like this organisation actually believes all this guff about ‘abuse’. Consider Cathy Nugent’s review of a liberal jeremiad about online trolling, in the same issue of the paper.
The intended effect of trolling is to dehumanise. The targets of trolls become bad people who deserve everything they get. And, if they complain, they are “snowflakes” or similar … Trolls themselves, after they enter this world, become dehumanised, they become nihilists, their behaviour is reckless and often self-harming. People who are depressed slip further into depression.2
Nugent notes, for her part, the difficulties in bringing trolls to justice:
Neither the law or the complaints systems of the social media companies seem willing to keep pace with the trolls’ outputs. For the police there is a problem of capacity. Most people do not have the financial resources to access the law. Social media companies are monopolies and they do not want to regulate themselves out of business - if they are seen to attack ‘free speech’, they will lose users and advertising revenue.
This is really extraordinary stuff from a supposed Trotskyist. The problem with the police response to online trolling is one of capacity, apparently, not one of our faith in the state to adjudicate on liberty of speech! But, it seems, the problem is closer to home than Nugent lets on:
The left also has a problem with group-led online trolling behaviours, which it is not in a fit state to face up to. At one extreme there is Red London, an anonymous Facebook page, which styles itself as ultra-Stalinist (eg, praising North Korea). Three years ago Red London made Workers’ Liberty one of their targets, accusing us of condoning paedophilia.
So far as solutions go, Nugent is vague, but continues to tack in the direction of demanding a clampdown, noting that it is a bad idea to defend trolling on free-speech grounds, because “free speech requires the forums for speech not to be clogged up with lies and misdirections”. “As for the labour movement”, there needs to be a snitch’s charter: “We need to update rule books to take account of harmful social media behaviour. From experience of multiple complaints taken to the Labour Party by AWL comrades, the party’s systems are either broken or biased.”
Lastly, in the same paper, there is an article by Carrie Evans on the moral panic around drill music - an especially bleak rap subgenre with unapologetically violent lyrical content. She makes a perfectly serviceable argument in favour of free speech; apparently only when drunk tankies make jokes about the AWL is free speech problematic … 3
If the AWL is hopelessly confused about ‘hate speech’ and related matters, it is because there is no line to be drawn except by power. Selectivity on these matters relies on the ability to impose a set of taboos on public speech; to condemn one utterance is to, impliedly, ennoble all the others. Discriminating between the two types of speech will always amount to a ‘free speech for me, censorship for thee’ policy. Thus flagrant lies that issue in serious harm (let us say, Theresa May’s porky about a ‘bogus asylum-seeker’, who could not be deported because he had a pet cat, taken together with the hostile environment policy of her home office that led to the Windrush fiasco) shall be tolerated, for they are protected by the prevailing politesse.
It is little enough of a surprise to find Nugent singing this tune, as the AWL’s political failings are in the end a matter of its subservience to the British (and indirectly American) state. The AWL never ‘supports’ the foreign adventures of these states, of course, but ‘in the name of what would we oppose’ these little wheezes in the direction of state-failure and chaos? And so, while the AWL has little faith on paper in the bureaucratic apparatus of the Labour Party, in the name of what principle would it object to being saved by the Victoria Street HQ or even the police and courts from the cruel attention of Red London?
What remains to be explained, of course, is the increasing preponderance of nihilistic hostility in public discourse. It seems like, in principle, it ought to be possible to conduct an argument over political matters without anyone being accused of paedophilia or threatened with murder. There is surely nobody over the emotional age of 14 who - all things being equal - would not prefer a political culture not enveloped in a miasma of conspiracy theories, violent fantasies and homebrew psy-ops. So why can’t we have one? Why can’t we, in the words of Bill and Ted, be excellent to each other?
There is, roughly, a conservative understanding of this: that there is something inherently evil in the human personality than can never be transcended - only policed; and a liberal one: that the problem is ‘polarisation’ and ‘partisanship’, which leads to escalating rhetoric and worse. (In spite of the AWL’s political liberalism, Cathy Nugent is a Tory by default on this point, with no demands apart from more effective ‘police actions’.) These interpretations are misguided, and in fact mutually undermining; in spite of pseudo-scientific modern justifications for the Tory idea, it is mostly just half-digested Augustine and Hobbes, and suffers the same problems, when confronted with human societies as they actually live and develop. As for the liberal version, the question arises as to why politics gets so polarised, and so - if we are not to name the true cause - then we arrive back at the Tory version, and polarised politics is the return of Hobbes’s repressed war of all against all. Yet it does point to a problem in the Tory ‘solution’, which is that police actions in polarised societies tend to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, these problems.
The true cause is capitalism, in a couple of ways. At the highest available level of abstraction, capitalism tends towards concentration of wealth, and thus demands minoritarian political regimes that rule in the service of capital. These regimes will tend, of necessity, to corruption and injustice; and thus rebellion against them - from reform movements to revolutionary politics to nihilistic jacqueries - is quite inevitable. Trolling and ‘abuse’ of politicians will fall into one of these three categories; the latter, if the victim is telling the truth, or one of the former two, if he or she is crying crocodile tears.
This does not distinguish capitalism from pre-capitalist class societies. Unlike those societies, however, there are far fewer de jure fixed relations of subordination (the survival of domestic and chattel forms of slavery here and there being the exception); though it is not actually true in the general case that a hotel maid can become a billionaire hedge-fund manager, it is not excluded by the legal regime as such. This leads to an important mediation on the road to where we are. The difference between the formal equality of people and the reality of a deeply unfair society, in which the wage relation ensures that the vast majority are ripped off to make cosseted lives for a tiny few, makes capitalism far more complex to manage politically (fractious though feudalism and antique societies were). Moreover, a completely privatised society tends towards warlordism or gangsterism; so some mechanism is needed to adjudicate legitimately between capitals.
There thus arises a permanent caste of professionals, most especially in the law and in politics, whose purpose is to ‘save capitalism from itself’ - both from its own gravediggers, and its bottomless lust for profit, which, unchecked, would lead to short-term civilisational collapse. The professional classes form a layer of the petty bourgeoisie, but the layer must be closely integrated with the capitalist class’s interests. They possess a body of technical and bureaucratic knowledge, whose scarcity is maintained artificially, and which is in substance leased to the capitalist class in return for a share of the profits accrued by the society as a whole.
The problem with the moral panic over ‘abuse’ of MPs is just here. Forming as they do a layer of the professional class, the politicians must appear as what they usually are (agents of capital, or some group of capitalists against another). Their interests must appear opposed to sections of the popular masses.
When capitalist society faces crises of legitimacy, as it did after the 2008 crash and consequent bailouts, this problem is exacerbated. In Britain, it was not a year after the Lehman bankruptcy that the expenses scandal rocked parliament - the Brexit vote is one more fruit of this poisonous tree. Authoritarian forms of rule may replace relatively more liberal ones, as with the Bonapartism of a Boris Johnson, but such regimes must also, inevitably, stand exposed as self-serving and corrupt. Both policing of ‘abusive’ speech and attempts to defuse the ‘partisanship’ of society must fail, because the untrustworthiness of politicians is built into the governance of capitalist societies.
Is there a germ of truth to the violent rhetoric of nihilistic trolls? Why, yes - merely that the solution to the problem is the destruction of politics as a career, a profession; and that, in turn, would require a decisive victory for the proletariat over capital. This destruction need not be violent, in the end, or even terribly unpleasant - in a certain sense, it would be a radical extension of Keynes’s euthanasia of the rentiers.
We must expect, however, that measures to ‘protect’ politicians from abuse will serve only to deepen the corrupt complicity of our politicians with their masters. For any true democrat, who believes in the authentic self-government of the masses, that cure is far worse than the disease.