Left culture: Nutters like us
Till the left starts to make headway, get used to being viewed as mad, writes Paul Demarty
The comment threads on the Left Unity website are ever lively, and never more so than when the scab is scraped off the platform struggle, which has taken on a rather traumatic character for many participants.
So it is with the latest iteration of the Left Party Platform, which is at least marginally to the left of the first one; just as well, now that even ‘Red’ Ed Miliband is not as embarrassed by the word ‘socialism’ as Alan Thornett. Inevitably, beneath the platform statement are (at time of writing) 30 comments of varying degrees of lucidity.
In a particularly bad mood is one John Penney, who flaps his gums about “ultra-left sectlets” in a manner so clichéd it is almost enough to hurt our feelings (put some effort in, please!). In one rambling contribution, he makes another impeccably shop-soiled argument: “[The masses] won’t join the far-left parties though, will they? Why? Because they think your obscurantist, sloganeer language and demands are those of crazy people! That’s the reality. Suck it up! Most people think you are nutters.”
There are all manner of open goals here for any competent opponent; the masses aren’t exactly flocking into Left Unity, or its rightmost faction either; they are not flocking into Respect, which is dead on the vine; they did not flock into the last 10 attempts to do exactly the same thing as the LPP has in mind. We may conclude that the masses, inasmuch as they take an interest, think John Penney is a nutter as well.
This drew a quick response from Chris Strafford, a leading comrade in the centrist Socialist Platform, and runs in its entirety thus: “This is not helpful language to use in these discussions, John. There is nothing wrong with being a nutter. Many people suffer from mental illnesses and are branded ‘nutters’ and ‘crazy’ all the time. Try and remember our project is trying to break from such behaviour.”1
The response of comrade Strafford, alas, leaves something to be desired. So “nutters” is notionally offensive to people who struggle with one form or another of mental illness; so what? That is clearly not the sense in which the criticism was intended.
If there is nothing wrong with mental illness, why do we call it illness? There clearly is something deeply wrong with a society in which depression is on the rise, eating disorders are reaching epidemic proportions and something like one in seven teenagers is certifiably mentally ill. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with people who suffer from such disorders, in that not even the most sociopathic Ukip member would ascribe moral culpability to the patient; but Penney’s point is that we on the far left have chosen to (appear to) be nutters, that we have the freedom to be sane.
That should be all the more obvious if we ask the question: what is mental illness? The ‘official’ textbook for psychiatrists is the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), but we cannot but be slightly concerned that every time it is reissued it is a good sight longer than the last version. This does not seem to be all (or very much) down to genuinely new discoveries in the field of mental health; rather, an abstract list of symptoms is carved up in notionally novel ways, and more ‘symptoms’ are bunged in for good measure, with the result that personal idiosyncrasies (nail-biting, for instance) are implicitly medicalised.
Mental health, in short, is even in this most narrow definition a social question; while it would be scientifically illiterate to exclude entirely the ‘non-social’ factors in this (physiological problems do often manifest psychologically, for instance), many of the most common issues (depression, eating disorders and so on) are inseparable from a social context that defines boundaries of what is ‘normal’ and what is not. The latter category is getting larger.
So it is with ideas that are considered ‘mad’. It is certainly the case that our ideas are ‘mad’; communists and revolutionary socialists of all stripes are considered little better than those who believe the Earth to be flat. The most prominent ‘communist’ intellectual, even, is Slavoj iek, who has built a media career out of being a scatterbrained, bearded eccentric - a kind of global village idiot. That, unfortunately, is as good as it gets for us in the global north at the moment.
In this context, complaining that the word ‘nutters’ is offensive might garner some cheap moral authority in an internet comment thread, but is absolutely hopeless as far as talking to broader masses is concerned. According to the common sense of the age, it will be interpreted as a guilty refusal to answer the charge - equivalent, to use two unflattering examples, to Nick Griffin’s refusal to explain his views on the holocaust because of ‘European law’, or Michael Howard’s legendary refusal to answer a question of Jeremy Paxman’s. It is a lawyer’s response; not a communist politician’s.
We may then consider why it is that our ideas are mad. Comrade Penney has his answer - we are trapped in a “far-left bubble”, talking to ourselves about the Russian revolution and so forth, when what we need to do is rally around a set of “limited but mass popular demands”. That will make us appear sane, apparently. Yet it is pretty obviously the case that such has been the method of the Socialist Workers Party for decades, without any obvious breakthrough; more to the point, the Socialist Worker seller is the very archetype of the swivel-eyed Trot in the popular imagination. Making “mass popular demands”, only louder, also seems mad.
What is the way out, then? Consider the shape of the Earth. It is in a certain sense counter-intuitive that the world is round. To the naked eye, it does not look round. The round Earth hypothesis, moreover, had a number of false dawns, dating back to classical Greece, before gaining wide acceptance; we may assume that even reports of Magellan’s voyage were disbelieved by provincial peasants who had never left the village.
It is not simply the case that we just ‘know’ nowadays that the Earth is not flat; rather, that fact has become social, initially through the growth of global empires with colonial outposts all over the world, and later the rapid development of consumer transport and so on. It is written into the fabric of daily life in such a way that belief in a flat Earth makes one indisputably, with all due apologies to comrade Strafford, a nutter.
What do we on the far left claim? That capitalism is only one stage of human history that has been born and will die; that when it dies, we will all be taken down with it unless humanity consciously overcomes it; that the agent of this change is the working class; and, finally, that this class has no race, gender or nationality, but transcends all the arbitrary borders of the planet and can wipe all oppression from the face of the earth.
On the face of it, all those claims are mad. Capitalism, even in its current paralysed state, looks as permanent a fixture as ever; and it does so because nothing seems able to challenge it. The working class is hammered and atomised; substantial sections of it - sadly - have fallen under the sway of precisely the chauvinist, patriarchal and other reactionary tendencies that we suppose it to be capable of destroying once and for all.
They are mad for real, undeniable, social-historical reasons - principally that we are living through a period of defeat. The pall of madness colours not only the up-front versions of socialist ideology, that make the above claims poker-faced to ‘ordinary people’, but also those who fancy themselves ‘clever’ enough to make “mass popular demands” instead, which without exception fail to be mass or popular beyond the far left’s periphery in the broader labour movement. John Penney is a special sort of nutter - the one who believes he has fooled the doctors into thinking that he has made an overnight recovery, and is ready to be released into the community.
Penney’s implication is right - we do indeed have the freedom to be ‘sane’. We may rejoin the mainstream of bourgeois society, vote Labour, Liberal or Tory, and try to make pragmatic tweaks to the set-up; we can give up, in other words, on any attempt at fundamental transformation of society. We can laugh at the Demartys, Penneys and Straffords of this world alike as delusional flat-Earthers. The trouble is that we are right: capitalism cannot right itself in good order or for long, and any pretence to the contrary flies in the face of all historical evidence. In a crazy world, only the nutters are sane.
Making that insight into the beginnings of a meaningful social fact is a more tortuous task; no get-rich-quick schemes are available. We must first get our own house in order; which means talking amongst ourselves, and working out how exactly we are going to explain to the people outside the bubble that history can be drastically reoriented without it all ending up in another gulag.