The only thing that’ll make you see sense

Pardon the long silence. It has long- as well as short-term reasons, which I may get into in another post – nothing alarming, just some ruminations about the Vocation of a Blogger. In the mean time, the short-term reasons have more or less lifted, so let’s crack on.

Here’s a couple of Tweets that you may have seen recently.

 

I’ve got a few thoughts about this, but first:

1. Background reading

A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. … Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim. Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.
– George Orwell, “England Your England” (1941)

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting ‘Heil, Spode!’ and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: ‘Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?’
– P. G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters (1938)

We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, [Roy] Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation … what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”. … the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.
– me, this blog (2005)

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
– Phil Ochs (1966)

2. The unbearable lightness of being liberal

There’s something odd about the apparent straightforwardness and consistency of the position Hinsliff (among others) takes here; three things, to be precise. First, let’s unpack. That Tweet lists five forms of “INTIMIDATION/STUFF THAT COULD TURN UGLY”, although I’ve expanded the list to six.

  1. “milkshake-throwing”: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic, which has been used against politicians for as long as there have been politicians and tomatoes; causes victims inconvenience and makes them look ridiculous, while involving no or minimal physical contact; currently being used against extreme right-wingers Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and Nigel Farage
  2. “rape ‘joke’-making”: deniable aggressive tactic, used by misogynists against women; evokes serious physical violence so as to cause fear and intimidation, in both the direct target and other women; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician
  3. “egging”[1]: variant of “rotten tomato” tactic (as above); may be responded to aggressively or with class (NB second approach appears more successful)
  4. “egging”[2]: smacking a politician in the head while holding an egg; aggressive physical contact, expressing anger by evoking a threat of serious physical violence; recently used by an extreme right-winger against a Labour politician inside a mosque
  5. “threatening to pick up rifle”: deniable aggressive tactic, evoking serious physical violence so as to intimidate all political opponents; used by Farage
  6. “punching Nazis”: aggressive physical contact, expressing anger and aiming to interrupt and inconvenience extreme right-wingers in public spaces

It should be reasonably clear that two of these things are not like the others. 2, 4, 5 and 6 aren’t “stuff that could turn ugly”; they already are ugly. Punching people is bad, and polluting political debate by suggesting that you might resort to rape or murder if you can’t get your way – in jest, of course! – is, if anything, even worse. Hinsliff’s list doesn’t work, or else it works only by juxtaposition: throwing a milkshake at Farage, or an egg at Ed Miliband, qualifies as “stuff that could turn ugly” for no other reason than that it’s been put together with a lot of other “ugly” tactics.

Second point: setting aside the first, basically innocuous form of “egging”, this is a list of three things that are currently only done by the extreme Right, and two that are only done to them. The general point about civility in politics which those Tweets are aiming for would work much better if the Left – any part of the Left – could be charged with punching people in general, or even punching their political enemies in general. But the evidence won’t support that, so “punching Nazis” it had to be. The historical context Hinsliff clearly wants to rise above won’t go away: we’re left with a list of three reasons to oppose the rise of the extreme Right and two tactics for doing so, one of which doesn’t involve direct physical violence. You’d think this would be a reason to welcome the use of milkshakes rather than fists, not to deplore both of them equally.

Third point: why is it “not pick’n’mix”? Certainly I’d hope that any left-wing organisation would kick out anyone indulging himself in “rape jokes”, and I can’t see physically attacking people behind closed doors as a viable left-wing tactic – but since neither of these things has recently happened or seems likely to happen, the point is academic. Beyond that, though, the rationale for Hinsliff’s position is obscure – unless she’s urging honesty and consistency on the extreme Right, whose adoption of tactics 2, 4 and 5 makes them ill-suited to complain about 1 and 6. Aimed at the Left it seems like an odd sort of ultimatum – either concede that rape jokes are OK or disown everyone who assaults a Fascist – and I have to come back to the question, why? Where is this demand for consistency coming from, and who is likely to listen to it? I don’t have any trouble saying that I would rather bad things happened to my political enemies than to my allies, if they’re going to happen to anyone; I don’t think many people do.

Perhaps this argument only makes intuitive sense if you’re equally disengaged from both sides. That’s not a good place to be, though. These are dangerous times; the extreme Right is on the rise, in Britain and around the world, and it needs to be resisted by every appropriate means. (Vote Labour, by the way!) In an ideal world I wouldn’t want anyone hit with anything, but in practical terms I struggle to see the difference between Farage’s milkshake and Ed Miliband’s egg – other than that the milkshake was more effective in making its target look ridiculous, and sent the additional message of bracketing Farage with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as extreme Right-wingers. And, if an extreme Right-winger like Farage feels that he can’t show himself in public without hearing the Voice of the People saying, in effect,

Look at that frightful ass Farage swanking about! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?

that doesn’t seem like a situation we should regret.

3. Don’t talk

Two inter-related arguments are often advanced against the use of physical force tactics, and have surfaced again since the Farage incident: we’re told that we shouldn’t provoke them, and that we should defeat them in debate.

Debate is great, of course, but only on two procedural conditions: that you have some kind of shared principles with your opponent, and that neither one of you is looking forward to the complete defeat and elimination of the other. If the first of these doesn’t apply, debate is pointless, as it can only (and invariably will) lead to the two sides restating their own principles at each other and/or trying to make each other look bad, using the ‘debate’ solely as a platform for appealing to the audience. (So many political debates in the media take precisely this form that it’s worth pausing here for a moment, to remind ourselves that (for example) “a fully-funded health service or a reliable NATO partner?” isn’t actually a debate – any more than “blue or large?” would be.) If the second condition doesn’t apply, debate is positively dangerous, as it gives credibility to those absolutist and anti-political goals, and gives that side space to rally support for them.

Fascism has the peculiar quality that much of its content is procedural; fascism is defined, in other words, not by the proposals it puts forward within the political arena but by its opposition to the political arena itself. Fascism isn’t alone in having a procedural payload – one element of the Thatcherite agenda was to reshape British democracy, greatly reducing the role of some stakeholders (trade unions, council tenants) and increasing that of others (shareholders, home-owners) – but the corrosive negativity of Fascism takes this element of politics to an extreme. As such, Fascists are quite impossible to “defeat in debate”; they share no principles with democratic opponents, have no commitment to a continuing political dialogue, and generally have no interest in debate, except as a platform to gain support. Moreover, since their position is primarily negative, exploiting debates as a platform is not hard: all it takes is aggression, tenacity and the ability to make their opponents look more ridiculous than they do. We don’t debate with Fascists; we don’t give their positions respectability; we don’t give them a platform. It’s worth noting that both Hinsliff’s examples of anti-Fascist violence are, precisely, aimed at denying extreme Right-wingers a public platform – and making them look ridiculous.

As for provocation, three thoughts. Firstly, in purely tactical terms a general caution against provocation makes no sense; sadly, we are long past the stage where a sleeping extreme-Right dragon might be roused by incautious Leftist aggression. If there is a case against provocation, it must be either a case-by-case assessment or a general ban on non-tactical grounds – but if those grounds aren’t based on absolute pacifism, I’m not sure what they would be based on. Secondly, it’s true that making life difficult for one’s opponents to speak in public is a provocation; you could also call it a challenge. The message it sends is, come back and do better, if you can; come back in big enough numbers that we won’t be able to stop you… if you can. (The other thing you could call it is a gamble.) What liberal observers don’t tend to factor in is that, despite their self-image, not every extreme-Right organisation has determined leaders and huge numbers of footsoldiers; if anything, it’s rather the exception to the rule. In most cases, the challenge – or provocation – will be quietly declined, leaving public spaces Fascist-free. Yes, it’s a gamble, but it can be argued, in some situations, that the benefit is high enough and the risk low enough to make it worth taking. Thirdly, and most importantly, provocation in this sense doesn’t seem to be how things work; there simply isn’t that much evidence of relatively peaceful extreme Right-wingers reacting to violent leftist provocation by taking up violence. Extreme right-wingers do react violently to provocation, it’s true, but what they consider provocation isn’t generally anything to do with violence. Carl Benjamin threatened a woman with rape in response to ‘feminism’; John Murphy assaulted Jeremy Corbyn in response to Parliament’s failure to enact Brexit; Darren Osborne drove his car into a group of Muslims in response to their being Muslims; Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox in response to her being an anti-racist Labour MP. The violence – the aggressive violence – is already there; it’s primarily on their side; and – returning to the first point – it has been for some time: the time to worry that the extreme Right might get violent in future is long gone.

My attitude to physical force tactics hasn’t changed since I wrote that blog post in 2005 – generally speaking, I’m agin ’em – but I can’t endorse the apparent consistency of Hinsliff’s position; if anything, I’d say that its consistency is what makes it lose any relevance. Consistency, or absolutism: essentially it’s a conflation of two different questions, Do you oppose the use of physical force in politics in principle? and Do you oppose the use of physical force in any political situation whatsoever? Answering Yes to the first one doesn’t mandate answering Yes to the second, unless you’re advocating absolute pacifism – which is a consistent position, to be fair, but only as long as it’s not sheltering behind the police and armed forces’ monopoly of force. If you’re happy sending in the police to drag protesters away and the army to put down riots, that’s not so much pacifism as passivity – or status quo bias.

Sure, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

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3 Comments

  1. Posted 23 May 2019 at 17:45 | Permalink | Reply

    Fantastic overview which puts in words thoughts I have been grappling with.

    But this particularly: “Fascism has the peculiar quality that much of its content is procedural; fascism is defined, in other words, not by the proposals it puts forward within the political arena but by its opposition to the political arena itself. Fascism isn’t alone in having a procedural payload – one element of the Thatcherite agenda was to reshape British democracy, greatly reducing the role of some stakeholders (trade unions, council tenants) and increasing that of others (shareholders, home-owners) – but the corrosive negativity of Fascism takes this element of politics to an extreme. As such, Fascists are quite impossible to “defeat in debate”; they share no principles with democratic opponents, have no commitment to a continuing political dialogue, and generally have no interest in debate, except as a platform to gain support. Moreover, since their position is primarily negative, exploiting debates as a platform is not hard: all it takes is aggression, tenacity and the ability to make their opponents look more ridiculous than they do. We don’t debate with Fascists; we don’t give their positions respectability; we don’t give them a platform. It’s worth noting that both Hinsliff’s examples of anti-Fascist violence are, precisely, aimed at denying extreme Right-wingers a public platform – and making them look ridiculous.”

  2. Guano
    Posted 24 May 2019 at 14:01 | Permalink | Reply

    I think that it is necessary to draw a distinction between “debate with Farage is pointless” and “pointing out the fallacies in what Farage says is pointless”. It isn’t necessary to have Farage present, nor to give him the oxygen of publicity, in order to point out that Farage talks nonsense and there are as yet very few people pointing out that what Farage says is nonsense.

    That doesn’t mean that it is going to be easy to shift people’s views. Large numbers of people have bought into the Farage worldview and don’t relate to arguments and facts that lie outside that worldview. I was a talk by Stefaan de Rynck (one of Barnier’s assistants) in December 2017 at Chatham House, and he was explaining why the EU couldn’t offer the UK deal in which the UK was outside the ECJ, EEA and CU but still had frictionless trade and cooperation with the EU. The questions from about half the audience afterwards suggested that they just couldn’t relate to what he was saying because their worldview is that the EU is just an outside imposition (and not an association of states that the UK has helped to shape). They didn’t question his thesis; they ignored it and continued to complain that the EU wasn’t offering what they wanted.

    I am investing in milkshake futures but I also want much more effort in pointing out that Farage is selling a nonsensical worldview. Some people might get upset that their worldview is being challenged, but we cannot let truth die in the darkness.

  3. Posted 22 June 2019 at 16:08 | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with this fascinating article, I think. However, fascist is as fascist does. I can appreciate the milkshaking of Yaxley-Lennon, but the line at which we accept political violence should be drawn pretty much there. He wants to provoke violence: the right have given themselves over to crisis and making the most of crisis. My new political mantra is “calm the fuck down”, and I don’t think that it is a liberal position to say that violence and democracy are opposing positions.

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