Pulling strokes and taking liberties

Here’s what I know about politics: people pull strokes.

If you’re working in an organisation like the Labour Party, there’s a gap, in terms of goals and ideals – a normative gap – between what you say is happening and what’s actually going on in procedural or institutional terms. Narrow votes are a particularly glaring example of this gap: you say that the party is united behind your programme, and maybe it is – or maybe you took a vote on the programme committee, your programme won by eight votes to seven and that’s that. Thinly-attended meetings are another: you say you’ve got a large and lively membership firmly committed to Labour victory, but on closer inspection the ‘large’ membership is mainly on paper, the ‘lively’ refers to the two or three new faces who always seem to appear for doorknocking sessions, and everyone’s ‘firmly’ committed because your faction has a lock on any decision-making meetings.

Looking back on Corbynism – a phrase that’s almost physically painful to write – I think a large part of the Right’s failure to comprehend the phenomenon, and a large part of our indignation and outrage in response, had to do with the unexpected narrowness of this gap. We said that there were thousands of us and we were united, and they automatically translated this into a more mundane procedural reality – some bunch of Trots has pushed this whole thing through and got a load of kids to sign up to the mailing list… Hence 2017, of course; by 2019 they’d realised that there were thousands of us and we were united, and stronger measures needed to be taken.

But there’s also another normative gap, between what you say you’re doing in procedural terms and what you’re actually getting away with. Rules very often aren’t written down, and when they are they need to be interpreted; applying a rule at all involves applying a secondary rule of equity and fair play, to the effect of Any rule should be enforced in all cases where it applies, and only those cases. How effectively that rule gets applied is more important than the content of any written rule.

Of course, rules don’t exist, at least in the sense of tangible things in the world: if you’re physically unable to do something, your behaviour in that respect is not being controlled by a rule, and vice versa. (The shopkeeper who takes alcohol off sale outside licensing hours is following a rule; the punter who doesn’t try to buy it in those times isn’t.) Rules only exist to the extent that people observe them – and to the extent that they expect others to observe them and apply pressure on others to observe them. This is particularly true of that secondary rule, the rule that rules should be applied fairly. Anyone who, as an individual, visibly breaks the rules, or pulls strokes in selectively applying the rules, will tend to get stopped by their peers – not because those people are high-minded idealists, but because they know that they would get stopped if they did the same thing.

Rules don’t exist as tangible objects, so people can ignore them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular – without any immediate or automatic consequences. But rules do exist, in the sense that everyone internalises them and brings pressure to bear on anyone who flouts them – the ‘fair play’ rule in particular. Only when somebody is powerful enough not to fear other people’s social pressure can they really get away with ignoring the rules – and very few individuals are that powerful, at least not for very long.

A group of people, on the other hand, is insulated from social pressure, at least from outside the group. If a group of people, with shared goals in the longer term and shared enemies in the short term, can apply rules to its advantage, there’s every reason to expect that they won’t apply those rules fairly. Attempts to bring social pressure to bear on the group are unlikely to have any effect; all that anyone outside the group can really do is try to stop them. Stop them collectively and stop them altogether, that is, not just stop the bad apples within the group who are applying the rules badly; it’s up to the group to do that – and they’re not likely to do it for as long as applying the rules badly works to the group’s benefit.

This, then, is the first lesson from the story linked to above. If you pass a rule saying that Socialist Appeal is proscribed and anyone involved with it can be expelled, and people are then expelled for being seen at a public meeting held by Socialist Appeal before it was proscribed, it’s perfectly clear that this is not a fair or appropriate application of the rule: to that extent Ann Black is quite correct. The question is, given the factional makeup of the current Labour leadership, what did anyone think was going to happen when that rule was passed? The disciplinary apparatus of the Labour Party hasn’t gone rogue, despite appearances; the people involved are only acting this wildly because they’re acting with factional, and leadership, endorsement. Social pressure won’t reach them; they can only be stopped.

How to stop them is another question – and this is the second lesson. The current frenzy of expulsions wouldn’t be happening if those responsible couldn’t get away with it. If we could stop them, we would have stopped them by now; in particular, if organising against expulsions could stop them, it would have worked by now. (One of the organisations proscribed was Labour Against The Witchhunt, for goodness’ sake.) These expulsions are a kind of random, symbolic punishment beating for the Left, administered in the hope of getting us to shut up and/or leave. We can resist – at least by not leaving – but we can’t, at the moment, stop them happening.

There are times when bullies overreach, usually because their victims are stronger than they wish to acknowledge. That’s not what’s going on now, though. This is just plain, ordinary bullying, and it’s being done because we’re weak. Nothing is going to change for the better until that changes.

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