Three decades ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the start of the Left’s identity crisis. As communism ended, the central pillars of socialist economics were discredited and the Left was left asking: what should a socialist society look like? What does it stand for? Who does it represent?
It’s still asking itself the same questions. Or it has swept them under the carpet while the ‘hobbyist Left’ — which has captured the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn — preoccupies itself with language-policing and virtue-signalling, rather than purpose.
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That, at least, is the contention of A Left for Itself, the new book by historian David Swift. Swift argues — persuasively — that contemporary Left-wing politics “is better understood as less of a political movement and more as a form of identity or enjoyable past time”. It has become more a “consumption activity” than a way to improve people’s lives, as the political scientist Eitan Hersh has noted.
Many of us have been sounding the alarm about identity politics for a while, not least because it is too often class blind; as Swift writes, it “places the poorest and most vulnerable of white men as fundamentally more exalted than the richest and most privileged women or people of colour”.
But it is also inherently a movement of anti-intellectualism, which prioritises lived experience over objective truth. Lived experience is clearly important, but it is not everything — as most middle-class Lefties are apt to remember when they encounter a white British person who doesn’t like immigration because of the social effects it has had on their hometown. That experience is treated with such reverence is why politics today is less about what you think and what talents you possess, than about what you are, how you feel and how you can successfully turn that into a performative online brand.
As the historian Thomas Frank has argued, Left-wing politics has become “a matter of shallow appearances, or fatuous self-righteousness… a politics in which the beautiful and wellborn tell the unwashed and the beaten-down and the funny-looking how they ought to behave”.
Identity politics divides the world into compartmentalised interest groups and can be shockingly myopic. The Canadian feminist academic K.E. Noss, for example, has argued that initiatives to tackle female circumcision are an example of “neo-colonial violence”.
In 2017, the pop singer Lily Allen wrote on Twitter that “Islamists don’t hate women more or less than anyone else”. Meanwhile, feminists are currently under attack from many on the Left, as Swift notes, for their refusal to recognise that trans women are women in the same sense as biological women.
These divisive conflicts are facilitated and fuelled by social media, which Peter Pomerantsev describes as a “major-narcissism engine that can never quite be satisfied, leading us to take up more radical positions to get more attention”. Denouncing one’s opponents on social media is easy and costs nothing. Yet it serves to drive political discourse further to the extremes.
As Swift writes: “when conservatives say that ‘feminism/anti-racism/LGBT rights have gone too far’ they clearly aren’t talking about the end of gender pay gaps, racist violence or LGBT teen suicides. What they are talking about is the language of online activists and the attention-seeking schemes of identity leftists.”
The closed-off world of Twitter lends itself to this performative culture of ‘calling out’ and posturing. Activists say extreme things for the thrill of it — and to stand out on a crowded platform. This, in turn, generates a backlash, with alt-Right pundits whipping up fears about “political correctness gone mad” based on the play-acting of a small number of noisy online hobbyists.
Swift’s book focuses more on this — on the current state of politics — rather than assessing how we got here. As it happens, I think we’re here because politics has become a surrogate religion for so many people. Oscar Wilde said the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings, yet for many of socialism’s contemporary adherents, that appears to be part of the appeal. Jeremy Corbyn has given those with otherwise empty lives a reason to get up in the morning.
That isn’t meant to sound entirely contemptuous. There is a renewed thirst for meaning in the West, and many of socialism’s adherents are motivated, as Swift puts it, “by a desire for an enjoyable pastime, and a search for identity”. Corbyn serves as a useful blank canvas onto which all of one’s fantasies of traducing Blairites, Zionists, transphobes and white supremacists can be projected.
By contrast, technocratic machine politics — the politics of compromise, bureaucracy and incremental change — fails to adequately perform that task and fill that void. It produces little of the romantic glamour of performative revolutionary politics and boasts too few unblemished heroes. There is too much shabby ambiguity and no final, irreversible — a sinister term favoured by some in the current Labour Party — victory over those who think differently.
But politics as religion invariably comes with a cost. There is, naturally, a constant hunt for heretics. Public denunciations followed by ‘cancellations’ are de rigueur. Rigid adherence to doctrine is celebrated, while those who err are pompously told that they are on the “wrong side of history”. Political spats focus on the moral character of a person rather than the content of their arguments. Public arguments in which, as Swift phrases it, “identity leftists spend a great deal of time expending venom… at fellow leftists with whom they have some minor disagreements” are ubiquitous on Twitter and other social media.
All of this takes the Left further into the echo chamber, away from the people it is supposed to represent. Attitudes which are held by the vast majority of Britons — that there should be some upper limit on immigration, that sex differences exist, that gender isn’t entirely a social construct — are enough to get a person ‘cancelled’ by today’s hobbyist Left. Moreover, the slippery equation of words — or even thoughts — with violence creates a censorious climate where activists feel justified in hounding people from public life completely.
The Left needs to move beyond these childish moral binaries if it is to bring the majority along with it, and carrying the latter is a pre-requisite for improving the lives of the British working class. It may be morally satisfying to parade around in a “Never Kissed a Tory” t-shirt. But better, perhaps, to ask instead why someone is a Tory in the first place. As Swift correctly notes, “there is no binary division in society between good and bad, no easy dichotomy between rich, white Tory men on the one hand and women, gays, ethnic minorities and the working class on the other”.
But a pluralistic approach requires confidence in one’s own beliefs. After all, to engage with a political opponent on equal terms — especially if that political opponent has a decent grasp of the arguments — opens the door to fresh doubts. And doubts lead to heresy, which, when politics seems to mean so much to some people, leads in turn to a loss of friendships and a collapse in one’s identity. The personal is political and the political is, apparently, deeply personal.
Which brings us back to my point about the Left needing a better grasp of what it stands for in the 21st century. Until it works that out, we’ll be hearing a lot more from loud-mouthed hobbyists who, as Swift puts it, are “not motivated by anything as prosaic and tedious as affecting real political change”. And those who need the Left to stand up for them are left out in in the cold.
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