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I’m an ideologue… get me out of here! Forget celebrities in the jungle: what would happen if our political tribes were marooned on their own island?

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

November 19, 2019   4 mins

The turbulent history of the past few years — with political schism, increased tribalism, and the emergence of violent movements fetishising ideological purity — was widely ascribed by early 21st-century sociologists to the relentless monetisation of political disagreement, and the recasting of public debate as a branch of the entertainment industry.

Everyone agreed this could only be a good thing, so towards the end of 2019 a UK television production company decided to monetise it further with a new reality TV show called I’m An Ideologue … Get Me Out of Here! In a radical experiment, the format saw 100 members of distinct political tribes marooned on one of five islands in a small Pacific archipelago. They received basic survival training before being put ashore to see how they would fare over the course of a year in the wild.

It’s not really the Conservative way to start a society from scratch — they being a crowd for whom, at least until the 2016 referendum, the key to happiness is gentle bottom-up tinkering with the institutions you inherit from your forebears. Nevertheless, the castaways made a fist of it. With Burkean efficiency, they organised themselves into “little platoons” — hunters, gatherers, cooks and fire-makers, builders of shelter — and agreed that the division of labour would create a rising tide that lifted all boats.

Problems first arose when the platoon who discovered the island’s sole source of fresh water started charging exorbitant numbers of seashells — the standard unit of exchange — for access to it on that grounds that they should be entitled to profit from their entrepreneurship. There were likewise restive elements among the women — whose “traditional” role as cooks and fire-makers was expected to go uncompensated in currency. Sufficient shelters having been built a month or two in, the shelter-builders were soon largely unemployed. The monopoly water suppliers, meanwhile, amassed more and more seashells, which they lent to the lower orders at considerable rates of interest.

The experiment ended, unfortunately, before the violent revolution many were predicting came to pass.

The hope of establishing a paradise — “socialism in one country” — got off to a rocky start on the Labour island. Before they even started to forage for food, shelter and drinkable water, the 100 participants became mired in a ferocious ideological disagreement about the distribution of the island’s still hypothetical resources. A clique of younger members — alarmed by the possibility that those who caught fish or game might assert the unilateral right to eat it — demanded Fully Automated Luxury Communism and forcibly expropriated the remaining stash of Tracker bars and dried apricots. They made camp on the beach on the west of the island and declared “socialism on one beach”.

The remaining contestants, now desperately hungry, trooped towards the island’s interior in search of sustenance. These “centrists”, smarting though they may have been about the loss of their snack bars, nevertheless made a fist of setting up a camp and within a few months, working co-operatively, were getting on pretty well. But, then, having passed a resolution that radical disruption was essential to prevent neoliberal orthodoxy taking hold, the inhabitants of the beach encampment set fire to the centrists’ jungle — which destroyed 80% of the island’s natural resources.

Liberal Democrats
The Liberal Democrat island was a peculiar one. On the face of it, they all got along rather well — and they proved remarkably hospitable to the handful of desperate refugees who swam across from the other islands. At the end of the year they had survived and even prospered, in a very modest, minding their own business sort of way, but ratings figures for Lib Dem island proved so low that their part of the show ceased being televised after six days. In fact, even the production company slightly forgot that they had six islands, so at the end of the year nobody came to rescue them.

Many hundreds of years later, anthropologists would come upon the remains of their civilisation and discover that they had built a primitive religion around the conviction that their island was going to win a reality TV show.

The Alt-right
This was the most violent of all the island experiments. A collective commitment to “free speech” was the only rule on this paradise of libertarians, but flare-ups ensued every time one freethinker called another a rude name, and got punched in the nose for it — causing a backlash when others punched him in the nose in defence of the original freethinker’s right to robust debate. Unity tended to prevail only when the groups rallied to search the jungle for “antifa”.

The competition for the conch became more and more intense, and the unity of the island’s various freethinkers broke down as policy divisions emerged between white nationalists, white supremacists, evolutionary psychologists, Randian rationalists and those who remained unwaveringly committed, even on this undeveloped tropical island, to promoting the cause of ethics in videogame journalism. The suggestion among some radical freethinkers on the island that women be held as a common sexual resource showed alarming signs of gaining traction and threatened to unite the warring subtribes — until it was pointed out that there were no women on the island at all.

Extinction Rebellion
A substantial crew of die-hard Thunbergites — with the under-16s and over-60s disproportionately represented — volunteered to participate in the show, citing their wish to “reject the neoliberal industrial-capitalist machine”. Within a few hours, however, a number attempted to swim away when they realised they would no longer have iPhones or be able to use Instagram or Twitter. Some of those who survived this attempt and returned to the island formed a cargo-cult. Its devotional rituals included “hashtagging” disapproving messages in the sand of the beach on the south of the island in the hopes they would be visible to passengers on overflying aircraft.

Organisation on the island was agreed to be anarcho-syndicalist, and a great deal of energy in the first year went into the debate over what anarcho-syndicalism actually was. The first monsoon season went badly after the commune decided that nobody was to light fires to keep warm and dry on the grounds that to do so would release an unconscionable amount of carbon into the atmosphere. But by sheltering under the bodies of colleagues who had glued themselves to trees, a number of the island’s inhabitants were able to make it through to the dry season.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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