When I call Posie Parker the Nigel Farage of Terfs, I mean it as a compliment. I can’t think of another single-issue campaigner so effective at popular communication, so successful in reordering the political landscape — and so reviled for it by the Respectable People whose political gatekeeping both Farage and Posie blithely ignore.
Twitter is still full of otherwise seemingly nice people, fantasising about a world in which Farage had died horribly in his 2010 plane crash. And where Posie — AKA Kellie-Jay Keen — is concerned, the murderous fantasies are even more openly expressed. Over the weekend, Keen faced a baying mob of counter-protesters at her Let Women Speak event in New Zealand. She left without addressing the crowd, and later described the swarm around her, whipped up by calls to “kill the Nazi”, as “completely rabid”. She claims she thought that “this was it” and she was about to be crushed to death.
What happened last weekend in New Zealand isn’t confined to one side of an otherwise principled political debate, in which a few bad actors are spoiling things for everyone else. It’s the latest instance of a post-democratic style of politics now well on its way to being the new normal.
It follows a pattern inseparable from the viral power of social media and its anonymous denizens: a fusion of “high” and “low” politics, in which Farage was a definitive innovator. But if Farage pioneered this populist style, it’s now being wielded far more widely — including to defend the status quo.
I’m perhaps a relative outlier among Britain’s broadly liberal-Left-inclined Terf sorority, many of whom were horrified by Brexit. I was on the ground in 2016 handing out Vote Leave flyers. Even then, it struck me as significant that there were not one but two Brexit campaigns. When it came to boots on the ground, the two “sides” worked together amiably enough — but the class and cultural differences were palpable.
The split was roughly along the lines I have characterised as Virtuals and Physicals: knowledge workers and real-world workers. Vote Leave addressed itself to the “respectable” mainstream, which is to say, the Virtuals. They put up media spokespeople who said carefully tuned things about regulations and democracy and taking back control. Its volunteers were mostly, like me, middle-class. Farage’s side, Grassroots Out, recruited from and spoke more to those among the Physicals who supported Brexit. To this end, GO used much more direct language and populist tropes, and was far less restrained than Vote Leave about referencing certain less polite aspects of the issue: such as the fact that, for some, Brexit really was about immigration.
Farage and Keen have a great deal in common. Both are Marmite figures, as iconic in look, manner and rhetorical directness as they are loathed by the bien pensant. Both are gifted communicators, skilled at being heard beyond their bubbles. Both have, as a result, faced accusations from their own side of turning their respective campaigns into a “cult of personality”.
And both are accused of flirting with “the far-Right”. This is as you’d expect. In the 21st century, Progress means the unbounded forward march of commerce and technology. And any effort at all to set any limits on that forward march, by calling for limits on the free global movement of low-skilled labour, for example, makes you far-Right by definition. As for asserting a sexed limit to self-identification, this also amounts to standing athwart the march of commerce and technology, yelling “Stop!”. Sorry, Posie: you’re also far-Right.
This definition expands, too, beyond Keen to everyone who knows biology exists, making any effort at positioning oneself as “one of the Left-wing Terfs” mostly a futile exercise in self-muzzling. Even so, it’s applied with particular vehemence to anyone who, like Farage and Keen, demonstrates a talent for mobilising protest campaigns among the masses upon whom this model of Progress imposes the highest cost and least upside.
But this is only one side of an effective 21st-century political campaign. Even as Keen’s voice has reached mainstream women, the other gender-critical campaign — the side analogous to Vote Leave — has also flourished, at one remove from the rambunctious, plain-speaking populist one. This growing ecosystem of campaigning groups and other bodies stays meticulously within the norms of civil discourse, and orients itself less toward public awareness than regulatory and policy shifts. Transgender Trend, for example, produces resource packs to help schools support gay and gender diverse youth while protecting appropriate sex segregation. Sex Matters seeks to uphold the political and legal salience of biological sex across the board. It is, in essence, the Grassroots Out/Vote Leave model.
It is meaningless to say one or the other is more effective: they are complementary. And in this new, twin-faced digital-era template for politics, the official electoral process is rendered largely irrelevant. Its Virtual aspect is led by named figures, who play ostentatiously by the liberal rules: open debate, civil discourse, equality before the law and so on — all while working assiduously behind the scenes to capture supposedly neutral institutions and deploy their power in service to campaign objectives. This form of pre-political politics then uses institutional power to shape the parameters of the political space itself, thus controlling what is or isn’t on offer to voters at the polling booth. On the liberal side, the transactivist behemoth Stonewall was a trailblazer in this form of politics, and still exerts a startling degree of influence over sex and gender norms via its organisational accreditation programme.
The other face will have controversial lightning-rod front-men or women such as Farage or Keen, but is powered mostly by anonymous social media accounts, whose bios usually carry a plethora of hashtags and insignia announcing their allegiance to campaigns or issues. This side can be swiftly mobilised to fill in petitions, show up to protests, and dogpile opponents. Being anonymous, they’re also largely exempt in practice if not in theory from the formal rules of liberal civil discourse. As such they serve as crucial shock troops in any single-issue campaign.
But this Janus-faced campaigning model, first seen during the EU referendum, isn’t just for dissidents. Rather, its success during Brexit set a new political template that has since been widely adopted. Recently characterised by political economist Thomas Prosser as “low liberalism”, this social media-driven form of political discourse pursues liberal aims via sometimes starkly illiberal means, for example the emerging “liberal defence of no-platforming”, or the wholesale delegitimisation of opponents as evil or bad actors.
Prosser sees low liberalism as emerging in the aftermath of the Trump/Brexit revolt, as a popular defence of the status quo against Right-populism. Its first UK manifestation was probably the #FBPE movement that sprang up, first on social media but subsequently in new publications and sometimes very large street demonstrations, to give mass voice to those who rejected Brexit and sought to reverse the referendum; it has since mutated to encompass multiple issues.
The mob that gathered to dogpile Kellie-Jay Keen in New Zealand over the weekend is a textbook example of low liberalism. And such low-liberal mobs serve exactly the same purpose as any other swarm of hashtag ideologues. That is, they serve as authoritarian shock troops for others who benefit politically from their actions but prefer not to be tainted with their methods. The antipodean politicians and journalists who first demonised Kellie-Jay Keen as undesirable, then refused to condemn the mob who left her in fear for her life, can serenely deny any complicity with the violence unleashed upon her. But I dare say a great many of them privately think what low liberals say out loud: Keen deserved everything she got.
And it’s no use wringing our hands and lamenting the loss of civility in politics. We stopped forming liberal democratic citizens a generation ago, as we began to transition from a print-first to a digital-first culture.
And in this new age, the older norms of neutrality, debate, long-form writing, evidence and so on are meaningful and effective only among a shrinking minority. For this group, the principal vector for political influence isn’t the electoral process, but some distance upstream of it. For the rest, whether it’s in service to the onward march of Progress or arrayed against it, demagoguery is the order of the day. Hashtags, video clips, insinuations — and, increasingly, violent mobs.
This post-democratic form of politics now operates by coordinating formal and informal campaign styles, all with the right measure of deniability. You can’t move the political needle if you only have internet crazies — because (as the Capitol rioters discovered in America) you can riot all you like but if you’re not backed up by any institutional power, you’re toast. Equally, without a convincingly large mob of online crazies who can be mobilised to defend your programme, you’re vulnerable to accusations of being one of the “sinister elites” of conspiracy mythology.
Of course, this game is heavily rigged in favour of one team. Covid debates saw the creeping politicisation of everything propagated, with ever greater shamelessness, under the banner of liberal neutrality. And under this order the Good Internet Crazies, the “low liberals”, are routinely given a pass for levels of illiberalism and overall derangement that would have their enemies permanently tarred as beyond the pale.
But the larger point is that in a digital-first culture, there’s no stuffing the post-democratic genie back in the bottle. There’s nothing to be gained from lamenting the end of civility, or reasoned discourse, much-missed though these are. And there’s no point complaining about egregious asymmetries in how bad behaviour is punished, between the Good Crazies (who are just passionate) and the Bad Crazies (who are evil). The only way forward is to stop singing threnodies for a vanished political order, and start thinking strategically about how to survive in the one that replaced it.