Wednesday 4 January 2017

How to Win the War: Rules for Lefties

I'm not going to bother with a point-by-point fisk of Jimmy Delingpole's latest Breitbart nonsense. I will note, however, that any commentator with the compulsion to tell themselves and their audience how clever and morally superior they are has some interesting inferiority issues going on. Nevertheless, his "Rules for Righties" is the usual boilerplate with the familiar all-powerful enemies: feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, the liberal establishment. So far, so yawnsome. But what is interesting is how Jimmy falls into the same conceit as the liberals he affects to despise. His rules are all about offering debating tactics. He, no joke, celebrates the power of the evidence-backed, rationally-constructed rebuttal, speaks for the power of wit and quips, and argues for taking the moral high ground by pushing logic over emotion. That man has a talent for writing in bad faith.

Yet, there is something to this "rules for ..." business. It is nothing new. There have at various times been attempts to develop an ethical framework for online interaction, though in this age of fake news, clickbait and unthinking hyperpartisanship, it all seems rather quaint. Which is why Jimmy's rules aren't ethics as such, but as he puts it a guide to winning a war. This is actually quite helpful, because while his politics are as idealist and detached as his liberal opponents', ultimately his views and those of the alt-fash that hang on his words are condensations of interests. And defeating them doesn't require clever debating tactics, but a fundamental understanding that politics always and everywhere is a struggle between them. With that in mind, here are my two rules for lefties.

Rule One: The Internet is Important
Social media is a fantastic tool. The wealth of knowledge is at the fingertips of more people than at any time in human history. We can - and do - make connections across distances for all kinds of reasons. It might be because of shared politics or, in the case of most "normal" people, shared interests, gossip, selfies, whatever. The point is the web is tying millions of people together in all kinds of understated and unstated ways, despite the dominant concern-worry about the internet walling people off from one another. The internet, because it expresses the social order that created it has been home to ding-dongs from the get-go. With the majority of people in developed societies now wired up to one another, those office, shop floor, canteen, pub, dinner table arguments are more immediately visible to more people, in all their unsophisticated glory. And, unsurprisingly, people of certain views tend to congregate with the like-minded, just as it's always been in politics.

Using the internet for politics is important for three reasons. Because of the connections social media can make between the like-minded, it can help develop collectives motivated by certain ideas and therefore prepared to promote and, to varying degrees, struggle for particular interests. Second, it can tool someone up with all the goodies they need to identify with a particular brand of politics. I'd prefer it if leftwingers, for example, read blogs like, um, this one to develop critical thinking skills and the like, but perhaps that will come in time. Nevertheless, a wealth of material is available for more people to develop the journalistic, research and polemical skills central to 21st century activist tool kits. Not to mention develop propaganda, craft memes and messages that resonate, provide film, audio, and other digitally-created content that can get the messages out. And thirdly, in another aspect of politics on social media that often goes ignored, playing internet politics can create a drag that can episodically draw in "normal" people. This is particularly the case with Facebook, where a "political's" friends tend to be a mix of the activist/politics milieu and everyday friends, family and acquaintances. The drag of one's internet activity can inspire criticism and support from this quarter, and in some cases serve as a gateway into online political struggle.

Rule Two: The Internet isn't That Important
Wash my mouth out with soap! But it's true, and every keyboard warrior knows it. The online doings of the alt-fash had a marginal impact on the US election. Trump won the electoral college by appealing to the traditional Republican base and securing a swing among enough white working class voters by exploiting their concerns around jobs and investment. Interests again, interests. The truth is, despite the proliferation of online politics, despite the sharing of big stories and the dragging of (a few) normal people in the wake of activists, the majority of people at best use the internet and social media to do cursory research of political issues on special occasions, like a general election or referendum. Furthermore, and it has to be reiterated, what happens on the internet is a remove from real life. The locus of official politics is a (crumbling) brick and mortar institution and animated by real social relationships that represent real interests. What enables Facebook, Google, etc. to rule the internet is private ownership. In capitalist countries, to have necessary social infrastructure in the hands of vanishingly tiny, super wealthy and unaccountable elites has been a social fact for hundreds of years. The war has to be waged outside social media and prosecuted by parties, organisations and movements that bring together people in meatspace to deal with meatpower. There is no other way.

Delingpole is a fool because he's leading his followers into a digital dead end. If he was exhorting Breitbart readers to organise marches, picket the remnant of the welfare state here and over there, to physically disrupt and disperse the meetings of left and labour movement outfits, then that would be a cause for concern. But he's not. The left, however, can win here. Winning means sometimes putting away the laptops, tablets and phones and speaking to people face-to-face. Supporting local campaigns fighting government cuts, getting involved in solidarity groups, joining a union and organising a workplace, going door to door and finding put what our people think, this is the route by which the left can win. The building up of collective power, of harnessing online networks to get people involved in the world outside of tweets and status updates is a path paved with countless small victories. The traditional right, the conservative establishment of government, the civil service, the broadcast media and press, and the billionaires, millionaires and their hangers ons have unparalleled material advantages. But the left and labour movement has numbers, and its potential reach grows everyday. We can build up a collective power and harness the networks to build it, so they positively reinforce one another to the point we swarm about their bastions, permanently outflanking them and throwing them onto the defensive. Winning the internet war and transforming our spiteful, petty politics cannot be separated from making inroads in the real world. If the internet mirrors offline life, then it can only but be transformed by a progressive advance.

And there are my two rules. The internet is both tool and arena, but it has limits. Any trend or strategy that can't get beyond the digital is neither use nor ornament.


MikeB said...

Yes, I broadly agree. Maybe the main reason the internet has traction is by default. It provides an atomised and passive experience that fits with our "busy" lives (btw, that's an interesting trope - we have never had more leisure time; as a housemaid, my Nan worked from 6am till 10pm every day except Sundays, when she got 1/2 day off. Tell that to the young people today and all the internet was fields when I were a lad and you could get four Blackjacks for a penny- and that's an *old* penny, mind.....another interesting phenomenon is how the internet faciitates social avoidance - when things get awkward, one can bail out into more congenial "company" with a single finger swipe. But I digress....)

So anyway, much as I approve of explicit, active and social forms of resistance "IRL" - like demos, strikes etc, for me the best (most effective) way of "Winning the War" is to engage in everyday activity that makes thinking about equality, justice and cooperation a banal, everyday, lived experience. The greatest recent achievements of the socialist movement in the UK came about primarily as a result of WW2 - a mass experience of collective endeavour. Without the every day lived experience of sharing Anderson shelters, notions of fairness in rationing, the levelling effects of conscription etc, all our rational arguments for having a socialised medical system, say, or a democratic voice in the big industries, would have been futile. Demonstrations and strikes reinforce a demand, but can't generate the weight needed to overturn the hegemonic status quo.

So for me, this remains the key. Socialists should keep organising, supporting and drawing people into everyday activities like credit unions, food coops, neighbour support schemes etc. Social media is useful for sharing ideas and for reinforcing the sense that we are not alone, but they don't make things happen.

asquith said...

I didn't click, life is bad enough without reading what Delingtwat has to say. I had this reaction.

(Note that this is subtly different to the time when Ser Davos said the same line, & is more suitable for the occasion).

What I would say is that Drumpf's supporters, almost by definition, can't win because they want contradictory things, most of which would make things worse if implemented, and Drumpf won't competently provide any of them, especially since he'll lose interest in what happens so long as he gets to sit on the throne and get PR.

One time catering to antisemites, another appointing David Friedman. One time opposed to neocons, another tearing up that major Obama achievement, peace with Iran. The scourge of the "elites" has billionaires working for him. The protectionism and welfare chauvinism he "offers" will, of course, harm their intended beneficiaries much as neoconservatism harms both the alleged cause of "national security" and the masses who prefer their Saddams and Bashers to the alternative.

Granted it might never happen, but the sheer incompetence of untrained men doing such jobs will men even good policies are badly implemented.

Delingtwat won't benefit because, like Milo Yiannapoulis, his life will never get better as he's trapped in his own hell which is fundamentally not caused by the people he hates and blames.

But life can get worse for the people who voted Drumpf, and you're right that his opponents need to get their act together. They can stand on a policy of free trade and peace, foreign policy realism and environmentalism, not "intersectionality" and other cobblers which is to blame for getting Drumpf elected in the first place.

Unfortunaly we already know that when it goes wrong, blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews (these apparently work hand in hand as part of a giant conspiracy which explains why the "alt-right" are losers), gays, "elites" (not including honest salt of the earth working-class oil billionaires in this definition) and so on will get the blame. Drumpf's supporters, if you read Hilbilly Elegy by JD Vance, have got fully legitimate grievances but need to air their rage against the conmen who gace them this rather than people who are in fact suffering alongside them.