Friday 23 June 2017

The Alt-Left: A Critical Appreciation

Among the big winners of the general election are the wave of new blogs collectively dubbed the "alt-left". You know who I'm talking about. The Canary, Skwawkbox, Novara, Evolve Politics and Another Angry Voice have been singled out by the mainstream as the authentic voices of the new socialism that has seized hold of the Labour Party and powered it to its highest number of votes for 20 years. Despite these blogs being around for some time (AAV since 2010, Skwawkbox 2012) they constitute part of the third age of blogging, which saw outsiders seemingly appear from nowhere to muscle in on online comment. In a short period of time, they have all carved out serious audiences, according to Buzzfeed's in-depth feature (itself a product of the third wave). How, and why is it - Novara's Aaron Bastani aside - they are all outsiders? Why didn't established radical journalists, other socialist blogs, or the regular output of the far left become key artefacts of the Corbynist zeitgeist? It's because of how this "outsiderness" relates to their content which, in turn, has found substantial audiences.

Putting Novara to one side (as its comment model is more "traditional"), each of the blogs try and do different things. The Canary and Evolve Politics offer partisan comment and investigative pieces, Skwawkbox combines similar with gossip from inside Labour (much to the chagrin of Guido). AAV provides easily-digested arguments and briefing notes that some activists have found useful on the doorstep, and memes that enjoy a wide circulation on social media. What they all share is a default (and correct) assumption that the system is rigged and the powers-that-be will conspire, collude, and collaborate to forever gerrymander privilege for themselves and their cronies. The stock-in-trade for the blogs are stories that reinforce this healthy scepticism. For example, one of the reasons why media bias - particularly the BBC's - gets a great deal of focus is because it has proven to be egregious and blatant, particularly over the two years coincident with Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. This is by no means their exclusive focus. Their treatments of the Grenfell disaster, NHS marketisation, social security reform, Labour Party shenanigans draws attention to privileged groups either looking to profit from the state of affairs or are covering their arses. Their output is a case of confirmation bias. We have a sense British society is unfair, and they dig out and post up the evidence.

In his critique of Skwawkbox, Bob Pitt argues that blog proprietor Steve, and by extension the rest of the alt-left stable, blur the line between political analysis and conspiracy theorising - and establishes this via a forensic analysis of Steve's piece on Grenfell and his argument the media were subject to a D Notice. As such, he suggests they have a cavalier attitude to the truth similar to the fake news we find peddled by Breitbart and co, except from the diametrically opposed perspective. Because these pieces can then easily be picked apart by fact-checking, Bob believes they flout journalistic ethics and embarrass the left as a whole.

We'll come back to the character of their commentary in just a moment, but I think the substance of the criticism is correct. Albeit with the caveat that Novara and AAV confront politics with an analytical mindset. That said, I don't think the conspiracy approach to politics is a cynical move either. It is instead an outlook conditioned by their status as outsiders. I can remember when Skwawkbox first started out. If memory serves its focus was on disability cuts and the Tory looting of the NHS. Kerry-Anne Mendoza and comrades were variously involved with Occupy and other protest movements before setting up The Canary. The rest of their writers and Evolve's contributors are/were, for whatever reason, locked out of writing careers in traditional media platforms. In all cases they were outside of and alienated from the established way of doing things, and as outsiders looking in politics, the media, the comment factories all looked (and look) sewn up. Even on the left it appeared less comrade and more chumrade, where everyone got on because everyone knew everyone. Whether this viewpoint accurately describes what happens is neither here nor there, it can appear that way and not just to the authors of our blogs. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of frustrated and angry people share it - it's the stuff of the anti-politics wave you've all heard so much about. In our case, readers will recall that the first flush of Corbynism was made up of atomised but (social media-) connected people, folk who used to shout at Question Time but found an outlet via Facebook and Twitter. Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy was a lightning rod for their discontent and into the party they poured. At the moment his candidacy looked like it was going to win, he started attracting the bile to which we have grown accustomed and virtually all the media joined in. There weren't a great many lefties with a platform prepared to back him enthusiastically, and others doubted his ability he could ever win an election for the party (including me at the time). Unsurprisingly, this group bypassed hostile media and lighted upon the blogs who shared their views and articulated their position. And to their credit, they have backed Corbyn through thick and thin while others have wobbled. And this has allowed them to consolidate a mass readership.

The size of their audience is one reason why they cannot be dismissed with a flick of the polemical wrist. The other is their impact on the political process. Despite the conspiratorial thinking, they have proven effective in cohering armies of social media activists around the Corbyn project. During the election, they inspired and encouraged thousands of people to get active in campaigns independently of the herculean mobilisation efforts of Momentum. Those activists are not disappearing either. They're turning up to constituency meetings in increasing numbers and are steadily making their presence felt. In short, the new blogs top the collective propaganda efforts of established left activism and are helping touch off a mass radicalisation, and that is not to be sniffed at.

As with many things, their key strength is simultaneously the Achilles' Heel. Substituting conspiratorial suppositions for social and political analysis can hinder the further development of the movement. One of the many tasks we face, on top of everything else is to better understand the dynamics underlying Corbynism, the transformation of politics and how this is constituted by (and in it turn constitutes) a significant shift in the workings of global capitalism. This isn't because analysis and the elaboration of social theory is jolly interesting (though it is), but because we have to understand the world so we can consciously remake it. This includes working out appropriate strategies for defeating the Tories and the interests they represent, how to power our movement to greater heights while understanding and addressing its weaknesses, and elaborate the sorts of policies that don't just look after our people but positions them as active agents of their own political destiny.

Apart from Novara and, to a lesser extent, AAV, this is something the alt-left blogs do not do. Of course, no one should expect them to become theoreticians over night after cramming three volumes of Capital and assorted Marxist texts. But they do need to move beyond explaining power and inequality in terms of shadowy goings on and adopt the standpoint of social and political critique. Otherwise, at best, they will get left behind by the movement they've helped cohere as it develops. Or, at worst, they will act as a fetter on its growing sophistication. I hope the comrades understand this and act accordingly.


johnny conspiranoid said...

Or they could explain the shadowy goings on in terms of power and inequality. False dichotomy?

Shai Masot said...

Vox Political is very good. Pro-Corbyn. Lots and lots of the inside-the-Labour-machine gossipy stuff. And they've really got it in for big fat Tory-lite Tom Watson.

Speedy said...

" blur the line between political analysis and conspiracy theorising " This from Bob Pitt, the man who promotes grievance, scaremongering and division for his own obtuse political purposes and has undoubtedly done incalculable damage to the cause of genuine multiculturalism.

Otherwise a fair analysis. Squawkbox pissed me off when they were going on about the numbers of the Grenfell dead - as someone who knows something about how these things are done, I thought it was terribly irresponsible and unprofessional, and indeed did undermine their authority.

Anonymous said...

like most lefties you seem to have been conditioned to reject anything that anyone defines as a "conspiracy theory" and this conditioning makes you vulnerable to control, like Pavlov's dogs. If you believe in class politics you must surely accept that there is an elite, far above the likes of Douglas Murray who are merely their lackeys. and insofar as the said elite have no reason to disclose their strategies and tactics, and every reason not to (because they rely on manipulating support from "the many" to whose best interests they are totally opposed, then you have the basis for a world in which conspiracy is a significant factor. After all, you must surely believe that the Zinoviev Letter and the Donation of Constantine, were conspiracies?

paulocanning said...

Here is me promoting Steve Walker (Sqwaakbox) a few years ago - back when he was sane. The D-notice stuff is far from Walker's only BS reporting. Last week he was encouraging Grenfell survivors to contact police because of his obsession with death numbers *completely oblivious to the concerns about sans-papiers.*

You seriously underplay conspiracism and its deleterious effect. Do we really want to be making excuses for 'reporting' that is as bad as anything the alt-right is churning out? Really?

Coatsey has examined the seriousness of this in its proper, more global, context here …

_garrilla said...

Your piece spins on this construct: "healthy scepticism".

But what if it more cynical? What if its intentions are to amplify its
message through attachment to a general sense of distrust and detachment?

The consequence of this will materialise when/if a left transformational government can be formed. If its cynism then it will quickly turn to disillusionment when reality bites.

We saw this after Occupy when the newly disillusioned inflated the ranks of the truther movement and were grabbed by the alt-right.

It's a danger of the new utopianism around neosocialism, social power is not a switch. Corbyn has sucked this up because it suited his campaign to do so. But f this is cynism, it will have a sting in the tail.

Baden said...

My main observation on these publications is the use of sensationalist/exaggerated headlines that are often used in order to get people reading the posts. I think this is a good thing as it uses the tabloid approach against the tabloid agenda.

I am also in favour of the speculative posts that have caused much anger among many. Abstract reasoning should be supported provided it is not sloppy/intrinsically incorrect etc.

Broadsheet newspapers use this approach all the time. Sometimes their stories are simplistic, ridiculous and perpetuate bogus memes.

In my opinion the 'alternative' publications should do more to expose people not just to 'new' stories and new voices but the way mainstream news/stories/representations are constantly presented, exaggerated, distorted in order to increase the wholly negative status competition among the people who are seen as special interest groups. Which is basically everybody outside the corporate sector. Poor, public sector, environmentalists, like I said EVERYBODY else.

If this can be done effectively the sectors that are notably falling through the left/Labours net (esp poor industrialized workers in working class communities can be better assimilated).

If this happens anything is possible......

paulocanning said...

Baden: Is this all OK when THEY MaKE STUFF UP? Cos this is what's happening. You fine with that? Making shit up is socialism now?

_garillla is entirely right to call you out on 'healthy scepticism' as actually cynicism.

I am depressed that you are doing this Phil. I maintain that we should hold firm against conspiracism and call it out. That you would not distinguish between those who do this and those who do not is astonishing. Cos that's what you're doing.

TBF I can see how you are enjoying this. It reeks in what you wrote. Look at this fing mess! Wow! These kidz are so punk!

Ask Corbyn his opinion on Maduro. The MSM these Infowars freaks fete ovr have yet to do that. I truly wish someone would. It wont be these 'newmedia' you're cheering on.

Phil said...

Look at it like this, Paul. What would one more attack piece recapitulating the same points that many people have said before have achieved? Some back slaps and a halo of virtue?

I don't write for fun or a warm glow. I do it because politics is a serious business. In relation to the new wave of blogs, it means *persuading* people with a far greater reach than you and I to change their approach. So tell me, how best to go about this? By denouncing and attacking and calling names, or adopting some tact and diplomacy?

I prefer to go for the latter. Novel on the left, I know.

Baden said...

That is not what I said Paul

Baden said...

Just to clarify Paul I am not asking for bogus journalism. However attention seeking/arguably overreaching headlines combined with informative journalism from these 'alt' publications is fine. Indeed I encourage it.

My final point is the these publications should do more to emphasize the corrosive effect and absurdity of the pervasive 'centrist' demonizing all bar the bogus 'national interest sector'. (Kind of meta analysis type journalism). Thereby highlighting the harmful and illusory status competition that is being engendered. This battle is key.

paulocanning said...

Fair enough Phil. Though I should have also maybe mentioned that both Vox and Sqwawk both went with conspiracism over the Manchester attacks too. If you can figure out how to persuade them to stop then go for it. Someone has to because this is a virus.

I wrote about that here, including praise for AAV >

johnny conspiranoid said...

What is "conspiracism"?
Have people stopped conspiring?


Interesting to see the blog's efforts dissected. Few comments:

1. Paul C has a long-standing axe to grind, so pinch of salt, please. (Hi Paul)
2. Not one thing on the blog has been made up and it would do a sociological approach more credit to read what's been actually written, rather than what its enemies in the MSM and elsewhere set up as a straw-man for inimical propaganda purposes. The D-notice article, for example, was very careful to make clear it was being reported to the blog, not that it was fact. That little word 'if' that so many people miss - or choose to. And nobody with first-hand information on the scene doubts that the numbers are being suppressed - it's just not by means of a D-notice. And again, the article was careful to include other means of suppression.
3. When did we join in any conspiracism on the Manchester attack? Even people who hate the SKWAWKBOX were forced to acknowledge that was not the case. Blame for May's police and security cuts making the UK more vulnerable, but that's fact, not conspiracy.
4. What do 'sans-papier' people have to do with numbers of bodies already retrieved being higher than the officially-confirmed death count? This from very numerous independent sources, including school and business leaders.
5. The point of the new left media is not to become 'theoreticians'. The idea shows you've missed the point by a wide margin.

And so on. It's flattering to be the subject of so much attention, but a little more rigour in the thinking (and care in the reading of what's published) would be even nicer.


In fact, although above Paul accuses the SKWAWKBOX of conspiracism over Manchester, his very article he links as proof of it says this:

"None of AAV, The Canary, Evolve Politics, and Skwawkbox have indulged conspiracism. (The Canary even had, I swear this is true, an editorial the day after the bombing that would not have been out of place in The Guardian)"

So even Paul, undoubtedly no friend of the SKWAWKBOX, couldn't accuse it of that - except, seemingly, in comments here. Interesting.

paulocanning said...

'Axe to grind'. Apart from these recent comments I've said f'all about your stuff, Steve, save for our polite Twitter debate which ended with you blocking me and, of course, me promoting your excellent work on the NHS a few years back.

You did encourage Grenfell survivors to contact the police, and you were completely oblivious to what that meant for those who fear them with good reason.

When I wrote that you were not engaging in conspiracism about Manchester you weren't. That changed, from memory, the very next day when you published stuff suggesting it was staged to win the election (oh the irony of that BS post June 8).

Your idea of being 'careful' and couching the rumours and pulled-out-of-someones-arse statements you repeat on your blog just sums up your connection to the Alex Jones school of 'alternative media'. I've heard Nasa has child slaves on Mars, according to you merely saying that is worthy of repeating on your site.

The reason for all the 'attention' you're so obviously enjoying is because of the serious danger such shoddy, conspiracism tinged, 'reporting' holds for the left. Something I strongly disagree with Phil about.

paulocanning said...

Oh we did have another run in.

Forgot that Walker also published vile, brown people disappearing conspiracism over Tatchell and Syria.

(My comment


Hi Paul,

No, neither the SKWAWKBOX nor I personally have ever made any such suggestion about Manchester (or London, or Grenfell). You must be mixing us up with someone else. Of course, you're welcome to show differently if you can.

As for polite Twitter debate, it wasn't all that civil once you decided I'd crossed some line or other. Quite a lot of vitriol, but hey ho.

And Tatchell is a disgrace. Deal with it.


By the way, your 16.09 4/7/17 comment makes a mockery of your claim that you don't have an axe to grind.

can't imagine why I would have blocked you...