Monday 5 August 2019

Stanning for Corbyn, and Other Twitter Tribes

Twitter is a blessing and a curse. Mostly a curse. It enables the rapid networking and dissemination of information - any information - but simultaneously doubles down and condenses the pathologies of platform capitalism and the attention economy. I'm reminded of this every single moment of scrolling through my Twitter feed and seeing shared articles and bad tempered polemic mixed in with attention seeking and mind-bending narcissism. Normally, you just go with the wretched flow. In terms of a cost/benefit analysis the price of scrying performative stupidity is outweighed by the pay off of decent opinion and info. But the toxicity does grate, and a lot of what is bad has to do with the Twitter tribes.

Because I inhabit a very particular online universe, there are two groups who are especially annoying and sometimes toxic. The Follow Back Pro Europe crowd, grouped by their totemic #FBPE hashtag overlap with the worst people in the Liberal Democrats, the Labour right, and with centrism more generally. However, the target of my ire this last weekend - and the subject of this post - are ostensible allies. People who regularly use #SocialistSunday or #SocialistAnyDay, and combine this with Chris Williamson fandom, tweet about Israel and Zionism as if they're the only active forces in British politics, enthusiastically push The Canary and reckon prominent left wingers, like Owen Jones, have sold their souls because they write for the bourgeois press. While, as a whole, they don't think Jeremy Corbyn is a messiah, there is a certain black-and-white moralistic streak running through their group identity that rules out nuance or perceiving the world as shades of grey. These then, for want of a better phrase, are the Corbyn stans. So-named after the titular character from the famous Eminem hit, a stan (or stans) is a not-terribly flattering term for someone or a group of people who aren't so much stalkers, but will doggedly and dogmatically push an idea, a movement, or a figure in a particularly single-minded way. Consider this in the context of the Labour Party. This single mindedness can and often is pushed to the detriment of the object of their ostensible support, such as supporting figures who have proven themselves obvious liabilities and touting obsessions and arguments long disavowed and, in most instances, not ever endorsed by the Labour leadership. There is a bit more to this. Stanning should also evoke the Bantustans of apartheid-era South Africa, which were ethnically homogenous constructs set up by the regime to keep the white minority and black majority apart. That is the typical end point of stanning, whether willed or not: the constitution of an undifferentiated intentional community, one that is ghettoised not by repression from without but the pressures of conformity from within.

Why am I writing about this now? Because this weekend we have seen well-known social media anti-racism campaigner, @a_leesha1 driven off Twitter (hopefully temporarily) following a series of exchanges with older activists, nearly all of whom are Corbyn stans. They did not like how she used her following to point out incidences of racism on the left, sometimes unconscious, sometimes not, and so turned on her as if she was some kind of apostate. Try imagining the spectacle of middle aged white people telling a young British Asian woman what is and isn't racist (which isn't difficult to envisage if you're familiar with Dan Hodges' output) - and you've got the general gist of what happened. No one likes their deficiencies pointed out, but for a clutch of self-described leftists and ostensible Corbyn supporters to behave like this is appalling. In typical social media fashion the crimson mist has descended, and rather than confront their own deficiencies they have lashed out in a coordinated excommunication of Aleesha. Whatever she'd done prior to this clash, as far as they were concerned she wasn't really one of them, isn't worth paying attention to, and politics is better without her presence.

These dynamics are nothing new, but in the age of social media they have acquired a certain virulence as well as persistence in what is a dynamic and fluid environment. It's incongruent. In a medium of proliferating networks and news, it might be reasonable to expect identities to possess a certain fluidity, and yet groups and sub-groups of stans - Corbyn-centric, FBPE, Brexit Party/Farageist stans, Tory Twitter generally - reproduce and persist. And what we see in politics is by no means unique to it. Sports, fandoms, fashion and style, music, and, unsurprisingly, celebrity, stanning is a fact of digital life This, alas, is more than just a consequence of Twitter, but rather the alignment of the platform architecture to the inculcation, interpellation, and invention of identity in advanced capitalist societies.

As we have seen recently, self-styled traditional Marxists have counterposed identity politics to class identities and class locations. The former is a matter of lifestyle or oppressions ascribed to particular embodied characteristics - sex, sexuality, skin tone, presence of physical/mental impairments, age. Class on the other hand is about our relationship to the means of production, whether we have to sell our labour power in return for a wage or salary to physically and culturally reproduce ourselves and our families as human beings, or not. For the so-called orthodox, while being oppressed as a woman or as a disabled person is awful and these struggles are important, they are cut across by common class interests around which we should organise. This implies there is a tension between the two, a tension arising out of their separate character and rootedness in different and separate structures of exploitation and oppression, and one that should be resolved in favour of emphasising, with varying degrees of crudity, class first.

This is wrong. It baldly states your experiences as a disabled person, as a gay person are inessential, an attitude that encouraged the formation of women's liberation, gay liberation, and anti-racist movements independently of and separate from labour movements. The truth of the matter is different identity locations have been nurtured and managed since capitalism began its path to global dominance in the late mediaeval period. For example, race has a history and it is inseparable from colonialism, slavery, and "conventional" capitalist exploitation. The historical experience of surplus labour and surplus value cannot be told without the brutal enforcement of racial hierarchies. Likewise, the division of labour in the fields and the factory was not the neat, disinterested technocratic affair reading too much Weber would have you believe, but is absolutely premised on sexual divisions of labour. All-women workforces were used to undercut men in the same way ethnicity and nationalities were used to cultivate competition within the working class, and as the power of trade unions grew, as disposable incomes grew, the better off layers of workers imitated the respectable mores of their supervisors, managers, and employers. The idea of the working man is a result of late 19th century trade union struggle to keep women out the workplace to increase wages, and it was this absence of economic independence that was and is the material root of the private patriarchies of the proletarian household.

Capitalism did not emerge in a vacuum. It was the by-no-means-inevitable outcome of the class struggles of decaying feudalism, and evolved alongside the development of the modern state. In the home of capitalism, England, the development of the nation state and capitalism were coterminous, mutually constitutive, and mutually conditioning. As capitalism evolved, the state became more than a military apparatus oriented against threats at home and abroad, it had the job of managing populations, which was fairly pressing considering its administrative centre tended to be among the most densely populated cities. This management problematic beget systems of knowledge and classification about its population - often arrived at through the threat and actual application of violence to human bodies, and the invention of identity categories through the application of disciplinary power. For example, the first volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality was concerned with the 19th century invention of the homosexual as a particular subject, or type of human being, whereas prior to then and despite the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse and sexual relationships, so-called sodomites were merely men who happened to engage in illegal sexual activity. Their behaviour did not define them. The invention of homosexuality was at the same time the invention of sexuality as such, which in the Victorian imaginary was bound up with moral rectitude: sex and sexuality started saying a great deal about who you are, an outlook that persists to this day. To what end? Well, you can't manage populations if you don't have technologies and prohibitions governing reproduction.

Class politics and identity politics or, if you prefer, the politics of the body are integral and integrated. It is nonsensical to oppose the two. However, this doesn't mean their configurations don't change, and since the 1960s they have. As recounted many times here, in the post-war period the state expanded even further and touched more points of social life than previously. Following the Italian autonomists, greater layers of workers were employed whose object, to all intents and purposes, was the reproduction of capitalism and the management of its consequences. What are health and social services if not to mend the people broken physically and spiritually by it so they can be thrown back into the fray? What this development also represents is the complete subsumption of society as a whole to the dictates of capital. The needs of accumulation were primary everywhere at all times. Class struggle is less a point of production thing, it is generalised to all areas of the social. So teachers, who educate and train the next generation of workers, are confronting capital when they take industrial action. When women's movements and LGBT movements challenged gendered and sexual repression, they were taking on capital by contesting its politics of reproduction, and so on. These collective challenges were fed by and fed into new modes of individuation.

In Capital, Marx discusses the individuation of the worker, how the formal, legal relationship between employer and employee is individual - workers get a certain wage or salary in return for X hours of labour power under the foremen/manager's direction. They are addressed and treated as individuals: their relationship to the boss class is not collective, unless there is strong trade union organisation. In the post-war period, (relative) economic stability married to rising wages opened the doors to mass consumption and privatised forms of entertainment. The invention of the teenager, a house with all the mod cons, fashion and style, these inculcated an acquisitive individual sensibility and, in a number of crucial ways, eroded the collectivist cultures underpinning mass semi-active affiliation to Labour ... and the Conservatives. Identity wasn't something just ascribed and interpellated from above, but could be cultivated and styled from below, albeit bounded by class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. The Teddy Boys, as an early youth movement, were macho, hard-drinking and hard living, overwhelmingly working class and male. It came and went (though sometimes, you can espy the odd old Ted) but generated a set of markers and touchstones subsequent movements would take on: sets of consumptive practices, a more or less coherent group identity and a nascent solidarity, and an instrumentalist attitude to work: that was something you had to do, the life outside of the workplace was where you wanted to be.

As mass consumption was normalised, so was marketing. Firms were in the active business of generating identity locations to capture the minds and the wallets of the (relatively) affluent mass. The music industry and its rapid churn of fashions, along with the lightning fast turnover of artists and groups generated youth movements and ecosystems around genres and acts, deepening the naturalisation of the private, instrumentally-oriented and acquisitive individual further. Indeed, the keeping up with the Joneses, the habituation of millions of workers to rising living standards helped ensure trade union organisation and collective bargaining as the means of raising wages retained its relevance. Collectivism at work supported individualism at leisure. The whole shebang presented as a coherent, functional whole even to radical critics.

This individuation and the expansion of the state were never at cross-purposes from one another. The kinds of work millions of workers were engaged with, with the consequences of maintaining and reproducing the system, was not productive labour in the view of vulgar economics. It did not directly produce value, rather they produced the social infrastructure that made 'conventional' capitalist exploitation possible. They did not make stuff, their labour was, for want of a better phrase, immaterial. Its object was the production and reproduction of care, knowledge, moralities, relationships, and immaterial workers had to (and have to) draw on their own capacities as socialised beings to undertake this work, mobilising their own subjectivities and identities. In other words, through the expansion of the state its provision of services were in the business of conditioning and generating new identities, and accomplished this by exploiting the socialised selves and identities of its personnel.

Without getting too much into the history of the neoliberal counterrevolution of the 1980s, it had two chief consequences as far as immaterial labour and the constitution of identities were concerned. With privatisation of sections of the state, with the shift away from primary industry and manufacturing to services, the axis of knowledge generation and service provision moved to the private sector and became direct vectors of capitalist accumulation. Secondly, the policies of the Thatcher and Reagan governments and later pretty much all the advanced countries intersected with and directly cultivated the acquisitive individualism welling up from below. It became a blueprint for social engineering. And so while the programme of privatisation and marketisation is commonly associated with neoliberalism, in its more insidious forms it is a mode of subjection, a means of cultivating human beings of a particular kind. And for Thatcher and friends, those human beings were mini-entrepreneurs whose acquisitive nature went beyond the stacking up of consumer durables but were oriented to the accumulation of capital and property. Throughout her reign, her war against post-war social democracy was about inculcating these sensibilities - the privatisation programme, the council house sell offs, conditionalities attached to social security, even the introduction of the Poll Tax had the object of remaking the souls of millions of people. This process was deepened by Major as well as, to their eternal discredit, Blair and Brown, and was pushed even further under Cameron and the recently departed Theresa May. What this accomplished was a fusion of identity constitution and the entrepreneurial self. You were free to style your own identity within the conditions imposed by long standing inequalities and oppression, but the state and its institutions expected you to orient to them as mini-capitalists with your self as the asset. In the job markets from the 80s onwards, employers were less interested in what your body could do but what kind of person you were, and how your personality, intelligence and aptitudes would benefit their organisation. The language of unlocking potential and aspiration encourages a subjectivity in which the self is saleable.

This neoliberal self selects for certain personality traits then: it emphasises the showy over the staid, the confident over the reticent, the sociable over the shy, and the narcissistic over the modest, the possession of which confers real economic/job market advantages. And it is exactly these sorts of traits social media, and Twitter in particular, exaggerate. All social media is based on attention. The more time you spend on a particular platform, the more data the host gathers about your habits and the better able they are to sell targeted advertising. For example, this blog is hosted by Blogger, which is owned by Google. It carries no advertisements. However, Google insists on inserting cookies onto your computer/device so it can build up a data picture of you. Because you regularly visit this place, or you click on certain posts while avoiding others, that's all grist for the Google data mill who will use those choices to sell advertising space targeting you on other platforms it owns. And, in return for my data and your data, they ever so generously provide this wee blog and its storage space to me for free.

Other social media platforms ramp up the neoliberal sensibilities. Over its evolution since 2006, Twitter has been modified multiple times, often by pressure from Twitter users. Nearly all its features - hashtags, retweets, favourites/likes, threading, extra characters, image and video hosting - these were not thought out in advance but were added as users demanded their inclusion, or developed their own workarounds. Twitter (allegedly) gathers the wisdom of crowds, and exists as is for that self-same reason. But the actual logic of the platform itself is almost chemical pure neoliberalism. The number of followers one has is a validation of sorts, especially if the follower-to-follow ratio is high. And from here, the number of retweets and likes your missives receive suggests you're making your way, that your messages, whatever they might be, are resonating. And on top of that Twitter have added a load of metrics so you can see how many page impressions your profile has had, along with tweet performance and a whole lot of other stuff. The temptation is to keep plugging away, keep churning out the hot takes and the witty repartee and your influence will grow, all of it available in handy metric form. In other words, Twitter offers a crude measure of one's social capital. It puts rocket boosters under the neoliberal self, while mining self-curated identities for data

What has the evolution of identity under capitalism and its rendering by social media got to do with Twitter tribes? Well, for one, the emergence of consumerist/subcultural identities have always attracted and recruited the like-minded. But there is something else: the pathologies particular to and immanent in the acquisitive and neoliberal self. Contemporary identities can present themselves as ready made social locations, something you can acquire off-the-peg that are packaged with cognitive structures, styles, language, and exclusive social spaces. In other words, we are encouraged to orient toward and appreciate identity as if it's property: a complete self-contained package. Identity is irresolutely social and only possible because we are social beings, yet it is sold as an individual attribute, a design for life. Its appearance, to borrow the old language, is not its essence, which is inseparable from the abstract relationships underpinning capitalist exploitation. The fusion of class and identity at the point of (immaterial) production goes unacknowledged, its collective character as the strategic fulcrum of exploitation and capital accumulation is unremarked. The collective life of collective identity is talked up solely in terms of consumerist tribes by marketing language: it very definitely isn't a site of class struggle with the potential of proliferating networks and combining with other locations, other identities in an alliance against capital. Rather it is a path to individual fulfillment, expression, and bliss. Keeping it narrow like this is a way of negating the potential of identity beyond the neoliberal entrepreneurial self. It is the common sense, a species of economism not unlike the trade union consciousness Lenin once wrote about, in which the every day realities of exploitation are consented to and one's eyes are forced down by the weight of convention and routine.

The Twitter tribes mirror economism in the age of immaterial production. The accumulation logics married to identity-as-exclusion, of its assertion against what it's not, draw together the like-minded. Their networks condense as they expand, drawing toward the centre those who most identify with the identity properties of the tribe while expelling dissenters, the faint hearted, and those not fully signed up to whatever totalising narrative or politics they're promulgating. And, as we have seen, this even happens in leftist movements, in movements ostensibly dedicated to doing away with capitalism. In this particular case Corbyn is the lynchpin not for a transformative socialist politics, but for the constitution of identities in which moral purity is defined in terms of one's distance from what is rejected. This is the new economism in extremis: the radicalism and their in-groupness is fetishised and the possibility of loosening up, of identifying themselves in terms of the actual movement they are nominally part of, warts and all, is foreclosed. There is no reaching out, no room for collaboration and alliances. It's all a zero sum game: they are the true. Everyone and anyone who falls short, like taking anti-semitism seriously, challenging racism when they find incidences of it, or have dared venture criticisms of Corbynism from within Corbynism, well; they're out, not worth bothering with, and should be chased off if needs be.

While it is annoying, frustrating, damaging, and dispiriting, we should not find this behaviour in left wing movements surprising. As we've noted on many occasions, all political parties and social movements, all of them, are affected and afflicted with the prejudices and outlooks of the society they are part of. Labour has them all - sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, national chauvinism, and the rest. Therefore the economism appropriate to the age has its home too, and is systematically reproduced by the logics of capital, of class and identity formation, and the (necessary) participation of political activists on social media. Better political education is only one way of addressing the problem - drawing more people into active, flesh-and-blood participation, while attacking neoliberal culture and building our own institutions of cultural production, all have a role to play. Most crucial of all is the inculcation of a more flexible, more fluid movement identity that identifies with the objectives we have set ourselves ahead of luxuriating in the fact of the movement itself. To be fair, we do have that, this is what the bulk of Corbynism is like: a proper broad church united around a common programme. But for as long as neoliberal sensibilities reign supreme without challenge, stanning will present a self-erected barrier we have to persistently and ceaselessly struggle to overcome.


Blissex said...

«This is wrong. It baldly states your experiences as a disabled person, as a gay person are inessential, an attitude that encouraged the formation of women's liberation, gay liberation, and anti-racist movements independently of and separate from labour movements.»

It is a matter of priorities not of "inessential", and talk of "experiences" is quintessential right-wing marketing.
And it is right-wing marketing that uses "your experiences as a" hyphenated-person that aims to "separate from labour movements" the hyphenated-persons and put them in hyphenated-ghettoes. It is right-wing marketing based on "divide and conquer" wrt hyphenated-persons that for example tells them that poor whites with simplistic views are "objectively" part of the system of privilege that prevents "the markets" from recognizing their true worth, instead of being powerless and dependent like them.

The people who think that the priority is to achieve power and independence for the powerless and the dependent try to unify them around that priority, not divide them by their status of hyphenated-person. Because it is not their identity that is holding back the hyphenated-persons, but their powerlessness and dependency.

Joe Ramsay said...

Labour has always (in my forty odd years experience of it) had its self appointed commissars. The "True Believers" of several "faiths". However, like all human beings, they identify with the causes that touch a nerve most. These become the condicio sine qua non of their view of what our politics should be - e.g. if we do not see all politics in the context of that cause, we are... a whole list of derogatory terms we are all familiar with.

Twitter and all the other vehicles, with the false "freedom" that is online anonymity, have simply spawned thousands more commissars. Commissars with flags and four letter combos and cryptic virtue signalling handles. It's like the art school bar "The Up were a much better band than MC5, but only cool people think that" hegemonic knowledge crap from my misspent youth.

We are supposed to be morally superior in some way, us on the left. We should begin to act like it. You know, "comradely". Shoulder to shoulder. If you are a comrade, I don't give a toss about your sexuality, colour, creed, height, weight, age, gender ID, views on the Middle East or even the East Midlands (I ain't so far away Phil!). If you are not, I still don't care about those things, but I might, maybe, spend a bit of time trying to talk you round. I would never do it from behind an anonymous twitter handle waving a dumb hashtag like a pathetic flag. And I would rather have dinner with Anna Soubry in my boxer shorts than trash a comrade from there.

The world is full of people who will inevitably hold different views from yours. If you put yourself in a very small bunker with a few diehards and an "on message" password, that will probably mean almost everybody (not the 20 million or so we need to win) :0)

Blissex said...

«The idea of the working man is a result of late 19th century trade union struggle to keep women out the workplace to increase wages»

That seems to me a very partial reading, based on a cod-feminist disregard of the physical conditions for human reproduction (and the overwhelming important of infant mortality rates and "dynastic" considerations). But then that discussion tends to become "politically incorrect"...

«and it was this absence of economic independence that was and is the material root of the private patriarchies of the proletarian household.»

My take on this is quite unusual and it is up to the industrial age the work done by men and women while highly gender-specific was pretty much of equal economic worth for nearly every class: the peasant working the land produced as much "worth" as the peasant spinning the wool.
With industralization, wages and the money economy "male" work became not only much harder and more dangerous, but also much better paid in the money economy than "domestic" female work.
This also represented an opportunity for women, but then again the discussion becomes "politically incorrect".

Blissex said...

As to "economism" that's rather a right-wing identitarian appeal: it is because of your identity (e.g. woman) that you suffer economic damage (e.g. lower income), because "the markets" and employers would recognize your true worth regardless of your identity, because "the markets" only care about your economic worth.

When for some people the priority of the action is against economic powerlessness and dependency, that seems appropriate to me: so many things *derive* from economic status, even more so than viceversa. If an hyphenated-person has grievance because their identity disadvantages them, that can be because it is economic disadvantage, or some non-economic disadvantage, like lack of respect. Most grievances are against economic disadvantage, and even the non-economic one can be source of much pain, the economic disadvantage seems to me a reasonable priority because it is unifying and often the source of much of the non-economic disadvantages.

Consider a person of color who is poor and powerless and dependent both because of lack of economic means and of lack of respect from many others: most other people who are powerless and dependent will be so becauise of economic reasons, but not all will be so because of their color, and if they were less dependent and powerless economically, their respect problem would also likely be much less of an issue for various reasons.

I like R Hattersley's words in "The Guardian" in 2001, my usual quote:

«Tony Blair discovered a big idea. His destiny is to create a meritocracy. Unfortunately meritocracy is not the form of society which social democrats want to see. [...] A Labour government should not be talking about escape routes from poverty and deprivation. By their nature they are only available to a highly-motivated minority. The Labour Party was created to change society in such a way that there is no poverty and deprivation from which to escape.»

Is that "economism"? Regardless, from my armchair (more precisely a foldable garden chair...) that's what I like as the main priority as to reducing dependency and powerlessness.

Dialectician1 said...

Many thanks, Phil. I really enjoyed this piece. However, much of your account draws heavily from postmodernism, which (ironically) continues to be the dominant narrative of our times. Ha ha. Giddens and Beck wrote all this stuff in the 1990s: about self actualisation and indentity. They concluded that class was dead and that injustice and exploitation were no longer based on economic formations. In other words, capitalism (in its mature phase, with its ability for the first time to to create surplus) has allowed humans the possibility of flexible identity formation: you can be who you want to be. But this, they said, comes with a risk. As the the existentialists would say: in the absence of God, the mantle of responsibility now lies with the 'individual' and tthis brings with it its own angst and deep and fearful sense of isolation. In the absence of meaning, meaning has to be created. It has to made and remade. So, as Giddens & Beck would say, in the absence of organised identities, which in the past were created culturally and historically through religion/region/dialect/craft (and class), people now have the problem of creating their own identities. So, we are all mini-entrepreneurs now.! Yet, this is not how class was created.

The emergence of a distinct working class in England 200-300 hundred years ago was a distinct break with previous social formations, which was feudalistic, parochial and heavily based on religion/custom. To paraphrase E P Thompson, the working class made themselves as a response to their their day-to-day collective relationship within a historically specific form of exploitation. Their started to act as a class for themselves and became increasingly conscious of themselves as a collective; they discovered the latent power they could exert by coming together and withdrawing their Labour. Thompson was keen to show class as a 'relationship' to a particular kind of capitalist exploitation and not a 'thing' or an identity.

The fact that capitalists see a lucrative market for 'flexible identity creation' should not come as a surprise. Nor, the way the state plays an important role in identity formation, particularly if it oils the wheels for continuous capitalist exploitation. But focussing on 'identity' takes us down the postmodern rabbit hole. Whether labour is material or immaterial is immaterial (forgive the pun), if it continues to be exploitative it remains a class formation, even if it is less visible to us today, or whether the working class are relatively unaware of themselves as an exploited class.

Unknown said...

Cheers Phil, top read!