I have wanted to write about why I chose to leave the socialist party, my move away from social movements and party politics, ever since I (mostly) gave it up, about a year ago. One reason for my apprehension about going public with my criticisms and experiences is that I don’t want people to misinterpret my new position and thinking as right-wing, reactionary, or cynical. The fact that Hegelian philosopher Slavoj Zizek was misunderstood to be supporting fuhr-… ahem- president Trump because he was critical of the mainstream left stands as a salient example showing that this is not an unreasonable worry.
I won’t be going into much detail about my prior experiences, or building arguments with support from literature from other radical social critics, in this post. I also want to keep this separate from upcoming explanations for the lack of any content in the past few months, but if you enjoy reading about mental illness, trauma, and addiction, follow this wordpress.
The final section at the bottom of this article is a summary of my actual experiences of working with the Socialist Party (CWI) last year, for anyone interested.
I was inspired to finally get over my online writer’s block (I’m currently writing a dissertation in social theory, alongside two book versions- one for academics and one for, hopefully, everyone) when I was notified of an article in the local newspaper entitled “Why Plymouth’s socialists are predicting a mass protest movement”.
I have archived the article here as I expect the editors at the Plymouth Herald may retroactively update the live version and amend some of the easy errors I am going to point out. It’s difficult to know what staff at that publication might do though considering the last time I was critical of their reporting, I was tracked down on facebook and harassed. Considering this isn’t the first time I’ve felt obligated to point out the shoddy work of the herald, I won’t feel guilty about sharing that story below, but if you’re just interested in the main point about the article I’m criticising, skip the following section.
I didn’t call Mr Shipman and I wasn’t completely mature in all of my responses, however, I was quite taken aback at the time. To clarify, I did not know this person on facebook, they tracked me down after the article I wrote received a few shares on social media. I probably could have gotten this person into more trouble at work than they already were but felt guilty about it. However, looking back, I shouldn’t have been so lenient and this was a nice opportunity to bring that back up. I know it’s old news but people should not be allowed to get away with this kind of behaviour- especially not journalists who are already having their articles critiqued for a lack of ethical standards, as this guy was.
The article begins with a frustrating reminder of the idealistic, almost delusional, attitude of many leftists. It might well be the crap quality of herald reporting that implies Ryan Aldred is one of these types, or perhaps Aldred really does believe that the “mass movement” is right around the corner, or maybe it’s to imbue Plymouth socialists with a, in my opinion, false sense of hope; the article does center around this thesis. As much as I will think fondly of some times I shared with Aldred back when I worked with the Socialist Party in Plymouth, and as much as I am certain that Aldred is an intelligent, well-meaning, charistmatic character, I find it easy to believe that this is not an exaggerated claim.
Ryan aldred believes Plymouth is on the verge of a “mass movement” to fight cuts and push back against austerity – and it starts with a growing opposition to closing libraries.
As I said before, I don’t want to delve too much into my own “post-left” thought, if one can borrow such a term, but one point that often springs to mind is the refusal of many leftists to properly acknowledge and integrate contemporary (and historical) critical theory. Critical theory in the social sciences is part of a philosophy which encourages radical social critique by applying, not without also critiquing, knowledge from the social sciences and humanities.
One of the main impetuses guiding critical theorists, many of whom are also considered “post-Marxists” (although we could just as easily call them Marxists who understand the historical contingency of Marxist thought and the need to constantly and reflexively update radical theory), was investigating why the revolution, which many thought the world was “on the verge of” decades ago, didn’t happen.
If the so-called Plymouth socialists believe we are on the verge of revolution now when current conditions are so unlike those we saw at, arguably the height of revolutionary potential fervour of “Mai68”, I think they are deluding themselves. Once again, I feel I must clarify I am not entirely against what they intend to do (although I am now opposed to much of the intended programmes of Trotskyist factions like the socialist party), I fervently believe that this kind of rhetoric is not convincing to the majority of people it’s supposed to appeal to. In fact, I feel like the constant bleating about how the revolution is just around the corner just reinforces the hopelessness that lots of people feel about the possibility of revolution.
However, I wouldn’t say this necessarily pushes people towards reformist politics, or puts them completely off. For me, the revolution is ongoing and goes way beyond changing political conditions in order to allow for material conditions to develop such that the superstructure of culture, politics, economy, and all other aspects of the social reflect our utopian visions. In fact, I think many leftists in putting forward this kind of programme, implicitly agree that there is a reflexive, bi-directional causal link between the base and super-structure, in traditional Marxist terminology, yet are seemingly blinded by the pursuit of political power so overlook other ways to effect change.
This is yet another indication of how many leftists seem to refuse to learn lessons from critical theory, especially regarding the nature of power, to the detriment of their own causes. I still agree that political economy is the most influential factor determining social conditions but my studies lead me to believe that economic determinism, at least, as most leftists seem to understand it, is naïve.
The passionate 27-year-old, leader of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, says the library issue could be “the straw the breaks the camel’s back” and may end up defining the city’s political future.
I just had to point out that Aldred isn’t the leader of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) and even a quick search will help you see that Dave Nellist occupies that role. I’m quite sure that this is a reporting error and not some grandiose claim by Aldred, the secretary of the Socialist Party’s Plymouth branch. I could be wrong about this now and it’s not clear from my online fact-check that Aldred is still in this role, but he’s definitely not leader of TUSC, although he was their candidate for a prior by-election.
Thousands have spoken out against the move, and Aldred believes their anger can be channeled to great effect.
Following the link to the apparent “thousands” speaking out against the move we find a petition on change.org to stop the closure of Plymouth libraries. I cannot claim that the 1,239 petition supporters represent all of the people who are against the library closures because there are probably many more supporters that did not sign the petition for some reason, including not being aware of it. However, I think it’s a weak way to support the claim and another indication of the quality of herald journalism.
Another problem with this point in the article, to me personally, is it implies signing a petition is a good way to speak out against anything. The argument supporting that claim is quite long, controversial, and most certainly beyond the desired scope of this article so I will just add that even if we assume petitions are effective, it would have been much better to use the government’s own petition site as it is not obligated to respond to anything from change.org.
“After the financial crash, people were stunned by the speed and severity of the attacks,” he says.
“But I think we’re getting to the point now where each individual issue is becoming the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Always with the platitudes. It’s already been used once in the article! Could the chief reporter, author of this article, not have thought up a synonymous metaphor? Especially considering they are going to repeat this cliché in an actual quote. I know this isn’t really important for journalism but people still have to read this and you could at least make some sort of effort to make it nice to read. Yes, I can’t talk, but I’m trying and this feels lazy to me. It might be unfair but anyone who knows me knows I like to complain. I’m done with being forgiving with the herald though after my lenience following the last incident, described in the earlier section.
I feel as a fellow student/scholar of sociology, I have an idea of what Aldred is alluding to. In “The Sociological Imagination” (Charles Wright Mills; 1959), Mills describes the role of sociologist as being in part, understanding the connection between private troubles and public issues. This, he explained, was what he called the “sociological imagination”. Obviously, it’s difficult to explain this kind of thing while in conversation, so unfair to criticise him for not being perfect in his words if this was the intention. Nevertheless, and assuming Aldred meant that individuals are beginning to develop a sociological imagination of sorts, connecting their individual issues to the issues of the wider social world, we must be careful in thinking that this would lead them to becoming socialists of sort.
Unfortunately, we live in the Trump timeline and it really does seem like fascism could come around to traumatise the world again. We cannot let this happen and must learn from history lest we be doomed to repeat it. (Now who’s writing platitudes?). Critical theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944), argue that fascism shows us that we should be skeptical of progress and modernity, and approach radical politics with a cautious, reflexive attitude that is constantly being revised. Keep in mind I am grossly oversimplifying their thesis here, but basically, they showed that enlightnment values were just as easily subverted into mythical narratives, such as those used to justify the rise of fascism.
Corollary to this, we could argue that this shows that the “sociological imagination” is corruptible in a similar fashion. If we take the rise of reactionary demagogue Trump, or the rise of the far-right currently happening in many parts of Eastern Europe, or even the catastrophical Brexit, we can argue that sometimes our sociological imagination fails us. Where Marxists would argue for working people to develop a class consciousness, in Mills’ terms, they are developing a sociological imagination which connects their own individual social position as a result of material forces being reproduced by the political economy, fascists and other ideologies cause this imagination to see individual problems as the results of a global conspiracy carried out by some imagined enemy. The Nazi’s big imaginary enemy is the mythical figure of “The Jew”. Perhaps, as I have argued before, today’s mythical enemy in the sociological imagination of many today is “The Muslim”.
“Libraries in particular is something people are very defensive about. They are great spaces. To throw that away would be hugely irresponsible and short-sighted.
“People will use this issue as a means to start levying that pressure back. We will be fighting very hard to defend all of these libraries.
I agree that closing down libraries is a bad thing. It effectively reduces the amount of cognitive and cultural capital available to people in a way that disproportionately effects working people. Particularly when we consider that for many poor people, libraries are a way for them to access a computer, printers and the internet- essential forms of cognitive capital in the modern world. I also believe that this effectively reduces their capacity for free will, an idea that I will be explaining more fully in my upcoming dissertation/book “The Social Determinants of Free Will” (Working title).
However, I must disagree about this issue being something that will suddenly eradicate the apathy that leftist always accuse the working classes, that they are supposedly championing, of being afflicted with. While it’s not a completely unfair criticism of many people, it’s a cynical excuse which allows many leftists, especially “activists”, to feel superior. This tactic also precludes them from having to analyse why there aren’t more activists in another similar way to how they refuse to learn from critical theory.
Another part of my upcoming dissertation, which introduces the concept of cognitive capital as an important addition to the Bourdieusian theoretical toolbox, is that it allows us to understand why many people, whom leftists continuously argue should be active alongside them, don’t choose to join them. By applying a materialist analysis, which considers all the forms of capital at people’s disposal, we can come to understand and empathise with how lower classes have less capital available to them, and how that effectively lowers their freedom to act in politically effective ways, we can stop blaming apathy and understand how their lack of participation is a result of structural factors rather than some lack of the kind of will which right-wingers often talk about when blaming poor people for not trying hard enough to not be poor. Other applications for my theoretical contribution are beyond the desired scope of this article.
Pre-empting the probable response of some leftists, which would be to respond that some of my criticisms are valid but at least they are doing something– firstly, this is something and I do other things and it’s a weak ad-hominem argument, secondly, see this comic.
“(Council leader) Ian Bowyer is going to have to be very careful. If he doesn’t listen to the will of the people he’s going to be very unpopular, and people won’t forget that come 2018.”
Socialists love to invoke the mythical “will of the people.” Earlier in this article, I tried to show how the sociological imagination can be subverted and made into a tool which distracts from the real material analysis of social relations and conditions. Reference to “the will of the people” is another example of this, as it can easily become an excuse to do anything. The easy, if extreme, illustratory example of this is how Stalin’s brutal state capitalist regime, or “Communist” to the average person’s mind, used the mythical “will of the people” as an excuse to repress dissent and crush opposition. A fuller exegesis of this tangent is again, beyond the desired scope of this article, however, this video is great at explaining basically what I mean.
As the article continues, Aldred continues to give worn-out cliches as empty threats to people who probably won’t listen or care to what people have to say. He adds nothing substantial or different to commentary we can find from liberals and others that oppose the likes of Trump and local councillor Bowyer. There is more to comment on but I have already spent far more time than I would have liked to on this so I’m going to be brief with the rest of this article.
- Aldred claims that if given power he would immediately stop the cuts which is a ridiculous claim that he cannot guarantee. Even if he wanted to and really believed it, there is no way for voters to be certain about whether it is possible to stop austerity measures at all- especially considering how long they have been implemented and the increasing rate at which public services are being privatised.
- A “mass movement” like that which opposed the poll tax in the 1980s is not currently forseeable considering conditions for the masses are far more comfortable than back then.
- Labour lost control of the council because the Tories were voted in and it’s irrelevant considering labour councils across the country also implement austerity measures.
- The rhetoric of the “socialists” about labour is unbelievably inconsistent- sometimes complaining that there is some right-wing conspiracy, sometimes that the party is just Tory-lite, sometimes that it’s the only remaining hope against the Tories (so much for believing in your own party or “the will of the people”). I have no desire to discuss the disaster that is Jeremy Corbyn.
- The talk about there being a reactionary Brexit plan is ridiculous as Brexit can only be reactionary. I didn’t vote for reasons I might decide to explain another time, but it’s sad to think that someone who claims to have such great insight into the world and wants to have working people follow them would vote in such a way that will damage many of their livelihoods.
- It’s shocking that the chief editor of the herald can’t recognise the obvious conservative (but not necessarily voters for the Conservative party) majority demographic of Plymouth. The university does not tip the spectrum towards this being a liberal or progressive place, especially considering student politics are redundant. Also, in today’s world, the old theories of political spectrum barely apply- but that’s another big conversation too.
- The idea that scratching beneath the surface of right wing views there is support for left wing policies is incredibly naïve and hopeful. Unfortunately, in mostly white Plymouth, there really are lots of intolerant racist, sexist, etc. bigots and they aren’t misunderstanding their own views about politics, even if they would deny their bigotry. There are much better ways to explain why racism is wrong and why immigration is good. Telling people that they don’t even understand their own views is not a good persuasion technique.
- Voting leave in the referendum was not the only way to protest it. Choosing not to vote is a valid form of dissent. Voting against the interests of the class you supposedly support just because it’s a “vote for change” is unbelievably short-sighted unless Aldred is a closet accelerationist- i.e. one who believes that ramping up the contradictions of capitalism and widening inequality to accelerate the production of material conditions would make revolution happen faster, even if it means screwing over the workers short-term.
On another tangent, when trying to work with the socialist party in the past, I put everything into it as I do everything I love. I loved being “an activist” again after having been disillusioned by my involvement with social movements years earlier. But when I tried to help build the student society for the socialist party, my work was not appreciated. When I tried to work on organising fast food workers, since it was an industry I had years of experience in, my ideas fell on deaf ears. When in public, I was told to follow the party line and save my own opinions for closed meetings- this is democratic centralism and in the closed meetings, you are dominated by the in-group. When at the socialist students conference, I was told multiple times when disagreeing with certain things, or offering new ideas, that I was “not thinking dialectically enough”- a meaningless way to shut down conversation. The hatred of the Socialist Workers Party is embarassing. The party is obsessed with selling papers to the point that I sometimes wonder whether the entire party is a scam for getting free labour to sell them. The Committee for a Worker’s International (CWI) is known for covering up sexual assaults by higher up party members! All of this is not inviting and I feel my dissent also makes certain types attracted to this kind of politics label my voice as not one that makes up the totality they justify action with- the “will of the people”.
My voice counts and I am working class, but it shouldn’t even matter.
I might return to this later. Thanks for reading.