The very untrendy left
The last three posts were a long digression from my narrative into the world of computational cognitive science. It ended up taking a lot longer than expected. I knew what I wanted to say in advance, but I underestimated how many details would need to be explained to make it accessible. The reason for the digression from my political journey was that a vaguely realistic model of how humans make decisions very much helps in understanding social and political dynamics. Most political theory adopts, at least implicitly, models of the individual that are based either upon the selfish, rational calculating agent or on some variation of the “sinner” – a free individual whose behaviour is an expression of their innate moral character and who, lamentably and inevitably, tends to deviate from the theoretical ideal. If you look at societies through such unrealistic lenses, many things that happen are entirely mysterious.
In any case, at the point where I left the narrative, my interest in cognition was only just beginning and I was about to embark on a journey into the far-left (exactly what I mean by the far-left and my schema for dividing up the political left was described in an earlier post).
In October 1997, I returned to Ireland from New York to complete the final year of my BA. I had spent the previous 3 years exploring the anarchist politics that Noam Chomsky had introduced me to. I was entirely convinced of the basic model of how the world works that I found there. Our economic and political system – capitalism – was designed to serve the interests of a tiny economic elite. The various institutions of democracy were nothing more than a superficial façade, public relations exercises to keep the population distracted. The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the wealthiest fraction meant that the majority of the world’s population were left with none – and were destined to lead lives of poverty and misery. This model corresponded much more closely with the world I saw around me than the common model of a society governed by the democratic will of a free and independent citizenry.
And it didn’t have to be like that. There was no good reason why power and wealth could not be distributed differently. There was more than enough wealth on earth to ensure a decent standard of living to everybody on the planet – distribution was the problem. Socialist experiments of the past had revealed a strong tendency towards authoritarian control and extreme bureaucratic centralisation. This could be avoided by building a movement from the bottom up – with direct democracy and federalism built into their structures. Libertarian socialism – a synonym for political anarchism – offered an alternative which could avoid both the inequality of capitalism and the totalitarianism of state socialism.
I had always hoped to do something with my life that would help change the world away from its current deeply unfair state and towards a better, more equal society. Having become convinced that the anarchist project offered a viable route towards such a society that I could find nowhere else, I felt a moral obligation to put my convictions into practice. I felt this obligation all the more strongly as I understood myself to be a privileged individual. Accident of birth had given me education, resources and opportunities that were beyond the reach of 99% of the world’s population. If I failed to act on my conviction, I would be a hypocrite; complicit in the suffering that I witnessed around me. In acting, I further felt obliged to take the political route that I thought most likely to be effective rather than limiting myself to things that I found personally attractive and enjoyable. My experience of the counter-cultural anarchist-influenced world was that there were plenty of people who were happy to espouse grandiose radical positions but had little or no interest in doing the unglamorous organising work required to put them into practice. I have little time for such people, to put it mildly. The last thing in the world that I wanted to be was a radical dilettante. My experiences in France, with the Fédération Anarchiste, had introduced me to a political branch of anarchism which seemed much more serious than the counter-cultural world in which I had been moving. That, therefore, was the direction I needed to take. Upon my return to Ireland, I was resolved to become a member of that political tradition and to play my part in building it into a political movement that was capable of changing the world.
There was, however, one major problem which caused me to look forward to my return to Ireland with trepidation. The problem had nothing to do with politics, per se, it concerned trendiness. Let me explain.
It is fairly common to see the far left, with their placards and protests, described in Irish newspapers as “trendy lefties”. This phrase is intended to convey the idea that those described care more about being cool and fashionable than they do about the principles they claim to espouse.
It is true that this phenomenon exists. There are people out there who wear Ché Guevara t-shirts and proclaim support for the left-wing cause-du-jour in order to gain status amongst the alternative sub-cultures in which they move. Such people can be found in the counter-cultural anarchist scene – squatting, graffiti and free parties are considered to be reasonably edgy and fashionable activities among a fairly broad swathe of the youth population. When it comes to the far left, however, such people are almost entirely absent for the simple reason that becoming a member of a far-left group is one of the least fashionable things that it is possible to do.
It may seem a little flippant to look at politics through the lens of fashion. However, I am using the concept of trendiness in a broad sense, to describe the general positivity or negativity of a group’s image across society. In Ireland the far-left’s public image is very poor indeed. I shouldn’t exaggerate: there are less socially-attractive group to belong to. There are a few Hari Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses and one occasionally comes across a street-preaching evangelist, and these religious prosletysers are, as I understand it, clearly beneath the far-left in the collective imagination of the country’s social hierarchy. Still, it’s hard to think of many other groups that have a less fashionable image.
While in France, I participated in several far-left political activities, including attending protests and handing out leaflets. I never worried much about the social implications. The country was considerably more politicised than Ireland, with a much larger left, and it was easy to imagine that handing out leaflets on protests was not considered irredeemably uncool. Furthermore, the relatively greater size of the left meant that its composition and culture, away from specifically political activities, was closer to that of the population as a whole. Most importantly, nobody knew me, so I was free to invent myself in whatever image I wanted without any danger of the values of my pre-existing social world intruding.
Ireland was different. Oh, sweet Jesus, it was different. It was culturally narrow and socially conservative, with a left-wing tradition that was tiny compared to most of Europe. Decades of youth-emigration and catholic control had allowed the country to maintain an unparalleled level of social conformity. This conformity depended upon strong community-based enforcement mechanisms: people whose appearance differed significantly from the norm would frequently find themselves the target of abuse. It didn’t take much. A funny pair of trousers or hat was enough to attract a stream of disapproving comments from both strangers and acquaintances. It extended to everything. A school friend of mine, Johnny Daly, had albinism and his off-white hair made him stand out visually. It was a reasonably common occurrence for people to shout abuse at him from passing cars, including once being advised to “go back to where you come from” – presumably they thought he came from the North Pole.
Having grown up in Ireland, I was well aware of the strong social pressures to conform. I was also, unfortunately well aware of where far-left parties stood in the popular imagination. Joining an extremely unfashionable group like the far left in a strongly conformist society is not an appetising prospect.
Early impressions of the far left
In 1997 my personal experience of the Irish far left was limited. My understanding of their social status was mostly based on the attitudes that I saw around me. These attitudes weren’t entirely homogeneous: some considered them to be harmless clowns, others considered them to be dangerous cultists, with most people coming down somewhere in between. Nevertheless, the clown-cultist spectrum was not a good place to occupy from a public image point of view.
From the outside, all of the parties and organisations of the far left are essentially identical. It requires significant investment of time and interest to understand the political nuances – while the similarities in terms of activity, language and culture are immediately obvious. In Ireland, it would be safe to estimate that no more than 0.1% of the population are at all familiar with the various positions and policies of the far-left parties. From the point of view of the remaining 99.9%, they are essentially indistinguishable and therefore share a public image.
Undoubtedly the biggest cultural influence on popular perceptions of the far left amongst my peer groups came from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The depiction of the People’s Front of Judea denouncing similar groups as “splitters” and asking themselves “what have the Romans ever done for us” was a common cultural reference point for the behaviours of small leftist political groups. The far left rarely appeared in popular culture and media, and nobody managed to be both funny and sharp in quite the way that Monty Python did, but whenever far left politics would make an appearance in popular culture it would invariably take a similar ‘would be sinister if they weren’t so comical’ guise.
My attitude wasn’t entirely shaped by the media. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, or SWP, had, during my youth, some presence on the streets of Dublin and I had come across them selling papers, handing out leaflets and compiling petitions on at least a couple of occasions. However, these interactions had barely made a dent on my awareness – my sub-conscious filtered them into a generic category occupied by crazies who harassed people on the street.
I also knew two people who had some personal experience with the SWP. My ex-girlfriend Helen signed up to their student society in Trinity College. For the next few months she received regular phone calls and house calls by their members putting pressure on her to take part in the party’s activities. My elder brother Larkin also signed up to the party shortly after entering university but quit soon after once he realised that membership meant that one was expected to attend a constant stream of party events and activities. It took another year before they stopped calling to his door to try to persuade him to deepen his involvement with the party.
Since becoming interested in anarchist politics in 1995, I could recall encountering the Irish far left on exactly two occasions. The first took place in Trinity College’s Junior Common Room. At the time, it occupied a prime location over Trinity’s Front Arch, overlooking College Green and was a popular hang-out for fashionably alternative students. I was playing a game of pool with my friend Simon when I was approached by a young woman with an Australian accent selling a pamphlet about the Russian Revolution of 1917. I mentioned in passing that I was interested in radical politics while declining the offered pamphlet. For the next 20 minutes she followed me around the pool table lecturing me about the Bolsheviks. I tried to play shots around her remonstrations, hoping to convey the message that she was outstaying her welcome in this particular conversation. It didn’t work. She escalated, with a newspaper called Workers Hammer offered as a free bonus with the pamphlet. Eventually I had to insist forcefully and repeatedly that she should go away and let me play in peace. Her persistence in the face of multiple social signals telling her to disengage forced me to be explicit – an abruptness which I found very culturally uncomfortable.
I later learned that the persistent Australian lady had been a member of the Spartacist League, an organisation which is unparalleled in its ability to be a highly sinister cult and a hilarious surrealist comedy act at the same time. When I first encountered them, however, it was just another confirmation of the general weirdness of the far left.
My next encounter took place when I attended a public meeting organised by the Socialist Workers Party in Dublin in January 1996 about the recent French General Strike. Having witnessed the strike personally, but knowing relatively little about its political significance, I was interested in learning more. The talk took place in O’Neill’s pub on Pearse Street. I was disappointed with the shallowness of its content. The message was that the people of France were rising up and that their heroic struggle heralded a more general awakening of the European and Irish working classes who were set to rise up in similar manners. There was little or no analysis of the context of the actual events beyond their inspirational value. During the discussion that followed the presentation I mentioned that I had witnessed the events and considered myself to be an anarchist. I then endured a concerted effort on behalf of the half-dozen party members present to persuade me to join the party. They even suggested that they could organise another meeting about France, at which I could speak as a witness. When I objected that, as an anarchist, I had significantly different politics to the SWP’s Trotskyism and would not, therefore, be a suitable member, they dismissed the significance of this political difference out of hand. We were all on the same side; they wanted anarchists in the party; we all needed to get together to fight against capitalism. After a few hours of concerted, if futile, persuasion attempts, I slipped out of the pub on my way to the toilets and escaped into the night. Yet again the deeply unattractive image of the far left was reinforced in my eyes.
The anarchists that I had come into contact with distanced themselves from the unfashionable nature of far left activity in two ways. Firstly, many convinced themselves that the derisive public attitudes were caused by the authoritarian flaws of the Trotskyist groups that dominated the Irish far left and did not, therefore, attach themselves to anarchist activism. Secondly, they tended to studiously avoid participating in the sorts of public activities that were most strongly associated with far left politics – newspaper sales, handing out leaflets and holding protests. This didn’t work, of course. Small groups that promote abstract left-wing political alternatives invariably occupy the same shared space in the popular imagination. It did however, allow the counter-cultural anarchists to avoid the unpleasant experience of coming face to face with their social-standing in public. This came at a cost, however. They rarely replaced this far-left activity with other means of communicating with the public, so their existence often went unnoticed by the population at large.
In any case, the political anarchism that I had encountered in France positioned itself unashamedly within the culture of the far left: leaflets, newspapers and protests formed a large part of their activity. I was not looking forward to becoming part of this sub-culture in Ireland. This had nothing to do with the activities themselves: none of them are particularly difficult or strenuous in themselves. It was the impact on my social standing that I dreaded. I was going to be that guy who annoys people into signing petitions outside shopping centres; or tries to get them to take a badly-photocopied leaflet on shopping trips into the city centre; or shouts and waves placards at them about some issue that they’ve never heard of. Nobody wants to be that guy.
I should say that it isn’t just the forms of activitism – leaflets, protests and papers - that make the far-left stand out culturally, it is the peculiar way in which they deploy them. During elections, one can find all sorts of people distributing political literature without any negative impact upon their social standing. The far left, however, generally considers elections to be a sham and therefore tends to eschew this great normalising avenue of popular political engagement, leaving them fighting for spaces with the Hare Krishnas on the pavements and doorsteps at random times when nobody considered normal or sane is doing so. The content of their message also plays a part in fortifying their negative image. They tend to advocate abstract theoretical solutions, obscure ‘isms’, to a broad public audience and use historical reference points – Petrograd 1917, Kronstadt 1921, Catalonia 1936 - and language – proletariat, bourgeois, surplus value - that the public is not familiar with. By contrast, Irish Republicans use some of the same methods of activism as the far left, but their cultural reference points – Easter 1916, the Treaty of 1921 – are part of the Irish primary schooling curriculum and almost everybody is broadly familiar with their significance and the language they use. The net result is that the far left ends up looking weird on every front – handing out weird material, using weird words, in weird places, alongside other weird people.
It is, of course, true that there is a spread of views in the population about these activities and it would be a mistake to over-generalise from my particular experience. There may be particular demographics in the population who consider such activities in an altogether different light. The manifestations of such attitudes are, however, hard to detect and have thoroughly eluded me for the last two decades. On the other hand, I have repeatedly encountered situations which tended to suggest that my personal experience of attitudes towards the far left remain broadly in line with those of the population.
On one occasion, in 2001 or 2002, I was part of a group delivering unsolicited anarchist newspapers to houses in the Liberties, a working class neighbourhood in South-Central Dublin. A small boy, no more than 8 years old, spotted us from the end of the road. He instantly shouted “no social life” at us before running away. I was both amused and alarmed – amused that an 8 year old boy should be aware of such specific details of the far left’s negative public image and alarmed as to what this said about the strength of the social stigma that we were fighting against. On many other occasions, over the years, I experienced similar situations . On the other side of the coin, the occasional expression of admiration was received. But it was admiration for our suffering, often tinged with pity, which only tended to strengthen my impression.
Nevertheless, regardless of the problems of extrapolating from personal experience to broad public opinion, within my social world there was no doubt. I understood perfectly well how joining a far-left group would appear in the elite-educated well-to-do South Dublin society in which I had been raised. Thus far I had kept my developing political convictions largely to myself, to protect my self-image as a fashionable young man. To join the far left and to take part in their public activities was a step outside this society into a place of ridicule. News of my ‘losing the plot’ and joining some "bunch of weirdos" would travel with the speed of gleefully scandalous gossip. I might as well join the Hare Krishnas. From now on most of my old acquaintances would look at me and see a ‘loonie’. I was, like totally, committing social suicide.
From the Inside
The image problem of the far left is rarely discussed or acknowledged within the far left itself. Partly that’s because it is less visible from the inside. In Dublin, for example, the far left is big enough to constitute a distinct sub-culture. It consists of a self-contained and self-sufficient social world based around meetings, protests, fundraisers and informal socialising. Within this social-world, the far left is, naturally, considered in a much more positive light than is the case amongst the general population. When people try to imagine broad public opinion, they tend to generalise from the opinions that they see around them. Thus, spending significant time within the far-left sub-culture is enough, by itself, to provoke an overly rosy picture of their public image. The most dedicated long-term members, who spend decades immersed in the sub-culture, can develop outlandishly unrealistic imaginings of the popular mind even in the face of relentless refutation in the electoral theatre. Negative coverage in the media and popular culture can be dismissed (with some reason) as the propaganda of the business classes.
People differ significantly in how much they are influenced by public opinion. There are people who appear entirely happy to perform socially unattractive roles. They are, however, rare. For while some people can easily adopt a rose-tinted view of their group’s standing in the popular imagination, public activity makes it impossible to avoid its behavioural manifestations. If you hand out political leaflets randomly on the street, you will see numerous members of the public going out of their way to avoid you and whatever it is you are handing out. You will sometimes receive dismissive, derisive or hostile feedback. Most people are very sensitive to the social pressures that such experiences create and take great care to avoid situations that produce them.
People’s desire to avoid social disdain through such public activity can be strong enough to overcome strong political convictions. On one occasion, several years later, a young lady informed me that she was fully supportive of anarchism and would do anything for the movement – to the point that she would rob banks or go to prison – but she would never be part of anything that required her to hand out leaflets on the streets.
The image problem of its activism skews the membership profile of the far left towards those who are less influenced by public opinion and social feedback. Such people are, by definition, more likely to be perceived as “odd” or eccentric by society at large. This creates a positive feedback loop between perception and reality: the lower the group’s social standing, the odder the adherents will tend to be.
In any case, socially impervious people are rare, even on the left. Most people who join the far left are aware of its poor public image and are sensitive to it. They join despite anticipating negative social consequences. They consider that concerns about their personal image are superficial conceits which they have a moral duty to overcome. After all they are supposed to be fighting for the liberation of the global poor: those billions of people who manage to build great movements in the face of great poverty and violent repression. Furthermore, the far left is engaged in a revolutionary struggle in opposition to capitalism and the state. Historical comparisons demonstrate that such struggles are bound to be both dangerous and difficult with significant risks to those involved. Members may become the victims of political repression, imprisonment, violence or death. If somebody is so vain that they are unwilling to appear unfashionable, they will hardly be much use when they face more serious threats.
Moreover, members of far-left parties typically see themselves as privileged relative to the mass of the population. They are supposed to want to remove social hierarchies and create an equal classless society. It seems horribly hypocritical to be particularly concerned with maintaining one’s own privileged position in the social pecking order, while advocating the destruction of the whole concept of social hierarchy. Indeed, a strong reaction to this ‘conceit’ is common, where individuals demonstrate allegiance to their political creed by enthusiastically embracing the role of social outcast. By debasing one’s own social standing, one demonstrates solidarity with those who are lower down – a messianic approach to social change which probably owes as much to the cultural weight of the moral story of Jesus as it does to any considered political strategy.
The attitude which considers social standing and public image to be superficial concerns is broadly prevalent on the far left. It is probably the most important reason why their terrible image is rarely discussed or acknowledged internally, never mind addressed. It is difficult to argue against activity due to it being unfashionable when the perceived stakes are so high. “You don’t want to hand out leaflets because you think it makes you look uncool? So, maintaining your trendiness is more important than the suffering of the world’s dispossessed masses! What type of a revolutionary are you?!” In fact, I don’t think that, I ever heard somebody make such an argument explicitly. Where people do argue against activities that are perceived as being socially unattractive, they generally put forward political arguments against them that are often just extremely flimsy covers for their manifest social discomfort.
This line of thought isn’t entirely without merit –any political project that aims to bring about change needs people who are willing to risk their immediate personal social standing for the good of the overall project. Most routes to social change require, at some stage, stepping outside of social norms and suffering the consequences. The far-left’s culture of social abasement also serves as an effective filter against any actual trendy lefties, who are primarily motivated by the edginess that an affiliation to radical politics can provide them, and who are entirely uninterested in taking part in anything that will make them look unfashionable.
However, the usefulness of this culture in filtering out dilettantes and filtering in the most committed people who are willing to endure self-sacrifice for the greater good is easily outweighed by the huge problems it causes. There is nothing at all superficial or whimsical about sensitivity to social image and standing. It is probably the most important single factor in the propagation of political ideas. To put it simply, the homeless-looking guy who tells you that you should follow his philosophy is not going to get a very good hearing from most people, regardless of how brilliant his logic might be or how well-crafted his rhetoric. On the other hand, somebody who manages to get their audience to perceive them to be a well-respected expert, with significant social standing, who puts forward such arguments is vastly more likely to persuade his audience, even when his logic is faulty and his respectable standing is phoney. This is especially important when recruitment is the aim: "join us and you too can be like us" doesn't work too well when delivered from a distinctly undesirable social position.
One can, of course, make a good case that this should not be so, starting either from the moral standpoint that we should treat everybody as equal, or simply due to the inaccuracy of such appearance based judgements – as everybody knows that one cannot judge a book by its cover. In my opinion, such arguments are fundamentally wrong: the social standing of the advocate of a political position is an important piece of information that is helpful in allowing one to evaluate what they say. Most importantly, in a world flooded with communication, it allows people to quickly and efficiently filter out lots of material without having to process it. It is far from perfect, but it is a simple generalisation that allows people to radically increase the complexity of the information that their brains can cope with.
But, whether you accept this argument or not, the point remains that whatever you think should be the case, social standing is used by people as a means to evaluate and filter information and there is no prospect of that changing. The only effect of ignoring it, or worse still, attempting to invert or subvert it, is to ensure that the vast bulk of the population will steer well clear and will never be exposed to the actual content of the message. You will end up with a group that is disproportionately made up of eccentrics and martyrs which becomes increasingly incapable of communicating anything beyond its own weirdness to the broad population, not exactly an effective strategy for political change.
This focus of this article has been on the collective external public image of the far-left, as it appeared to me in 1997, when I decided that I would become part of it. I do not think it has changed since then. I took the martyr’s route of dealing with the public image problem. My impending social suicide bothered me a lot but I thought that this was something I had to overcome both to demonstrate my political seriousness and to cleanse myself of my ingrained privilege. In any case, I was to spend the next 12 years within that world.
This story serves as the introduction to the second part of my personal narrative – which I call “Comrade Chekov”. This part will consist of a series of articles which will take a detailed look at that world from the inside, its activities, culture, divisions, rituals and institutions, with the goal of helping others to understand why it is the way it is.