Sneering At September’s Dead: 9/11 As a Symbolic Point of Abuse

By Jack Staples-Butler

On September 11th 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, members of a social justice activist group organised on Facebook named Coalition Oxy for Diversity and Equity (CODE) destroyed a 9/11 memorial at Occidental College, Los Angeles, which was mainly made of small American flags to mark each victim of the attacks. The memorial had been planted by the Occidental College Republicans. Many flags had been snapped in two or pushed them into overflowing garbage cans. The group had left flyers ostensibly memorialising the “1,455,590 Innocent Iraqis Who Died During the U.S. Invasion for Something They Didn’t Do”, placed over an image of the Twin Towers. CODE, following the anti-imperialist moral tropes of Milosevic and Assad, denied their own organisational responsibility for the vandalism whilst supporting the actions of those who carried it out, claiming “this symbol of the American flag is particularly triggering for many different reasons. The same ‘RIP’ image was previously known for being posted on September 11th 2015 by the Entourage lead star Adrian Grenier, who deleted it following an angry backlash, and subsequently enjoying uncritically positive coverage Al Jazeera’s AJ+ on Facebook.

The insincere and belittling ‘RIPs’ have been added to by other celebrities of left-wing imagination, including the official Twitter account for Ahmed Mohamed, the ‘clock boy’ erstwhile of Irving, Texas now living in the Qatar emirate. Mohamed’s official account received positive acclaim in likes and retweets after repeating the same fabricated statistic on September 11th 2016. Noticeably, the Mohamed account’s tweet copies the language of the original image almost word-for-word, but adds an additional 500,000+ deaths and changes ‘Iraqis’ to ‘Muslims’ without further explanation. Variations of the image give different numbers, asserted with the same certainty.

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‘1,455,590’, the oddly-specific death toll of Iraqi civilians is a fabrication; a deliberately sensationalist ‘rough estimate’ which originated on the website of the left-wing pressure group Just Foreign Policy now presented in the ‘RIP’ image as received truth. The exact, minute death toll from the 2003-2011 war is unknown, partly because Saddam Hussein’s regime did not keep accurate census records. Most recent estimates place total casualties below the one-million mark. Iraq Body Counts puts the grand total from 2003-2016 at around 268,000. The majority of these casualties were not inflicted by U.S. forces or ‘during the U.S. Invasion’ in 2003. The purpose of the deliberately inflated Just Foreign Policy figure, in the ‘RIP’ image’s juxtaposition with the confirmed and familiar 9/11 death toll, was to belittle the commemoration and memory of the victims. The ‘RIP’ image’s recurrence each September utilises the 9/11 anniversary to promote manipulatively sentimental anti-Americanism, and distorts public understanding of Iraq and the Middle East. But in ‘social justice’ left-wing social spheres online, it is morally praiseworthy to circulate this intellectual detritus in September, and then some.

Mainstream leftism and even liberalism can accommodate junk statistics deployed in a similar invective of minimisation and whataboutery; the “more likely to be killed by right-wing terrorists and “more likely to be killed by a lawnmower than terrorism” tropes are among the most widely-circulated in social media discussions of terrorism on the left. The ‘lawnmower’ claim entered the maelstrom of mainstream popular culture as celebrities like Kim Kardashian shared an aesthetically authoritative image based on a selective study of terrorism after 9/11, from 2001-2014. Fawning clickbait headlines such as “This powerful image being shared across social media is a powerful reminder that religion isn’t the problem” are written in the passive voice to disguise the headlines’ own agency in constructing the terrorism-belittling narrative. This narrative around terrorism after 9/11 has remained one of minimisation, denial and wallowing in the comfort of junk explanations and misinformation. Instead of encouraging sober or unprejudicial reflection on the reality of security threats or the dangerous allure of totalitarian ideas, praise is given for the liberal burying of heads in the sand.

This Image Being Shared Across Social Media Is A Powerful Reminder That Religion Isn t The Problem

Whilst visiting the United States in September 2016, I observed something on social media which I had not thought possible in socially acceptable, real-name public discourse. An American friend (referred to here as ‘R.X.’) working in the universities sector, a proudly self-proclaimed ‘social justice warrior’ with teaching responsibilities, had posted the same image which belittled and sarcastically diminished the dead of September 11th 2001. The image was identical to one which would be left at the vandalised Occidental College memorial, and contained links to 9/11 ‘Truth’ websites and a crank journal deceptively named Euro Physics News which serviced the melting temperature-fixated paranoia of the far-left and far-right. With the aesthetics of a memorial graphic typical of those circulated around tragic anniversaries, the clickbait image signalled the virtues of anti-Americanism and diminishing of the importance of 9/11 and the lives of the dead, via the vehicle of a pseudo-tribute made with snarling insincerity. R.X. was certainly no liberal patriot (photos of American flag-burning by various radicals sometimes got generous sharing from them), but the 9/11’RIP’ image seemed to cross a new boundary of contempt for life, liberty and the existence of historical truth.

The tawdry piece of clickbait being shared by an educated person, to approval by other educated members of a wide social circle, managed to insult and instrumentally exploit the 9/11 victims, the civilian casualties of the Iraq war, and practically every veteran of the United States armed forces and the international coalition which served in Iraq. The piece is a vulgar distillation of a language around 9/11 which became familiar in left-wing politics from almost immediately after the attacks. The extreme border of this mindset was the Ward Churchill controversy and his description of the incinerated World Trade Centre staff as “little Eichmanns. But others as morally sensible and empathetic as Mary Beard could be warped by the reflexive desire to blame the yankees and obliterate the moral agency of the murderers. As Beard infamously wrote in October 2001, as the bodies were still being pulled out of smouldering rubble:

“This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.”

Beard has never apologised for these remarks, and has consistently defended the legitimacy of the substance and form of portraying the hijackers as delivering a rational and predictable response to “bullies”. The original ‘take’ she offered is shared by the malaise of reductive left-wing thought following 9/11 and more recent attacks by ISIS cells in Europe. Here is the wisdom of the socialist pop-historian historian Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States, urging readers:

“We need to think about the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action… We need to understand how some of those people will go beyond quiet anger to acts of terrorism”.

Consider what this beloved left-wing writer of “well, actually” history, name-checked with praise in the film Good Will Hunting, is really saying about the murderers and victims of 9/11. These words, published on September 14th 2001 (the same day the FBI first named the nineteen hijackers), portray Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the hijackers as men of “quiet anger” who were “victims” of American foreign policy. The beliefs, personalities, moral agency and all empirical evidence about the hijackers is pre-emptively obliterated from the equation, and would remain so throughout the default left understanding of the attacks.

The attacks were provoked, the true murderers and “bullies” were the hatred liberal capitalist nations of the West, and the attackers themselves possessed no real responsibility for their actions. The possibility that the attacks were not the desperate response of a downtrodden peasant army was not considered. As was self-evident from the group’s founding statements, concern for the poor and wretched of the Earth did not factor in Al-Qaeda’s calculations before 9/11, nor did they have any desire to see the end of ‘imperialism’ itself. Bin Laden’s own dream was for a global jihadist war on Afghan soil, a great struggle against the West in which he predicted and hoped that millions of Muslims would die in a protracted humiliation of the United States. Abu Al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State got further in seeing their nightmarish vision realised, albeit within limited geography. The perpetrators of 9/11 or since were not exploited peasants or workers dreaming of emancipation, but the builders of a theocratic empire with dreams of slavery, conquest and the extermination of Jews and Yazidis. In the narrative which Beard promoted and shared with many others, all of this was irrelevant to fact that the privileged yankees “had it coming”.

My friend R.X. had long-standing form for blaming their country of birth for the multitude of the world’s evils. However, I had presumed they would spare their friends and themselves the injustice of sharing such palpably manipulative numerology, particularly on the anniversary of the attacks. When I asked R.X. why they had decided to share the untrue numbers of dead with an unknowing audience, their answer was a revealing insight in the epistemological norms they inhabited:

R.X.: “I know the numbers might not be right, but the societal impact this graphic gets at is still relevant. To be honest though, I don’t care enough to look these up.”

For R.X., the moral parameters were simple. Fabricated statistics, the belittling of 9/11 victims, the obliteration by omission of most Iraqi civilians killed by terrorism and insurgencies supported by Iran and other regional actors, the absolution of convicted and self-proclaimed mass-killers with yet more fabricated evidence from the Truthers, were perfectly reasonable things to share and promote in the week of a 9/11 anniversary. ‘Societal impact’ of a narrative was the primary concern; facts and numbers contradicting the narrative were irrelevant. A neat distillation of postmodernist nihilism aside, the popularity of this attitude among R.X.’s social circle reveals something about contemporary society even apart from the ideology which produces it. In the 2010s, it is acceptable to lie, scoff and sneer about and at the victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist atrocities without social consequence on the social justice left. If any public backlash that does arise from the obscenity of vandalising memorials or insulting victims and survivors on the date of memorial using junk statistics, you can be assured defences from social justice academia and viral media targeting a progressive audience.

The self-identified social justice left is not alone in its abuse of 9/11 victims and the memory of 9/11 itself. The partisan exploitation of the attacks during the Bush Administration was followed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate’s miserable failings in healthcare provision for 9/11 rescue workers. Even before Trump, the GOP had fallen badly at the measure which judges a society by how it treats its heroes and the most vulnerable; embodying both were the illness-stricken 9/11 rescue workers who were deprived of healthcare by Republican votes in successive Congresses. The 9/11 First Responders bills being politically championed by Jon Stewart and his army of Comedy Central-watching liberals in 2010, with the rescue workers losing health coverage again in 2015 due to a Republican-led Senate deadlock was a subject which ‘Blue Lives Matter conservatives preferred to forget.

The most widespread vice drawn from 9/11 on the American Right was conservative embrace of authoritarian pornography like the ludicrous ‘Flight 93 Election’ essay comparing Trump supporters to the heroic cockpit-storming passengers of the doomed United 93. The essay gained wide popularity and acceptance among the Trump-supporting commentariat and even fence-sitting conservatives unsure about whether to back Trump, whom the essay directed its millenarian pontificating towards. The right-wing journalist Bret Stephens argued that the ‘Flight 93’ essay was a painful reflection on the state of conservative thought:

“To reread “The Flight 93 Election” today is to understand what has gone wrong not only with the Trump presidency, but also with so much of the conservative movement writ large... To imply, as Anton did, that Barack Obama, for all his shortcomings, was Ziad Jarrah, Flight 93’s lead hijacker, is vile…To suggest that Donald Trump, a man who has sacrificed nothing in his life for anyone or anything, is the worthy moral heir to the Flight 93 passengers is a travesty.”

In comparison to these ‘real-world’ assaults on the dignity of 9/11 victims from the conservative right, it is easy to dismiss observations of leftists belittling the victims of terrorism as ‘somebody’s wrong on the Internet’ syndrome. However, since 9/11, the coalescence of the online world and real life has made distinctions between the wrongness of a misinformed town hall meeting and a misinformed network of social media friends almost redundant. Circulating false information, whether aggressively promoting fake news sites protected with a ‘satire’ disclaimer, or just old-fashioned physics-warping conspiracy theories passed on in chain emails, is only half of the equation. Historical truth means nothing to the 9/11 Truther, or the fabricated death toll mourner, when these claims continue to be promoted after their falsehood is made unambiguous. The warped ethics and morality of circulating the ‘RIP’ image are downstream from this happy dissolution of historical fact.

At the extreme end of the social justice left’s abuse of the 9/11 victims is the mindset of what Jamie Palmer described as the ‘Theatre of Radical Cruelty’, which includes gleeful revelling in the death and suffering of those who share America’s collective guilt. American student Otto Warmbier’s show-trial, torture and murder by the North Korean gulag system brought smiles and sneers to bloggers on Salon and The Huffington Post that ‘white privilege’ was being revoked and punished by the DPRK. The vandalism of the Occidental College 9/11 memorial was similar in mindset to the Marxist-Leninist youths who in March 2017 ‘protested’ against the Victims of Communism memorial in Washington DC, gleefully tweeting a group photo of finger-flipping obscenity pointed at the hundred million dead. The January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cache attacks prompted disturbing responses on the Anglo-American left ranging from tepid displays of non-sympathy for the victims; to Laurie Penny’s open contempt for the ‘racist trolling’ she attributed to the murdered cartoonists whilst their blood remained spattered on office walls. Similarly, the victims and survivors of the worst terror attack in U.S. history have more frequently found themselves on the receiving end of the social justice left’s blunt anti-imperialist moral calculation.

One of the great social media frenzies of 2016 was in reaction to the Stanford University rapist Brock Turner, who was given a sentence of only three months imprisonment after being found guilty of a serious sexual offence. The manifestly poor decision of a California judge was embedded in the social justice hemisphere as irrefutable validation that the United States was in the grip of a rape culture where victims were blamed and rapists were routinely tolerated. BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith declared an article on Brock Turner was BuzzFeed’s most-shared story since ‘The Dress’, a record-breaking pseudo-event created by Kim Kardashian. Social justice activists and intersectional feminist websites whose columnists publicly promoted a utopian fantasy of the Foucauldian far-left, the goal to “abolish prisons, police and the American settler-state” now demanded the harshest penal punishments for Turner. In the broad issue of ‘rape apologism’ and victim-blaming, leftists and liberals would be enraged at images claiming that Brock Turner was innocent, was framed or mocking his victim by comparison to fraudulently inflated sexual assault statistics drawn from other countries.

Yet this is what the ‘RIP’ image demands of readers. It is predicated on the essential anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism of social justice politics. Americans cannot really be victims of mass murder just as whites and Jews can never be victims of racism; thus, only America, Israel or other ‘colonialist’ powers can be guilty of committing mass murder, rape and ‘oppression’. Conversely, Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups cannot be morally responsible for mass murder; they are either reacting to oppressive American foreign policy, are being secretly controlled and funded by Israel, or they never carried out the attacks in the first place. The actual perpetrators of the mass murder of almost 3,000 Americans are absolved of their guilt. For people who share the ‘RIP’ image around September 11th, the moral culpability of Osama Bin Laden, the hijackers and the entire Al-Qaeda network responsible for the atrocities and thousands more since, is erased or diminished into irrelevance. Noticeably, the Arab and Muslim victims of Al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements are absorbed into the fabricated death toll attributed to solely U.S. military action.  

When asked about the obscenity of declaring the terrorist killers of thousands of Muslims innocent by blaming other parties, R.X. sneeringly replied that to even name Al-Qaeda’s murder of Muslims was to speak of “black-on-black crime” – a cardinal sin of racism which social justice leftism treats a priori as both wrong and wrongthink. If hundreds of Shia pilgrims are slaughtered in an Al-Qaeda suicide bombing of a holy site, or Sunnis who refuse to accept the authority of Abu Al-Baghdadi as their Caliph are slit by the throat en masse, all responsibility lies with America. Far from genuinely commemorating or mourning Muslims who have died violently since 9/11, the ‘RIP’ image posters display only a willingness to instrumentalise their deaths, stripping the dead of dignity and their killers of any accountability.

This has likely been familiar territory for those familiar with the work of Norman Geras, though I notice a difference in the phenomena presented in the disturbed responses to 9/11 and terrorism exhibited on social media. Geras analysed and critiqued the response and group behaviours of the organised and cultural left, the intellectual circles who gathered around literary journals, book reviews and campus lectures. The kind of thinking which permeated through devotees of Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Pilger, Edward Said and the who’s who of the ‘anti-imperialist’ left could hardly be called popular culture. The debasing argument over ‘root causes’ was a feud in ivory towers and broadsheets, among the politically-interested class who subscribed to wonkish magazines, the poets and novelists who conflated radicalism with style, and a few celebrity enthusiasts from the film and music business. As with those on the right and centre-left who criticised and exposed their intellectual abuses, they all existed in nerdish subcultures separate from the general public. Those who intently followed arguments between Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens and their toadies and critics were unlikely to overlap with the tens of millions who followed reality television and talent competitions.

Since Norman Geras’s death, the advance of social media into the realm of intractability has accelerated the mainstreaming of fringe ideas to lightning speed. The British Labour Party has been conquered by the former senior membership of the Stop the War Campaign and Venezuela Solidarity Campaign largely due to the organising capacity of Facebook and Twitter. The success of radical and illiberal parties and regimes are downstream from the cultural acceptability of their ideas. The circulation of tropes about terrorism once trafficked by cynical closet sympathisers of extremism now enjoy the casually-tweeted support of the most popular and influential figures of mainstream culture. Terror-apologising nihilism is now a display of public virtue. To adapt a phrase from Chomsky himself, this must involve the responsibility of intellectuals.

One statistic about 9/11 and the passage of time since can be more terrifying than many of the figures now synonymous with the atrocity. The statistic, based on an estimate by the Los Angeles Times journalist Terry McDermott is difficult to quantify and must be given appropriately cautious treatment. If true, it reveals something about the culture of Western democracies and the curiosities of their intellectual classes. Ten thousand books have been written about the 9/11. Only one was about the 9/11 hijackers themselves. Being generous, it is possible true number of books specifically focused on 9/11 itself, and not part of a larger tome on war and terrorism, is only around one thousand. The prognosis, however, is unavoidable. There has been a dearth and desolation of interest in the 9/11 hijackers themselves from the lettered classes. For the people responsible for culture and the written word in Western societies, preferred narratives about 9/11 are known before and apart from knowing anything about the men responsible for it.

McDermott himself, with his 2008 book Perfect Soldiers, was the first and only civilian writer to produce a close study of who, how and why the hijackings of the four aircraft actually took place. Most of the other ten thousand plus books were polemics, political tracts, academic metanarratives or literary works which instrumentalised the attacks with no consideration of who carried them out. Lost in the portentous screeds of civilisational struggle by reactionary bluster, the Chomskyan superstructures of imperialism and anti-imperialism, Said’s Orientalist theories spoon-fed through cultural studies reading lists, and all the memes and tropes blaming America for bringing the attack on itself, is who actually carried out the attacks and why.

The names of the hijackers remain unknown to most people in the United States, both the general public or the educated. Social sciences graduates who can confidently pronounce how 9/11 was ‘blowback’ for Western imperialism and reel off lists of activist-inflated death tolls from American foreign policy crimes, draw blanks when asked to name the men whose crimes redefined the course of history.

On any anniversary of September 11th, the great and impulsively reached-for narrative of ‘anti-imperialism’ must be held up against the evidence. The narratives built around the murder almost 3,000 people by eminent figures of academia and now parroted by the most popular celebrities are constructed with total disregard to the most basic facts of the event. What went on inside the skulls of Osama Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the pilot hijackers Mohammed Atta, Ziad Jarrah, Marwan al-Shehi and Hani Hanjour barely, if ever, factors into the analysis offered by the moral certainties of “had it coming”, “beyond quiet anger” and “RIP”.

Whilst writing this article, the editor raised the term “symbolic point of abuse”, a description which eclipses any I had for the relationship between social justice leftism and 9/11. The memory of the attacks remains one of the most misinformed subjects in modern history, though arousing moral certainty from those who hold the victims of 9/11 in a haze of contempt, and the hijackers in a haze of ignorant, de-personalised sympathy. Both victims and perpetrators of the attacks are a source of irritation and cognitive discomfort for the people enthralled by the verbosity of social justice newspeak or the vulgar simplicity of the ‘RIP’ trope. On any anniversary of the mass murders committed by the Al-Qaeda cult, we would do well to honour the victims by learning why they were killed. They deserve as much, as equally the murderers are deserving of the accurate judgement of history.

 

You can read more by the author at his blog.

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Labour moderates may be pushed before they jump

By an anonymous Labour councillor

The term “Labour moderates” covers a widely disparate range of views.  They include socially and economically liberal ‘Blairites’.  This group largely embraces global capitalism.  However, they want to harness the power of the state and the market to reduce inequality.  Sharing the moderate tent are more statist social democrats.  Their objectives are not wildly dissimilar to the Blairites.  However, they are more sceptical of markets and globalisation.  Nevertheless, they have no desire to bring down capitalism.  Next are those who self-identify as socialists but who espouse more radical reform of capitalism.  They should feel at home in Corbyn’s Labour Party.  However, their outlook tends to be internationalist.  Therefore, the default anti-West mentality of the Corbynite alt-left does not resonate with them.  More importantly, they feel uncomfortable about the cultishness surrounding Corbyn.   

These characterisations of Labour moderates are somewhat crude.  There are many shades of opinion within and between the groups described.  Still, this account of Labour moderates is more nuanced than the caricatures envisaged by the Corbynite left.  They see a common enemy consumed by bitterness and a desire for power over principle.  Labour moderates’ scepticism about Corbyn and his acolytes is regarded as proof positive of a barely repressed, innate conservatism.  The word ‘Blairite’ has been appropriated as shorthand for this.  Some Corbynite apparatchiks, close to the man himself, have taken to using dubious terms such as ‘slugs’ and ‘melts’ about Labour moderates on social media.  

The Corbynite pressure group, Momentum was formed in late 2015.  Its initial purpose was to consolidate Corbyn’s position.  Over time, it has developed a parallel organisational structure.  In effect, it is a party within a party.  Momentum activists define themselves in opposition to Labour moderates.  They flexed their muscle early on.  In December 2015, the House of Commons voted for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.  Corbyn made his vehement opposition clear.  Many Labour MPs, being of an internationalist disposition, were inclined to vote in favour.  However, a perceptible number did not.  The expected rebellion was stifled rather than quashed.  Many attributed this to an intense social media and lobbying campaign by Momentum activists.  

Momentum proved effective as Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard in the summer of 2016.  A leadership challenge was instigated by the Parliamentary Labour Party.  This occurred after the 2016 referendum on EU membership.  Many Labour MPs perceived that Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, had deliberately sabotaged the Remain campaign.  Nevertheless, the challenge was easily defeated.  Corbyn was greatly helped by Momentum’s organisation and resources.  In some ways, the outcome of the referendum was more significant for the Party than the subsequent leadership election.  It represented the beginning of an illiberal populism in the UK that is evident across the Western world.  Donald Trump’s election as US President, in November 2016, further exemplifies this.  Labour moderates have found that their core liberal values are under attack from the right and the left.  They have few allies in the centre.

Speculation about a new party surfaces periodically.  This has been a regular occurrence since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Leader in 2015. The speculation ebbs and flows according to Corbyn’s fortunes.  Commentators ruminate on the discomfort of Labour moderates:  Surely the Party activists have become too hostile?  Is Labour still the right party to advance their politics?  Would a new centrist party not be more viable for them?  After all, the Party has been transformed beyond recognition in only two years. Still, moderate Labour MPs are dismissive of such talk, in public and in private.  They are genuinely and deeply reluctant.  However, they may not be given much choice.  Momentum are waging a war against moderates.  It is genuine, sustained and highly organised.  

Their increasingly impossible situation begs an obvious question: why do Labour moderates stay?  Many are haunted by the spectre of the Social Democratic Party (SDP).  In 1981, a number of Labour moderates were alarmed by an earlier hostile takeover of the Party by the hard-left.  Their response was to break away and form the SDP.  For a short time, in the 1980s, the SDP was in the ascendant.  However, it experienced a rapid decline when Labour, under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, moderated and appropriated many of its policies.  Many Labour moderates, especially sitting MPs, have night terrors of ending up in a fringe party on the margins of politics.  This is not what they have devoted their lives and careers to.  They also have a deep tribal, familial identification with the Party.  To them, Labour is more than a political party; it is a community which often provides the basis for a social life.  They are, understandably, reluctant to isolate themselves from that.  

Until very recently, Labour moderates were enmeshed in the structures of the Party.  They were often in a position to act as a restraining influence.  However, the result of the 2017 General Election has changed this.  The Corbynite wing has interpreted the better-than-expected result as validation of their world view. Moderates within the Party have been fatally weakened.  Momentum have been quick to take advantage and a new phase of a hostile takeover has commenced.  

Noisy threats to deselect Labour MPs were frequently made by Momentum activists before the election.  However these have subsided and there is a reason for this; they have a new target.  Many local Party branches have held their annual general meetings in recent weeks.  Longstanding branch officers have found themselves replaced by strangers wearing badges emblazoned with Corbyn’s name.  This is the result of slates organised by Momentum.  Moderates report that has become increasingly difficult for them to find candidates for voluntary positions.  People are said to find the atmosphere of Party meetings intimidating.

There are two clear lessons to be learned from Momentum’s latest manoeuvres.  Firstly, they are completely uninterested in cohabitation with Labour moderates. They seem them as a barrier to be removed.  Secondly, they are no longer targeting Labour MPs directly but they are still targeting them.  They have chosen the more indirect route of seizing control of local party structures.  Moderate councillors are their next target.  Their objective is not simply to weaken moderates but to expunge them altogether. Labour moderates have little desire to leave the Party but staying is rapidly becoming less of an option.  

Many Labour moderates dream of regaining control of the party.  Others, who consider themselves to be pragmatists, hope to reach some sort of accommodation with Momentum.  Neither of these outcomes seem likely.  

 

Britain’s alt-left

By Jake Wilde

The British left has a long and distinguished history, stretching back over a hundred years. By consciously and deliberately rejecting revolution and embracing parliamentary democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the left in Britain was able to present itself as an honest, patriotic expression of the interests of working people in this country. By consistently rejecting undemocratic, anti-democratic or openly totalitarian manifestations of leftist thought and actions that arose inside Britain or abroad, the Labour Party, whatever public opinion might have thought about its competence, has upheld the principles of liberal democracy, and been seen to do so. From the Zinoviev letter through to the Cold War, the various attempts by Labour’s political opponents to suggest the party is a risk to national security, or holds views contrary to the broader public interest, has consistently failed to gain traction. It is this reserve of trust and goodwill that the current leadership of the party has been able to call upon to deflect doubts about their past associations.

There are, naturally, some genuine British revolutionaries. They are generally easy to identify because they tell you who they are and they all know each other. They meet in small halls that echo to the drone of interminable arguments about the true nature of socialism. Some are Leninists, others are Stalinists, there’s a telephone box-full of supporters of North Korean Juche, and perhaps a few busloads who have a thing for Latin American men in uniforms. The sanctity of human life is a rare commodity in such circles, making it hard to distinguish these earnest wavers of red flags from religious death cults or neo-Nazis. Irrespective of whether you subscribe to spectrum, compass or horseshoe theory, it seems to me that once your founding principle includes the notion that some people deserve to, or indeed must, die then it matters little what brand you give to your inhumanity.

During the Cold War, the binary political choice was starkly plain to see. There was no room for communist apologism in mainstream politics so those with sympathies in that direction were bundled in with the revolutionaries and were largely happy to be there. However, for those with political ambitions being a revolutionary in Britain is wholly unrewarding and so it is necessary to try to find your way into the mainstream as the Militant Tendency did. However, in that binary Cold War world, it was always going to be impossible to reconcile the quasi-revolutionary views of Militant’s members with those of mainstream Labour Party democrats.

Once the Berlin Wall fell and the memories of the Soviet Union began to fade it started to become acceptable to use language tinged with Marxist ideology within the Labour Party, with Tony Blair even adding the phrase “democratic socialist” to membership cards. And so since the end of the Cold War, and dwelling in the space between the traditional left and the revolutionary left and elbowing their way into both spheres, Britain’s alt-left began to emerge.

 

The alt-left see themselves as the bridge between the democratic left and the revolutionary left, the unifying force behind the creation of a hegemonic left-wing movement that will sweep aside, through sheer force of numbers, the right-wing establishment. Many individuals have attempted to be the personal manifestation of that unifying force, from George Galloway, through various trade union leaders, to John McDonnell. Finally, and largely by accident, Jeremy Corbyn stumbled upon the magic formula. This turned out to be, by stark contrast to his predecessor would-be messiahs, that one should be widely lauded as a principled man but be sufficiently unclear about what those principles are in order for people to be able to project their own upon him.

The destabilising effect on UK politics of the alt-left has had a number of direct consequences. The first was that the consequence of the internal conflict within Labour in the lead-up to the 2015 general election was that the party presented an unclear message to the electorate. Irrespective of whether you think Labour should have been clearly anti-austerity or more firmly in favour of stricter controls of the economy the fact that it failed to convince anybody that it was either of those things was cited by voters as being a key barrier to supporting them. Ed Miliband’s odd attempts at populism, which plainly didn’t suit him, look even stranger now viewed through the prism of Corbyn’s leadership. Consider the Ed Stone; imagine it had never happened and Jeremy Corbyn produced it during the 2017 election. Corbynistas would have hailed it as a stroke of genius, a physical manifestation of the great man’s principles, whatever it actually had carved upon it.

The second was that a Corbyn-led Labour Party directly contributed towards the UK voting to leave the European Union. Not a single person working on the Remain campaign is in any doubt about that. Brexit will have the single most disruptive impact upon the UK economy since WWII and those familiar with Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy will recognise the appeal of this to the alt-left. Brexit may well create the conditions that allow the alt-left to argue effectively for the “siege economy” approach envisaged by Benn, a combination of widespread state ownership and protectionism. It is inconceivable to imagine any other Labour Party leadership since Attlee pursuing such policies.

The third is the potential for a long-term fracture within the left, rather than unity. The 2017 election showed what can happen if there is hegemony, with those who just a few years ago would never have voted for a Corbyn/McDonnell-led party finding themselves forced into voting Labour through an absence of choice. This is the realisation of the alt-left’s electoral strategy. The alt-left are not interested in building common cause with moderates, but in eliminating their voice by bullying them into either silence or submission. They wish to force everyone who identifies as being “of the left” into making a simple choice – it’s us or the Tories – knowing this places their opponents in a lose-lose situation. If moderates vote Labour they prop up the alt-left, if they don’t vote Labour they have betrayed the nation by letting in the Tories. This is not particularly novel – Tony Blair was often accused by Militant’s successors of taking the votes of Labour supporters for granted as he pursued “neo-liberal policies”. This is why the mere mention of the possibility of a new centrist party induces vitriolic rhetoric, as such a party would provide a home for these votes; votes that the alt-left needs even if they do not value the voters who cast them. The alt-left are dishonest brokers, appearing to offer the tantalising prospect of unity only to reveal that it comes with a price – that you must agree with them.

The fourth effect is the degradation of political discourse in the UK. The alt-left have deliberately rejected consensus politics, and on more subjects than just economic policy. The alt-left’s commitment to liberal democracy is as thin as a leaflet demanding that the country Kick Out The Tories the day after a general election. The word ‘democracy’ has two meanings for the alt-left: when they win then it means whatever they say goes. One individual success prompts them to toss aside democratic institutions, other election results or the culture that is necessary to sustain successful liberal democracies. When they lose an election they dismiss the outcome as an establishment conspiracy, a plot hatched by their enemies and freely open to challenge in the way that an election in which they succeed is not.

Double standards abound, on free speech, secularism, blasphemy, women’s rights, immigration, homosexuality, racism and war. Human rights only exist when there is a grievance to exploit, or a sub-group to recruit. Ostentatious claims of “zero tolerance” of racism turn out to mean considerable tolerance, depending on the racism or the racist. They prefer brewing street violence to building civil consensus, and emote understanding when lunatics express their grievances through randomised mass murder. They are noisy in their condemnation of regimes associated with the West, but silent on the crimes of any that identify as anti-Western. They squeal about an MSM conspiracy and then appear on Russia Today. They decry their opponents’ “hate speech”, and then barrage their enemies with sickening abuse.

The alt-left have fluid relationships with both facts and objectivity. Rather than have a reasoned debate a member of the alt-left will denounce their opponent in hyperbolic terms to encourage their supporters to pile on. The techniques employed by Britain’s alt-left are a combination of the traditional bullying honed by the revolutionary left over decades and now adapted for the era of social media, and the exploitation of grievances developed by the purveyors of identity politics.

 

Thus far, the traditional left have been immobilised by the alt-left, unable to offer a unified response. The soft-left have chosen to be glass-half-full optimists and see the alt-left as an ‘exciting, dynamic and modern’ catalyst for bringing new people into politics in general, and towards the Labour Party in particular. They politely pretend that there is merit in an economic policy that is nothing more than reheated Bennism and that the racism and misogyny on show is nothing to do with the party’s leadership. In private, they retain faith that the pendulum will eventually return from its swing from Blair to Corbyn and come back to them, and that they just need to hold tight and ride out the rough times. So, in the meantime, they appease the alt-left crocodile.

Meanwhile the moderate left have tried to be robust in standing up to the alt-left but lack the determination to back it up by refusing to be in the same party. In short, like Jeremy himself, they have declared they will never use their deterrent. The phrase “It’s my party not theirs” often appears when Labour moderates talk about the alt-left. I have sympathy for this view but the truth is that most Labour Party members who are interested enough to vote in internal elections – itself a low bar for measuring levels of engagement – vote for the most left-wing candidate who isn’t a woman or black, and have always done so. Labour Party online forums are riddled with antisemitism but is this new or was it always there and simply hidden? Labour Party members know all about Jeremy Corbyn’s long-term support for terrorist groups but this makes no difference to the support he receives. The sad reality is that this is the state of the party, and members are not coming to the rescue.

I suggest that the decline of the term “centre-left” and the rise in the use of the word “centrism” is not because people are shifting politically, it’s because the alt-left has made the term “left” an undesirable signifier. This is why the British left must seek to detach itself from the alt-left or it will suffer long-term reputational damage long after the alt-left have faded back into obscurity. This is what will prevent the British left from being able to form a government, more than the relative strength or weakness of the Conservative Party. That is because the pre-existing mistrust of the traditional left’s ability to manage the economy will be deepened by the presence of the alt-left in the formation of policy and, in the event of a Corbyn government, their hand on the actual levers. A Corbyn government could not successfully run the economy because confidence, from city banks to small businesses, would be non-existent.

 

I don’t believe there are any easy solutions to the problem of the alt-left, but there is work that can both mitigate the damage they cause and prepare for the time when they can be defeated.

The first act is simply to stop taking them seriously. None of the alt-left are intellectuals and none has anything to offer public policy debates beyond regurgitated sixth form communism. We have collectively made the mistake of falling for their self-publicity. Let us stop sharing the latest outlandish, hypocritical comment, article or op-ed across social media. “Look at the state of this”, we cry, and we froth and click and froth some more. It is through this method that they have controlled the debate on their terms and we can, and should, end our part in this tomorrow.

Secondly, there needs to be a collective will to build consensus. That means finding common cause across party lines without it being seen as dangerous, at least to anybody other than the extremists. This will require steel not just on the part of the centre left but also those on the centre and centre right; to ignore the abuse that will come from those of a more tribal or sectarian nature. In order to return to a civil political environment we must seize every opportunity for consensus-building and cooperation, and a life in politics that is bearable. In every area of public policy the goal should be to find areas of agreement, if not in full then in part.

Thirdly, those in the centre, and in particular on the centre left, need to resist their inclination to be inclusive towards the alt-left. It is the natural state of the centrist to seek out ideas from across the spectrum and to try to build broad alliances. Centrists will need to exert self-discipline to turn their back on the siren voices of the alt-left, who will sing alluring arias from the rocks on the theme of defeating Theresa May.

This leads me onto my final point, perhaps the hardest sell of the piece, that of the end goal of all of this activity. This is not to form some kind of government of national unity or to create a homogenous centrist party. Instead, we will expend all of this energy not to even achieve power, but simply to make politics constructive rather than destructive. In order to achieve this then all parties will need to look at why that destructive anger – and I have focused here on the alt-left but it is also present on the nationalist right – rose above its normal obscurity. There are many, complex reasons but high on the list of complaints from the electorate was that politicians simply did not appear to be listening. The alt-left have exploited this without actually offering any solutions, instead firing out their usual smokescreen of rallies, marches, pseudo-conferences and other illusions. Real solutions, ones that bring politicians closer to their constituents, and bring political decision-making closer to the voters, have to be an integral part of the overall response. This might include increasing the number of MPs to allow them to spend more time in smaller constituencies, or making it easier to consult voters by using electronic media linking electoral rolls to personal apps such as Facebook or online banking. This work must form a key part of the efforts on producing new public policy to improve politics.

There is a claim that the alt-left have reinvigorated politics, and that Corbyn and his supporters are a breath of fresh air. The reality is that politics is now less about finding ways to improve the country and more about defeating your enemies and wreaking revenge. The alt-left are not responsible for all of the worsening of political discourse but their impact upon national politics has been to reduce rationality, increase hostility and damage the integrity of the democratic institutions of the country. The trouble is that is precisely what they set out to do.