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The alt-left: A critical appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Comments

  1. Bazza says:

    I think the alt-left bloggers are doing a great job and they demonstrate that any socialist can have a voice and make an impact plus they consistently support JC and attack the Tories & rich and powerful! Keep up the good work brothers and sisters!

  2. Unlike Phil, I would say just carry on doing what you are doing. It seems to be working quite well.

  3. Mervyn Hyde says:

    I have had personal dealings with Skwawkbox about a serious issue here locally, he immediately took up the issue and ran with it, noting it was all factual with evidence to back it up.

    Nowhere else can you get that kind of response and coverage, even on this auspicious site.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Authentic voices?, guido Fawkes just pointed out Sqwakbox,made a article up

  5. Tim Pendry says:

    “But they do need to move beyond explaining power and inequality in terms of shadowy goings on and adopt the standpoint of social and political critique.” But do they, except as some moral imperative?

    Intellectual analyses achieved nothing for the Left in four or five decades. Breitbart and its cognates helped American national populism launch their man into the most powerful position on the planet in a year. The British Left version almost propelled an avowed radical socialist into the governance of Britain only a month or so ago and may yet do so at any time in the next eighteen months.

    This is an interesting ‘moral’ moment for the Left because the ‘intellectuals’ seem to think that their priestly role on the Left as arbiters of taste and judgment will survive the new activists’ acquisition of power when and if it comes. This may be as naive as the intellectuals’ expectation of holding the Bolsheviks to account in late 1917.

    I suspect facts have to be faced. The Leftist ‘priests’ are only going to have a say in these matters if those who control Party and Government decide they must have a say – and, frankly, those same people have never been inclined to give soft Left and more revisionist thoughtful Marxists much say at any time in the past. Quite the contrary.

    In short, history is by-passing (again!) the dogged old-style intellectual activist who has no strategy, intellectual or organisational, for seizing power within the Party or the nation. Appealing to the divine right of those who stolidly stayed loyal to a particular vision of the Left is not going to wash because that vision was flawed in two key regards – it changed nothing and it not only failed to predict the new populism but, with some fastidiousness, opposed it until it started to deliver the goods. So much for predictive analysis!

    This is not to say that the new Left populism is not dangerous. Its conspiracy theory is pig ignorant of how power actually works. It simplifies. It has expectations for action far beyond the capability of any modern State.

    Its urban liberal claims will soon create conservative populist resistance in the hinterland and its aspirations cannot be met without engaging in policies that will fuel resentment, especially in the struggling middle classes who want free education and decent health care but won’t want increased taxation.

    Considerable political skill is going to be required to manage these expectations (which I suspect Corbyn-Mcdonnell possess) but I doubt if the soft left intellectuals are going to be consulted a great deal.

    Consultation is more likely to be with the forces that really matter – the momentum of the activist young with their naive and often absurd but energetic politics of action (mimicking the fascism and national socialism of the 1930s) and practical men and women of the bureaucratic centre (the ‘Hugenberg type’) who know how things actually work.

    The so-called ‘kamikaze Tories’ who appear to have merged this weekend – viz. get rid of May to let in Labour and watch it self-destruct remind one (to maintain the analogy) of those conservative nationalists in 1933 who thought that bringing the street people into the centre of things would be a temporary phenomenon and then business would return as normal. Fools!

    And this is the challenge for the soft Left intellectuals – whether to conspire with intellectual absurdity for power or start to question where this might be leading and so raise questions about realpolitik in an either/or situation in which some core intellectual values may find themselves on the wrong historical side in the long run.

    I would not argue here for anything but a realistic vision of our situation since I suspect we have a brutal choice between an irrationally exuberant and possibly dangerous potential for the radical transformation that is what most on the Left have always claimed to want and a rational and dogged conservatism that only serves interests that most of us have been contesting all our lives. There are no ‘shoulds’ in all this, just facts on the ground which soft Left intellectuals seem to have had a poor track record in understanding and predicting.

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