The right way to be left

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals. 

A.E. Elliott
30 June 2017

Street art on the frontage of the Köpi in Berlin.  Credit: A. E. Elliott. All rights reserved.

There is good reason for people on the left to have divisiveness on their minds. In the news and on social media, the leftists that are shown most often are those that are ranting and raging at each other, calling each other out over this badly-phrased thought or that impulsive tweet, or exposing one another as less liberal or tolerant than their comrades. We're also regularly force fed images of 'activists' who are dressed identically in black, attacking cops who themselves seem to be dressed for a round on Robot Wars.

There’s a common theme underlying both kinds of coverage: in it, we only ever see the left wing in a state of conformism, a state of attack against whatever doesn't fit neatly into its narrow parameters of 'ideal.’ At a subconscious level, this preconditions us to view activism as a rejection, rather than an affirmation of certain ideals. As a result, fear, not hope, becomes the public's only motivation for living up to the left's demands. 

Perhaps this unbalanced view of left-wing activism is the only one that the media is capable of giving us. The media is a mirror which reflects what it knows how to see, and conformist executives who live in fear of being rejected by their peers will tend to identify with activists who behave in the same way. So the kinds of left-wingers who are depicted in the media are necessarily a reflection of the media industry's own biases.

Unfortunately, these same biases can also be found in Berlin's left wing scene where I live and work.  

Instead of fighting back against the prevailing status quo, many activists here seem happy to mirror its habit of excluding or rejecting anyone who doesn't fit into their ideal of what defines an ‘ethical’ person. Even looks are grounds for exclusion, it seems: I recently heard about a queer collective in Berlin that is refusing to admit anyone who wears dreadlocks or ear plugs, on the grounds that such styles amount to ‘cultural appropriation.’

Leaving aside the question of which culture can claim to be the true originator of dreads or plugs, is this a practical model of how the left can achieve meaningful social change? Or is it another case of leftists slotting their ideals into a pre-existing social construct and limiting their efforts to negation, because that's what the superficial mainstream tells them to do?

A few years ago when I was organizing my first Berlin party with some people from the London free party scene, I took them to the Köpi, a local underground venue, to ask the collective there if we could rent their cellar. When a punked-out resident of the Köpi eventually appeared in the doorway (covered from head to toe in band names, political slogans, tattoos and pins), we told him that we were interested in renting the cellar for a party. “We don’t do commercial parties here, sorry,” he snapped, and a few seconds later he was shutting the door in our faces. 

We barely had time to sputter out a whole sentence, let alone describe what kind of party we were planning to organize. Both the DJs and the crowd that we represented are firmly rooted in the UK squatting/direct action community, and would have been a perfect fit for the ideals of the Köpi. But apparently all that mattered was that they weren't a perfect fit for its look.  

And hey: why listen to a stranger for long enough to recognize that you might have something in common beyond the superficial details? Who has time for that these days, when we're all too busy fighting the capitalist system? Ironically, the fastest way out of that system might be to stop treating other people like an afterthought... or an inconvenience... or a threat... to the aims of the left. That's something that any one of us can do at any time if we really want to throw a spanner in the works. 

Similar scenarios have played out at many of the political events and meetings that I've attended. People refuse to speak to the obvious stranger in the group, even as they bang on about inclusivity and breaking down barriers of gender, race and sexuality. The inclusivity mantra itself has become another reason to reject anyone who hasn't read, memorized and recited it in the right way.

Maybe I've just been unlucky, but many of the activists I've encountered in Berlin seem like they're only interested in preaching to the converted—in being reassured that they are right instead of taking on the kinds of risks that are traditionally associated with the left. 

The corporate world, meanwhile, succeeds because it has learned our truest lessons. Even as it sends out divisive messages to the public, it understands that solidarity is the fastest route to success. It prioritizes togetherness and mutual support in the face of all criticisms, no matter how valid they may be.  And, okay, it also takes that support to obscene levels by overlooking sexual harassment, for example, or criminality within its ranks.

But in every situation, the corporate world's first impulse in the face of adversity is to support its peers. Perhaps the left would get as far as McDonalds in its bid to change the face of the planet if it would adopt (or rather, reclaim) that same approach.

The reaction we received at the Köpi and other stories like it make me want to put my head in my hands.  In my own activist lifespan I’ve witnessed materialist anarchists bashing pagan anarchists; first-wave feminists being trashed by third-wave feminists; queers trashing trans people; and vegans getting trashed by vegetarians. For a while, all this griping and sniping nearly put me off politics altogether.

Eventually I realized that, for many people, rejection is the first step on a long road that leads to transformation. But while recognizing that something is ‘bad’ is a necessary first step, dealing with it is the essential second step towards enacting those radical changes. Rejection and avoidance are just ways of postponing that second step from ever happening.

After all, it takes a whole of society to create a biased or consumerist (or whatever) person. And by logical extension it takes a whole society to transform them too. Shutting out individuals who are less enlightened—or enlightened in a different way—is passing the buck for society's problems onto them and them alone, instead of dealing with them as a collective. I can hardly think of a worse way to express ‘solidarity.’ 

In an age where people socialize alone, through the medium of a computer screen, the habit of un-friending and blocking people with whom one disagrees has become an almost unthinking first resort for dealing with disagreement. But these tools of rejection are just another corporate product that the likes of Facebook have forced upon us to further isolate us from our communities. And each time we employ them, we further those corporate aims rather than the autonomous ones we seek to create in the left. The prospect of true unity—which takes enormous effort—grows dimmer.

So what's the solution? Well, perhaps Berlin's left scene could try organizing meetings where the only goal is to meet new people and share everyday experiences and back-stories, without judgment. Safe and non-defensive spaces for leftists to meet and mingle have been in short supply as far back as I can remember. But activists are people too, and they need the same freedom to explore, enjoy and even (gasp) make mistakes without the judgments that many people leap to. Currently, capitalism has the market cornered on all those kinds of mindless and fun activities. 

Activists still need the kind of spaces where they can just be together; where the ever-present pressure to be the ‘best leftist’ or the ‘most egalitarian campaigner’ no longer exists. We need places where we can create a more balanced scene by being a more balanced person, a person who is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses and ups and downs. And we need the space to experiment too, instead of expecting to hammer out the perfect rhetoric and then go about fixing the world without any doubts or hesitations.

Rhetoric has a dangerous tendency to narrow the world down to black and white, when it's mostly made up of grey areas. With less rhetoric and fewer judgments we could see each other as people—as works in progress rather than simply symbols of a cause. Eventually, you run out of things to stop, reject and be against, and after that, you’re left with whatever you are, and the strange, discomfiting fact that this is all you will ever have to work with. And that's when the real work starts to happen. 

Breaking up is easy, but sticking together?  That's the real test of one's ideals.

A longer version of this article was published on Fleeting Reams.

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