The Right Way to be Left

Originally written for Fleeting Reams

One Cause, One Tribe

At Easter weekend, I went to the talk by Spiral Tribe members at Mensch Meier. Taking place in a wood paneled bar area that was full of yellow-lit smoke and boozy air, the talk had the ambiance of being at a 1920’s meeting of banned radicals in some working man’s club (albeit one that was plastered in absurdist posters and satirical signs from modern Berlin).

Instead of working men, the place was bustling with a restless, flushed cluster of Generation Y techno hippies. The strikingly youthful Tribe members didn’t look much older than their audience, despite being part of a much earlier rave generation.

They were energetic and chatty and seemed up for a debate, but it wasn’t forthcoming from the crowd which was awed and sitting back in typical German reverence, allowing the speakers to say their piece, and the wisdom to seep in.

One comment sticks in my mind, which was made by Debbie of Spiral Tribe. She said, “We’ve been together for 25 years and it hasn’t been smooth sailing the whole time. There are some big personalities in the collective. We haven’t always gotten along. It takes a lot of hard work to stick together.”

It resonated with an off-the-cuff comment made by Laurie Penny, two weeks later, when she was speaking at HAU. It was something to the effect of, “We should avoid perfectionism in left wing.” About a third of the people in the audience sat up and started nodding their heads in affirmation.

Maybe it’s because Penny’s talk was also taking place in a wood-paneled theatre with a 1920’s ambience – a place where you could imagine Rosa Luxemburg giving a speech to a disgruntled crowd, back in the day – but I connected her words with what the Tribe members had said two weeks earlier. A new consensus seemed to be suffusing Berlin’s linke scene about the right way to be left.

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

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

Unfortunately, these same biases can also be found nearly everywhere in Berlin’s left wing scene.

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 an ‘ethical’ person is. Even looks are ground for exclusion, it seems: for example, I recently heard about a certain 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 what culture can even claim to the be the true originator of dreads or plugs, is that even a practical model of how the left can achieve meaningful social change… via a dress code? Or is it just a case of leftists slotting their ideals into a pre-existing social construct, limiting their efforts to negation, because that’s what the superficial mainstream tells them to do?

Corporate Collectivism vs. Left Wing Isolationism

It dawned me the other day that, in order for any activist movement to properly challenge the neoliberal, corporate status quo, it would have to become exactly as integrated as the corporate conglomerates that it is fighting against.

Look at how the big companies – Apple, General Electric, McDonalds etc. – act. Even as they try to sell us on “the power of the individual”, urging us to customize everything from our burgers to our shoelaces to our life insurance plans, their own power is grounded in the all-inclusive collective: the corporation. It’s a collective that only cares about getting rich, but a collective nonetheless.

Now look at the way that such corporations tell us to behave: “Vote on your own. Stand on your own. Express yourself. Rely on yourself. Be your own boss. Stand out from the crowd.” Even as they’re saying it, these corporate entities speak as a unified collective. It’s a stark an illustration of the dictum “Do as I say, not as I do” as can be found.

Perhaps they push the masses to stand alone and unsupported because that’s the easiest way to keep us in our place. If the Berlin left were to stick together like the big corporations do, it might suddenly become a force to be reckoned with. But for the most part it’s too fragmented and exclusive to reach out to the newcomers that are making up an increasingly large part of the city’s demographic.

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 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) and we told him that we were interested in renting the cellar for a party, he snapped, “We don’t do commercial parties here, sorry,” 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 do. Both the DJs and the crowd that we were representing 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, right? Who has time for that, these days – we’re all too busy fighting the capitalist system? Ironically, the fastest way out of that system might be to simply 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 Left political events and meetings that I’ve attended, here: 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, sexuality etc. 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 that I’ve encountered here 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 associated with the Left.

The corporate world, meanwhile, succeeds because it has learned the truest lessons of the Left. 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 a frankly obscene level 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 McDonald’s in its bid to change the face of the planet if it would adopt (or rather, reclaim) that same approach.

Being More Than Just “Against”

Stories like the one above 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; 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 reform. But while recognizing a thing as ‘bad’ is the first step, dealing with it is the essential second step toward enacting that reform. And 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. By logical extension, it takes a whole society to reform them, too. Shutting out individuals who are less enlightened – or enlightened in a different way – is kind of passing the buck for society’s problems on to them and them alone, instead of dealing with it 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 unfriending and blocking people who one disagrees with 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 that 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 effort, as Spiral Tribe so effortlessly explained – 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 backstories… without judgement. 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 judgement that all people have. Currently, capitalism has the market cornered on all those kinds of mindless and fun activities.

Activists still need that kind of a space where they can just be together; where the ever-present pressure to be the “best” or the “most egalitarian” person is gone. They need a place where they can create a balanced scene by being a balanced person, who is allowed to have strengths and weaknesses, ups and downs. And they need 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 whatsoever. Rhetoric has a dangerous tendency to narrow the world down to blacks and whites, when it’s mostly made up of grey areas. Doing this would make it easier for activists to see each other as people, works in progress rather than just symbols of a cause.

Eventually, you just 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 it is all that you will ever have to work with. 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.

The above map from Muckety.com shows some of the business interests and politicians that are linked to Monsanto