Joseph Heller, Catch 22
Recent events in the Brighton and Hove Labour Party have provided plenty of fuel for paranoia. I’m not suggesting such feelings are baseless: there were machinations aimed at preventing the ‘takeover’ of the local party; there have been calls for councillors and Hove MP Peter Kyle to be deselected. People are out to get one another. Nonetheless, to escape a Catch 22 we must avoid further descent into the paranoid style of politics.
The horns of the dilemma are: end the factional fighting and hand power to the Blairites/Trots (delete as applicable); continue to indulge in infighting and thereby continue down the path to electoral oblivion. To escape will be hard work and require reconciliation. Current culture in the party locally and nationally makes that very hard indeed. (I have written before of the loss of Compass as a potential bridge, sorely missed.)
The concept of a paranoid style of politics I take from Richard Hofstadter, and his 1964 article The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Hofstadter was addressing the power of a style of politics that generated ‘political leverage […] out of the animosities and passions of a small minority’. The style however is not restricted to this small group; it is the adoption of ‘paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant’. A mode characterised by ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.
There are two things to note: Hofstadter isn’t denying the existence of conspiracies, nor is he saying that the political programme advanced in this style is not sound. The focus is on the destructive effect of the style itself, and ‘the way in which ideas are believed [not] with the truth or falsity of their content’. I’m hardly original in applying his concept to the current political context. Brexit, Trump and both pro-and anti- Corbyn group shave been accused of this paranoid style. Nonetheless I think it worth reflecting on here in Brighton and Hove.
I’m not going to rake over recent events for evidence here. I think it hard for anyone to deny that there has developed an antagonistic atmosphere of heightened emotional reactivity, characterised by hyperbole, suspicion, and a prominent role for conspiracy in the understanding of events. The point is that the very level of their contentiousness, and the nature of responses to them are as much a part of the reality we face as the events themselves. Indeed, it is the type of responses, and the tenor of ‘debate’ around them that is precisely the problem I’m addressing here.
The dangers of this mode of engagement are in the polarising of positions, the squeezing out of space for rational debate and development of compromise or consensus positions, and the alienating effect it has on those not engaging in this mode. More broadly, no-one will vote for a divided party, and the level of division, and mode of its conduct, is preventing an effective opposition nationally, and undermining the Labour administration on Brighton and Hove council.
In overcoming this developing paranoid style I think we have one big advantage. Many of us will meet one another in person during the restructuring of the local party. In addition to the formal structure of meetings helping to enforce a civilised form to politics, much of the problem lies in the use of social media. Social media encourages a closing of the mind to debate through allowing an online existence in a self-confirming (often self-righteous) bubble or echo chamber. It drives polarisation through filtering out information contrary to our beliefs, hardening positions through confirmation bias. The immediacy, and presentation of the world through a social network also encourages a social, emotional response, rather than a analytical one: we attach and judge the information or view to the person in a way we don’t in physical inter-personal communication.
With all this in mind I’d like to suggest some ideas on how we can arrest the development of this paranoid style and change the mode in which we conduct our politics
Changing the mode in which we conduct our politics
- Rank priorities and focus: Is providing effective opposition to the Conservatives more important than you vendetta against an individual within the party? More important than satisfaction you get from posting an immediate intemperate response to events? Does how you’re feeling matter to what you are trying to achieve as part of a larger group?
Similarly, is a tactical victory over internal opponents worth more than the damage it does to the party? The idea that the party must be purified of enemies before it can be a true or effective electoral political force is misguided: the left and right of the party have had to co-exist for as long as the party has existed. This isn’t going to change.
More pragmatically: our influence on the national leadership of the party – direction and personnel – is minimal. Our influence on how the party is seen locally, and its effectiveness as a political force in Brighton and hove is large. At the moment too many members seem to prioritise the former to detriment of the latter.
- Keep social media in its place. Realise the severe limitations of using social media politically, and its effects on both perception and forms of discourse. Online debate is a natural home for the paranoid style. In person almost everyone is entirely different and far more constructive and engaging. Relatedly, resist the tabloid sensationalisation of issues. We must stop simply responding to this overblown style of presenting issues, especially online, and instead also consider what motives there may be for fomenting division and directing hate (as per paragraph 1 of point 1.).
- Recognise we’re all pretty much standard issue humans and moderate unrealistic and unachievable expectations. The party is largely run by volunteers. Councillors too are people with other jobs or roles. There’s a repeated belief that webpages should be almost instantly updated, that officers should be constantly in contact and responsive, and that any failure to do so is some sort of evidence of malfeasance. Sometimes it is true – it’s conspiracy rather than cock-up or oversight. The problem is when conspiracy is used as primary frame for analysis, and all actions are fitted into a grand conspiracy
- Recognise when you’re engaging with ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’. Understand that in doing so you’re shutting out and poisoning the well for many others. Very few people join and remain in a party to engage in internal conflicts. For every Luke Akehurst or Seamus Milne wannabe there are ten members turned off by the mud-slinging – the true ‘moderates’.
- Finally, end the sub-Machiavellian machinations. There is substance to the paranoia, and a seeming lack of recognition on the damaging long-term effects of (often clumsy) tactical manoeuvres. Either up your game to true Machiavellian cunning, to at least appear above suspicion, or, preferably given we are supposedly on the same side, abandon them. Accept change and difference. Preferably, accept that permanent conflict when well and maturely handled can be a source for political dynamism.
The suggestions I’ve made may seem hopelessly naïve. Nonetheless, the current pattern is clearly destructive, moving beyond the tactical settling of scores, to a strategy for holding and expanding Labour power in Brighton and Hove requires transcendence of the paranoid style.
I confess I am not overly optimistic. There are many powerful motivations driving the culture and behaviour in the party as it exists. Politics is ultimately about power and this is as true at the micro as macro scale. Scheming is too a constitutive part of politics. But it is only part – and using plots and intrigue as a primary analytical frame ends up turning you into a pound shop Machiavell – and even that over values your contribution to the party.
Conclusion: Naivety and political realism.
Political realism is not simple materialism, or a child’s version of ‘who/whom?’. It goes beyond both the fatalistic limitation of ‘what is’, and the utopian phantasm of ‘what should be’, to do the difficult work of establishing what can be – and how it can be achieved. We know what is: a degrading and degenerative trench warfare. We can all come up with what ought to be: that there are at least two strong versions lies at the heart of the problem.
Understanding what can be starts from having the strategic maturity to realise there can be no total victory in this conflict: whatever happens left and right will continue having to coexist within the party. To do so, as anything other than an electoral irrelevance requires a more serious way of working. Locally we should use the re-establishment of the party on constituency lines as a platform for maintaining and increasing Labour’s power in Brighton and Hove, not as another field of battle, sapping our combined strength.
 Raymond Geuss’s 2008 Philosophy and Real Politics contains a powerful consideration of political realism through developing Lenin’s who/whom?