Monday, October 21, 2013

The left’s consent problem

Lisbeth Latham

The left has a problem with consent – by this I mean that spaces that we would associate with “progressive” or even “revolutionary” groups tend to have cultures that make it difficult for individuals to act in a way that upholds their right to have autonomy over themselves.

While this is problematic in terms of these groups achieving their stated objectives it is more troubling with the extent to which these spaces are unsafe and create spaces where sexual violence particularly towards women is enabled. In our society where violence towards women is endemic any space can be unsafe. We are all exposed to sexist ideas which normalise the objectification of women’s bodies. To believe that a space can be simply be declared safe or progressive and that it would remain outside the impact of broader society is both naive and arrogant. If people are successful in the first instance of creating a safe space – it will only remain so as a consequence of permanent struggle against the incursion of sexist ideas.

The right to control our own bodies and to have autonomous control of our own bodies is one of the most basic of democratic rights. Whilst there would be few organisations which would reject the formal rights of individuals to control their own bodies the test of democratic rights is not whether we have the formal right, but the extent to which we are able to exercise those rights and the way others respond to efforts made to exercise those rights. The extent to which an organisation can be considered to democratic can be measure based on a range of factors. The most obvious is the formal democratic rights that exist in an organisation – particularly the formal right to raise differences or to stand for leadership positions.

At this level most left organisations, allow individuals to raise differences albeit this right may be constrained within the practice of democratic central¬ism as understood within the specific organisation. For example when can differences be raised? Do these rules apply only to older “decided” questions or to newly emerging issues as well? How are leadership s elected? Can factions be formed? What are the requirements/regulations around faction formation? Who decides when and where factions can be formed? How can members, particularly those located in different cities communicate with each other? The answer to these questions are a basis for judging formal democracy within an organisation more important is people’s experience of the culture of raising differences in an organisation and how this culture legitimises or delegitimises the raising of differences.

Anyone who has attended a left meeting will tell it can be a weird experience. A lot of new members will notice that there is a lot unanimity in meetings (if you try you can find lots of talks at left conferences about how the unanimity is a strength and a reflection of political homogeneity)-which can be intimidating if you don’t agree with the things being said in the meeting. It can get weirder if you articulate your differences. You can expect to have it explained to you why you’re wrong at least once, possibly several times in increasingly incoherent terms as other members attempt to demonstrate their understanding of the unveiled truths of Marxism. While these explanations will occur in the meeting you might be lucky enough to button holed af¬ter the meeting to be set straight and if you are lucky enough your objection or disagreement will end up as the basis of an educational and/or an article in the organisations publication.

Moreover the apparent unanimity in meetings is often false as the leadership bodies of most left organisations act as closed caucuses, which intervene into the body they are elected from as a block. In my experience it is very unusual for any differences in these bodies to be aired with the broader membership, while there are generally no written rules to this effect, and so it-is often a consequence of self-censorship it is also a culture that be reinforced by an unwillingness when people indicate they intend to disagree, I can think of contentious issues that were never taken to the branches I was a member of because I made it clear that I intended to speak against and vote against the motion in the branch meeting.

This culture has two impacts; it creates an environment in which raising differences inside the organisation is not the norm and, importantly, where doing and saying things you don’t agree with is normal. While this is a core aspect of democratic centralism this culture reduces the capacity for real democracy and importantly acts to undermine the ability of members to say “no”. Adding to this negative culture is the way a disagreement, whether internal or external, is handled. People’s right (and even capacity) to remain in the movement is questioned. Whether this relates to allegations about their class background, people’s positions on disputed reflect their “petty bourgeois” or “middle class backgrounds”, a position reflects some error (opportunism, sectarianism, bureaucraticism or movementism), or their confidence is questioned (person is demoralised). While all of these statements could be accurate they are often deployed without any real explanation as to why, but simply based on self-referential arguments – “we are Marxists or left, this means we are correct, you disagree, this means you are wrong and thus you must be right-wing, anti-Marxist (this is particularly bizarre when deployed against a person who doesn’t claim to be operating within a Marxist framework) and are thus wrong or petty bourgeois etc. This also reflects problems with empathy that are cultivated in many groups where you are not supposed to care about a person or campaign once they have been given a pejorative name – so the pain they suffer doesn’t matter, but in building people who can switch off their empathy you are also building people who will start to have no empathy.

Importantly in many organisations in the rare instance where there is a falling out within the leadership, then this is seen as a way in which newer younger members can prove their loyalty / commitment, which makes for a seriously unpleasant and toxic internal life-which allows members to know what members can expect if they raise differences. This erodes and dam¬ages the ability of members genuinely give consent and acts to normalise non-consensual behaviour. Exacerbating this inability to find non-consensual behaviour problematic is the culture that exists around party loyalty.

The idea “my party right or wrong” extends to not only the actions of their organisation but to the actions of individual members. Where problematic behaviour is initially denied (because it’s like problematic and we could never do something wrong) but once the denial doesn’t work then the behaviour is excused in other ways, such as trivializing it, or insisting that it was actually the right thing to do. Obviously this is not always just about excusing the behaviour of-the organisation in the eyes of others, but sometimes people’s way, of justifying to themselves to their membership. In both circumstance it speaks to a culture of members who are confident political people who are able to take a firm stand for what is right - which is what we need to achieve a better world. Instead the internal culture teaches people to go with the flow and to blindly follow the lead of others.

Left-wing organisations are not safe places. They are not nourishing the people of tomorrow capable of acting in the interests of the oppressed. Instead they create environments in which compliance is rewarded and critical/independent thinking is denigrated and crushed. Thus these are environments where predators can prosper. If we are to build a better world then we need to build a new culture new culture in the left that celebrates and build the capacity of participants to say “no” and be respected in saying “no” and takes action against anyone who seeks to victimise and prey on others.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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