The immediate background to this post is the electoral quagmire that the Labour party – to which I belong – currently finds itself.
Labour has been out of power for eleven years, lost four elections on the trot (the last calamitously), has just lost a by-election to the ruling Conservative party and may very well lose another one today, and yet, astonishingly, still shows little sign of trying to rectify the situation. Worse, swathes of the party appear either unbothered by this or resigned to perennial opposition (not that Labour should even be confident of remaining Britain’s second-largest party). Given that in the late 1990s and early 2000s Labour had a reasonable claim to be Britain’s new ‘natural party of government’, it’s quite a turnaround.
There are undoubtedly many causes of Labour’s current predicament. Some of these are local, such as Labour’s crushing demise in Scotland at the hands of nationalist forces, or the depressing lack of heavyweight talent at the party’s upper echelons (seriously: compare today’s parliamentary party to Harold Wilson’s cabinet and try not to despair). And of course there are global, or at least regional, forces at play too, as demonstrated by the collapse of centre-left, social democratic, and labour parties across Europe following the economic crisis of 2008.
In the latter category I would add a further cause: social media, and Twitter, in particular.
The effect of Twitter on the Left actually serves as a nice example of how technology interacts with society. Traditionally, philosophers and social theorists took technological devices and practices to be mere means to the ends to which they are put – tools, in other words, that simply serve the purposes of their users. Then, in the post-War period, a countervailing position known as ‘technological substantivism’ came into vogue, which held the very reverse to be true: that technology, at least in some respects, actually determines the behaviour and character of its users. Technological substantivism had something correct about it, but by the 1980s was ultimately regarded as too strong in its own right. Thus a variety of schools arose occupying a middle ground between the two extremes, such as the critical theory of technology, post-phenomenology, and posthumanism. All, in one way or another, argue that technology does shape human action, but in different ways depending on context. They hold, in other words, that technology influences rather than determines its user’s character and conduct – a nuanced position which is surely correct.
Turning back to Twitter we can see how the last philosophy of technology discussed is closest to the truth. Twitter has had a disastrous effect on the radical and liberal Left – but only the Left. The (centre-)Right has avoided the worst of its effects, and perhaps even relates to it in a beneficial way. The Left, though, conducts pile-ons and cancellations (terms I’d not even encountered before the advent of social media), has become more visibly sanctimonious and assured of its own moral superiority than ever (‘virtue-signalling’), and has further closed itself off from even trying to understand people who think differently (existing in what we now call an echo-chamber).
Why has this happened to the Left but not the Right? Well, my theory is that Twitter’s adversarial, controversy-driven model of functioning, and the fact that it connects you to strangers in that fashion (unlike Facebook, say, which mostly connects you to people you know), has exacerbated the Left’s worst tendencies. These tendencies long predated Twitter, but when brought into contact with the latter reacted in a highly combustible fashion.
Take the issue of cancellations and witch-hunts. There’s an old saying to the effect that the Right seeks converts, while the Left seeks traitors. Now, since that even became a saying in the first place, the tendency must have been there on the Left already. (I would connect this temptation to the transformative dimension of Left-wing politics, which always risks demanding that its adherents be true believers, as well as to the historical influence that nonconformist Christian denominations such as Methodism had on the Left.) But Twitter has made this easier than ever: now you can find people you don’t even know to excommunicate, scrolling back through a decade or more of tweets to find something that reads badly in the light of fast-changing social norms to serve as evidence of their heresy. Never mind that Twitter encourages you to place your every ill-formed thought and half-baked opinion in the public square: these, rather than your considered reflections, are taken to represent what you really believe.
Think also of the way that the Left is less inclined than ever to even consider the opinions of those who disagree with it (whether in whole or in part). Again, there’s a saying that suggests that this tendency long pre-dated Twitter: the Right lacks sympathy, while the Left lacks empathy. There’s something to this, insofar as the Conservatives, for instance, are very good at recognising what various sections of the public want before cynically using that insight to try to win those people over, all without necessarily caring much for those people. The Left, however, feels sorry for people in need and wishes to help them (as it should), while demonstrating less interest in what those people might actually want or believe. Having failed to empathise with those voters and listen to their points of view, making accommodations where appropriate, the Left then is surprised when they vote ‘the wrong way’ in elections.
Now, if this has indeed always been a feature of the Left, then once again Twitter has reinforced it. Twitter has allowed the Left to occupy an online space where it speaks largely to itself, which the Left all-too-easily confuses with broader public debate, at the same time as regarding those who disagree as belonging only to a small minority. Moreover, it’s now even easier to disregard the thoughts and feelings of others, as the lack of face-to-face communication on Twitter inhibits empathic relations: people are just 140 characters and an avatar, rather than points of view on the universe with their own dreams, affections, and fears. As before, the Left is then surprised (even outraged) to lose those people’s votes, and with them successive elections and referenda.
As you can probably tell from the above, I’m not only highly critical of how Twitter operates, but also frustrated with certain tendencies that have prevailed on the Left for as long as the latter has existed. Clearly, I don’t claim to be more empathic and less judgemental than my average fellow traveller, but I at least recognise that the Left is beset by problems that make it both an unappealing political force and an extremely ineffective one.
I certainly didn’t always recognise this – on the contrary, in the past I often behaved in just the same way as the Left-wingers that now exasperate me, and sometimes still do. But what led to this recognition? Basically, I started paying attention to what the country was saying. I thought that the country would reject the Conservatives in 2015 following five years of austerity. It didn’t. I thought that the country would recognise that EU membership was in its best interests, and vote to remain in the bloc. It didn’t. In 2017 and 2019 I thought that a Corbyn-led, populist Labour party might cut through with the public where previous approaches had failed. It didn’t.
I’m not saying that the country was right to vote those ways: I still don’t think it was. Given the chance again I would still vote Labour in all of those elections and vote to remain in the EU. But after a while you have to start to listen to what the country is saying, take on board certain objections, and basically try to think through why the country really, really doesn’t want you in power. And there are some deep-seated problems with the Left’s approach, now exacerbated by Twitter, that are quite understandably repellant to many voters.
Unless the party resets its relationship to social media, or at least resets its relationship to those activists and members who use it in the way discussed, it’s going to be out of power for a very long time indeed.