Twitter and the Left: Factionalism, Activism, Poetics and the Dangers of Performative Militancy
Updated: May 21, 2021
(Adapted from a Twitter Thread)
Twitter is a good platform to get to know new people, to learn new perspectives, to be more connected to struggles that are not happening outside your doorstep but matter nonetheless. As a socialist and a poet it has helped me a lot in getting to know leftists and poets from all around and learn more about their poetics, their politics, how these two interact and how they are linked to their activism and political action.
I've been able to support the #BLMprotest movement more directly than I had previously by sharing links & tools and amplifying black & brown activists. Something I would not have been able to do if I wasn't on Twitter. Cause even though it might be ubiquitous to Americans, here in Belgium it's not. I consider myself to be an internationalist, so it is a fulfilling act of political praxis to use my online platforms to support vital civil rights movements and spread around resources, radical writings, donation links, petitions and other tools that are helpful to their cause.
However, there are two major downsides to Twitter that personally put a lot of strain on my personal mental health (harassment, bombardment with depressing and maddening news etc. not included) and on the political utility of the platform in general. They are loss of nuance and performative edginess. Both go together and often create toxic attitudes. We all know what kind of edginess the (far) right is up to and how toxic and malicious it can be, but the left also has his own branch of toxicity outside of the most common type of the so-called progressives who like to use slurs and flirt with neofascist talking points.
I am talking about a type of edginess that is distilled from factionalism. One that boils down left-wing politics to one thing and insists that all who do not want to adhere to this one type of left-wing politics and praxis are neolib posers and accomplices to the violence of capitalism and the state. I've seen a lot of these attitudes crop up during the #BLM protests, perhaps as an attempt to stop liberal centrists or performative progressives from adopting the aesthetics of blm and diluting the movement by trying to steer it from prison and police abolition to reform and incrementalism.
I get these anxieties, I myself am often exasperated and frustrated to the point of anger with liberals & centrists and their unwillingness to recognise systemic issues and answer them with real solutions instead of performative solidarity, symbolism and minor measures. However, the level to which some leftists have internalised the 'go hard or go home' ethos, has resulted in some pernicious and pervasive attitudes. The willingness to accuse anyone not able to take part in the protests or the discourse continually as a poser with 'ally fatigue' is toxic yet common. This brands non-Americans, disabled people and anyone who has mental health, emotional or psychological issues and cannot engage with the protests or the political discourse surrounding them on a regular basis as 'not a real leftist' and by implication callous and complicit to capitalist violence.
Similar attitudes are seen in some leftist poetry circles where people have interpreted & internalised Sean Bonney's poetics as 'poetry must 100% activist/anti-capitalist all the time.' And have moved the debate from the political praxis/theoretical dimension to the moral dimension. In other words, some people have decided that all poetry must be explicitly anticapitalist or be considered accomplices to capitalist propaganda, violence and oppression. This is not just treated as political praxis, but as a moral dogma. Anyone who doesn't do this is seen as complicit to violence.
This strand of online leftism and poetics has boiled down socialism and leftist poetics to mean 'you follow our example or you're a cheerleader of violence, oppression and as morally bankrupt as the fascists or those liberals who will defend the status quo no matter what.' To be clear: the people who occasionally voice these attitudes are often great activists and poets. Very thoughtful and progressive people. I don't think they're conscious of how exclusionary, entitled and apathetic they come across when they present attitudes like this, but I believe their attitudes are harmful nonetheless.
I am aware that some of this is ironic hyperbole, deliberately controversial hot takes and strong language for the sake of self-parody, provocation or simple banter among friends. However, similar to how in the (far) right, the line between meme and sincerely held opinion becomes almost invisible very fast, these attitudes on the left can quickly result in a loss of perspective and a toxic environment regardless of intent.
For me poetry has always been about empathy and expression. I will admit that I myself cringe at the more vacuous, platitudinous kind of poetry, but I do not consider that kind of poetry (morally) inferior or complicit in capitalist violence. All art is political, but not everything has to be explicitly anti capitalist to be moral. Escapism, in my opinion, is not morally lesser than explicitly antiracist/anticapitalist poetry or art. Especially not given how it is many people's sole means of staying sane and keeping from falling into depression, burn-out or worse.
Tying moral weight to poetics is not just unhealthy, but reductive and an excuse for narcissistic self-aggrandisement. Some leftists might hold the view that socialists should seek to incorporate class struggle and anti capitalism in every aspect of their existence as political agents and artists, poets or creators. I do not think that it is a universal moral truth that everyone needs to do this to be a moral human being and nor do I think that a poetics that focuses on the personal, the emotional, the imaginary or the escapist (rather than the political) is in any way the moral equivalent of a politics that is explicitly supportive of the status quo and complicit in state & capitalist violence. However, I do agree that in order to maintain one's moral integrity one must try to ensure that one's politics, art and daily attitudes do not hold too many contradictions (keeping in mind, of course that 'there is not ethical consumption under capitalism' and that at some point all of us must ethically compromise ourselves to be able to survive in this day and age).
As for political action: First and foremost, we are living through a pandemic, a global resurgence of the far right, the early phases of an economic and climate crisis. Not to mention the pressures, anxieties and injustices that come with late state capitalism. Not everyone has the physical or mental ability to be perpetually on the front line, either in protests or in the discourse.
Yes, silence to injustice is complicity, but not everything that is not explicitly anti-capitalist is an act of wilful silence. There is a realm outside of Twitter and political discourse, where people are mostly concerned with surviving, keeping their livelihoods, trying to mentally and emotionally keep themselves together for the sake of themselves and their loved ones... You cannot, as a leftist, demand that all poetry or art is in support of your cause or be judged bourgeois propaganda and that all Social Media activity must be in support of your cause or be judged complicit to state & capitalist violence and oppression without coming across as myopic, callous and self-centred.
People have lives, jobs, medical issues, anxieties. People write poetry for escapist or therapeutic reasons. Branding people who are not 100% of the time as committed to anti-capitalism as capitalist collaborators comes across as out of touch with the people you claim to defend. If you boil down everything to a 'with me or with the capitalist oppressors and their violence' ultimatum you are destroying any chance of a revolution and are contributing to the media depiction of leftists as deluded and entitled.
Solidarity and empathy have always been the left's strengths. While fascists silence dissent and difference, and liberals & centrists close their ears and pretend everything is fine the way it is, we listen and try to understand struggles that are not our own and support them. During these times of pandemic, economic & climate crisis, far right & state violence, capitalist exploitation systematic racism & sexism, widespread bi, trans & homophobia and ableism. The left must stand strong in its solidarity. Factionalism has always been our weakness.
We cannot continue the left's legacy of letting factional difference divide us to the point of political irrelevance and powerlessness. The workers of the world, minorities, marginalised people and indeed the climate needs us battling the capitalist hegemony not each other. By all means, criticise centrists and liberals when they try to undermine the left while giving the performance of progressive politics. Criticise them to hell and back for their performative progressiveness, their blindness to systemic discrimination and many other pernicious aspects of their politics. Criticise other leftists, if they slip up, talk over marginalised people, use problematic language to pander to white workers etc. But don't fall for the trap of holier-than-thou leftism where the focus is all on being the most radical, the most militant and not on solidarity with the people whose struggles are supposed central to your cause.
So, comrades, please do not lose yourself or your empathy in Twitter's propensity for hot takes & edginess. It does not matter how 'right' you are, if you further your cause with cruelty, gate-keeping, harassment and relentless infighting you are not helping anyone. You are not being a good ally if your being offended on marginalised people's behalf means that you are going to perpetually shout over them. Accountability is one thing. Trying to bully or demean people into silence for online infractions is another. You cannot make the world more moral by simply chasing a few 'problematic' people of Twitter, especially considering the out and proud racists, fascists and reactionaries that are ubiquitous on social media. Before joining in with the Twitter mob, ask yourself: What good does this actually do, for marginalised people, for the causes of intersectional solidarity and justice? How does bringing more cruelty into online political discourse make any positive change?
These discussions about who is more radical, who is 'unproblematic' and what poetics is politically & morally superior are self-sabotaging self-indulgence at best. At worst they drown out substantive online activism in favour of cruelty and factionalism. This kind of behaviour is driving people away. Often the cruelty on display actively encourages bigots and sadists to appropriate the language of leftism to bully people for sport under the guise of accountability.
We cannot keep channelling our powerlessness, our fatigue, our frustration like this. The world is burning. People are dying. Fascism is rising. And every day we lose more allies, as the media uses Twitter mobs and other solely online phenomena to discredit and splinter our movement. People everywhere need us to stop these mindless spats and instead signal boost, donate, educate ourselves, use our platforms to promote and support marginalised people and point people towards ways to actually help and improve lives rather than own people online and bring more distrust, more anger, more cruelty and more feelings of powerlessness unto online platforms. We can do better. We must do better.