Over a month on, I still find the Labour defeat lingering at the edges of my mind, lurking in the shadows of sleep. It is a familiar pall: the fever invoked by a bitter winter blurring into the viscerally physical aches with which depression torments one’s body and mind, until any sense of where the malady begins and ends utterly disintegrates. The whole world contracted into a void as you collapse in on yourself. Any possibility of respite disrupted, wracked by guilt and disquiet, the festive lights powerless to penetrate. I could sense it in so many we met as we canvassed in the glacial darkness, an etiolated rose struggling to take root in frozen ground, our red boards dimmed and scarcely flickering in the ruthless night, their sheets of intention sodden and in tatters amid biting squalls. The fault lines of despondency haunted people: they plagued us too, buffeting and dissipating the fragile fire of what could have been, eclipsing once again the horizon of the future. This was a historic crunch point, an opportunity to begin to reverse decades of long defeat and suffering, to tackle the calamitous political and ecological trajectory unfolding across the world – all within reach, only to be dashed, snatched from us.
The next week brought the crushing fall from grace that would punish our hope, even timid and braced for defeat as those dreams were, even devoid of illusions in the ornate halls of Westminster. A return to the routine of panic and dread at the Job Centre, toiling for a pittance in the turmoil of the gig economy, the vicious nightmares of waiting rooms and loss and the bloodied fray of austerity. There were few words to piece from the embers, only a strained solace in one another as we dwelled on another five years of sentence, as we once again stumbled and huddled together in the desolate chill, shoes so drenched they came apart at the seams, feet blistered and hands numb, that ‘Everything for Everyone’ scarf cast to one side and forgotten, waiting on yet another arrested train to creak by under pallid street lamps and blown platform displays. Our morale was shattered, our conviction in disarray, dislocated by the tremors of agitation and shock, hastily regrouped for the endless, enervating march. How does one believe again, carry on, despite all the overwhelming forces of reaction set against us.
I think those feelings resurfaced this week particularly when I was rejected for yet another job, with all the disempowerment and worthlessness wrought by the cutthroat facelessness of application cycles into which all the energy and time of your life becomes submerged irretrievably, trapped in the degradations and stresses of vying even just for a subsistence, of ingratiating yourself to the callous, capricious mercy of a boss of targets and metrics and algorithms. That all-consuming compulsion to ‘sell’ oneself – to dehumanize and alienate oneself into an optimized commodity for business – is one of the defining, overarching features of the anxiety of our generation, from the very early, increasingly fraught days of education with all its incessant ranking, channeled towards an exploitative work regime marked by a race-to-the-bottom in terms, conditions and working protections. The lure to individually develop and advance oneself, in the absence of collective solidarities, can seem the only recourse to these declining conditions – producing deep guilt and anxiety when a system premised on disposability and insecurity withholds the prosperity it promises despite our restless striving. The fantasy of meritocracy gives under the weight of the rapacity of profit; yet, fatigued, we often feel it our fault for not measuring up.
And so that sifting through the ruins bleeds across our whole lives, the only certainty generally being that the jobs we are chasing do not matter, and that we do not matter to them. Worse still, we are forced to stifle that resentment under humiliating performances: the affected enthusiasm and motivation you trade on cold-calling or serving people at the tills, where all the frustrations of our powerlessness and fractured connections are brought to bear. The blow for the caseworker job was, I suppose, so pronounced because of that converse indignity: the dispiriting sense that a job that you would actually want is beyond your station. Certainly, the treatment of this topic in media commentary is coloured by a more sheltered, middle-class demographic coming to terms with the pangs of stultified ambition; a proletarianization process that is historically recurring within capitalism, if no less painful for its lack of novelty.
Less, though, is said of that other kind of pain, the cynicism and dejection inflicted by such drudgery having always been your life experience, the sense of class shame and inferiority you are taunted with in which destiny is a luxury not to be entertained, much less thwarted, the resignation that meritocracy has always been a myth for people like you. Rather than a sense of lost entitlement that you were not one of the select few ‘winners’, it is the absence of any real control or freedom, the melancholy that you were always meant to lose in this system – throbbing in the work injuries that scar your flesh and the bruising sanctions that push you utterly over the brink on which your life has always teetered. It was this pain and antagonism, bent towards anti-politics, that we struggled particularly within the top-down limitations of party politics to grapple with on the doorstep. And yet now we are so frequently disciplined on the same Amazon warehouse factory floors, inhabiting similar neighbourhoods and utilising similar run-down libraries and fragmented transport infrastructure, constrained by lack of resources to return home to the same towns we grew up isolated in, maybe those that were historically Labour and cleaved Tory this time. It is these kinds of common arenas, though it might seem an anachronism, where solidarity can be fostered across those different kinds of experience and grievance.
In the nights after the defeat, I felt the damp clinging heavier than ever to the air in my cramped room, fixated on the kind of ceiling leak that still courses down the gaunt walls of so many decrepit Victorian terraces, morphing into mould spores that fester through the peeling wallpaper. Disconsolate, the doubt and misery felt paralysing: but it can all start with coming together to demand the landlord stop that leak. Not for the purposes merely of firefighting, as a substitute for intervening in the rot in the whole architecture, but because by improving our lives collectively we can raise confidence and hope in what is possible and thus rebuild our movements, institutions and solidarities. It’s why so many sacrificed weeks in grievous conditions to fight with such vigour for a Labour victory: because of what we owe to each other. Not simply on an individual basis, but as a greater social whole: a collective duty to combat injustice and exploitation. And that organized yearning for a better world remains, still, beyond any setback, as our anchor.
A certain common sense has emerged from our atomization, seeping into even left cultures, that we owe one another very little, not even an explanation. Certainly, steeled against transphobes howling at you in the streets, that impulse holds, and the fear and paranoia at its root comes harshly into focus. But we collapse all minor infractions into the vein of this oppression, banishing potential comrades as merely the spectre of our aggressors, at our peril. The neo-liberal expectation towards frantic self-curation and demanding self-evaluation is reflected in such puritanical drives. Empathy can be impugned as unremunerated ‘emotional labour’, social loyalty renounced as an inconvenient barrier to autonomy, self-actualization reduced merely to comfort or personal gratification. But if we are serious about community organizing, then we must too be insistent on a practice of compassion without condition, trusting in the capacity of people to grow and change things through our relationships with one another, even as we never tolerate oppression. There is a hostility to one another harboured in fear: an acute recognition that our association can be fraught with malice, rejection, selfishness, division, even abuse. It is why we isolate ourselves to survive our trauma. But, in this bunker, we can lose a sense of ourselves, of one another, of the miraculous, messy bonds that also rejuvenate us and tie us together, that no amount of prejudice or competition can prise apart, that indeed can be fortified wondrously in spite of and through overcoming fear together.
As the rainwater trickles down the wall, that is what enables me to rise. Any courage I have is owing to others, and bolstered, especially against crisis, by the sense of what I owe to others. That vulnerability is a hard wager, and a beautiful one: a reprieve from rancour, a chance to flourish that may smoulder, a chance that we must hold to against all uncertainty. It is the daunting admission that our actions are of great consequence. Though I still dream of utopias, and believe more than ever that positive vision is a necessity against economist strains of leftist politics that wrongly relegate imperatives of culture and liberation – as if working class people can imagine no greater than the bare necessities beyond immiseration – I am not as confident as some in the predilection toward ‘collective joy’. Militating against a context stricken by mental health crises and political decay, it is a noble and important goal, that we extricate ourselves from the individualistic pressure to ‘stay positive’ and instead share affects of elation that arise from the adventure of unlocking community and empowerment in the world.
But I increasingly think of hope as something patiently and deliberately cultivated, as a grace borne of the hard, complicated and healing work of forming relationships with others, not as a fantastical abstraction or an ephemeral release among crowds. Certainly, the fact that people’s despondency grated up against the bold Labour manifesto is no reason to retreat in our vision. But it does demand we ask of ourselves: what do we owe to each other? Not just to like-minded friends, but those we have never known, bearing burdens and hardships similar and altogether different to our own, who speak different languages and have different cultures, who almost perished in violent seas fleeing terror only to be imprisoned and further tortured in the detention centres of our ‘green and pleasant land’. A solidarity without hierarchy must be the answer of socialists: that care is strengthened, not weakened, by its extension to all. The warmth of new comradeships, of pulling together searching for every door on the list as rain and night fell, of tangibly moving people through connecting our stories, the transformative potential of our movement, renewed and compromised, disappointed and invigorated, persists beyond any election cycle – as the swell in activity around organizations like ACORN attests. We engaged with the General Election campaign because it was a strategic avenue to further our efforts to organize in communities, rather than out of any particular loyalty towards party politics – it was by no means the be-all-and-end-all.
I see the traces of utopia attenuated, perhaps inevitably, though they still inspire me. I no longer hinge my faith on each demonstration as a rage of destruction and the surge of a new dawn from the ashes. That, I think, is something every activist must come to terms with, burnt out after racing against every injustice, so desperate for it all to come crashing down, for freedom to finally descend. There is no panacea of martyrdom, and, ultimately, only the blessing and burden of what it is to shoulder duty and responsibility in supporting and organizing with people through all our collective flaws and complexities and contradictions, all our conflicting fears and desires, day after day. There is remarkable triumph and, more often than not, devastating defeat in the perennial struggle to change society, an exposure to the worst of injustice and that most exceptional fortitude of human beings to transcend and resist it. But, most of all, there is that gritty infinity: what we owe to each other. Everything, everything, everything. Those glimmers of utopia reside in our every action to benefit the world and each other. There is a hope that may be without answer, without guarantee, yet blazes and reverberates and endures nonetheless.
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