26 September 2012 Politics / Activism The angry Left Stephen Wright For a long time I used to go to bed early … Hold on. Oh, sorry. That’s Proust. For a long time I used to really struggle with the kind of anger evoked in me by the cruelty and catastrophic destructiveness of the neo-capitalist enterprise. It is after all a set of systems and imperatives that make complicity in criminal activity inevitable, and presents it as an equally inevitable good. A system like that is always going to ratchet up one’s paranoia and guilt. In fact, the social inequities in which twenty-first-century capitalism excels fractures people to the degree that they start to behave in ways that can be described as serious mental illnesses. Even when we establish a coherent political and ethical position in order to construct a meaningful life that can to some extent withstand the schizoid mindsets we are presented with as options for identity, things still fracture within us and those fractures foreshadow their appearance in odd and unexpected ways. We buy a cat or have a child when our relationship is just about to go south, we take on a job we hate right when we need to devote ourselves to writing poetry, or things just stop making sense in the middle of a sentence. My own unreliable early warning system of incoming fracture points often manifests itself when my thoughts start snagging themselves on the thoughts of others, perhaps things I would expect to take as read, but that keep coming back to me, annoying me like flies in summer. Somewhere in the lee of one approaching fracture I once found myself really struggling with something The Clash said in one of their songs. Of course this was a tiny peripheral event in my life that kept knocking on the wall of my closed introspection. And perhaps all the more reason why I should have taken notice. When a song gets stuck in your head, it’s not a random event. There’s always a meaning to be made, associations to be discovered if you take the time. What The Clash said in their great and prophetic song ‘Clampdown’ was, ‘Let fury have the hour/ Anger can be power/ Do you know that you can use it?’ If I ever get a tattoo, I think I’d get the opening line of ‘Clampdown’ indelibly stamped on an as yet undecided part of my torso: ‘Taking off his turban, they said is this man a Jew?’ Or maybe a few lines from Sandinista!’s ‘Midnight Log’: ‘I don’t believe in books/ But I read them all the time/ For ciphers to the riddles/ And a reason to the rhymes.’ In fact maybe I should just get Joe Strummer’s entire lyric output inked on my body. I mean he’s never going to write more, so it’s not as if I’m going to run out of space. I’d become a walking poetry chapbook. Or perhaps I will be like a version of Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, and the events of my life will start to take on a strange and prophetic quality, as the dreams of those people on the street I walk among will begin to rearrange themselves into a political shape that accepts no injustice. Or maybe everyone around me will suddenly develop a compulsion to learn to play a couple of power chords and scream like a paranoid ghoul or a drunken zombie trying to vomit up its own intestines. Whatever. It’s got to be worth trying. The tattoos I mean. I’d better get on to it. Anyway, yes, when I first learned that music could be political I felt as if a great weight had been lifted off me. Someone was saying the things I wanted to say, saying them better and louder, so I didn’t have to say them. All I had to do was sing along. Sometimes, if I felt overwhelmed with poisonous thoughts about the state of the world and my inability to effect any change I’d turn a song like ‘Know Your Rights’ up to earbleeding volume, say, four or five times in a row. And get drunk. In those days I took Strummer at his word, and thought ‘Yep, anger can be power’ and started working with young children as a political stance on masculinity, and throwing myself into work with Amnesty International, local environment groups and so on. Of course the reasons why we say we do things are never congruent with the reasons why we actually do things. But more on that another time. Anyhow, the kind of outrage that motivated me for several years was, in the end, unsustainable. I collapsed in a humiliating welter of weird decisions, burbling about children and justice and alcohol and even stopped reading books and listening to music. But what struck me after a prolonged period of toxic melancholia, continual work, a bit of bad acid, and a lot of vodka and solitude was that maybe Strummer and company, like a lot of other voices on the Left, hadn’t distinguished between anger and fury well enough. I started to wonder if they were the same thing. These days, if I hear another paranoid angry outburst about the necessity of some fixed political utopia I’ll probably start turning the volume up again on ‘Know Your Rights’. And my stereo is louder these days, and has wheels. The Left’s public fight against injustice often seems to me to rely on firing up everyone’s anger. Like a lot of well-meaning people, I’m signed up to Avaaz and GetUp!’s mailing lists and while I appreciate the work they try to do, the emails I get urging me to action seem so peculiar, so earnest, brimming with righteous tears and triumphal burning optimism, like an advertising campaign that substitutes ‘Burma’ for ‘Coke,’ that if I were younger and more fragile I’d go and lie down with a bottle. And it wouldn’t have Coke in it. ‘Wow!’ says a recent email from Avaaz. ‘Our people-powered community has just hit 15 million strong – the largest online political movement anywhere! Size matters, but spirit matters more and ours is on fire! Together we’re running more campaigns, taking more actions, winning more and winning bigger than ever before.’ Seriously, who wrote that? My best guess is Justin Bieber’s spin-doctor moonlighting for some street cred. It’s as if the Left has become a giant helping profession. Continually having to crank up our anger and indignation is tiring and dispiriting. And it’s not as if it gets us anywhere. Whenever I’ve been angry, and the anger fades, I just feel washed out, as though the kitchen sink has drained of water and left a scum of vegie bits and bacon fat around the plughole. In fact, working professionally in the area of violence prevention I quickly learned that anger will get you precisely absolutely nowhere. What that anger generally is of course, is a kind of righteous indignation. The person who has experienced violence doesn’t need anybody else’s indignation. They know too well that expressions of indignation are very often followed by impotent, self-serving and futile action that they are supposed to be grateful for. But, to survive in this weird, networked, hyper-capitalist world something has to drive you; something that won’t fade, or buckle under pressure; something that can motivate and achieve change. And by that motive force, I mean something that underlies political understanding. Something that bedrocks it and keeps it firmly situated in the realm of the actual, that has the energy to begin the rewriting of human relationship where relationship has been deemed to be contemptible. My money is on fury. Fury is directed not at people but at practices; at structures both external and internal. Fury doesn’t rant the way that anger does. Fury doesn’t wax and wane like anger, and, unlike anger, fury isn’t dependent on how you feel. Anger often gives hangovers. But nobody ever woke up after igniting their fury with their pants round their ankles, a splitting headache and a lot of apologies to make. Fury never runs out of fuel. Injustice never ends, and fury is fuelled by injustice. Fury doesn’t consume us the way that anger does. Fury burns without consuming. Fury doesn’t humiliate anybody even when someone is at fault and unrepentant. If one of the consequences of anger is that things are said that will later be regretted, the consequence of fury is the knowledge that patience has to be never-ending. The slogan of fury is ‘No pasaran.’ Perhaps most significantly, fury has no truck with hatred. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova put it neatly in her closing statement at the Pussy Riot trial: ‘I have no private spite. But I have political spite.’ Fury has a long memory. To hate someone for robbing you is understandable, at least in the short term. But in the long term, being overwhelmed with hatred damages us beyond repair. Still, fury reminds us that to invite the robber back into our house would be an act of stupidity until the structural change has been achieved that only fury can drive. Forgiveness always has fury as its armature. Generating outrage is easy. Often the Left, and especially the literary Left, excels in this. It’s not enough to be angry, and frankly, it looks pointless, more like a kind of narcissistic defence against one’s own helplessness than anything else. It’s the luxury of the bourgeoisie, a betrayal of the oppressed, who may well not be angry at all, but very very determined. The raped, the brutalised, the abandoned and the wretched don’t need the balm of our bourgeois anger, the petty expressions of our idiotic and unthinking hatreds. The angry Left is a non-viable project. Things are unbelievably desperate and the cultivation of outrage, so easy to do, is just another way in which we bolster our weird neo-capitalist identities. We successfully keep radical change at a safe distance, even as we advocate for it, conspiring in the triumphal narratives of goodies and baddies, narratives in which the world changes but we remain the same, eternally comforted by our anger. Stephen Wright Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction. More by Stephen Wright Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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