After Jo Cox

By Paul Cotterill / @Bickerrecord


A few hours before the murder of Jo Cox, I wrote this in one of my rare personal entries on Facebook, where I sometimes put half-formed stuff not ready for the public eye:

I’m readying myself to write quite a big ‘what after Brexit?’ essay, as Brexit now looks increasing likely.

I feel more emotional about this unmitigated national disaster than I thought I might, to the point where I look on essay writing as part of a process of anticipatory grief.

If I’m to be of any use to society in mitigating the largely unmitigatable, I feel — in a ‘heal thyself, physician’ kind of way — as though I have to have a solid intellectual (re)foundation for the kind of stuff I try to activate (which is what activists do, at least the real ones).

Because, frankly, if this is the scale of the disaster I’ve allowed my generation to foist upon the young, the intellectual foundations I’ve relied on to date are probably not up to much.

These foundations have been shallow. The basic premise has been that, even in late capitalism, the truth will out and sense will generally prevail.

This is no longer the case.

But that’s an essay.

Here, for what it’s worth, is that brief essay, held back a couple of days because I didn’t feel able to write anything before now, and because I thought Jo’s murder might change what I wanted to say.

In fact, it doesn’t change the essay substantially. Jo’s murder throws into even starker relief the crisis the country finds itself in, but the approaching referendum was doing that already; with or without the referendum, we would be living in a post-truth polity, in which derision for expertise, even for fact, is a strategic tool of influence and power.

What Jo’s murder highlights more than anything is the now standard way in which we — and by ‘we’ I broadly mean those on the left but also some more sensible voices on the Right — react to the crises points as they occur.

Two tropes have dominated the reactions of left/centre commentators and politicians reacting to Jo’s murder. Paraphrased from the various sources, they go something like:

a) We must look at ourselves in the mirror and decide if this is what we want our country to be;


b) We must fight for a more tolerant and decent society, in which politician and others with opposing views are respected.

Both of these tropes make the commentators, and the politicians, and perhaps us, feel a little bit better about ourselves. They make us feel like we’re on the right side of it all.

But they are also quite useless as starting points for remedial action.

The first one — the call for self-reflection — is doomed to failure as it stands. There was a similar call in September 2015, when Aylan Kurdi’s washed up on a Greek shore. But no-one reflected long, and within days it was migrant-hate business as usual. This time will be the same. Deep down, we know that.

And we know that, deep down, because those doing the calling for self-reflection are only using ‘we’ as a professional courtesy. What the commentators really mean when they call for ‘us’ all to stand back and reflect is that other people, less enlightened than them, should think about what role they’ve played in Jo’s murder, however indirect, and then behave better and more respectfully.

At this point, the first trope becomes infused with the second. For the message the left is trying to put over is twofold: the intolerant and disrespectful amongst you must mend your ways, or we will fight you.

The second trope, like the first, is doomed to failure. We don’t actually mean fight, when we say fight. What we actually mean by fight is something like ‘campaign against’ or — in the term used by as spokesperson for Hope Not Hate (one of the charities which will benefit from the Jo Cox fund) — ‘expose’ those who indulge in hateful attitudes and behaviours.

It’s not hard to see that what the left sees as a noble crusade (I use the word advisedly) for tolerance will be seen as patronizing guff at best, and an intolerant assault on other people’s rights at worst, by those who don’t share those values of tolerance to start with.

I want to suggest, in the remainder of this piece, another way forward for the left; it’s a way forward which takes the first trope seriously when it comes to who is doing the self-reflecting, and one which eschews the inherently illogical second one. in favour of a ‘non-fighting’ approach which might actually work.

First, we should ‘look at ourselves in mirror and not simply ask “are we really this ugly as a society”?, because that doesn’t take us very far. Instead, we should ask ourselves “how did we come to be so ugly?”.

There is help to do this. For many years, people I will call for short ‘cultural critics’ have been holding metaphoric mirrors up, and not liking what they see. And there’s a common insight to many of them.

From critics as diverse as conservative cultural pessimists like Rieff and Lasch, via Giddens’s notion of ontological insecurity, Faludi and then Sennett’s studies of the American male in late-capitalism and then Elliot and Atkinson’sanalysis of insecurity in Britain, the common insight is that there has been an deep shift not just in social structures but in the human psyche, such that notions of solidarity with and tolerance for others outside the family are simply not there in the way they were.

Space does not permit a deeper review of why and how such deep and widespread insecurity has become so deeply embedded (though see here for one I did earlier) . The key point to make is that insecurity seems related to a lack of control and powerlessness, and this leads into a desire to ‘lash out’ out those who appear responsible. This is the picture neatly enunciated in recent days by both Lisa Mackenzie and by John Harris.

John finishes his piece on this working class lash out with this famous quotation from Gramsci:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new is yet to be born. And in the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

It’s a handy enough quote if you want to finish your piece with a flourish about the dark times that are around the corner, but the fact that John gravitates so easily to Gramsci for his intellectual ballast is also reflective of how far the British left has got to travel intellectually and organisationally, if it’s to be of any real use in our age of hyper-insecurity. As it stands, John’s piece, and the British left in general, offer no positive way forward; frankly, if the best we can offer is the prospect of ‘morbid symptoms’ before some future societal renewal at some vague point in the future, then we really are part of the problem — part, arguably, of the accessory apparatus that led to Jo Cox’s murder.

I’ve already written at some length before at some length about how the British left’s obsession with Gramsci, and especially with the idea of ‘counter-hegemony’ are now beyond their sell-by date. I summarized thus:

Under the alienating condition of late capitalism, the idea of successfully addressing ‘false consciousness’ through a process of political education and efforts to gain political terrain by ‘shifting the narrative’, has become even more implausible than it ever was. This is not just because power has become ever more concentrated in the wrong hands, but because in a very real sense people living in the conditions of late capitalism are just not the same: they are, in Giddens’ terminology, “ontologically insecure”, and as a result largely now lack a capacity to meet the demands which a Gramsci-inspired revolutionary project would make of them.

I’ll go a little further. Any leftwing approach which foregrounds the need to ‘reframe’, or to ‘change the narrative’ is not just doomed to failure because of the overwhelming hegemonic forces of capital that it’s up against. It’s also part of the reinforcing process of insecurity and precarity felt by those whose lot the left is supposed to be interested in [1].

Enough of the critique. What, then, can the left do?

Well, first, it has to focus on addressing the root cause of why we are where we are, and why Jo cox was murdered. That root cause is, as I’ve set out, deep insecurity.

The solution to people feeling insecure is, logically enough, helping them feel more secure in themselves, so that in time they are able to redevelop the attitudes and habits of solidarity, of the type Grasmci saw as givens when he theorised revolution. To start to re-secure people, we need to start with the fundamentals.

As I’ve written here, I am very attracted to the reconstructive approach of Habermas, which accepts as I now accept that the solidarities of old are just not there as a basis for a fair and just society, and that the only way to get there now is via “the eye of the needle” of liberal democracy via a painstaking process of public reasoning, built on an understanding of normal language [2] as the fundamental building block for the recreation of solidarities.

This is not an piece about what Habermas, though (at least specifically), so let’s focus on the practical implications of such an approach to security/trust building, as an essential first step towards the more tolerant society we seek as leftwingers, might be. I think there are three:

First, we need to consciously move efforts and resources away from ‘shifting the narrative’ dead-ends towards developing institutions where people get to talk to each other as equals and then start to take control of aspects of their lives (the Habermasian concept of communicative power).

I’ve set out a route map towards such a shift here for one set of people, but the essence of such an approach is that we demonstrate shoutily a little less, and associate democratically a little more. This might be through the development of a re-energized trades council, which seeks to incorporate local voices into service delivery, and which abrogates to itself a legitimacy equal to or greater than that of a local authority or government department.

Or it might be helping to set up a park run. Or a table tennis club. Or a neighbourhood plan. Ideally, it will be all of them [3]

The important thing is not the product, but the process of re-engagement with people’s real lives, in ways which allow people to redevelop a very ordinary trust in what others say to them, so that over time, trust in others’ language, not distrust, becomes the norm. Developing trust via experience is always going to be more effective than telling people via hashtag that people they don’t know are trustworthy. Jo Cox got that. That’s why she was so well loved.

Second, and related to the first, we need consciously to stop talking about ‘fighting’ for justice, equality, tolerance etc. Internalizing all leftwing activity as ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’ is no longer helpful, when those who are the object of that struggle — the angry, intolerant masses — are the very people whose cause we espouse.

Third — and in closing I’ll return to Jo Cox — we should take her words seriously:

Whilst we celebrate our diversity, the thing that surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.

What we have in common is language which, as Habermas points out, is a fundamental building block of trust, but which has been perverted to the extent that, in late capitalism, it is a source of mistrust. Only by developing a rich tapestry of new, non-state associations with each other, can be put that right. That’s the left’s job.

Hope not Hate will get a tranche of money from the fund in Jo’s name because they still offer a valuable service, in terms of exposing public figure hypocrisy (though not more widely, I suggest).

But so will the Royal Voluntary Service, a charity working to reduce loneliness and isolation. There’s a nice balance there. Since her death, has been called a 21st Century Good Samaritan. It may be useful to remember not only that the good Samaritan went out of his way to help others, but also that he was one of an ethnic group disparaged and discriminated against for his unorthodox beliefs. I’d like to think that, at a time when the British left seems so stuck in its failing ways, that Jo’s unorthodox ways — especially talking to anyone and everyone as a way to build trust — will come to inspire us.

[1] I offer one quick example of this reinforcement from my own very recent experience — calling me a condoner of racialized violence because I’m seen to fall short of the ideal of changing the narrative around migrant as problem, when I try to put forward a pragmatic, short term solution which might keep us in the EU, is not entirely helpful.

Yes, I understand the laudable impulse to defend migrants from the negative framing they now suffer, but the Gramscian positioning, in which I must be on one side or the other, doesn’t take us forward in any common endeavour to do anything about the plight of migrants suffering from such framing. It just makes those who attack me feel better. These are good people, and I’m not bitter about being attacked (politely) as a sympathizer with racists, but it does make me wonder what it must be like for others who are less secure in their material circumstance and worldview than I am.

[2] Crucial to any understanding of Habermas is the concept of Verstandigung, which might loosely be translated as ‘a propensity for mutual understanding. Habermas’ roots his theory right back to the evidence that any successful human communication is based on an instinctive on the part of the listener to believe that the speaker is sincere, and is telling the truth. From there, via an elegant set of arguments, Habermas argues for a set of public institutions which, as far as is possible, recreate this ‘ideal speech’ situation.

[3] Warren helpfully reminds me that there is a link across here to Henrik Bang’s work on ‘everyday makers’ and the need to move the site of public debate into non-traditional areas. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read this stuff, though I will, but in the meantime I’d also point to Nancy Rosenblum’s Membership and Morals, which argues that association membership of any kind — even quite distasteful associations — can be a social good, and to Mark E Warren’s superb, Habermas-influenced Democracy and Association.

This post was re-posted from Medium.

Paul Cotterill is Councillor for Bickerstaffe.

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