Why the Right bans things that don’t exist (… and why the Left defends them)

GAYLEXITNOW weighs in on education, education, education.

One of the surest ways to ‘win’ in politics is to trick your opponent into agreeing with your characterisation of them. The UK Conservative Party won the 2015 election after getting Labour to consent to their framing that it was too much government spending that caused the 2008 crash. Perhaps every left-wing social media user has felt that prick of shame when we realise that someone we’ve been arguing with has gotten us to defend something we had no intention of discussing at the outset: “How have I gone from demanding a more just and redistributive welfare system, to hotly denying that the conditions in Camp Kolyma were as bad as people say?” How often since the defeat of Corbyn and Bernie has the right invoked a version of ‘the left’ that is more censorious, more extreme, more crazy, or more powerful than it actually is, only for a vast swathe of left commentary to embrace the characterisation and defend it to the hilt? 

The online left has been vexed by new guidance issued by the Department for Education, stating that schools should not use resources created by organisations that adopt ‘extreme’ political stances, such as ending capitalism or suspending democracy. The panic is, to a degree, understandable. Boris Johnson’s fellow world leaders of the right, such as America’s Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, have taken steps to curb the influence of the left and left liberals within education. Conspiracy theories about ‘cultural Marxism’ and other right-wing pareidolia easily transform schools and universities into internal Xinjiang camps of communist indoctrination in the conseravtive imagination. The Prevent agenda in the UK already sets a precedent for how education can be remodelled as a kind of racialized policing, which also has consequences for academic debate. As this piece goes to press, fundraising has begun for a legal action against the government over the new guidance’s implications for teaching environmentalism and antiracism. Yet despite these legitimate grounds for concern and protest, it is striking that amid the cries of McCarthyism from the left, barely anyone has asked whether schools even do make routine use of resources produced by anticapitalist groups. Is that even something that happens’?

John McDonnell and other left commentators are wrong when they say that, on the basis of the new guidelines, ‘it will be illegal to refer to large tracts of the history of British socialism, the Labour Party and trade unionism, all of which have at different times advocated the abolition of capitalism’. The guidance prohibits using materials produced by anticapitalist organisations, it says nothing about describing them, referring to them, or even discussing their ideas. As the organisers of the legal action note, the wording of the guidance may have implications for using materials from Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion. Yet when I think back to my own schooldays, I don’t recall being shown any material produced by, say, the Socialist Workers Party or the Alliance for Workers Liberty, although perhaps my teachers were downloading their powerpoint presentations from marxists.org without me noticing. 

Despite high levels of trade union membership in the sector, my own experience as a teacher has been that political discussion is generally taboo even in school staff rooms. Socialist teachers friends complained last year about how diffident their colleagues were towards even Jeremy Corbyn’s modest proposals to abolish the hated Ofsted and SATS. Teaching itself has been rendered so micromanaged and syllabus-driven that it’s hard to imagine anybody having time to go off topic long enough to whip out What is to be Done?  The days of the groovy history teacher with a stack of Anti-Nazi League flyers in their desk drawer are long gone, and I frankly doubt that teachers using materials produced by socialist organisations, or indeed by any political party, is remotely a common occurrence in UK schools. Which brings an obvious question to mind: why would the right ban something that barely actually occurs? 

The right, from the most egregious Twitter trolls to the government benches in the House of Commons, are well aware of the value of baiting the left into validating their framing. That is why the government has seen fit to ban something that wasn’t happening in the first place: they knew that the left would decry it, and calculated that the spectacle of the left decrying it would likely confirm in the mind of any disinterested observer that something significant had actually taken place… that lefty teachers really had been downloading lesson plans from anarchist websites, and it’s a damn good job the government is finally doing something about it. The response to the Harper’s Magazine letter attacking cancel culture or reports that the BBC was contemplating banning ‘Rule Britannia’ from the Last Night of the Proms are other cases where much left discourse simply heard what the right was claiming, and reactively leapt to the opposite side. 

This — it pains me to say — gives partial validation to the approach taken by Keir Starmer and his team. Since being elected Labour leader, Starmer has consistently refused to react to provocations to fulfil the right’s preconceptions of him. The left are correct to complain that this is a depressing compression of ambition compared to Corbyn’s moral leadership and willingness to break new political ground with imaginative policies (indeed, they are right to be puzzled at how such extreme passivity is supposed to work out as a long-term strategy for convincing anyone of anything).

But as an immediate reaction to defeat, it at least represents a canny refusal to be blown around around the whims of the victorious party. From the point of view of the Labour left, this doubly stings, because it suggests a savviness Starmer was unable to conjure a year ago, when he was busy forcing Corbyn to wear the starry blue suit of Remainism that the Tories had graciously fitted for him. To see now that Starmer is clearly more of an astute politician than he let on is galling, because it lends significant credence to the theory that forcing Labour’s Remain-ward drift was a deliberate strategy pursued to wreck the left leadership. Nevertheless, there is a lesson to the left in this period of defeat about refusing to follow the script, and declining to defend exaggerated versions of itself that don’t exactly exist. 

GAYLEXITNOW wishes to remain anonymous.

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