When I expressed dismay that David Cameron is now the UK Prime Minister, a friend protested that “they’re all the same”. Moreover, they seemed to expect that being an anarchist, I would agree.
My first reaction was to think this was a mistaken extrapolation. Anarchists must, to be consistent, deny that there is one particular sort of important difference between governments: that some are legitimate and should be supported, and others not.
But denying one sort of difference doesn’t mean denying that there are any important differences. After all, it seems to be consistent for a believer in electoral democracy to see some dictatorships as better than others, or be pleased/dismayed when one replaces another. Why shouldn’t a believer in free association and direct democracy feel the same about better and worse electoral dictatorships?
But then I thought about it more. Maybe there are real political differences between a Labour government and a Conservative one, especially over how soon and how much they cut public services. But does that really explain why I find the words ‘smug cunt’ or ‘shiny-faced Tory bastard’ springing unbidden to my mind when I think of Cameron, but not when I think of Brown (even with the relevant substitutions, ‘Labour’ for ‘Tory’ and ‘bulldog’ for ‘shiny’)?
Brown was high-up in a government that bombed, tortured, surveilled, and locked up enormous numbers of people. He oversaw and kept running an economy that, my beliefs compel me to say, systematically dispossessed millions (billions?) of both their rightful inheritance and the fruits of their labours. If my feelings were based on political principle alone, shouldn’t I dislike Brown as much as, or more than, Cameron?
It’s not enough to observe that my feelings fall short of following impartial principles – because they’re not all that ‘partial’ in the sense that I’ve never met, or personally interacted with, either Brown or Cameron. I can’t hate them because of my personal experience, because I have none that’s relevant.
Instead, feelings that *are* based in my personal temperament and psyche are directed onto remote objects I identify by means of abstract concepts. And one of the major mechanisms of this is something we could roughly call ‘tribalism’ (interesting discussion of which here). A lot of people I’m relatively in agreement with dislike David Cameron, and like (or at least tolerate) Gordon Brown.
The direct effect of this is that I feel no internal restraints on dislike of Cameron, though I do Brown. To call Gordon Brown an asshole is something I must be ready to justify, something I must qualify, something that will set me apart from some people who’s political opinions I respect. Being balanced and qualified is what will get the most positivie social reinforcement, so my social instincts push me in that direction.
By contrast, I will get the most positive social reinforcement if, when I call Cameron an asshole, I am the opposite – as extreme as possible (and, ideally, as funny as possible). So my social instincts push me in a different direction.
Except that most of the people I see on a day to day basis don’t give a damn about Brown and Cameron, because I’m in Canada. But I still have the feelings described – the social perceptions are, by now, independent of my actual social surroundings. They have taken root in my head, so that I feel as though I’m in a mental conversation with some people and not with others.
Now, all of this is old hat for anarchists: tribal loyalty, us-and-them thinking, is part and parcel of how representative systems co-opt and manipulate the population. So perhaps my friend was right all along, not because they were saying that there are no important differences between the two parties, but because they were saying that my feelings aren’t based on important differences, and that this pattern of feeling is a functional part of the system I claim to oppose.
On the other hand, recognising this kind of influence on myself can’t be the final word, since more or less everything about me reflects my society, including its bad points (and good ones!). Instead it raises questions: is it feasible to not have a ‘tribe’? Is it just a matter of working out which one is best, or least tribal? How are such identifications formed?