- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Following the publication of The Twittering Machine, his book about the ‘social industry’, Tribune interviews Richard Seymour about his career as an activist, blogger and author, his involvement in the journal Salvage, the collapse of far-left politics in Britain, and about the drastic effects of Twitter and Facebook on political debate and sociality,
From Salvage to Social Industry
One thing that struck me about The Twittering Machine is that it’s the least explicitly Marxist of your books, with obvious ambitions to be read outside the circles of the left.
Yeah, though the book has a function for the left. But people are grateful to have some sort of analysis of what this is that is coming into being, and to give it a name and say ‘this is the social industry, and this is what it’s doing to social life, and it’s rewriting our social relations in a way that is not actually good for us’. Obviously there are exceptions and it’s not straightforward, but overwhelmingly it’s helping the right, not the left – such is my argument anyway. So there is a space for that, but I’m used to talking to the left, and I’m also a bit exhausted with the polemical format – it’s very limited in what it can do. You can see it’s written in a very different way, it’s not just that it’s not overtly Marxist, although Marxism is there, very carefully coded – but there’s the use of psychoanalysis, something I hadn’t done in previous books, and the occasionally oracular, obviously epigrammatic style, where essentially I’m relying on people to work out a lot of stuff for themselves, I’m not explaining everything, I’m not footnoting everything. They made me put in references at the back, but I didn’t want there to be, I just wanted it to be an essay that would make people think in a particular way.
People who read Salvage, the quarterly journal you set up with China Mieville, Rosie Warren and Jamie Allinson, would probably be better prepared for it than people who had read your previous books.
Yeah, I can see that. It is like many of the things I’ve been working on at the moment inflected with the experience of Salvage. But obviously it’s immersed in a certain very particular kind of political experience, which is – ok, if you go back to the break-up of the SWP, the SWP was essentially technophobic. During the 1990s they said ‘the internet’s a fad, it’s going to go away, we don’t want you wasting your time on it’ (laughs). And then essentially they worked out that it was important but they never really got to grips with it, they spent money on a website but they didn’t understand that it works differently to just having a publication. And they particularly didn’t get the successful capitalist appropriation of the cyber-social dimension of conversation, and to be fair many people didn’t get it, but they were slower than others.
So they thought they could keep secrets. And then of course they had the rape cover-up. Someone in the leadership allegedly raped a woman, not just once, but repeatedly, and sexually harassed other women. The issue for me and most of the opposition was not that we knew for a fact that it happened, because that would be ridiculous, but that we didn’t like the way they conducted their investigation. They got this woman to trust them to make the investigation, which they then conducted like little Keystone Kops, asking her leading, misogynist questions, like ‘we’ve heard you like a drink’.
Like the police in the 1970s.
There’s more than one way in which the SWP was Life on Mars. We, those of us who decided to go into the opposition over this, and I heard about it quite late in the day, and I could see that there were ways in which we could rationalise not joining in – ‘oh this is too radical, this will feed the witch-hunt’, and so on, especially because at the time I wanted to retreat to a cosy academic life, that was my feeling at the time, as I was totally burned out with activism. When it all kicked off in the SWP they would say ‘he doesn’t attend meetings!’ – of course I don’t attend meetings, I’m exhausted! I’ve been doing this for too long! So I joined the opposition, and I was trying to convince anybody sane that you can’t keep this secret, it’s going to come out – you think this is just about discipline, but that’s not how the internet works. One person talks to another person, and the aggregate effects can be…that’s thing about an aggregate system like that, the massive disproportion between cause and effect – that one person can talk and then everyone will know. And that was going to happen.
The smart thing to do, even from the cynical perspective of a party hack, would be to get out in front of it, admit mistakes, commit to serious reform, apologise, because there was a feminist movement coming, and with all its weaknesses this was a big thing culturally, and you had to relate to that. They were lunatics about this, and they retreated into a cult. So I wanted to get to grips with – ‘what is the internet?’ – the question seems so obvious as to be stupid, but really, what the fuck is it? Because it’s not a thing, even though we tend to speak about it in a reified way. So there was that, and then of course those of us who left the SWP, who had used the internet and especially social media to detonate the whole thing, we got swept up in the jouissance of shaming leading figures in the SWP, who were a bit old fashioned and were used to bullying people by phone, they didn’t know anything about social media, and suddenly they were at a disadvantage, and we were running rings around them. But we were not running rings around them in the sense that we were going to take over the Party. We had no idea how to do that, we were not schooled in how to pack meetings or anything like that.
I never thought that was even what you were aiming to do, as far as I could tell from outside.
Pretty clearly, but there were challenges like this. I remember having a private meeting with Alex Callinicos – me, Gareth Dale and Joseph what’s his name…
Choonara! Bishop Brennan and his sidekick. And the Bishop was giving out to me about ‘well, what are you going to do when you take the leadership, Richard? Because there are responsibilities, you have a responsibility to say what you’re going to do about fascism, what would you do about…’, Jesus Christ, this is one of those things like in those relationship issues when someone says ‘when will we get married?’ ‘well, when the Haitian economy is better, when we’ve dealt with the far-right…’ if you put it off until then you’ll never do it. So obviously we did want to change the leadership, and there were groups of people who would have been experienced enough to do it – you can imagine someone like Neil Davidson in the leadership. But we were too divided as an opposition, and a bunch of us thought we had no prospect of winning because knew that they would mobilise people who had not been seen for years to come to meetings, and that’s what did happen. So me and a few other people made clear that we thought the SWP name is dead, that the Party is finished, and that we had to move on. We did successfully reach out to people, and did find some sane people, who did say ‘maybe I’ll consider joining it if it becomes a healthy organisation’. We tried to set up an organisation – and of course it was even worse in some ways than the SWP.
Much more brief.
That was its virtue, yes, but to be honest it should have been briefer. We should all have recognised that were all traumatised, and there was a lot of violent emotion whipping up, and a lot of hate for others in the SWP. I mean first of all, there was probably a lot of us in this tiny grouping that simply couldn’t stand each other, and there was political mistrust, and a lot of people now were terrified of any kind of organisation – when some of us tried to set up a publication, as was apparently mandated by our conference, there was distrust because that was seen as setting up a power base within the organisation to move it to the right, as Eurocommunist opportunism, yada yada – or if for example you tried to get a full-time employee to keep membership lists and branch lists and just do things, engage in political activity, that was a plot. So there was paranoia, there was hatred – this was a problem primarily of group psychology, I would contend, secondarily of politics. There was a load of problems of the group having no structure – it was like how at the end of a relationship you get into bed with anybody, or at least some might, so we had all these parasites in the organisation who had come in from other organisations and therefore wanted to pull away some of ours into theirs. It was ridiculous.
I would be surprised if there wasn’t at least one special branch person, but at any rate it was never going to last. The effect of not having any organisation, the effect of not doing anything to actually be useful politically, and the fact we were mostly just talking to ourselves and in increasingly vituperative terms, we just had this bubble of purity where we were fighting among ourselves, and the effect of that was that were dependent mostly on the social industry for our organisation. Literally, organisation took place through Facebook groups and online message groups. That was how it had been done in the opposition, and that’s how it was carried over. Or email threads. Email threads were essentially how the central steering group or whatever it wad decided things. And we were deciding things like ‘whether somebody should be expelled because somebody else considered to have been bullied by them’, all of this sort of stuff – it was this language of trauma. This is common among these groups of people, but it went really far, and certainly I had long been addicted to social media, in ways I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable about. ‘Fires are always starting around me, I don’t understand why, people are always starting fights with me, why don’t they just leave me alone!’ – the typical paranoid subjectivity of the internet. Anyway, so there was that and there were obviously a number of incidents involving me on the internet which were either spiteful or trying to be funny but not funny. And one of them involved Simon Weston saying something about Corbyn, and I said on Facebook ‘who gives a shit what he thinks, if he knew anything, he’d still have his face’. There’s a small irony there, given that I have a little facial injury myself. It was a cruel thing to say but if you said that around a table you might get mixed reactions but it wouldn’t be that big a deal.
And this is now on your Wikipedia page.
What’s extraordinary is that they’ve got a whole section devoted to it, as if it’s one of the most important things that ever happened in my life. But anyway, whatever, in the context of Facebook’s spurious intimacy, you think you’re talking to a friend, and you can have these spontaneous reactions, and that’s what the machine is set up for. I’d forgotten my own lessons, what I’d told the SWP. On the internet, the potential audience for everything is the whole internet. Anyone who has been on the internet as much as I have since 2003 probably has a lot of shit to go round.
Salvaging the Far Left
When in the aftermath of the collapse of the SWP Salvage started, I assumed that the Salvage in question for you lot was the particular things you liked in the SWP tradition, in Tony Cliff and so on…
No no no no. We had already burned our boats by then. When we started the Opposition within the SWP a lot of it was framed with that kind of stuff, nostalgia like ‘Paul Foot, that was a comrade, ah, Peter Sedgwick, that was a comrade’ – all these old IS figures who were a bit…not uninteresting, but also sentimentalised and also wrong about many things. It’s a bit like the wan humanism that the Stalinist tradition settled on in order to get over Stalinism.
Is there anything in that tradition at all that you in Salvage do think is worth conserving?
You get different answers from different people. I will tell you that I think the experience of being in the SWP was important in terms of the idea that discipline is about more than being told what to do, but is about thinking before acting. Being in the Labour Party is obviously a very different kind of Party. I must say I assume that the more interesting things are happening with the younger people in the branches, but I get siphoned off with the 50 year olds. But in terms of the SWP as an intellectual tradition, there were some good, healthy things, but there’s no particular point of doctrine that I’m particularly attached to. Even ‘State Capitalism’, which is supposed to be the linchpin – that was just a pragmatic way of not being Stalinists.
As an analysis of the USSR, it’s Procrustean.
To be honest, they all are. I’ve never seen a convincing attempt to analyse the Soviet Union. I think possibly you could see ‘articulated modes of production’ as one way, but to be honest, we don’t have the concepts – and that’s a huge thing, given that is the big trauma that hangs before all of our projects, that if you organise, this is where you end up, at the Gulag. While the other one, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall – well, it’s so countervailed through computerisation and so on that it’s hard to see its importance.
One of the things that has been missed a bit lately is that one of the side-effects it seems of the surge of energy into left reformist projects is that nearly all the old Trotskyist organisations have collapsed – first the British SWP, who were ahead of the curve a bit there, and just this year the American International Socialist Organisation has dissolved and the CWI/Socialist Party formation that grew out of Militant has collapsed into arcane infighting. It’s amazing in a way that a tradition that was set up in the ’30s solely as a dissident analysis of a state that collapsed 28 years ago has outlasted it for so long, but now it’s reached the point where it’s like the Brixton Maoists, no longer taken seriously by anyone, and certainly not by any of the young people going into the Corbyn or Sanders movements, who tend to find Trotsky a a bit of a joke figure, with no appeal to them whatsoever – they’ll cite things like ‘combined and uneven development’ without even knowing it has anything to do with Trotsky. All this is making me wonder a bit what we can learn anything at all from the long history of Trotskyism.
Well, theoretically not a lot of that stuff has a lot of relevance. For my development it was really important, and some of it still is – uneven and combined development of course, Trotsky’s writings against Fascism, his History of the Russian Revolution…for all the lies that Trotsky told about Kronstadt and all the rest of it, there’s an aligning of desire with action and guiding it with concentrated experience that has never been really matched, and that was part of the theory. My worry is that the smart kids are going to be reading, as they should be, Butler, Foucault, Zizek and all the rest, but those theorists will not orient you or root you in any sense of what the left has been in the last hundred or so years. The SWP did a version of political education, and it wasn’t perfect, but for what little resources they had they took it seriously enough. Often it was dogmatic, but you were encouraged to read, you were encouraged to learn. Yet when something like the Kosovo War happened, there’d be a load of left books that were scarcely relevant – like recommending you read Trotsky on the Balkan Wars.
Going back to The Twittering Machine. I quite often send Labour left people the Patreon post you did, ‘Your Hot Take on Chris Williamson’ as a way of ‘this explains what you should not be doing’, and it resonated with a line in the book – ‘the algorithms don’t know the difference between anger and pleasure’, and that’s something the outraged online left haven’t realised – and that’s easily gamed by people who are quite cynical. Are there particular modes of behaviour you’d recommend to the online left as opposed to these sorts of furies?
As you know, if you reply to tweets that you hate, you’re promoting those tweets, and the machine will assume you want more of it, and in a way they’re right, because you’ll keep replying. I’ve done all that myself, and the temptation’s still there – but the point is what lessons can we draw for our behaviour. Well, we need to disaggregate the professional and personal reasons why we want to use social media. So when I make this critique someone will always say ‘yes, but the Corbyn movement came out of social media, we need social media for messaging’ – that’s correct, it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. That’s not the same thing as you going onto Twitter and shouting at MPs that you’re angry with. It’s not the same thing as trying to conduct human relationships via Facebook. You know, there is never going to be a pure strategy for coping with Facebook and Twitter and whatever because the system will change and the algorithms will change and they’ll find new ways to hook you in. At the moment I would suggest – treat it as you would the Murdoch press. If we have to use it, and to be honest I don’t see how we can turn down the advantages of it, then we have to use it in a very self-controlled way, and a way that is not always completely open about everything we’re feeling. If I were to give myself advice, it would be don’t debate with people on there – even when it starts off in good faith it can so quickly degenerate.
One comrade who I won’t name has tried very usefully to popularise the phrase ‘Keep it Frosty’ on the left – when he wasn’t sliding into people’s DMs and reminding them ‘people are listening’. But I have a question about ‘mobs’. One of the mobs described in the book was that which exploded around Mary Beard, after she said something idiotic and then basically accidentally detonated her entire public persona…
The punishment aspect of it comes from the fact that everything you do in the social industry is about cultivating your personal identity, that’s why it’s so insidious. The stances you take on these things define you. You built up your audience that way, you build up your life, all the rest of it, and you don’t deviate from that unless you smash the icon, which is what Mary Beard did. There are good ways to smash icons of course, but she did it totally oblivious to what she was doing, which is exactly what I did, which is exactly what people tend to do. She walked straight into the propellers, and I suppose the lesson I draw from this is that the fascist temptation is not something that you’re spared just because you’re on the left. That mobbishness, that conformism, that in-group solidarity, that sadism, that mental violence – maybe we don’t take mental violence seriously enough, but the CIA takes it seriously. We’re always ambivalent, we’re always torn, we’re always hating the people we love – and you can see this in the way that the very people who lead the idolisation of certain figures are the same who will then turn around and lead the mobs to trash them and cancel them. It reminds me of those people I write about in The Twittering Machine who develop obsessions with celebrities, who start off loving them and wanting to marry them and then they want to kill them, and it turns so quickly. The social industry has given us a greatly accelerated version of that, and in a way a democratised version of that.
I must admit as a counter to the way that Mary Beard’s accidental destroying of her own persona is described in your book in this very harrowing way, I did think of rather more positive examples of people who were considered serious authorities whose reputation has been destroyed through their use of Twitter. Richard Dawkins revealing himself as an absolute idiot outside of his field is one example, though I suppose he used that to carve himself out a new following. But perhaps much more important ones for me would be someone like Alan Sugar or Digby Jones – these people who were treated for years on television or in the media as the serious hard-headed voice of British business, who have on Twitter revealed themselves to be barely literate fuckwits.
Yeah, it might reveal the vacuity of our political or business class, but that doesn’t have to be useful for the left – it can foster a kind of anti-politics that is amenable to the right – if that were happening in Italy it would be a Five Star Movement. So while you’re right, these people are revealing themselves and so on, at the same time – I remember when Eddie Marsan fucked up, he then seemed quite genuinely apologetic, and the leftists who persisted in tormenting him even after he’d backed off and apologised sincerely – to be honest we can do better than that. I don’t think Mary Beard ever understood why what she said was wrong, and in a way I can see the anger, I can see it – if you’re experiencing racism every day, it’s tempting for this person to embody it. It’s never the case of someone who’s innocent, who has done nothing wrong – because who’s that? – it’s almost always the case that this sadism has some sort of virtuous rationalisation. Apart from in that very stylised manner of subcultural trolling, it’s usually because they did something to you. If you look at the Brexit right, their response to Boris Johnson’s speech in Parliament was to say ‘look at the hate on the faces of these Labour MPs’, and in a way yeah, they look like fucking gammon. You can always take your eye off the way that you’re behaving atrociously.
What I’m thinking is also the point you’ve already made about the cluelessness of journalists in the face of Corbynism and so forth, and that slightly smug but often accurate thing that people often say on Left Twitter, that @thicclinbiao69 or whoever knows more about politics and does more perceptive commentary on it than people who are paid large sums of money to do so, a point which has been proven in some ways by Podcasting.
Yeah, it can have that effect. But also one of the things it also does is it reinforces their bubble, and their sense of entitlement. Their economy is done –
We both make our living from writing, isn’t it our economy?
Well no, I mean I was never in the guild with all the people like Nick Cohen, and nowadays I make most of my money from my Patreon, so I’m in neoliberalism 2.0, and they’re still stuck in an outmoded mode of production. But the point is that the bubble effect of the media has gotten even worse – think of those little clubs and cults of journalists on Twitter. If you think about it Twitter is not a mass platform, it’s a marketing platform – how many people use it, a hundred million maybe, most of the traffic is from corporations, PR agencies, celebrities, with writers like us somewhere at the bottom of that ecology – and that’s what most of the churn is, it’s a marketing platform for the creative and media industry and for corporations. That seems to have led to journalists being awful on Twitter and then complaining about how awful people are to them on there – it’s that paranoid subjectivity again.
I want to ask about the call for ‘Luddism’ at the end of the book. I’m always glad to see the Luddites being presented as the quite serious working class political movement that they were rather than people who thought machines were bad. But we can’t really burn the frames in the same way now, at least not unless you’re one of those Californian Left Communists who want us to go and set fire to server farms, which is currently a little beyond our capabilities. So instead we’re faced with questions of ‘do we use it in a different way, do we adapt to it’ and so on – so what would a Luddite politics be now? I mean I have my own personal response, which is why I’m recording this on a laptop rather than on the smartphone I don’t have…
That’s a reasonable response actually. And you’re not the first person I’ve seen showing me an old phone that doesn’t have the internet on it. Those individual responses can be quite useful but we want to think about how we can turn this into a strategy. As always I have no solutions, but I have a strong sense that what I’ve described in The Twittering Machine is a snapshot of a system coming into being. It’s one which we first, when we first became aware of it, thought could be largely progressive and democratising.
The ‘Twitter Revolutions’.
Yeah, and all that came out of the State Department, but it was believed by many of us, and I remember it was assumed that the horizontality of Twitter could translate into a new kind of democracy.
2010 was a hell of a drug.
But also, given what happened to those revolutions. The only one I’ve seen up close, where I’ve known people directly involved, was in Ukraine, where you could see the young social liberals who started it being swamped within weeks by the far-right. When I wrote about Maidan in the Guardian I didn’t say as much about that as I could have done, because lots of the people who were pointing out were…
Yeah, and people like John Pilger were printing absolute falsehoods, fabricated stories about the Odessa massacre that were circulating on Facebook. But at the same time, the Odessa massacre was a massacre. And these online kids were just swamped by fascist networks that had roots going back decades and decades. And similar things obviously happened elsewhere.
I mean, what’s the only successful revolution that started on Twitter was the Islamic State – a mobile theocracy that recruited for its army by gaining a following on Twitter.
The ‘Lulz’ in ISIS were deliberate, as your book points out – ‘Join the Islamic State, Bro’ and so forth.
They knew what they were doing – they offered little games where you could ‘inhabit’ the life of an ISIS fighter and so forth. The temporality of the social industry gears itself towards apocalyptic time, it’s always geared towards some sort of culmination. So yeah, I think there are people on the left that are good at software design, and we need them to be looking at different models. I’ve spoken to people who have told me there are other models of platforms that are less toxic. But OK, we need to think about interventions that allow us to do the things that we currently do, and that means that we can’t hive ourselves off to a purer platform. We need to be involved, but we need to bear in mind that they will run out of steam eventually, which is why there has been so much going into crypto-currencies and all the rest of it. I’m not the sort of person who knows how to design a program, though I think Lizzie O’Shea’s book Future Histories gives us a bit more of a sense of how we could go about this. I think we have a political duty not to use it to vent, not to use it to write, and not to allow it to harness our personal relations, and we also have a duty to save as much of our free time as possible from being captured by capital. I don’t want to take a moralising tone, but it’s similar to the duty to take your life seriously. If you take your life seriously, and take an overview of it, it’s pretty hard to justify the things we allow ourselves to do all the time. It’s not like anyone’s pure, and I’m not in a position to offer anyone salvation, I’m just saying that if you can do something else with those 50,000 hours of your life, and can use it in a professional way…
Or you could go for a walk.
Well there is going for a walk – but you don’t always have to be doing something.