You Have Only Your Silence to Lose
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay is about twhy the left must learn to write. It was first published June 5 2020.
Thanks to the technologies of modern capitalism, shaped by profit seeking, many forms of self-expression once considered essentially human (dance, song, acting) have been professionalised. Where such activities are still encouraged, it is often uniquely in childhood. And how often do we look to children dancing or singing or playing and comment that they could be a dancer, a singer, an actor, rather than merely acknowledging that these activities are inherent to humanity.
One form of self-communication, however, has been radically democratised throughout modernity. Writing. Literacy goes as far back as 8000 BCE, and thereafter the story of literacy is anything but a consistent one; in Ancient Rome, for example, literacy rates were probably much higher than historical stereotypes assume, and an ability to read and write often crucial for navigating imperial society, but the post-antiquity period would have seen a huge drop off in the capacity to engage with written language.
What is certain, however, is that the literate in premodern times never came close to exceeding half a society’s population. What an extraordinarily different world we live in today, when the ability to read and write in one’s native language is considered the sine qua non of even the most rudimentary education. Although the full picture encompasses enormous regional inequalities (as well as further inequalities according to factors such as class and gender, rooted in access to education) mass literacy is one of modernity’s many great marvels.
And read and write we do! After the computing revolution, and with the rise of social media, we probably engage with this form of communication more than ever and in unprecedented ways. In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour writes that we are now ‘abruptly, scripturient — possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.’ We write microblogs, texts, emails. John Sutherland writes of the literary inundation of contemporary times, in which so many produce books at such an alarming rate that the combined output of a short period, say a year, challenges comprehension.
And yet, capitalist modernity often has two characters. Where it unlocks astonishing productive forces, it creates mass exploitation; where it dissolves old prejudices, it ferments profound social alienation. With writing, too, there is a professional tier. And although new printing on demand technologies has created space for small and self publishing to challenge the hegemony of the celebrity writer, the pull of a relative mediocrity such as J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown remains as profound as it is unmerited. I have written in the past about how I welcome the democratisation of fiction writing, the overcoming of what I sometimes refer to as the aristocracy of authors.
What this aristocracy often means is that many who would love to write a novel, believe it is impossible for them. Or, equally as bad, that to write a novel they have to do it in the manner of a professional, with the commercial aspirations of a professional. With the rise of online writing communities, such as that which has formed around NaNoWriMo (a project I adore, while acknowledging its limits), many more people are nonetheless telling their stories than ever before. This takes place against the backdrop of a society of commercialised storytelling, a drag on the collective imagination, but that it takes place is a cause for hope and a vision of the kind of artistic society that could exist — universalised — beyond the stultifying bounds of capitalism.
But against this backdrop, the left is dragging far behind. I read a lot of socialist literature (broadly understood) and of varying quality, but amongst comrades very few of us take up the pen to theorise. Many who are used to posting on Facebook or Twitter feel terrified of writing longform content, of wrestling with their ideas on the page. Groups of cadre will often have just a small number, a fraction of the overall membership, who produce the vast majority of its written content. In left book groups I will often be alone in writing down my thoughts on the reading material.
The spectre of the professional theorist haunts the left. People with every capacity to write, with great experiences and insights and novel thinking on old problems, shy from exposing themselves. Much as most adults won’t dance, sing or act in public, too many comrades won’t write — at least, beyond the prescribed character limits of a tweet. These vital voices are being silenced not by inability or even insufficient time, but a culturally entrenched embarrassment as well as alternative, shallower avenues of written self-expression on web 2.0.
When I describe a lack of confidence amongst comrades, I am not belittling the problem. Confidence is learnt like anything else. The children of Britain’s public schools who go on to become opinion columnists will experience not an instant of hesitation before spewing the most hackneyed and sickly opinions, as dim-witted as erroneous, knowing that they will be immediately congratulated by the peers of their class. But there is no reason we cannot imbue one another with the same confidence, the same will to articulate though the written word.
Writing has many unique qualities. It is not just a way of channelling preexisting thoughts from one mind to many, but a medium by which to think, to organise, structure, hone and test thought. We need nothing less than a NaNoWriMo of the left, a culture within socialist groups that takes those inexperienced with writing and tells them, to quote Samuel Beckett, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ A culture that offers workshopping, editing and platforms for emerging voices. That does not seize pedantically on errors, but encourages growth through practice.
If all of these socialists groups are taking on already scripturient comrades, that ought to be utilised as much as possible. Reading and writing should be at the heart of a healthy and robust left, but not just in the form of a single leader transmitting a single set of thoughts to obedient followers, but in the sense of elevating every one of us into a theorist in our own right, someone who can add their own theoretical contributions to the great traditions of the left.
Socialism needs to become a movement of theorists, always ready to write!
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