To keep myself occupied whilst I worked last summer, printing t-shirt after t-shirt, I would listen to lectures and podcasts. Before, I had drained Radiohead’s discography, often missing telephone calls and deliveries in the office due to my preference of having the music mind-numbingly loud. I saw the decision to cut out Thom Yorke as an opportunity to try to rinse something intellectual out of a day that demanded nothing but clicking buttons and folding t-shirts for seven hours. Some of the podcasts and people on my list were the Guardian’s long reads, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins (the summer saw a spike in my anti-theistic views—the printing contributed, I think) and as a wild-card, I’d listen to LBC. Out of everything I listened to, though, a video titled, ‘Thinking Aloud with Will Self’ stood out to me the most.
I had been to Glastonbury only a month or two before I stumbled upon this, as described in its description, ‘stream of consciousness’ with Mr. Self. It was my first time; my girlfriend and I had got into the festival through charity work. There was a lot to love about Glastonbury. As someone who isn’t drawn into mass-crowds and flamboyant festivities, my reclusive side was given a run for its money. It was very hot when we arrived, two days before the festival began. The only people that kept their clothes on were the festival staff. In the evening, sitting in front of the sign that looks over the Park and the entire farm, I watched the people working on the bars carry the bags of ice and alcohol across the grass that was more like straw. The heat subsided as the punters arrived, but subsequently replaced the intensity of the sun with their own presence.
I knew beforehand that Glastonbury was a left-leaning festival with strong activism towards climate change and so forth, but the hubris of Corbynism caught me off guard. I had voted for Labour in May and was in a post-election mood of moderate exhaustion and anxiety—the latter sporadically posing the question: Well, what now? At first, I thought I was just being contrarian, not enjoying the political undertones lurking around the festival. But I soon realised, as I stood amongst the huge crowd Jeremy Corbyn attracted on the Saturday on the Pyramid Stage, that it was the cult Corbyn seemed to have created that concerned me. The unhinging fandom he had developed was both brilliant and worrying. For a supporter of Corbyn, the populist figure he seemed to have become was encouraging. But in the same way Trump created a cult of followers, albeit in a far more toxic fashion, I was worried that people were losing sight of the real politics and instead were forming an allegiance to their new divine leader. As the Horseshoe theory suggests: we’re closer to our enemies than we like to think!
The fist-pumping crowds were making me self-conscious of losing my critical eye, losing the ability to have rational, non-fixed views rather than ones indoctrinated at a festival. The political racket in the background made me unsettled because, in the midst of an ethereal, long weekend, cut off from the burden of the world outside, I wasn’t sure how many people were interested in socialism, and how many were just interested in Corbyn. The trivial, pop-culture nature of the chanting, the weird bloke coming up to me at half-four in the morning, shoving his friend in front of me, telling me “this guy voted Tory!”, the eager faces in the crowd waiting for their divine leader to come out on stage on the Saturday afternoon—all of it made me uneasy. How much of this was real and how much of this was just one huge circlejerk conducted over the course of a great weekend? I also glumly acknowledged (I’m a sorry state, even at Glastonbury) that it would require more than a few socialist anthems to continue this level of intrigue and support beyond the fences of Worthy Farm. I hadn’t lost my support of Corbyn, it was actually a certain dread in the face of political hubris. It was a reminder to stay curious and critical, especially during a time where political opinion seemed to be becoming evermore dogmatic.
So where does Will Self enter the frame? When I think of that weekend in Somerset, I can’t help but preempt the same observations Will Self makes: politics will let you down. On top of his paralysing articulation and honest, sometimes self-deprecating observations, Self taps into an anxiety I’m perhaps having too early; the false, political identities we shape for ourselves and the dead-ends of political activism. By not enquiring, debating, scrutinising, listening to the other side without demonising them (this isn’t to say the Right are aren’t demonising the Left on a 24-hour basis), we create political identities that set ourselves up for disillusion. One of my main apprehensions towards the Cult of Corbyn at Glastonbury was the presumption people were blindly rooting for a socialist politician without fully grasping on the reality of his policies, or at least, the context of the political situation we find ourselves in. It felt like he had become a brand. I kept telling myself, in light of such a wide engagement amongst people my age: ‘I should be happy.’ But I couldn’t help but consider how many were there for the long haul, and how many were jumping off when they got to 26 years old. Were they the socialists they claimed to be?
Self proposes the idea that us Proud Socialists, are in fact, not socialists. Self, on the topic of champagne-socialism, quite bluntly states, “if you are saying to people it is possible in human nature to accommodate that degree of altruism in its social forms—when you really are prepared to be part of a collective—then you should be prepared to be on the median income or below, now. Because you’re the guy that’s pushing that idea.” Self claims it was fifteen years ago, after receiving a surge in income from career successes when he realised he was “no longer a socialist.” He goes on to say, “I really wanted it—the money. I didn’t want to give it away” and gives an example of human rights activist Peter Tatchell as someone he “admires” for his “steely honesty” in his approach, but still doesn’t call him a socialist. Self’s over-exaggeration of not wanting to “give [his money] away” to the greedy State coming after him and his tightly-knit definitions of what being a socialist must entail makes me wonder whether he’s mourning the loss of his own political identity. I imagine he got up one morning, made a cup of Earl Grey, sat down to read the Guardian, but broke down in tears and went and bought a Land Rover instead. While I believe keeping critical and reflective is important, I think the political secularism this suggsts, if followed, will leave many people lost and without political identity. Which would be fine if we were all realtively well-off and wrote poetry in our spare time, or if the current climate for young people wasn’t a vulnerable one.
Despite acknowledging that many punters I saw at Glastonbury in support of Corbyn will most likely spend money at the corporations he’s fighting against once they’re home and running a bath, and despite many will probably move into careers that contradict socialist ideals, I have beef with Self’s dismantling of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ socialism. It seems he is playing with semantics and conflating the dangers lack of enquiry within a political hubris creates and his own failure as a true ‘socialist’. To declare my political identity invalid because I do not see the logic in readapting my entire lifestyle is philosophising a largely political problem. The fact that Self mentions that his view on so-called socialists is not one he “likes to share,” is telling, as he too knows that by approaching political concepts in their truest and most idealistic form is just a convoluted form of negativity. Critiques of socialist ideals and extreme embodiments such as the Soviet Union and Venezuela (who were barely socialist to begin with) seem to have become an Achilles heel for the Left. I seem to lose Self completely upon his criticism of the tendency of the Left to claim that “nothing would have improved without socialist ideology.” It seems like a vacant statement to me—societal improvements are not exclusive to any ideology. We all know that.
Self isn’t one of these people that ragingly smear socialism, but the socialism he criticises seems to be an inflated one to what many young people hope for today. It’s easy to resonate with Self when he recognises that very few people are actually Socialists, in that they pay their desired higher income tax and refuse to eat at tax-dodging corporations because I think it’s an obvious and quite frankly pedantic argument to follow. I don’t think the people at Glastonbury singing Corbyn’s name ever claimed to be that. It’s also worldly unrealistic, especially of a rational man such as Self, to think that it’s a feasible lifestyle to be a True-Blooded Socialist within a largely capitalist society. Capitalism leaves the rogues behind who rebel against it. In his final post, the late Max Edwards, otherwise known as the Anonymous Revolutionary, touches on this obstacle, writing about his experience flying on a private jet, and how it may have seemed problematic in light of his views. I strongly recommend reading his ideas. The zeal and profundity of his observations really are inspiring. When I was 15 and 16, I was crying, watching Arsenal lose (thankfully, I only do the latter now… small steps.) Due to the obstacles of defining what our political beliefs are, I think socialism as a concept, or at least being a ‘socialist’ today either needs clarification or has gathered new meaning entirely.
In the video, Self comes across as quietly bitter about wasting so much of his precious life on a political movement that was always undermined by the mainstream media and was always outside the Overton window. Similarly to his generation, Self comes from an angle whereby he is tired of the constant dead-ends in political activism. This pessimism seems to transpire into a mockery of socialism, as if Self is opening an old wound. He indifferently proposes an age of “stoicism” for young people and targets the delusion of a socialist utopia, quipping “everyone can have a flat screen telly” rather than tackling the more modest, Nordic-style government Corbyn is aiming for. He also, in regards to being a socialist, almost on a whim, says, “it’s one or the other.” OK, what is the other? Does this mean we have to redefine ourselves? Do I now say at house parties that I’m some sort of postmodernist socialist? I get enough heads turning the other way when I just mention the socialist part. For Self to leave one with the choice between Socialism and something undefined as ‘the other’ is to, in theory, put into question any label we give to people. Are you really gay? Are you actually a Democrat? I admire idealogues’ commitment, but I do not believe your actions trump your beliefs. We are set up to be counterintuitive to our beliefs, especially, as aforementioned, within a capitalist framework. Idealogues are those immune to this.
My parents in the buildup to the election, almost with an element of privileged nostalgia, compared Corbyn to Michael Foot, failing to realise that Corbyn has now received a far greater supporter base, produced a popular manifesto and is leading the Labour Party during a time where the political consensus has been shaken, as Theresa May herself conceded to in the past month. What both Self and my parent’s generation seem to forget sometimes is despite everything, politics is not static. Although the disintegration of the unions, the disillusion caused by Blair, the ever-growing partisan press, and the lack of reaction to 2008 spanning thirty years can create pessimism, it shouldn’t be expressed in a way that basically tells our generation to walk away from it all and live a life of tending the garden (even though we won’t have gardens), donating to Dogs Trust, and sending shoeboxes of toys to a Third World country at Christmas. I do enjoy a bit of Livia Soprano-style cynicism, but the last general election has given us food for thought. Forget the past political misgivings: turns out alternatives are there, and are able to be fought for.
The reason I was engaged with Self’s observations was because they casted a sobering light on the reality of political activism that was pervasive at Glastonbury, and in many sense, all around me at university. Unfortunately, it is easier to destroy than it is to create, so the epistemic doubts Self reinforced towards the reality of the Corbyn-supporting punters were, and still are, only human. But with that said, to disparage those that truly believe in the socialist ideals—even if it is wearing a Corbyn t-shirt and voting in their by and general elections—on the basis that they don’t readjust their lives to fit them is misplaced anger from Self. The whole basis of socialism is the collective, so Self’s argument seems to stem from a broader cynicism and anger towards the human behaviour—not within a political system.
Self clearly doesn’t come from a bad place. When you listen to him talk, his apprehensions are evidently rooted from his intuition of the human behaviour and knowledge that we’ll never truly get what we want as a society, and equally what we want ourselves. A lot of me wants to agree with him. Towards the end of the video, Self cuts out of the interview and remarks, “I’m sorry, you know, I love you Lewis [interviewer], but we’re a bit fucked. You know that right?” I still love Will Self; he’s a brilliant thinker, funny, refreshingly honest and I really think he’s right when he claims we’re a bit fucked. But this apprehension comes from a position of now, relative privilege, like so many of his generation. Although he isn’t championing it on Question Time and where-have-you, I still think even the suggestion that young people should disconnect from political activism, and instead lead stoical, quasi-political lives seems rash and a statement perhaps a younger Self would clamp down on himself. It suggests that Self is more concerned about the metaphysical ramifications involving yourself in politics in a horrible world, especially alongside a selfless cause.
When the video was published, back in February of this year, Self moaned that Corbyn was sending Labour down a bleak spiral of failure. I wonder what he makes of our current situation today.
For those interested in the video, you can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fk8kIEND10c&t=30s&list=PLasWrv9mxIFUBvQG3CPa1LbSpSfD2LAOq&index=196
Self really is enjoyable to listen to, though his tone is a bit monotonous sometimes.