Darkened figures descend into the Chicago subway. Photograph: Clarissa Bonet
Show Hide image

Ruins of people’s lives

The shadowy subculture of gang stalking.

In 1919, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published his famous paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia”, in which he wrote about patients who believed they were under the control of malign technology beyond their understanding. Sometimes, they claimed, this technology would cause “erections and seminal emissions that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him”. In typical Viennese fashion, Tausk concluded that “the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world . . . a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to the foreign will”.

Right away, we might be reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Tyrone Slothrop may or may not have been secretly conditioned to get an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to strike London. Yet to find more patients for Tausk, we don’t need to look to fiction. “At first I believed they could only terminate my erection, but recently I also started believing that they could create my erection,” writes the author of a recent blog about electromagnetic persecution by the government. “Often I am given erections in co-ordination with the brain butchery, and occasionally voided of semen,” writes another in the same field.      

Both these bloggers are part of an online community centred on a phenomenon called gang stalking. Gang stalking, according to one website:

. . is a covert investigation that is opened on an individual. The individual is then placed under overt and covert forms of surveillance. The person is followed around 24/7. Foot patrols and vehicle patrols are used to follow the individual around, as part of the monitoring process . . . The secondary goals seem to be to make the target homeless, jobless, give them a breakdown, and the primary goal seems to be to drive the target to forced suicide.

Gang stalking has been linked with, but doesn’t necessarily involve, remote mind control. No one has ever come forward as a perpetrator. But large numbers of people have come forward as victims.

Before the internet, if you had developed the belief that you’d been targeted in this way, you would have been isolated. Anyone hearing your story – whether a friend or a relation, or a doctor such as Tausk – would have tried to persuade you that you were suffering from paranoid delusions. But today you would find confirmation of your suspicions on dozens of websites, blogs and message boards. “When you read the methods used by gang stalkers to harass their victims,” writes one blogger, “it is helpful to know that the stories told by victims worldwide are remarkably consistent.”

You would also find information on developments similar to gang stalking that have been documented in the respectable media, such as a declassified Pentagon report on the “Bioeffects of selected non-lethal weapons” or Ealing Council signing up eight-year-olds as “Junior Streetwatchers”. You could even make some friends. In other words, you’d be part of a community – and, as the British psychiatrist Vaughan Bell points out in his paper “‘Mind control’ experiences on the internet”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stipulates that a belief cannot be classed as a delusion if it is “accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”.

Reading about gang stalking online can be dispiriting, because one has the sense that someone such as Tausk really ought to be intervening. But I confess I also find it addictive. For instance, consider one blogger who believes even birds and animals are his enemies:

Birds, pigeons and crows, that can be controlled to fly (screaming) over me, to land in my garden when I walk into my kitchen and look outside, to crash into my kitchen window and car front window while driving. Birds, pigeons, that come sit, walk, on the roof of my house when I am upstairs having sex. Cats walking by like being programmed. Barking of dogs, flying away ducks etc, not by mind control but by beaming these animals with laser beams (directed energy weapons).

An entire menagerie of animal spies – if that isn’t in Pynchon, it should be. One might also recall Kafka or Don DeLillo, not to mention Mark Lombardi, the American artist whose work consisted of diagrams of various conspiracies involving the Vatican or the World Finance Corporation.

On another website, I found a collection of photographs of household objects – folding chairs, velcro straps, long underwear – that their owner believes to have been damaged during secret incursions into his home. The pictures have such eerie power that you could easily imagine them on a gallery wall next to a William Eggleston or a Laura Letin - sky. Elsewhere, the idea of harassment through the “everyday stimuli” of “red, white, yellow, strips, pens clicking, key jangling, loud coughing, loud whistling, loud smacking of clapping of hands together, cell phones, laptops, etc” evokes Sartre’s metaphysical nausea.

Still other online writers veer towards the psychedelic visions of Philip K Dick, proposing that the gang stalkers are really “lower astral entities, some aliens/non-humans, and Neg entities in general [who] are known to feed on the energies created by lower frequency emotions, since that’s what they resonate with, farming us for them in the same way we farm animals for their meat, milk, eggs and parts”, or, alternatively, normal humans wearing “frequency suits”, which “are invisible to the naked eye, but they seem to transport either your etheric layer, or another such layer from place to place”.

This is dangerous territory, however. Yes, there are precedents for appreciating the special energies we find in work by people who deviate from the psychological norm, going back to Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). After reading it, the painter Paul Klee wrote: “In our own time, worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them” – a remark the open-mindedness of which is not quite enough to outweigh its condescension. At Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital there are whole museums devoted to such art.

None of the people describing their gang stalking experiences on the internet think of themselves as making art, however. They are serious. They want their writing and photography to be taken seriously. In most cases it is harmless to aestheticise modes of expression that are not deliberately aesthetic, otherwise there could be no such thing as Pieces of Intelligence: the Existential Poetry of Donald H Rumsfeld. (And there are grey areas: although Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, one of the cornerstones of the very idea of outsider art, was certainly intended as a creative work, there is no reason to think it was ever intended for public consumption.)

But human misery is different. A comparison here might be what’s sometimes called “ruin porn”. I can spend hours looking at beautiful photographs of derelict houses in Detroit or condemned council estates in London, but at the back of my mind I feel guilty about it, because I’m aware that these aren’t just evocative scenery, they’re also places where people less fortunate than me actually had to sleep every night. Gang stalking websites, similarly, are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills. I feel the same way about a lot of amateur YouTube videos that go viral: some of those “zany characters” wouldn’t be behaving like that on camera if the US had a functional mental health-care system. This is what the philosopher Mark Reinhardt, in his essay on the idea of “beautiful suffering”, calls “a kind of morally obtuse obscuring or exploitation of pain”.

Gang stalking is more resonant than these other examples, because here we find ourselves counterpoising two different methods of making sense of the inferno in which we all live. To compare notes on gang stalking with like-minded strangers on the internet is to take part in an investigation, almost a forensic science, a project to expose what Pynchon calls “other orders below the visible”, instead of merely sitting in your house with the blinds closed because you’re worried that everyone is out to get you. And to appreciate the artefacts of this subculture on an aesthetic level is not only to look sidelong at despair: it is also to play on sensibilities that were first sharpened in us by the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Dick and so on: writers who were themselves trying to confront a world so large, so secretive, so random, so pitiless that not much human feeling can survive in it.

These two postures differ in the important respect that one comes from a state of abjection and the other from one of literary privilege. All the same, they are both ways of coming to terms with life. I would like to say that in future I’ll spend less time on gang stalking websites, but my own work is so derivative of the aforementioned authors in its preoccupation with conspiracies that I will inevitably find myself going back to these sources to forage for inspiration. Then I will launder them in my work like dirty money. Perhaps the challenge, then, is to prove that an aesthetic attitude and an empathetic one need not be mutually exclusive – that even if I’m planning a novel about remote-control spy-ducks, I can forage and feel at the same time.

Ned Beauman’s latest novel is “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain