The SWP's broad embrace of popular, left-wing causes masks a puritanically Marxist socialist agenda. Photo: Julian Makey/Rex Features
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Comrades at war: the decline and fall of the Socialist Workers Party

How a rape accusation has destroyed the Socialist Workers Party – whose members have included Christopher Hitchens and Paul Foot – and provoked a crisis on the far left.

The supporters of the Socialist Workers Party who gathered in Trafalgar Square on a bright sunny day at the end of March could not agree how to define the relationship between their organisation and the rally taking place around them. One seller of the weekly Socialist Worker, who was down from Sheffield for the day, told me that Unite Against Fascism was a “front” for the SWP, but the man working on the stall selling party literature was more cautious: “It’s not an SWP event,” he said. “We’re part of it. But it’s bigger than us.”

That was certainly true: UAF is an orga­nisation with many supporters, including many trade unions, and the demonstrators who had assembled at the statue of Nelson Mandela outside the Houses of Parliament had marched to Trafalgar Square beneath a wide array of banners. There were Socialist Worker placards saying “No to racism: blame Tories and bosses not migrants” but there were also banners of local branches of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Labour Party. “Hugs not Thugs”, said one, and another, “Save Your Hate for the Daily Mail”. The speakers on the stage set up between the fountains in Trafalgar Square reflected the make-up of the crowd: Wayman Bennett, the joint secretary of UAF and a prominent figure in the SWP, was followed by Diane Abbott and Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT.

The speakers were interspersed with bands, evoking memories of UAF’s predecessor the Anti-Nazi League, and the great days of Rock Against Racism in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The SWP has always sought to “punch above its weight”, as the saying goes, by attempting to co-ordinate a broad constituency in support of a cause. But at the moment it has a particular interest in surrounding itself with respectable figures, and in directing attention towards its anti-fascist campaigns, because it is seeking to repair the damage caused by a scandal that has played out over the past 18 months.

In 2010, one of its leading members, who has always been referred to as “Comrade Delta”, was accused of sexually assaulting a young female “comrade”, and the party’s attempt to deal with the matter via a “disputes committee” composed largely of his colleagues has provoked anger and derision. Three further allegations of rape prompted claims that sexual abuse was “endemic” within the organisation.

Yet it was the suggestion that the leadership had protected one of its own, and persuaded hundreds of members to collude in a cover-up, that convinced many people it was irredeemably corrupt.

In March, the University of London Union, which used to let rooms to the SWP for its annual conference on Marxism, changed its constitution to allow its officers to ban the party from the premises and accused it of being a “rape-apologist organisation which prides itself in creating an unsafe space for young women”. The attacks are not only verbal: recently, SWP stalls have been overturned at student demonstrations, and its activists harassed and abused.

The man working on the stall at Trafalgar Square articulated the defiant view that the leadership has taken throughout the affair: “We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “If anyone thinks we are, they’re crazy.”

Yet such loyalty is increasingly rare: hundreds of former members have left the party, many with scornful parting words for their former comrades. “If I had died last year I should have died happy to have been a party member,” wrote a long-standing member, Ian Birchall, in his resignation letter. “Unfortunately, the events of the last year have changed everything.” Birchall’s remark that he had never seen a “crisis remotely comparable to the one we are now going through” carries some weight. He had been a member for 50 years and wrote a biography of Tony Cliff, the revered Trotskyist activist who set it up.

Cliff was born Ygael Gluckstein in Palestine in 1917. He was the son of a Zionist building contractor, although Paul Foot – the campaigning journalist and long-standing SWP member – said he was “speedily converted out of Zionism by observing the treatment of Arab children”. In 1947 he came to Britain, where he changed his name, and established the Socialist Review Group, which became the International Socialists (IS) in the early 1960s and then the SWP in 1977. It defines itself as “a voluntary organisation of individuals who understand the need to organise collectively to fight for the socialist transformation of society”.

The transformation required is absolute, “for the present system cannot be patched up”, and it will be achieved only “through the self-activity and self-emancipation of the working class”. Tony Cliff said that “the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class” and the concept is often expressed by the slogan “Socialism from below”. Christopher Hitchens, who was an early member of IS, said that the result of a “revolution from below” would be that “those who worked and struggled and produced would be the ruling class”.

Hitchens went on to become features editor of Socialist Worker, the party’s newspaper, and book reviews editor of International Socialism, its theoretical journal, but when he was a student at Oxford in 1967, his local branch of IS had no more than a dozen members. “For a long time, these groups remained tiny,” Foot wrote, after Cliff’s death in 2000. Yet the SWP became the dominant force on the far left in the late 1980s, in the lead-up to the dissolution in 1991 of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

The end of the cold war had strengthened the SWP. It seemed to bear out Cliff’s view that the Soviet Union had never been a socialist society, but a “state capitalist” one, which “people on the left had no reason to defend”, as David Renton, another member who left this year, said to me. “Cliff toured the country, addressing rallies, saying I was right,” he recalled when I met him at his house on an estate near the Caledonian Road in north London.

Renton is an Old Etonian and the nephew of a former Tory chief whip. By the time he joined the SWP in 1991, he had become used to living in “a perpetual civil war” with his family and contemporaries at school, his resignation letter said. He had been involved in other organisations on the far left, but he was drawn to the SWP because he felt it was playing a positive role in the upheavals of the time, and because of its approach to revolutionary politics. “They were serious about the project, and the years it would take, while not making the compromises with capitalism that would mean giving up before you started,” he told me.

David Renton said that the SWP believed it was the natural home for people to the left of Labour but it became apparent during the 1990s that there was a “size threshold” it couldn’t pass. “The history of the SWP in the next 20 years is watching a series of attempts to take this image of themselves as a mass political party and give it legs,” he said.

Richard Seymour – the author of a critical account of Hitchens’s journey from revolutionary socialist to advocate of the war on terror – joined the party in 1998. “The situation politically wasn’t offering much hope,” he told me, “but people had lots of anecdotes about past experiences. They were saying we were nearing the beginning of a mass movement, and when the anti-capitalist movement kicked off around ’99, and the anti-war movement after 9/11, we had a sense that they were probably correct.”

The attempt to set up an organisation to exploit the anti-globalisation campaigns failed, but the party had more success with Stop the War, which was launched after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and reached its apogee at the mass rally in London to demonstrate against the impending invasion of Iraq. Few of the people who went on the march on 15 February 2003, myself included, would have known it was organised by the SWP, and even fewer joined the party as a result. But the scale of the protest offered a glimpse of the influence to which the SWP aspired.

It attempted to capitalise on its success by forming an alliance with the Respect Party, whose public face was the MP George Galloway. Galloway won the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow in London for Respect in 2005 and later became MP for Bradford West, but the alliance with the SWP collapsed in 2008. Respect’s national chair at the time, Linda Smith, blamed the SWP’s “sectarianism” and “control-freak methods”, while the SWP said Galloway and his allies were moving to the right.

The SWP had gained nothing from the venture, the journalist Paul Anderson writes, except a “few recruits . . . and a lot of ridicule for cosying up to barmy reactionary Islamists”. One of its periodic bouts of infighting ensued: John Rees and Lindsey German – “the two leading figures most responsible for the Islamist turn”, in Anderson’s phrase – were expelled, and a new national secretary, who would come to be known to the wider public as Comrade Delta, was appointed.

 

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The first complaint against Comrade Delta was made in 2010. A woman who was referred to as “Comrade W” accused him of sexually harassing her, and he stepped down as national secretary while remaining part of the party’s leadership: its central committee, or CC. The party was told about the allegations at its conference in 2011.

Alex Callinicos – professor of European studies at King’s College London and grandson of Richard Lyon-Dalberg-Acton, the 2nd Baron Acton – introduced the session at which they were discussed. As the SWP’s international secretary and the editor of International Socialism, Callinicos is the party’s chief theorist, but according to Richard Seymour he was also its “main pugilist” throughout the Delta affair. His speech has been described as “a euphemistic triumph”. “At no point did Callinicos talk of sexual harassment or sexual assault,” a former member wrote. “He made it sound like there had been a lover’s tiff,” David Renton says. “He gave the impression it was a relatively minor row, and said we have dealt with it because we have slightly demoted this figure.”

Comrade Delta spoke next: he told the delegates that if they “knew the very worst he was accused of, they would gasp at how empty the story was”. Other leading figures spoke on his behalf, and Renton says the delegates responded “to every signal that the misconduct was of the mildest character possible by chanting, ‘The workers united will never be defeated,’ and gave [Delta] a standing ovation.”

Rosie Warren, a student at Sheffield University who joined the party during the student occupations of 2010, said it was a very uncomfortable event: those who were not applauding were either as confused as she was, or “some combination of disgusted and appalled”.

Charlie Kimber, the party’s new national secretary, maintains that the standing ovation was provoked, not by the dismissal of the allegations of sexual harassment, but by another attack on Delta. “I very much regret the two became intertwined,” he told me.

The assurances that the affair was “a bit of a misunderstanding” and that “both Delta and the female comrade wished to put it all behind them” soon proved false. Comrade W was not satisfied with the result of the original complaint; in fact, she came to the conclusion that she had understated her case. She left the SWP in the autumn of 2010 because she felt she could not remain a member while Delta was on the central committee, but she rejoined a year later and in September 2012 she accused him of rape.

Even then, many people in the party still “didn’t want to hear it”, Richard Seymour says. There were pragmatic reasons for that. Despite a subscription-paying membership of no more than 2,000, the SWP employs 50 or 60 people full-time at its headquarters in Vauxhall, south London – and the national secretary decides who gets the jobs. What’s more, many people liked Comrade Delta and his strategy for the party. “He said we don’t need big united fronts and all the rest of it: the workers and the trade unions are going to start fighting back against austerity, and we have to help that struggle along,” Seymour recalls. “A large chunk of the party had great sympathy with this.”

The younger members were not so easily placated. The generational divide had personal and political dimensions: David Renton told me that “almost all the young full-timers took against Delta” because they didn’t like him.

Others found themselves at odds with the party’s old-fashioned attitude to feminism, which it associated with “a separatism that doesn’t really persist, particularly on campuses”, Rosie Warren says. “The feminism we’d come across was focused largely on harassment and assault, and getting angry at victim-blaming narratives,” she says. “So the knee-jerk reaction we saw in the party when everything came out was completely alien to us.”

 

Soldier of some revolution from below: Christopher Hitchens’s first job was at Socialist Worker. Photo: Muir Vidler for the New Statesman, 2010

 

The party’s decision to investigate the allegation internally, through its disputes committee, rather than referring it to the police, is the most remarkable aspect of the affair: it has astonished people outside the SWP, and some within it, too. “What right does the party have to organise its very own ‘kangaroo court’ investigation and judgment over such serious allegations against a leading member?” wrote the former Socialist Worker journalist Tom Walker in his resignation letter. “None whatsoever.”

David Renton, who is also a barrister and has dealt with cases of rape and sexual harassment, believes that it didn’t occur to the disputes committee to suggest that the woman should go to the police – as one of its members later said, the committee had “no faith in the bourgeois court system to deliver justice”.

Comrade W’s reasons for not reporting the case to the police are less clear, but Renton suggests she may have had two concerns: as well as the understandable fear that the police would treat her case insensitively, she may have believed that their priority would be to secure a conviction against the leader of a revolutionary party – an attitude, he adds, that stems from an overestimation of the SWP’s significance. “People on the left often do this,” Renton says, citing Julian Assange’s belief that the rape charges against him must be politically motivated because he is “the world’s number-one bad guy”. In other words, she may have been trying to protect the organisation from what she saw as a “predatory man” who should not be in a leadership position, and from state scrutiny.

Regardless of what her motives were, Comrade W was “doubly betrayed”, says another former member called Linda Rodgers. She came to the SWP because she trusted it, and it should have told her it wasn’t competent to investigate. “Would the DC [disputes committee] have investigated a murder?” Rodgers wrote. “I would guess not, but then what does that say about the level of seriousness with which the CC and DC treat rape?”

Kimber maintains that because the complainant did not want to go to the police, they had no choice but to investigate themselves. Yet the decision left the disputes committee “hopelessly out of its depth”, David Renton says. None of its members had relevant experience, nor did they not seek advice from party members who were lawyers. “I’m gobsmacked that no one ever said
to the SWP, ‘Look, if you take statements, you’re collecting criminal evidence.’

Published accounts of the hearing, which was held over two days in October 2012, exposed even more egregious flaws: Comrade Delta was supplied with details of the complainant’s case weeks in advance but she was not allowed to see his evidence beforehand, and the committee members – who included colleagues of Delta’s, old and new – asked her questions about her drinking habits and sexual past. Comrade W left the room in tears, saying that they thought she was a “slut who asked for it”.

 

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By the time the disputes committee presented its report to the SWP’s annual national conference at Hammersmith Town Hall on 4-6 January 2013, the revolt against the party’s handling of the case had begun: four members, who became known as the Facebook Four, had been expelled for discussing the case on social media and two dissenting factions had emerged, each with the support of 50 or 60 members. “The party was split in two,” Rosie Warren says. “My organiser was desperately trying to get each half of our district just to sit together.”

The DC told the conference that it had reached a unanimous verdict: Comrade Delta had not raped Comrade W. It also found that he was not guilty of being “sexually abusive or harassing”, though not unanimously: the chair of the committee said he had decided “that while sexual harassment was still not proven, it was likely that it had occurred”. He also felt that Delta’s conduct “fell short” of what “one should expect of a CC member”.

The complainant was not allowed to speak, though she had wanted to, but other people spoke on her behalf: one asked the conference to reject the report because of the “serious failings in the way the hearing was conducted” and another said that W felt “completely betrayed” by the way she had been treated since the hearing. The conference was also told that a second complaint of sexual harassment had been made against Delta which the committee had not investigated. “It was all beyond belief,” Rosie Warren says. “I wasn’t the only one who cried after that session, from fury as well as despair.”

The delegates were given no good reason to approve the report, beyond that the people on the panel were long-standing members with good reputations. “I couldn’t believe those voting in favour of the report had been sat in the same room as me,” Warren says. “I couldn’t believe they were people I had respected, taken leadership from – I couldn’t believe that we were even in the same organisation. I couldn’t believe the injustice.”

The motion passed by the narrowest of margins – 231 for and 209 against, with 18 abstentions. Yet the leadership did not treat the result as a warning, or a cause for reflection: critics say it was still not too late to moderate its approach, but instead it imposed its authority by insisting that Comrade Delta had been vindicated and that anyone who did not accept the vote should leave the party.

News of the disputed report soon spread: a transcript of the debate on the DC’s report appeared on the Socialist Unity website on 7 January and people started asking what was happening. Three days later, Tom Walker resigned from the SWP and from his job on Socialist Worker, saying he did not believe that “anyone sensible” would ever join the party again.

“That was the beginning,” Richard Seymour says. Soon, the “bourgeois media” picked up the story: Laurie Penny wrote an article for the New Statesman website and the Daily Mail joined in.

Pressure came from outside the organisation, as well as within: union organisers wrote an open letter asking the CC to reconsider its approach to the case, and journalists and academics, including Ilan Pappé and Owen Jones, said they would not speak at events organised by the SWP. Linda Rodgers called on all the members of both the CC and the DC to resign, and China Miéville, the science-fiction and fantasy writer who stood for parliament in 2001 for the Socialist Alliance, the SWP’s electoral coalition, declared that “the fight for the soul of the SWP is now on”.

 

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The argument was partly about the nature of the SWP’s internal processes. It operates what it calls “democratic centralism”, which means that policies are debated during the three months running up to conference, and voted on at conference. Once ratified, all members are required to support them. In effect, argument is silenced for nine months of the year, and even the conference debates are severely curtailed. According to Rosie Warren, a member of the central committee would introduce each session with an overarching description of the year’s events, after which lowlier members would report successes in individual workplaces or campaigns. At the next session, delegates would be handed a summary of the discussion and invited to agree with it by vote. “It always struck me as really bizarre because there was nothing to vote on,” she says. “It was just a description of the session.” It is hardly surprising that many members saw the Comrade Delta case as not only disturbing in itself, but illustrative of a “deep democratic deficit” within the party.

Its broader culture was also called into question. “When you treat human beings as disposable objects in the name of la causa, when appropriation of activists’ labour and good will is the norm, when exploitation of your own side goes unchallenged, sexual abuse is one probable outcome,” wrote Anna Chen, who worked unpaid on various SWP press campaigns, including Stop the War. She believed the SWP’s habit of “ripping off their activists for wages, thieving their intellectual efforts and claiming credit for their successes” had initiated a pattern of “diminishing regard for their members”, which had led to the point “where even someone’s body is no longer their own”.

The party’s hierarchical structure and its culture of “loyalty beyond logic” concentrated power in the hands of the central committee at the Vauxhall headquarters. Yet the leadership had no intention of “opening up the party’s structures”, as its first response to the debate made plain. Towards the end of January, Alex Callinicos published a long article in Socialist Review, the party’s monthly magazine, which examined the necessity of “deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy” and referred to the Delta affair, in passing, as a “difficult disciplinary case”, significant in so far as it prompted “a minority” to dismiss “democratically reached conference decisions” and, hence, undermine democratic centralism.

What the dissenters were arguing for, he wrote, was “a different model involving a much looser and weaker leadership, internal debate that continually reopens decisions already made, and permanent factions”. Such changes would make the SWP “smaller and less effective”. Defending the handling of the Delta case was synonymous with defending the party’s revolutionary purpose.

In March, the leadership conceded to demands for a second conference to re-examine the allegations, but only on the most unconciliatory of terms. “Let us be clear that this comrade has been found guilty of nothing,” said the pre-conference bulletin. That was true – Comrade Delta has never been formally charged, let alone tried or convicted, and is entitled to the presumption of innocence like everyone else. Yet it was not his guilt or innocence that was in question, but the way the party had dealt with the complaint.

The leadership refused to acknowledge the criticism. It said the March conference was to “reaffirm the decisions” of the January conference and, sure enough, the “opposition got smashed”, Richard Seymour says, because people “who had never been seen in the organisation turned out to vote”. China Miéville had said that the conference would be “a last chance to save the party from disgrace”, and when it was over, he, Seymour, Rosie Warren and many others resigned.

David Renton stayed on because he wanted to see if they could take the complaint any further. He had met the second complainant, Comrade X, in February, and “was absolutely convinced that in every single thing she said she was telling the truth”. In the summer, the disputes committee concluded that Delta had a case to answer – but he would not have to answer it because he had left the party: the inves­tigation would be reinstated only if he should choose to rejoin. “Essentially, they admitted that the second complaint was probably true,” Renton says. “Which obviously cast a light backwards on the first complaint as well.”

In March, before the special conference, another member had told the Guardian she had been raped: she said that the problem was “a systemic thing” and that the SWP was a “dangerous environment to be in”. In October, a fourth woman revealed that she had also made a complaint. She said she had been raped in December 2012. She reported the case at the end of January 2013, after the handling of the Comrade W case had provoked outrage within the party, and yet she was treated in exactly the same way. The two women from the DC who interviewed her asked, “What effect would you say drink and drugs had on you that night?” and encouraged her to drop the complaint. A pattern had become apparent, the woman maintained: “. . . the Socialist Workers Party is a group that is sexist, full of bullies, and above all will cover up rape to protect its male members and reputation.”

 

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Not surprisingly, Charlie Kimber dismisses the allegation. “It is wholly untrue,” he told me. “If I believed it for a moment then I would not be the party’s national secretary – or a member of the party.” It is partly because the SWP takes the oppression of women seriously, he added, that the case was so painful for it. He said it could hardly be accused of attempting a “cover-up”, as the case provoked non-stop debate for the best part of a year and prompted the party to elect an independent body to review its disputes procedures. “Did the Lib Dems act in this way over allegations of harassment?” he asked. “Has the Labour Party?”

The new disputes procedure was announced in December, at the party’s third conference in a year. The code corrected some of the flaws made apparent in the Comrade Delta case, and the CC also issued a partial apology to the complainants. “We are sorry for the suffering caused to them by the structural flaws in our disputes procedures . . .” Kimber wrote. Even that fell far short of the full apology and whole-hearted invitation to self-examination that its critics wanted. But David Renton realised that the leadership had gone as far as it could. “If they had admitted that they got things wrong, and genuinely apologised to these two women, they would have had to stand down, and completely overhaul the organisation. In a sense, that was the story of the last year – why a bunch of us said things and why, beyond a certain point, the organisation refused to listen. Because if they had listened, they would have had to switch the organisation off.”

Yet many people have maintained that the leadership’s attempts to save the party had the opposite effect. “You think you won in Hammersmith,” wrote a member called Richard Atkinson in his resignation letter that March. “You didn’t: you lost. For all the foot-stamping and cheering you lost, comprehensively and probably irrevocably.”

David Renton and 165 other people left in January to form a new group called rs21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century) and he believes the SWP has been left with no more than 200 active members. Richard Seymour says its rump of “worker-ist activists” is “brain-dead, unpleasant and thuggish” – and destined to become more so. “It is toxic,” he says. “It’s doomed.”

Rosie Warren’s verdict is even more damning: she says the only thing left for the leadership to do is to issue a full apology, and then “declare that anything that was ever good about the SWP has been utterly destroyed, and pack up and go home”.

Charlie Kimber says the party is “far from doomed”, though he concedes that the left cannot afford any more splits. Unfortunately, its propensity for internecine conflict seems undiminished. The International Socialist Network, which Richard Seymour, China Miéville and others set up after leaving the SWP, lasted less than a year before disintegrating over an online argument about a sexual practice called “race play”. Seymour now believes it will take a generation to reconstruct the left, and might not happen at all. But the implosion of the SWP has given it a starting point, at least. David Renton believes it will have to begin with an appraisal of the failings of the party to which he belonged for most of his adult life. “Our mistakes were so awful that anyone trying to rebuild the left is going to have to say, ‘We are not at all like them.’ ” 

Edward Platt is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The City of Abraham: History, Myth and Memory – a Journey through Hebron” (Picador, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Welcome to the zoo: what it feels like to report a presidential campaign

Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault?

Here’s how you cover an American political convention: you get up inhumanly early to fire off your first emails, chugging down hotel coffee that tastes like burnt leather. Then you put on your least-squashed outfit and you drag yourself through crowds of sweating delegates to an event or a talk (or, if you’re unlucky, the treadless circus of the convention floor), and you watch and listen with your phone in your hand and one eye on social media until you run across something that you think might be worth writing about.

You email your editor from the phone to see if your sense is correct, and the idea is saleable. Meanwhile, you’ve started looking for somewhere to open your laptop and bang out your copy. You write it. You buy a coffee so they don’t kick you out of the café. You scramble for healthy wifi. You talk your way into the giant car park repurposed as a crèche for journalists outside the arena, where your organisation has a tiny table, and Google and Facebook have giant booths distributing free snacks, just to remind you who’s really in charge of the media.

Then you file your copy. You send the link out all over social media, because that’s part of your job, and you go in search of food with your eyes all glassy from screen glare, until you have to do it again. Whenever your editor goes to bed, you think about wrapping up and relocating to a bar where you can flirt with half of your attention while drinking beer and scrolling, constantly, through social media.

At some point around 4am, you clock off and spend an hour searching for a cab that you hope you’re going to be able to put against expenses, and you chat to the driver on your way to your overpriced, out-of-town hotel, too tired to register the shock of a conversation with an actual human being. Later on, in a hotel room that you can’t afford, you ask yourself: how does it feel to have made something that hates you?

In the two heat-drunk, deadline-crazed weeks that I spent at the Republican and Democratic conventions this summer, that line kept echoing in my mind. It’s spoken by an android to its creator in the Alex Garland film Ex Machina, but the 15,000 journalists, reporters, columnists, television crew members and media flunkies gathered to watch the biggest American political showdown of this half-decade could have asked ourselves the same question. Hatred of the mainstream media was a theme at both conventions. Yet how much of the incipient cartoon fascism on show was our fault? And what can we do to stop it?

This is a story about stories, the people who tell them and the price we pay. In all the thousands of essays, reports, video diaries, interviews and listicles produced at and around the lumbering pageant of the US presidential race, one class of person is supposed to be almost invisible, and that is the people who do the work of production: the journalists. But what is happening in politics today, particularly in the United States, and particularly in this election, has everything to do with the media – the industry, yes, but also the people in it. If the media are the message, the message is anxious, incoherent and mired in a money crisis that it has no idea how to handle. Not unlike America, as it happens.

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Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to have spent the past two years under a rock, let’s recap. These US conventions are the official nominating ceremonies for the presidential candidates of the Democratic and Republican Parties, as well as four-day pageants at which lobbyists and media flunkies come to flirt and network and make whatever passes (in professional political terms) for friends. The candidate selection is merely the excuse for this shindig, and this time the fix was in before it had even begun.

The Democrats had chosen the former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, representing the centre-liberal status quo with a corporate feminist twist and a side order of hawkish sabre-rattling. Her main challenger was the veteran socialist Bernie Sanders, who believes in wealth redistribution, free university education and social justice and gained an enormous following among young voters who have not yet accepted that they owe their votes to any candidate with a blue ribbon.

On the Republican side, a field of whey-faced religious extremists had been cleared for Donald Trump, the real-estate tycoon and reality-television star, who stands on a platform of imposing a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”, building a border wall with Mexico and replacing the entire US electoral system with a giant statue of his gelatinous face, sculpted from misdirected class rage. This, more than anyone, was the man we had all come to see.

One of the liturgies of doctrinal Trumpism is that there is a thing called “the mainstream media”, which tries to control what “ordinary” people think, despite knowing next to nothing about their lives. The mainstream media are assumed to be homogeneous, cosmopolitan, well paid, based almost exclusively in New York and the Beltway of Washington, and liberal to its core. This is a more accurate description of Trump than it is of most US journalists I know.

Trump did not invent performative hostility towards the “mainstream media”. Every insurgent politician in recent years has taunted the press in public, while giving hacks hungry for copy exactly what they want: a story that draws in readers. And a great many journalists, at least those who have not yet given up on the notion of speaking truth to power, feel less comfortable when power tries to court us than we do when it pretends to hate us.

The ways in which we create and consume media today are not the same as they were even four years ago, during what was dubbed in the US as “the social media election”. Rapid changes in communications technology have reshaped the terrain more thoroughly than those employed to scry in the entrails of the internet for the future of human thought can anticipate. What is clear is that power flows to those who can understand and exploit the hysterical reality engine called the media – and that has always been the case.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swayed the nation with his deft use of radio – and so did Adolf Hitler. In the 1960s, John F Kennedy became the first “television president”, beating his opponent, Richard Nixon, in televised debates that radio listeners felt that Nixon had won. Ronald Reagan, a professional actor, perfected that position. Barack Obama is the first US president to understand and exploit the full potential of the internet, recognising that social media can be used to reshape the calcified structures of money and messaging that are still, across the West, called democracy.

This year, Donald Trump – a reality TV mogul before he is anything else – has taken control of the narrative, understanding, like Europe’s right-wing populist pundits, that it is possible to bypass facts altogether and hit the electorate in the incoherent space of pure emotion. What, at a time like this, does journalism mean? What does it mean to be a member of the press in an age when there is no longer a clear distinction between media and meatspace, between reality and television?

***

 American political conventions are not the staid, rainwashed yearly affairs that we are used to in Britain. Every four years, the Republican and Democratic Parties throw a festival for thousands of lawmakers, lawyers, reporters, lobbyists and the occasional actual voter on their break from handing around snacks at press parties. It lasts four days, because that’s how long it took originally to count up delegates from every state, and now the rest of the time is filled up with boozing, hobnobbing and wearing clothes that make everyone look like they’re live-action role-playing the most depressing parts of the mid-1980s. There are speeches, and more speeches, musical interludes by tame celebrities, blind children singing the national anthem, and quite a lot of God-bothering – and much of the main action doesn’t start until 4pm every day, in order to give people time to recover from the night before.

This would not work in Britain. America still takes itself too seriously to consider how crass this looks to an outside world that also has reason to fear a vicious, swollen toddler with alarming hair being given access to the US nuclear codes. This year, the Republican convention in Cleveland, Ohio, came first, as befits the case for the prosecution of the political status quo. On the Saturday before it began, the airport was already lousy with journalists looking for Trump people to interview.

Armed police circled the terminal as a choir of children from local schools sang patriotic lullabies to soothe us into what would be a two-week fever dream of nativist fear-mongering and empty political pageantry. The candidates, remember, had already been decided by a grudging, deeply divided electorate. All that was left was ritual, and the dim, thrilling possibility that someone might do something off-message.

I bought the first coffee of the week and got in a cab to call my editor while my synapses soaked in diluted stimulants. The roads were jammed with thousands of hacks doing the same, some of whom already had deadlines to meet. Nothing had happened yet. That didn’t matter. We were here to create news, not report it.

“The threshold for news now is very low,” said Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times and an old friend from (where else?) the internet. “There are more of us running around and there’s less to do. A lot of us were bracing for something potentially as bad as the protests at the DNC [Democratic National Convention] in Chicago in 1968 . . . That’s always the conflicted part of the business. Chaos and mayhem make for selling newspapers, but if you live here in Cleveland, you want nothing to go wrong.”

Why did we come here? To see the show. We had heard that there would be protests, which always make good copy, and dissent on the convention floor. And we knew without doubt that there would be frothing cryptofascism, which makes better copy. The more Trump claims to hate the press, the more we fall over ourselves to give him the attention he craves. He is an insider trader in the attention economy.

I heard the word “zoo” repeatedly. The reporters had “come to see the zoo”. A zoo: where you pay to see dumb and dangerous beasts in cages, and then eat ice cream. Is that where we thought we were? There were wire fences around the convention zone and the people there knew that they were on show, putting on a spectacle for the liberal media that they claimed roundly to despise. Trump’s people made it clear that this convention was about showbiz, although the celebrity roll-call was Lynyrd Skynyrd, a man from a TV show called Duck Dynasty and a handful of C-list actors. The DNC had Snoop Dogg.

As delegates, lobbyists and reporters continued to flood into Cleveland, nothing – at least nothing resembling substantive news of any kind – continued to happen relentlessly. But we were all hoping for a moment of transcendence, a big breakthrough. A great observation or piece of writing that would make our editors proud and our landlords happy, back in the places we were from – sorry, the places we were based. None of the reporters, it seemed, was from anywhere. Instead, we were based in New York, or based in Washington, or based in a small village in Finland. We were transient half-people, scrapping for meaning and a living.

It quickly became apparent that the promised protests would not be occurring. We had prepared ourselves for open-carry gun marches and riots in the streets, and so had the police of every local district, who had been shipped in to bristle on every corner, but anyone with a sensible point to make had decided to stay at home. The gun protest turned out mainly to consist of a man with two guns, with dozens of reporters circling him like hungry vultures that had heard the dying screams of political discourse.

Mark Twain is apocryphally said to have observed that there were only three real American cities – New York, New Orleans and San Francisco – and everywhere else was Cleveland. The place did look like it had been hastily constructed out of plywood and the overwhelming impression was of being backstage on a giant movie set, which helped with the sense of unreality not one jot. Nor did the way that everyone in town seemed to spend between a third and half of their waking hours staring at a phone or a laptop screen. The screen-time/real-time distinction had disintegrated completely and we had all come a long way to be in the same place, looking at our phones.

Still hazy from jet lag, I dunked myself in a basement swimming pool; its acid-blue water was the temperature of fresh urine. I dried off in the bar, chlorine tightening my skin. Next to me on an unforgiving leather sofa, Adele M Stan, a reporter from the American Prospect, was wrapped in a shawl, checking her phone. This, she told me, was the strangest political convention of the seven that she had attended. Many of the major Republican political players, unwilling to yoke themselves to Trump’s toxic popularity, had decided to skip it, and so had most activists with any sense. Instead, the space around the stadium was a clear field for ranters, ravers and swivel-eyed performance artists masquerading as political actors – just like the stage.

For two weeks, in two cities, I met almost nobody who was local. The town centres had been cleared and scrubbed for the event, the local tramps and beggars ungently encouraged to move on. Often, even the waiting staff and Uber drivers had come from out of town. Many of the real citizens had left to rent out their homes on Airbnb. 

Everyone in the action zones seemed to be from somewhere else.

I know nobody from Cleveland and yet, within an hour of arriving, I had run into five people I know. They had come to get the story. It quickly became apparent that they had also come to get laid. I have never been so consistently hit on as I was in those first three days in Cleveland. Tinder was lit with people “in town for the week, trying this out for the first time”.

I ended up having some of my most honest conversations of the trip with other reporters on the instant dating app, where we seemed to feel more free to voice our political opinions. We would start off straight-up flirting, then ease into confidences about how bizarre the experience was and intimate existential panic about the nature of sanity, bracketed in plaintive requests for the sort of sex you have with strangers as the world is ending. I matched with two people from The Daily Show. The week was a stew of pre-fascist panic: mate or die.

***

On the walk down to the convention centre in Cleveland, the streets seemed empty except for stray reporters, security guards and a giant billboard howling: “Don’t believe the liberal media!” Overhead, a chartered plane flew the slogan “Hillary for Prison”. This line was available over the next few days on buttons, badges, T-shirts, baseball caps and mugs, announcing to the world that the trolls had taken the wheel of political discourse. Hillary for Prison. Like much of what passes for political conversation in this election, it makes sense only if you say it in an American accent, and it’s not as funny as it seems.
Outside on the corner, two enterprising young men with button-down shirts and ice-white smiles that did not flicker were selling Clinton- and Trump-themed boxes of cereal for $40 each, because they had college debts that they couldn’t rely on the Democrats to cancel. I switched on the recorder, a decision I almost immediately regretted. The spiel they gave me was so polished that I was unsurprised, a quick Google search later, to find five articles about them already published.

There was still little to do but drink coffee, so a square mile of cleared city was full of reporters running around, wired and jumpy, wondering what we were missing. We were desperate for something, anything to kick off, not because we liked the idea of civil unrest but – hey, it had to be better than cluttering up the hotel lobby.

Speaking of hotel lobbies, one thing bears repeating: most of the reporters in Cleveland weren’t as fancy as we were making out. For every well-known news anchor and overpaid op-ed writer, there were dozens of production crew, staff bloggers and freelance reporters living from pay cheque to pay cheque. On Monday afternoon in the aptly named Public Square, I met up with five reporters whom I had known since we all got our start together covering Occupy Wall Street in 2011. They had driven down from New York and found a floor to crash on in the hope of making enough money covering the convention to pay for the trip. Back in 2011, it seemed that new media had the power to reframe democracy. Five years later, that turned out to be entirely true – but not in the way we expected.

We gathered to reminisce about that time, about the protests, the excitement, the arrests, the brief, gorgeous sense that a different world was possible. We’d also heard that Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine would perform an impromptu concert in the square for the protesters, so we sat at a café table, waiting for that to begin. Rage had been all over Occupy like a rash and could be relied on to drum up some modest mayhem.

In the opposite corner, a few dozen young people were gathered around a speaker stage. We spent an hour checking social ­media with one eye, while catching up on what had happened in each other’s lives – who had got married, who had broken up, who’d been made redundant, who had got custody of the dog. We met covering Occupy Wall Street; now we are, apparently, the liberal media establishment. It took us an hour to realise that the people crowded around the small stage were not the warm-up for the protest. They were the protest. By that time, it was over.

***

I turned up to the Washington Post’s convention-viewing party with a gaggle of other young hacks, all of our well-honed powers of observation focused on predicting when the snack table would be restocked and how long we could stay before somebody noticed that we were freeloading freelancers who came here to pinch the wifi. The Washington Post, underwritten by Amazon money, took over a bar near the convention centre and offered on-site massages and craft beers. There were also speaking events throughout the day. Nick Pinto of the Village Voice was not the only one to notice that those who had sponsored the shindig, including representatives of Big Oil, got to put their point of view across unchallenged at these events. So much for liberal bias.

On the big screens behind the free bar, the convention speeches were playing, but almost nobody was watching. Nobody was watching as Willie Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty TV show, took to the stage to curse out the “mainstream media”, which lived in a different world from “regular folks like us, who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living”. “It’s been a rough year for media experts,” he said. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”

At the Republican convention, I saw 15,000 reporters trying to find a new, original angle on the only story that mattered – that a dark mood of nationalist populism had taken hold in the world’s only superpower and whatever the outcome of this election, there will be suffering. There will be pain, distributed among millions. I saw the flags in the arena, the pomp and excess, the hundreds of fists raised. Country-rock music played throughout. It was like a nightmare marriage of Nuremberg in 1933 and the Eurovision Song Contest, and I knew that this story was not new.

***

Journalists have a way of acting as if we were not political animals with political appetites, as if we were spectators. There may have been a time, in a previous generation, when this was true, when commentators and editors got to play politics like it was a game. But times are changing and so is the industry, and we’ve got skin in this game. Nobody who expects to be personally unaffected by a Donald Trump presidency would, for instance, steal an entire jar of BuzzFeed-branded pens (including the jar), which is what I saw a young freelancer doing at the Washington Post party. By the end of the first week, we were all ready for a little bit of hope. But that wasn’t the story the Democrats were selling, given their reluctance to lie with such lucrative momentum as their rivals.

Philadelphia in late July was hotter than the underbelly of the sun and the air was soupy with moisture. This is not a place where Europeans should ever have settled, for a number of good reasons of which the weather is not the least. The heat sent everyone a bit loopy, as if we were walking through treacle in a dream. And, like in a dream, the narrative kept slipping out of focus. From the start, the messaging was all about the grand story of America, a nation that does not need to be made “great again” because it is already great, a nation that survives by hallucinating its own legend – but the gathered press could not help but share the sense of having been cheated. The awkward truth that Trump and his followers have tapped into is that there are millions of people for whom America is not, and never has been, all that great.

A few days before the speeches started, the crypto-justice trolls WikiLeaks dropped an enormous cache of emails from the Democratic National Committee’s server that had probably been hacked by Russian agents. These appeared to show, to the surprise of nobody, that the Democratic Party had been manoeuvring against Bernie Sanders from the start.

The convention opened with accusations of corruption and the announcement that Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic chair, was resigning. That afternoon, hundreds of Sanders supporters braved the heat to stand outside City Hall to make their feelings known. The one thing I heard from everyone I interviewed – and the one point of agreement between the Bernie supporters and Trump’s people – was that the mainstream media were not to be trusted.

The overwhelming impression of being a reporter at the DNC was of being held hostage – literally, as well as figuratively. Everyone was too tired to move and certainly too tired to flirt. Where the Republican convention was a slosh of sexual energy, of directionless desire, the Democrats’ was all about desire deferred. I deleted Tinder from my phone to make more space for interviews.

The convention centre was miles out of town and getting in involved a system of passes and checkpoints so complicated that you would have been loath to go outside the media zone, even if it weren’t more than 30°C in the shade. The press was stashed in a system of speciously air-conditioned marquees outside the convention hall, with three stinking porta-potties to service thousands of reporters and no water available. Jerry Springer was there, and I had no idea why. Is he a Democrat? Or does he simply materialise wherever reality television meets Freudian psychodrama, wherever people try to pretend that working-class people screaming at each other is entertainment?

It was, more than anything, a physical slog. The tone was set by the way in which the perimeter had been given over to Uber, so that it was hard to get close without taking the on-demand car service. Entry to the security zone was through an oasis-like Uber tent, where you could pick up free water in exchange for your lingering discomfort with Silicon Valley economics. It’s like being in a rewrite of Children of Men for the gig economy. A new adventure in bleak.

Many of the reporters in attendance had just come from Cleveland and were already worn out from a week of frantic deadline-wrangling and late-night networking – not optional in an industry in which job security is based largely on personal connections. Here, the reporters were taken for granted and so was our good coverage. The understanding was that we would encourage our readers, implicitly or explicitly, to support the nominee because we had no other option. By the end of the second day, it wasn’t clear if we would even be allowed to leave without at least a tweet declaring ourselves #WithHer.

On day two, after the roll-call of states was read out and Clinton was officially nominated, some Sanders delegates – who had hoped for something more than the status quo with a feminist varnish – staged a walkout. The first I saw of this was movement in the media tent, that unmistakable herd motion of reporters who realise potential copy is happening near them, like chickens moving as one at the rattle of the seed trough.

Finally, something off-message was happening. After days of manoeuvring to ensure that no left-wing protesters got near the press, they came right to us. T-shirted delegates from Alabama, Ohio and Tennessee stood in the press tent with hand-drawn signs and sticky tape half hanging off their mouths. They had taped their mouths shut to symbolise their silencing by the Democratic committee but were having to untape themselves every few minutes to give interviews and, after the third or fourth time of doing this, the tape started to lose its stickiness. Those trapped outside chanted: “The whole world is watching!” For once, at least for those with a broadband connection, this was true.

They played us like Slick Willie plays the saxophone. It was masterful. We heat-exhausted copy-monkeys, strung out on hours of refreshing TweetDeck, found ourselves standing on tables, holding our phones aloft like protective amulets, trying to capture whatever it was that was happening, because something, for the first time in days, was definitely happening. Something unplanned. Something off-script.

The decision to occupy the media tent was borderline genius. It was one of the best-played protest moves I had ever seen, placing the dissenters instantly in front of the world’s cameras. Like the convention, it was staged not for those who were present but for readers and viewers elsewhere. The internet was the invisible current in the room. The rest of America and the rest of the world were not here, but we were haunted by them – by the sense that real life was going on just outside the room.

Yet, like in a horror movie from the scrag-end of the 1990s, it turned out that we were the ghosts all along. It turned out that we, the delegates, the lobbyists, the spectators and the precarious, anxious press corps, were the ones haunting the real world through the internet, trying to make sense of a story that had run far ahead of us, trying to form the narratives of which material life is made. We sneer at reality TV without understanding that we are active producers in the greatest reality show of all: US politics.

It was enough. I didn’t care enough about what Hillary Clinton had to say to drag myself through the sweltering nightmare of the convention centre for another minute, so my colleague and I fought our way to a cab and watched it on TV, at home. It turned out that Clinton had little to add to the story that America has been trying to tell about itself for decades, apart from a fantastic array of pantsuits and a series of promises that she will be under no obligation to keep.

With the world facing the alternative of Donald Trump, it is now on us – those who create and sustain the narratives of identity and change in the US and beyond – to make that sell, in order to avert disaster. We may not be the establishment but we find ourselves in a position of having to advocate for it, and to do so convincingly to those for whom the prospect of a woman president is not sufficient to inspire faith in a better future. That’s what the media are good for right now, in this fever dream of an election – and it might not be enough.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser