Be angry, don't despair. Photo: Flickr/Pabak Sarkar
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Don't give in: an angry population is hard to govern; a depressed population is easy

Don't let the bastards get you down – choose action over despondency when coming to terms with the general election result.

Hours after the Conservatives were re-elected, the government looked at cutting access to work schemes for the disabled. You'd think they'd at least have the decency to bring some flowers before shafting the vulnerable, but no. Not these guys. Not today. Today is not yesterday. Today, David Cameron does not just have the political will to slash welfare and widen the wealth gap: he has a mandate.

I have spent much of the past 48 hours lying in bed staring at the ceiling, reading despairing, four-letter posts on social media and trying to work out how on earth this happened, as if anyone with half a brain doesn't know. The political elites closed ranks and capitulated to a politics of fear, first in Scotland, and then across the nation.

The muddled, equivocating voice of what was once the party of the left could not compete with the merciless message of austerity telling us we got what’s coming to us. We know what that is. More cuts to public services. More inequality. More lies. More of the old Cameron doctrine with no pratting about pretending we’re all in it together. The same great taste, now with zero liberals.

A lot of people are very depressed today, and with good reason. I think it’s important to talk about that depression. Talking helps. I read that in a pamphlet somewhere.

Depression is a physical and emotional illness with a profound sociopolitical component. It’s also a total bastard. Depression tells you that you're lazy and worthless. That the bad things that may happen to you and your family are all your fault, and if you feel like dying, you'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Sound familiar?

There's a reason depression and its precarious cousin, anxiety, are the dominant political modes of late capitalism. This is how you're supposed to feel. This is how you do feel, if you accept their logic. You don't need a nasty little voice in your head telling you you're useless and deserve nothing. You've got Iain Duncan Smith. For five more years.

The Tories prey on the politics of despair, and I think we've let them do it. It’s not our fault. Depression is still a source of shame, especially in a country like this. When everything feels awful and out of control, it's paradoxically easier to blame yourself and your neighbours than it is to direct anger outwards.

When things are getting worse very quickly, when society is getting meaner and more expensive, when your work is precarious, your housing is precarious, and precariousness itself has become an anxious daily reality, it's somehow comforting to think that you and your community could have changed it all by making different choices. That it's your fault for being lazy and sick. It may not feel good, but it feels safe – safer than facing the idea that so many decisions about your life are being made without your input, by people whose interests are so alien to your own they may as well be on a slab in a base in New Mexico.

The psychiatrist M Scott Peck is one of many experts to observe that depression is just anger, defanged and turned in on itself. That's as true on a social level as it is on a political one. An angry population is hard to govern. A depressed population is easy. The new Tory government would really prefer it if our collective political position was “prone”.

It is no accident that, of all the public services that have been cut to the gristle by what we must now think of as the first five years of Tory austerity, the already-underfunded mental health system suffered most. The crisis in mental health in Britain is profoundly political.

The politics of the modern right are the politics of depression, and right now they are winning. What remains of the British left is flat on its back, staring at the ceiling in a mess of unwashed sheets, and shouting at it to get up is not going to help right now.

I’m not about to tell you to just buck up. I’m not advocating enforced blissed-outedness like a sort of fascist Gwyneth Paltrow. Some of my best friends are hippies, and I like yoga and meditation and suspicious smoothies as much as the next bourgeois lefty throwback, but downward-facing-dog is not a radical position, and that’s not what this is about.

I’m talking about treating ourselves and others, if we can stomach it, with some basic charity right now. I’m talking about being careful not to slip into catastrophic thinking, which is difficult, because there actually has been a catastrophe.

Depression is not inappropriate at this time. But the moment when you give in to it utterly is the moment they've won. They win when people start saying things like “that's just the way the world is”.

The opposite of depression is not happiness. It’s not even hope. The opposite of depression is action. It's dragging your bone-weary carcass into the shower and doing what needs to be done so you can deal with the day. It's reaching out to friends even when you have no idea what to say. It's making a to-do list, even if nine out of ten numbered points are “drink, because fuck this”.

The opposition of depression is action. Action is the only thing that gets us to a better world, and big actions start with very little ones. We don’t have to overthrow the government today. We can take a few days to drink cold tea and listen to Billy Bragg’s saddest albums. Depression wins when getting better seems so overwhelming as to be impossible. Recovery begins one tiny, tiny step at a time.

I understand that it's comparatively easy for me to say this. I have a job. I'm studying abroad right now at an elite American university. There is a huge difference between being depressed because your country is going to hell and your communities are fragmenting and being depressed because your own life, in addition, is about to implode under the weight of George Osborne’s red briefcase. Those of us with the good fortune to be in the former category have the option of staring blankly at the wall, because at least we still have a wall. More than anyone else, those people have a responsibility to get up and do something as soon as the hangovers wear off.

This is not a moment for people who happen to have made it through the past five years with moderate financial stability and our consciences intact to accept the narrative that we are assigned politics by class. That the best way to read our ethics, our understanding of the worth and purpose of humanity, is off the back of a bloody bank statement. This is not a moment to throw up our hands, open a packet of biscuits and say – fuck it, I got mine.

Because that’s a disgusting thing to do.

I am not particularly interested in how or whether the Labour party is going to choose to sort its sorry self out and provide a real, electable alternative to the politics of fear and hopelessness. I hope it does, but right now I'm more concerned about what's going to happen to people on the ground. Right now, the important thing is to take care of ourselves and one another, and to be as kind as possible. Because there’s a big fight ahead, and kindness is more important now than ever.

Kindness is mandatory. Anger is necessary. Despair is a terrible idea. Despair is how they win. They won’t win forever.

And we don't ever have to talk about Nick Clegg again now. So there's that.

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

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.