Beware anyone who talks in slogans, and beware especially the serial protestor – good advice I received many years ago from a source now lost to memory. This seemingly dismissive advice is aimed at a very specific group: not those directly affected or deeply moved by one issue in particular, but those you can guarantee will be taking to the streets over whatever is currently in the headlines.
This group is sometimes described as a faction of the “hard left” or the “protest hobbyists”, but the better catch-all is perhaps the “do-nothing left”. Anyone engaging seriously with the issues hitting the world usually ends up despairing – everything is pretty horrendous at the moment – but also ends up flagging that making things better is genuinely bloody difficult.
Do-nothing leftism is a great way around that, if you’re happy with the false empowerment that comes with rendering yourself completely politically and morally irrelevant.
Take Syria over the last decade: the toxic cocktail of ISIS taking a huge swathe of land as a civil war raged between Bashar al-Assad and a much broader resistance led to complex questions as to Western intervention might stop the killing.
“Stop the war” becomes a lovely slogan to chant at that point, though the policy aim seemed confined to keeping the West out of it. At this stage, Assad has killed at least 23,000 children in his own country, used chemical weaponry on his own people, and led to a huge forced displacement of people. His Russian allies have killed many more.
Would a higher level of Western intervention have made anything better? I genuinely have no idea – I just do not think any honest commentator can look at that and think “stop the war” did anything at all.
The characteristic trait of this form of populism – for populism it is – is to take any issue and quickly establish who the good guys and the bad guys are. This requires either genuine ignorance as to the history and character of an issue, or a special form of wilful ignorance that makes it easy and possible to ignore all nuance, usually helped with responses starting “but what about..?”
Take climate protests, for example. Burning oil is bad, we the regular people are good. To really heighten our good guys/bad guys dichotomy, we can throw in the idea that “just 100 companies are responsible for 71%” of emissions. If only we weren’t so in hock to big corporations, everything would be fine. It’s not our fault!
As ever, these analyses crumble under the slightest breeze. Oil companies aren’t extracting and refining petrol just to sit on it. Agribusiness makes food that gets eaten by… who, exactly?
And all those minerals extracted by big miners… well, they’re definitely not in the laptop I’m using to write this, or the ones you may be reading it on. Probably.
The list of trite soundbites or protest chants is endless. Jeremy Corbyn is fond of saying that all wars end at the negotiating table, so why not skip the war part? This is the ultimate stupid person’s idea of wisdom.
Let’s save time here and jump straight to world war two. It’s not as if there weren’t numerous efforts to negotiate with Hitler. Is the proposition that we should’ve agreed in 1939 that he could kill six million Jews if he’d then shoot himself in the head, or what? Many wars don’t end in negotiation, but the ones that do are fundamentally shaped by the facts on the ground. Avoiding war is vital, but idiot slogans do nothing to achieve that.
Which brings us to Israel/Hamas: “settler colonialism”, “genocide”, “from the river to the sea”, and the list goes on, it is the ultimate do-nothing left cause celebre. The history of Israel – and the history of Palestine – is unbelievably complex and unbelievably tragic, laced time and again with what-if moments where things could have gone better (or even worse than they have).
Palestinians are failed by the leaders and their supposed allies with such grim inevitability it barely gets mentioned any more. Israel has a far right government which itself has a bizarre co-dependency with Hamas – for each, while the other is in power, peace (which neither wants) is not on the table. Jews were on the land on which Israel now sits since long before the establishment of the nation (in fact resistance attacks from Jewish groups was part of why the UK was keen to be shot of the land itself). Many other Israelis arrived as refugees from Arab nations.
Nothing about Israel/Palestine is simple, in practice. We can say we want the violence to stop. The do-nothing response to the sentences above would be to say “it’s always simple to say you shouldn’t kill children”. But Hamas has made it clear they would love to repeated October 7. How many repetitions are acceptable before Israel is “allowed” to wipe Hamas out? When Hamas will exploit any “rule of war” to protect civilians for operational advantage, how many failed efforts must happen?
It is much, much easier to have the false moral certainty of having a good guy and a bad guy, and to be able to have the indignation to shout in the streets about whatever is in the headlines (and it’s good we have that right, despite Suella Braverman’s best efforts).
But we shouldn’t confuse it with politics. The do-nothing left has the intellectual certainty that comes from ignorance and the moral clarity that comes from irrelevance.
Making any form of meaningful change starts with understanding the motivations of the different factions involved – empathy as a hard skill, not a soft one – and then working out what might be possible. It’s an endless game of compromise and frustration, of complexity and setbacks, of being denounced by the people who supposedly want peace more than you do.
The do-nothing left think they are opposed because their opponents are evil, or venal, paid off or just jealous of the clear morality of their positions. In practice, the reality is more often contempt. Those who engage usually do so in the belief people can be persuaded to see the world more like it is, than as the cartoon version they see.
I am, for now at least, done with engaging. The upside of the do-nothing left is that as their nickname suggests, they do nothing, and they help nothing get done. For so long as they’re nowhere near power, they can be safely, if not easily, ignored.