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Guilt and the Left

by | February 20, 2018

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”



For as long as I have been a part of the Left, for most activists there has been a tacit subjective injunction at various times to feel guilty about various things: the fact that some are worse off than ourselves, that we are insufficiently active, that we are not politically ‘hard’ enough, that we have and enjoy different kinds of ‘privilege’. However there is nothing progressive about guilt. Quite the opposite.

Defining guilt as the projecting inwards of aggressive instincts we would otherwise project outwards, Freud considered it a conservative force, forming the basis of the social order, ‘the price we pay for our advance in civilization’.[i] Freud delved further into the phenomenon in his clinical work. In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ he associated this internalisation of aggression with loss. This loss could be of an actual person, or something more abstract, like an ideal. Orienting Freud’s insights politically we might suppose that loss, in the form of dispossession or defeat, can manifest in feelings of guilt in the dispossessed or defeated. Could the guilt endured by those bearing the brunt of neoliberalism be symptomatic of a loss of democracy, and thus of some degree of control over our lives? If so then might working through guilt be a necessary step in the process of actualising our desire for democracy? Challenging a discourse of guilt can be interpreted as excusing injustice. This is not my intention—it was out of recognition of the recalcitrance of these problems, particularly as they persist within the left, that this piece was written. Morality may be a principle, but moralising is a tactic. Drawing from my own experiences from workplace organising, I want to suggest that it is rarely the best one.

Guilt Economy

I want to ask the reader to accept, for the sake of argument, that guilt is indeed to some degree a by-product of a loss, and that the main thing we have lost is a degree of democracy won through past class victories. If so, then it makes sense that neoliberal institutions are adept at abetting this process. The tabloid press and reality television gorge on the ‘feckless depravity’ of the poor, the police treat vast sectors of the population as criminal, and we have entire government departments, in the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions, whose purpose, it seems, is to make distressed people feel bad about themselves. It might be at work that people are exposed to the most amount of guilt, and the lower down the scale of authority (which is in part to say the lower your social class) the more guilt is heaped upon you. The creation of many trivial management roles, in particular, is an ingenious strategy both for dividing staff amongst themselves and for delegating the most petty and vindictive decisions in a way that maximises complicity in the sadistic pleasure involved. When executed well, senior managers can pose as benevolent arbiters from on high who have everyone’s best interests. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the scale, the guilt circulates in all directions as workers compete amongst one another for hours, management favour, and reprieve.

As a union representative in a council leisure centre the most preposterous moments I experienced were always the elaborately contrived disciplinary hearings in which the poor miscreant of some minor misdemeanour was subjected to all manner of quasi-legal proceedings including investigation, indictment, cross examination, witness statements (often from their close colleagues and friends who presumably have to deal with the guilt of this betrayal) and finally verdict. In order to give the situation the requisite gravity, absurd hypothetical scenarios are dreamed up by the prosecution and mock judge in which the minor indiscretion could have resulted in a child being killed or maimed. They culminate, always, in a decision positively dripping with sanctimony from the HR official. I was the lone union representative in the leisure service of my borough and the experience taught me, above all, that in the absence of unions, whatever legal measures may exist to protect workers can be exploited by managers to claim the moral high ground. Even health-and-safety law — one of the finest achievements of the union movement— can become just another cross to bear for lower level workers accused of endangering the safety of their colleagues. I have lost count of the number of times a systemic failure has been blamed on one of the actual cleaners or lifeguards whose own safety was being endangered.

And yet, audacious as management tactics were to divide us, I was always far more impressed with just how strong and resilient our relationships were.


Behind the Master’s Back

‘Just when polite liberal (not to mention correct leftist) discourse ceased speaking of us as dykes, faggots, coloured girls, or natives, we began speaking of ourselves this way.’

— Wendy Brown

When authorities monopolise the language of moral correctness, resistance must find a new voice. In our workplace the strength of our relationships was founded, in part, upon our being able to navigate a path away from guilt through a counter-discourse that subverted the moralising of the brass. If moralising was the currency of division then a certain indecency was the currency of unity.

We were all compromised by our working conditions and we knew it. No one believed they were sufficiently better than anyone else that they could cast their judgements from on high. In some cases this consciousness would be expressed in remarks that were, at least ostensibly, politically indefensible. That such were accepted and deemed funny a lot of the time was because they served other, more complex, discursive functions that went deeper than simply what the words meant. What is often lost in debates about political propriety is just how much self-deprecation can go into a joke that transgresses norms. It is often a way of conveying that one should not take the deliverer of the joke too seriously, self-consciously opening themselves up to ridicule. Of course, all jokes are, by their nature, contradictory and overdetermined. And irony doesn’t simply cancel out the objectionable meanings folded into a joke, so this type of disclaimer can always be used nefariously. Nonetheless, the context makes a critical difference, and in the situation of a hierarchical workplace where people work under a constant background fear that they might be snitched on to their boss, an indecent comment can be a way of conveying to someone that you are not judgmental, and that you trust that they’re not judgmental either. (This tactic placed me in an unusual position as the union representative who was notionally supposed to occupy a moral position. Yet, much of my time was spent reassuring people that I wasn’t judging them.) Far better to signpost at every turn that we didn’t hold against one another whatever shit went down at work; to position ourselves as the kind of people who didn’t take sleights, discourtesy, or disrespect particularly seriously.

What this also made room for, importantly, was the chance to redress transgressions when needed. What is sometimes awkwardly referred to as ‘banter’ often describes a space in which those lower down the pecking order can lay a glove on someone above them — because nobody likes admitting they can’t take a joke. I don’t want to idealise our work relationships. Hierarchies existed and in general ‘banter’ suits majoritarian identities (male, hetero-normative and so on). However, these relations are also usually far more fluid than one might expect and far more fluid than they are on the Left in my experience. While a strict moral discourse invariably favours one side (whoever happens to be most proficient at the discourse), the very freedom from moralising often allows underdogs to blind-side the more powerful with a remark they weren’t expecting.

The freedom also makes the task of standing up for people easier and less patronising. Instead of staging a moral intervention that constitutes people as either victims or oppressors (a performative act that winds up silencing everyone apart from the morally righteous intervener) —one could just simply join the side of the aggrieved party in the banter. Jokes, for example, would often revolve around each other’s sex lives — real or imagined — and where typically they would be initiated by men, it was never difficult and was generally more effective, to turn the tables on them within the terms of the joke, rather than starting a lecture about propriety in the workplace. This isn’t always helpful: the tactic of left-trolling or left-bants, often runs out of steam. Crucially, though, being prepared to engage in ‘inappropriate’ humour meant that on the occasions when a more formal approach was required, the interventions carried more weight. Above all what this freer way of speaking enabled us to do was to foster bonds in what was a very ethnically and age-diverse workplace. It was precisely a way of recognising and making light of our differences.

This way of speaking is anathema to much of left-wing politics preoccupied with dividing the world between oppressors and victims. This clash of cultures has made me quite ambivalent about introducing my colleagues to left-wing politics. What if one of my colleagues said something they shouldn’t? I’ve been in meetings where the uninitiated have said things not in accordance with prevailing opinion, as is made pretty clear to them — what if someone said something actually deemed offensive (not, in my experience, a difficult thing to do)? What would it say about me if I didn’t publicly pull them up on it. What would I even say if I did say something?

At work it was politically subversive to not treat opinions, especially your own, as if they mattered. How would my colleagues respond to being in a situation where their opinions on issues suddenly did matter and would dictate how they would be received? To be fair, the political group I was recently a part of was aware of this dilemma. Our solution, however, was to fall back on the purity and truth of workers’ status as victims, thereby pre-emptively exonerating them for any potential faux pas. In an earnest attempt to safeguard a space for the uninitiated we thus wound up stripping them of agency and constituting them perfunctorily as victims. Most of the people I know don’t consider themselves such, and would bitterly – and understandably – resent the idea that this was the defining attribute of their subjectivity. And how would they take being thrust into an environment of judgement, let alone one that was, in their experience, overwhelmingly hypocritical and self-serving? Would it put them off left-wing politics for good? It would be facetious, if it weren’t so true, to say that I thought the Left’s moralising was in danger of ‘triggering’ the people it was supposed to be persuading.


Moral Economy

How could it have come to pass that the way we speak to each other on the Left may have more in common with bourgeois moral authority of workplace managers than the voices belonging to the people on its receiving end? One obvious answer is that, with the decline of unionism and grassroots militancy, activism has become more disconnected from working-class experience. While workplace managers insulate themselves from the unpleasant effects of their actions, activists have become insulated from the terrain in which their action is most needed. Efforts to generate progressive social change have, instead, been concentrated in a growing ‘moral economy’ of advocacy and campaign groups. It isn’t just the number of activists that are becoming pulled into the moral economy, but that the Left has found itself peculiarly reliant on professionals and self-selecting activists (who In No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Jane McAlevey charts this shift in terms of a move away from ‘deep organising’ rooted in workplaces and community centres to the nomadism of what she calls ‘superficial mobilising’:

Over the past forty years, a newer mechanism for change seekers has proliferated: the mobilizing approach. [While sometimes managing to] bring large numbers of people to the fight [they] too often are the same people: dedicated activists who show up over and over at every meeting and rally for good causes, but without the full mass of their coworkers or community behind them. This is because a professional staff directs, manipulates, and controls the mobilization; the staffers see themselves, not ordinary people, as the key agents of change. To them it matters little who shows up, or, why, as long as a sufficient number of bodies appear—enough for a photo good enough to tweet and maybe generate earned media.[ii]

In an attempt to give such campaigns the trappings of a genuine grass-roots movement authentic messengers are cherry-picked from the working classes to provide the face and voice of the campaign, who, in practice, have little or no say in how the campaign is run. And/or worse still, these authentic messengers often become disconnected from their original base in the community as they become socialised and inculcated into the norms of a new, more rarefied, and sometimes professionalised, milieu. This insularity is compounded by the fact that such campaigns are in the first place self-selecting—comprised of people brought together by a shared politics or identity. This gives rise to a host of problems, at least one of which is discursive. What types of ways of speaking, we should ask, might flourish in an environment of a moral elite—and how is it likely to resonate with what I have in the previous section described as a guilt economy? Is it conceivable that people, insulated to some degree from the diktats of capital, and certainly more insulated from a milieu of moralising guilt that often accompanies these diktats, are in a position, not unlike senior managers, where they can afford themselves the luxury of an excessively moral or righteous politics?

It is not that the Left is deaf to the problems of its insularity. Quite the reverse. The Left is engrossed in these questions. And yet bizarrely this preoccupation may have served to make the Left more insular rather than less. On occasion some insularity may be necessary. The availability of a local all-women’s group near my leisure centre, for example, offered a space for colleagues of mine who had been victims of rape and sexual assault to engage in political discussions they would not otherwise have had. From my conversations I had with them afterwards they really welcomed the opportunity to talk more candidly about their experiences. At the same time what made the space safe, in the first place, was its seclusion from power dynamics that my colleagues did not usually have the luxury of avoiding. In the spaces where the politics was more difficult and definitely more pressing, what was demanded of my colleagues was some honesty but much more imagination and improvisation. This means not simply casting judgement on political relations, as they might manifest in group situations, but re-imagining them. Ironically, the attachment to categories of analysis predicated on oppression-based identities, can become a way of being locked into those relations, and can foster practices that consolidate them. This occurred to me a couple of years ago when a colleague of mine, who had attended the all-women’s group, decided to ‘call out’ the sexism of one of the reception staff. This took a great deal of courage on her part, however the nature of her ‘call out’–that focused upon her status as a woman–had the immediate effect of reifying power relations she had, in the past, subverted through humour. I asked her about it recently in preparation for this article. Reflecting upon it she was moved to place a question mark against the adage that ‘knowledge is power’. To paraphrase what she said, ‘I’ve come to realise that to know something is wrong isn’t, in itself, a means for making it right.’ Is this not the essence of political thinking? One which doesn’t dwell on how things are, but focuses on how things could be changed?

My colleague was moved to make this distinction from being entangled in a difficult practical situation at work, but more detached political thinking might benefit from her insight. One way to gauge the radicalism of a political theory is the degree to which it challenges the natural way of things, revealing its contingencies and amenability to subversion and reversal. This is no less the case for ‘intersectional’ theories that were specifically developed to destabilise reified analyses of power. It is ironic and unfortunate then that left moralising often claims the mantle of a radical intersectional politics. By this measure, it is precisely the moralising component that serves to make the politics less radical. At worst it can be used to serve the ends of lesser-evilism, as when Hillary Clinton recast herself as an opponent of ‘systemic racism’. In the UK, Labour’s shift to the left has reinstated a politics of the universal. This is not, in itself, a panacea. The intransigence of power relations on the left, particularly the prevalence of bullish white men in activist circles, is testament to the continuing need for a feminist and racially conscious politics. A true universality must engage more seriously with forms of oppression than Labour is currently able to do. This will sometimes entail saying things that make working-class people uncomfortable, and that challenge the existing class cultures. However, it is the beginning rather than the end of a process, and the radicalising effect might act as a solvent on the parochialised, fragmented affinity-groups of the Left.



The counter-discourse prevailing in my workplace emerged from the need to foster trust and loyalty amongst co-workers against the incessant guilt tripping of the workplace management and more broadly neoliberal institutions. It is somewhat ironic then that the Left, in attempting to appeal to working class people on the basis of universalist political principles and secure unity in its own ranks should so often fall prey to the incessant guilt tripping indicative of the dominant culture. However the problem remains a very difficult one. I have emphasised the ways in which a certain profane sotto voce can be used to foster and consolidate unity, but generally speaking discourse reflects the prevailing distribution of power. To some extent the dynamic prevailing in my workplace is an accommodation to political failure. What we had developed at work was a sophisticated coping mechanism in the absence of politics. Future political success will require working class people to rediscover confidence both in their own opinions and ability to make political arguments. It will also require basic comradeliness among us.

Eschewing guilt-mongering does not mean that politeness and consideration cease to be conditions for coexisting and fighting together – particularly at a time when the Alt-Right are deliberately and self-consciously poisoning our political discourse (bourgeois propriety is certainly preferable to this). However in my experience, the Left places far too much of a premium on the purity of its arguments. We also need to desire social change, and learn how to recognise it and work with it in others. One of the appealing aspects of neoliberal ideology might be precisely its falseness. By denying the existence of impulses towards the collective it assuages the guilt that people actually do feel towards one another for not acting on those impulses. Equally we might ask what desires may underlie the Left’s moralism? Given that the heaviest guilt is something we can only bear at an unconscious level, what are we to make of the current predilection on the Left to preface anything one has to say with an admission of guilt? We are all embedded and implicated in the neoliberal condition, there is no one that is guilt-free, but the ardour and regularity of confessions of ‘privilege’ either suggests people don’t really feel guilty, or if they do, it is something they might be getting off on. Either way, what do we think will be the reaction of people far more morally compromised by their living and working conditions? Could we even venture that heaping more guilt on others might be the express purpose of such confessions?

In bleak times an easy way to achieve personal redemption is by pointing the finger elsewhere. Meanwhile populist figures on the Right, who loudly and proudly eschew any form of guilt, are better positioned to pick up the pieces. This is not something we can afford to do any longer. In a topsy-turvy world, where the most powerless are also the most guilty, we need to find new ways of speaking.

[i] Sigmund Freud cited in P. Gay (ed). The Freud Reader, Vintage Press, 1995, p. 763.

[ii] J. McAlevey. No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 10-11.

James Gurrey is a union and Labour Party activist based in North London.