Over the past few months I have become, and remain, deeply embedded in the student movement in the UK and Europe. Many of the young people who feature in the piece – on whose activities I’ve been keeping meticulous notes, and who are of a similar age and political attitude to myself – have since become as close to personal friends as observational subjects ever can be... This has stretched my objectivity to its limits. I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait.
So says Laurie Penny, reporting from “the front line of student activism.”
Readers familiar with Ms Penny’s brand of activist journalism – in the pages of the Guardian, New Statesman and the communist Morning Star - may find her use of the words “accurate” and “objectivity” inadvertently amusing. This is the same Laurie Penny who tells us that, while “not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist,” football is nonetheless “commodified nationalism” played by “misogynist jocks” indulging in “organised sadism.” The World Cup is apparently not about football at all, but “only and always about men.” It’s a “month of corporate-sponsored quasi-xenophobia,” one that “violently excludes more than half the people.”
Like so much in Laurie’s world, it just does, okay?
Writing for Red Pepper, Ms Penny tells us that, “capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women” and that women are reduced to “reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed.” The same article rails against “US state governments [that] compete to think up ever more cruel and unusual ways to punish women for sexual self-determination.”
It is, I think, fair to say that Laurie Penny enjoys railing against things, generally things that aren’t entirely obvious but which are framed as both terrible and somehow self-evident. A typical Laurie Penny article is long on assertion, short on facts and coherent argument, and invariably written in the highest possible gear. She rails against the Conservative Party (“hordes of drooling poshos”) and its “brutally intolerant moral agenda.” The details of this brutally intolerant agenda are, alas, somewhat vague. She rails against “the bruised superstructure of patriarchal capitalist control,” the particulars of which also remain unspecified and mysterious. She rails against a “heteronormative patriarchy that oppresses all of us.” (What, you didn’t know?) She rails against “brutal repression” by an impending police state that no-one else can see, and she rails against protestors “not being heard,” as if being heard must entail being agreed with and obeyed. Ours, she says, is a world “on fire.”
When not railing against a heteronormative police state that’s brutal, intolerant and also on fire, Ms Penny likes to share with us an extensive menu of personal miseries, along with other aspects of her fascinating self:
It’s getting harder to stay in touch with why I write and campaign in the first place. It’s getting harder to stay angry… That terrifies me more than anything... The centre-right have taken back my country… Across the pond, the American right are winning the fight for ideological control of the world's only superpower.
Ah, an elected British government that’s insufficiently leftwing. The End Times are upon us.
That’s what clinical depression does, you see. It takes away your anger, piece by piece... When terrible things happen - like a coalition government closing down your country piece by piece, slamming the door on the young, the poor, the sick, immigrants, women - you cease to really believe that anything can be done.
And when not feeling numbed by the horror of it all, our thrusting leftwing columnist envisions a “radical youth movement” – “a movement not just for reform but for revolution” – one that “requires direct action” and “upsetting… our parents, our future employers… and quite possibly the police.” This revolutionary uprising is needed because, “the young people of Britain are suffering brutal, insulting socio-economic oppression.” (And yes, all of this is happening “in a world that’s increasingly on fire.”)
For Ms Penny, politics must always be declared in the most inflated and operatic terms. Proportion is a hindrance and realism is irrelevant, as are minor details like facts and causality. Among which, the relationship between a higher education bubble and egalitarian beliefs remarkably like her own. Thus, Laurie regards belated cuts in public spending – cuts that merely reduce the overall increase in spending – as “the greatest assault on social democracy in living memory.” While 13 years of overspending and unsustainable state expansion under New Labour, a consequent structural debt measured in trillions and the buying of votes with other people’s money doesn’t count as an “assault” on anything. What matters – pretty much all that matters – is the drama, the role-play, the rhetorical rush. And in Laurie’s world everything is political, no matter how small, self-indulgent or contrived.
Needless to say, the news is always grim:
The planet is boiling; the rivers are drying up; the human race may very well be about to tear itself apart.
One of Ms Penny’s readers asks,
Why do you feel it important to be angry all the time?
While we wait for an answer, perhaps we should try reversing that sequence of ideas. After all, pretending to be angry makes some people feel important all the time.
Over at Harry’s Place, Michael Ezra recently asked: “Who is there to speak up on behalf of the students?” He suggested Laurie Penny had already become “the voice for a generation”:
Penny is… being cheered on by the youth for whom she speaks… She expresses the views of many in coherent and well thought out articles… Penny is surely one of the most vibrant young journalists that we have.
Now there’s a thing to ponder. Let it roll around your mind. The preferred mouthpiece for Britain’s youth could be someone who can practically smell “the end of everything,” and who equates a modest cap on housing benefit – £20,000 a year - with the Nazis’ Final Solution.
Objectivity, see? Just stretched to its limits.
Update: Laurie rails against the menace of pubic glitter.
Update 2: Laurie tells us that throwing heavy metal objects through someone else’s windows isn’t really violence.
Update 3: Laurie hyperventilates, pities self, loses mind.