The BBC’s James Cook has been on the receiving end of some aggressive Twitter feedback after his interview with Nicola Sturgeon on Saturday. The Huffington Post has coverage here of what was said to whom by whom. According to the Huffington, the worst comment Cook received was being told that he was the “scum of the Earth” – not exactly a death threat, but still an unacceptably aggressive comment to direct towards a journalist which should be condemned (as it has been by many nationalists, including Sturgeon herself). In an off-the-shelf “cybernat” piece, Fraser Nelson claims that:
The SNP leadership are, in my experience, refreshingly open-minded, good-humoured and intelligent. But the problem with nationalisms as a creed is that it attracts, as its followers, an angry mob – in the SNP’s case, a digital lynch mob. I suspect we’ll hear a lot more from them before this campaign is out.
I’ve already covered some of the background to this issue in earlier post on what I describe as the need for the “renationalisation of aggression” i.e. the deflection of the individual aggression of the neoliberal subject who is programmed to be aspirational and personally ambitious onto the project of a renationalised aggression in which the working class comes together politically in order to pursue organised agitation against capitalism. This, I argue, is closely tied to nationalist politics because, in post-feudal Western Europe, the individualised aggression of social mobility was a key factor in the formation of the large nation states such as Britain, France and Germany, as these states formed around one national language (“English”, “French” and so on) which became a necessary passport to social mobility. As social mobility enters a period of decline which many people expect is going to continue without any radical change to reverse that trend, people in some parts of the world are now turning to nationalism in order to purse that radical change.
Not to, therefore, excuse any one individual act of aggression on social media, but if we want to understand why, in particular, supporters of nationalism might be more often aggressive in their conduct than others, then we should try to undertake a genealogy of the historical forces which might be shaping and influencing that aggression i.e. we should place political aggression in its historical context, in order to understand it better. Incidentally, I have no idea if it is true that nationalists are more aggressive on social media – obviously, it would be something worth doing research on. But what I think would be valuable would be a way of putting the ball back in the court of commentators such as Nelson, who write vaguely about nationalism attracting “angry mobs”. Well, if that’s potentially true, then let’s look at the mechanics of it. How does nationalism attract angry mobs? Why are these people angry? Why do these individuals channel their aggression into a mob rather than pursuing their own isolated acts of aggression? I have suggested one possible reason, outlined above. But I suspect that the people – i.e. unionists – who are quick to complain about nationalist aggression do not want to pursue their complaints to this level of depth, which is precisely why we must (whilst bearing in mind that, as yet, there is no firm evidence either way about whether nationalists are more aggressive than other politically-engaged individuals).
Returning to Cook, what I find interesting about the episode is the implicit class politics of emotional labour we can unearth via some further reflection upon it. When I worked in a call centre, people (i.e. customers) told me I was the scum of the Earth (or something related to said scum) pretty much every single day. Sociologists call this “emotional labour” i.e. the part of the job which drains us emotionally or demands a particular emotional response as part of our role that is at odds with how we really feel. My sympathy is with Cook because what he experienced this weekend is similar to what I used to experience, daily, in my working life. Perhaps, now that the public can have direct contact with journalists through social media (and now that journalists must seek to increase their follower count in the same way that salespeople must increase their sales figures), journalism is becoming more “customer-focussed” (a terrifying thought for anyone, such as myself, who wants journalism to be about public service in the broader sense). And, then, as a consequence of this customer-led approach, some people think they have a right to approach journalists directly and complain about their service in the same manner that they might complain about a hair in their soup at a restaurant.
But this is precisely to get the heart of the matter which, for me, is the class politics of consumer society. We think it normal to expect that call centre workers will endure a certain level of abuse from customers before cutting them off. A few people may think about questioning the type of society we live in when they hear about the levels of stress caused by working in a call centre, but most people just seem to accept that is how it must be. For better or worse, we are supposedly stuck with consumer society in which some people (i.e. low-paid people) are expected to endure personal abuse as part of their job.
Cook, however, due to the specific nature of his role, was able to ask his Twitter followers: “is this the country we want, folks?” Of course, there followed many messages about the need for civil debate and cool heads et cetera. But to propose greater politeness on the part of individuals is to misunderstand the problem. I don’t just want people to be outraged when journalists receive direct messages of abuse at work. I want a society which maintains such an intolerance of abuse, that anyone working in any service environment (call centre, restaurant, cinema, whatever) can expect never to receive it (and can respond in any way they see fit, without questions then being raised over their fitness for the job). In this sense, the outrage would be class-blind in a way that I don’t think it is at the moment. This would only happen if the working class had enough strength to radically change how production (including production in service environments) is organised. In fact, I don’t believe the question “is this the country we want?” can be posed as anything other than a question about how production is organised (only the “bad” sort of nationalists think of national character in terms of culture). This change in standards for workers is not going to be achieved through a campaign for greater politeness. It is going to require radical change, nationalist or otherwise.