In Conversation with Jeff Sparrow
Jeff Sparrow’s mind seems to constantly be buzzing. A writer, whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and Crickey. A radio host,
Presenter of 3RRR’s Breakfasters. A man who has published a medley of books, including Radical Melbourne, Money Shot: A Journey into Porn and Censorship, and No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson. Well known for his political activism, Sparrow founded the Socialist Alternative in 1995, and was one of the ‘Ausstudy Five’, arrested in 1992 for protesting the ending of the Austudy grant.
Vertigo sat down with Sparrow to discuss his 2018 book Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, as well as all things politics in 2019. Here are the best parts of that conversation.
Can you tell me about the role of university in left wing politics, and in politics in general?
The university plays a fairly central role in the culture war. The university is the favourite ‘wussy boy’ of the Australian right, the common presentation is that it is a hotbed of crazy left wing professors who are forcing their ideas on unwitting students. That has been a trope of the right since the 1980s.
Today the argument is all about the left-wing professors centring students with their political correctness.
In your book, you discuss the idea of delegated politics in terms of the university, in that universities moved away from direct politics, do you think that the way that universities interact with politics will change?
If we are going to have any prospects of social change it is going to be possible by a return to some notion of direct politics and I think that would apply at the universities as much as anywhere else.
I guess that the polarisation and gulf between the political class and everyone else is becoming so stark now that one of the ways that a lot of people encounter supposedly progressive ideas is, what I call in the book, smug politics. Which is to the extent of that delegated politics idea, the notion where you increasingly see ordinary people as the problem. I still think that’s a kind of politics that institutions like universities will manifest. You see in the senior hierarchies of the university that they’ll pay lip service to progressive ideals on their mission statements and corporate brochures, but what that actually means in practice is that they totally oppose the notion of unionisation. They’re totally hostile to any concept that people will organise themselves or the idea of student demonstrations or anything like that. And they have a kind of politics that says, “You people have got to remain totally passive, and if you do anything yourselves you’ll just fuck things up, and if you leave it to us we will make a better world for you.”
We all know where that’s heading, it’s heading to hell in a fucking hamper.
What about the young people of today? You often hear that young people are going to be the new face of change, considering events like the School Climate Strike and March for Our Lives. Is that something that is plausible?
That Student Strike about climate was really inspiring for a lot of people, particularly because the established organisation seemed so incapable of mobilising anyone about this existential crisis that we’re facing. The continuation of that would be the Extinction Rebellion protests in the United Kingdom at the moment, where they had I think one thousand people arrested during a campaign of civil disobedience. It’s sort of an example of what you were talking about before, Extinction is fairly new movement and who knows how it will pan out and develop, but it was kind of developed on the basis that none of the established organisations or political institutions were capable of responding to the climate emergency. So, if people wanted there to be any hope of addressing the climate catastrophe and the ecological controversy that we are facing today that they had to actually do it themselves. It was actually a matter of people putting their bodies on the line through a campaign of civil disobedience.
Why is the alt-right still attractive to young people?
One of the things that the alt-right has been able to do is to tap into a sense that a lot of people have, that there’s something really wrong with the world. Whereas a lot of kind of small ‘l’ liberal discourse is kind of predicated on this sort of political centrism which is just about saying that our leaders have things more or less under control. “ [That] we just have to change a few things, (like) racism and sexism, but we basically have things on the right track.”
One of the things the alt-right has done really successfully is to tap into the sense that young people have that something is fundamentally broken in the way politics is being done. Your parents and the political class don’t have any solutions and in many ways represent a broken model. The kind of troll culture sort of taps into that sense of satisfaction of upsetting people like that, who they see as authority figures. In some instances, it’s kind of an indictment on the left. The left should be a force that is presenting itself as attractive for people who feel like politics is broken, who see that they don’t have any future and they look at a world which is kind of falling apart around them. It should be the left that appeal to those people. It’s wrong when we have people whose views are fascist or semi-fascist that are able to get a hearing out of that. I think that the troll culture of the alt-right offers a kind of faux rebellion in a way that appeals to people. If you want to upset your teacher or upset your parents, here’s a bloody pepe the frog meme with a bloody swastika on it.
Is #metoo a continuation of smug politics due to the focus on celebrities, or something different because regular people are invited to share their experiences and try to make a change?
Obviously, the fact that people are talking up about sexual violence and sexual harassment in Hollywood is a good thing. But once you start that conversation, there are two ways that you can go. You can simply talk about famous people and the things that famous people are enduring, or you can start to ask the question, how does sexual violence and sexual harassment manifest itself to the population? There was recently a substantial strike at Chemist Warehouse in Melbourne and I think Brisbane [regarding sexual harassment] …
…because all of the staff there are working in a low paid job, with no security at all, of course the place was rife with the sexual harassment and abuse because people have no job security. They’re dependent on the managers as to whether they’ll work from one day to the next. It’s a situation that’s rife for sexual predators, and that’s the experience that a lot of people go through in terms of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. In order to provide a solution for these people, the obvious solution is structural change. If these people have job security, they’re far more capable of standing up to a sexual predator. If they have resources they can go to, if they have strong unions. Those are sort of issues that make the totally legitimate and important demands being made by #metoo that are really relevant to most ordinary people and it’s really very crucial that when we talk about this issue we think of this issue in a way that address the issues facing the majority of people, at the bottom of society, rather than a small amount of people at the top of society
What’s changed since you published your book, Trigger Warnings?
I think the general tenor of the argument is still pretty much the same. I suppose the thing that has changed the most, and it feels like it’s been over the last 6 months or so, has been the intensification of awareness of the environmental catastrophe and that seems like its adding quite a new dimension to politics. Obviously, scientists have been talking about the environment since the 1980s but it feels like over the past few months it has now become far more mainstream. I did a piece for the guardian where I was talking about how all of the polls show that the environment is a major issue for voters in this election.
The days in which people would say that we need to slightly modify capitalism and we’d be okay are kind of over. So if it’s true there has been a shift in public awareness about the environment then I think it does provide a real opening for a resurgence of direct politics and perhaps something like the Extinction Rebellions are our first signs of that.