The Dark Net

by Jamie Bartlett

Jamie Bartlett’s new book The Dark Net is the fruit of several years’ research into the inkier shadows of digital culture: trolling and cyber-stalking, the politics of hate and terror, the consumption and performance of pornography, illegal drugs and suicide pacts. It sounds like a roll call of tabloid headlines but, disappointingly for any journalist in search of straw men to burn, what’s actually on offer is a meticulous, discomforting account of the human stories behind each of these.

And perhaps the greatest discomfort on offer is the fact that – no matter how distant the digital underworld may feel from ‘real’ life – the temptation to place it in some safe, separate box proves in every case misguided.

Take the second chapter’s protagonist, Paul. The author first meets Paul in a working men’s club: a young man ‘with a handsome face, short dark hair, and tattoos that climbed up his neck. He was good company… until, that is, talk turned to politics.’ At which point Paul begins to spill out his passionate devotion to a cause: White Pride. ‘What do you think the world will be like under black or Paki or brown rule? Can you imagine it? When we’re down to the last thousand whites, I hope one of them scorches the fucking earth, and everything on it.’

What’s new is not Paul’s fear, hatred or one-dimensional view of the world. It’s the fact that technology has turned him into a ‘one-man political party,’ spreading his message on social media, painstakingly gathering and contributing to meetings of like minds, rising through the ranks of the English Defence League’s Facebook presence. Far from skulking in some outer darkness, his is a strident public voice, mere clicks away from every screen’s daily churn of news, status updates and noise.

For many people who care about politics, Facebook is little better than a punchline: something to do if you don’t actually want to do anything. Stories like Paul’s give the lie to this. For him, Bartlett makes clear, the online and offline worlds are very different places; but it is online that his actions have reach and resonance. Paul himself is ambivalent about the power he taps into onscreen – ‘I was becoming too hate-filled, too paranoid, it was seeping into my blood’ he tells Bartlett, explaining second thoughts about his digital presence – but at the same time he hungers for community, validation, influence.

Is the internet a breeding ground for terrorism and horror, for abuse and exploitation? Unquestionably – just as it unquestionably fuels many of modernity’s most remarkable stories of collaboration, education, co-operation and investigation. How do the dark and the light balance out? This is a harder question, and one for which Bartlett offers no easy answers, not least because ‘the internet’ itself is something of a fiction: a noun containing multitudes. Instead of weighing its vices and virtues in the scales, he suggests, what we need is to listen to the news it brings about our own condition in the 21st century – and to ask what freedoms we value most.

The freedom to see, say, buy and do anything you like on the dark net is safeguarded by anonymous browsers, encryption, peer-to-peer networks and – above all – the careful censorship of anything self-revealing. What happens, though, when your true identity is revealed, and consequences come rushing back into the void? In the world of ‘camming’ – amateurs posting images or video of themselves nude, or performing explicit acts – one delightful digital blood sport is known as ‘doxing’, takings its name from the abbreviation docs (‘documents’), and means outing the identity of a naïve performer.

Bartlett furnishes the example of a young female user posting explicit photos of herself in response to user comments. During the performance, one person asks her to take a naked photo with her first name written somewhere on her body; later, another asks her to pose nude with any medication she is taking. She performs both tasks – and, before long, a gaggle of viewers have tracked down her university, Facebook and Twitter accounts. While she sits helplessly at her computer, a collage is put together of her explicit pictures, which are then sent to family and friends with a message: ‘Hey, do you know Sarah? The poor little sweetie has done some really bad things.’ This is known as a ‘life ruin’, for obvious reasons. As one commenter sums up: ‘Too bad she was dumb enough to leak her name and whatnot. Oh, well. Shit happens.’

‘The inflicter of suffering may be fooled, but the sufferer never is.’ This was the poet Philip Larkin’s comment on his great 1950 poem ‘Deceptions’ – but it’s also a line that whispered through the back of my mind while reading The Dark Net. As soon becomes clear from Bartlett’s time among cyber-libertarians, dissidents and those preaching the gospel of anything goes, political posturing often masks a version of freedom that avoids all questions of consequence: of who is paying what price, and where, for your pleasure or passion. Technology can be an astonishing leveller in giving voice to the marginalised, the timid, the disadvantaged, those far from the centre of things. But it can also be an astonishing excuse for narcissism and collusion: for fooling yourself about others’ suffering precisely as much as you wish to be deceived.

In his final chapter, Bartlett traces the anything-goes vision of freedom to its logical conclusion in the techno-optimistic cult of transhumanism: a place in which ‘there is no ‘natural’ state of man. Freedom is the ability to do anything, to be anything, to go as far as our imagination can take us. We’re always changing and adapting, and embracing technology is simply the next step.’ Against this are ranged the claims of the ‘anarcho-primitivists’: those claiming that ‘technology tends to distract and detract from our natural state, pushing us ever further away from what it really is to be free humans.’

Both tribes consider our current relationships with technology inadequate. Yet both also offer inadequate prescriptions for the future, based on a fundamental misreading of what it means to live with technology in the world Bartlett patiently details.

Our responsibility is not to some abstract vision of human potential – whether enhanced by ultimate technology, or denuded of it entirely. It is to each other, as we can best understand our circumstances: compromised, enmeshed in history and contingency, bound by ties we have not chosen. To become more free, here, is not to pretend that the mirrors our machines hold up to us show anything truly new. It is to look more carefully at how we live, with them and without them, and hope to become less deceived.

 

Tom Chatfield is a writer and commentator. His most recent book is How to Thrive in the Digital Age.

 

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Revolt on the Right

by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin

Ukip won 27.5 per cent of the vote in the 2014 European elections. What will be their impact in 2015, and on the political culture of Britain more generally? Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford have written a deeply-researched, accessible book on this important insurgent party.

Goodwin in particular has done a remarkable job promoting the book outside the confines of academe to shape popular thinking on the subject. Based on numerous interviews with party elites and rigorous statistical analysis, it nicely encapsulates the way academic research can inform policy debates and the public. But the idea, promoted by the authors, that Ukip will damage Labour as much as the Tories in 2015 is not borne out in the data, even if the analysis is correct in the long run.

Ford and Goodwin’s central argument is that Ukip supporters are ‘pale, male and stale’, older white men who have been left behind by modern Britain. The party capitalises on three cardinal issues they term the ‘Ukip triple’: immigration, Europe and dissatisfaction with British democracy. The party has grown by capturing an increasing share of voters with this triplicate of views – opinions common among pensioners and those with no educational qualifications.

The authors detail how the party was formed by Alan Sked, a historian at LSE who remains an active member of the faculty. Beginning as a small Euroskeptic pressure group, the movement attracted a host of colourful characters including television personality and former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk. The party was riven by splits between those who wanted it to press for change within the Tories and others who sought to break through at Westminster. In the early days, theory dominated over political skills.

A young activist named Nigel Farage was one of the few who avoided embarrassment on polling day in 1997, the first major election Ukip contested. He won 5.7 percent of the vote in Salisbury, enough to win back his deposit. He later commented, ‘I was the only one who tried…the rest were all intellectuals.’ Oscillating between leaders while battling the infiltration of former far-right activists, the party staggered on. In 2010, Farage replaced the patrician Lord Pearson of Rannoch, rebranding the party’s image and increasing its political savoir faire. So began its dramatic ascent.

Ford and Goodwin successfully argue that Ukip represent much more than the Tory backbenches. Indeed, a central tenet of the book is that Ukip harms Labour as much as the Conservatives and that the glee of Labour strategists at the rise of Farage is misplaced. The authors point to two major trends to support this contention.

First, their data show that Ukip are ‘the most working-class party in British politics’, and therefore have a natural affiliation with Labour’s traditional base. Second, survey evidence from the late Blair and Brown period shows Ukip voters stemmed more from Labour than the Conservatives. Ford and Goodwin commendably provide detailed appendices laying out the numbers behind their argument, but admit their data does not permit them to ascertain whether working-class Tories or Labour traditionalists form the bulk of defectors. They nonetheless conclude that in all likelihood Ukip hurts both parties in equal measure, harming whomever is in office most.

In a series of persuasive comment pieces in the Guardian and Telegraph, the authors warn that Labour stands to suffer alongside the Tories in 2015. ‘Left behind’ voters who would ordinarily switch back to Labour at this point in the electoral cycle are instead opting for Ukip, taking the wind out of Labour’s sails. As if on cue, Farage has recently announced that his party is now ‘gunning for Labour’.

On the face of it, Ukip should dent Labour more than the Tories. Ukip voters are, though not the most working-class, no less working-class than Labour. Surely Labour contains a more promising reservoir of potential Ukippers than the Tories?

Unfortunately for David Cameron, concrete evidence for this claim is hard to come by. Instead, the evidence is that culturally-conservative working-class Tories provide the bulk of Ukip defectors. The 2015 British Election Study (BES) internet panel surveys find that of those planning to vote Ukip in 2015, 40 per cent reported they voted Tory in 2010 against just 11 per cent who said they voted Labour. This is not just because people are sick of whoever is in office, which in this case happens to be Cameron. Around 20 per cent of those intending to vote Ukip in 2015 voted for Blair in 2005. Yet in that contest over 33 per cent said they voted for Michael Howard, a much larger slice than plumped for Blair.

In short, ex-Tories outnumber ex-Labour voters within the ranks of prospective Ukip voters by a large margin. The BES results are echoed in the Understanding Society (UKHLS) longitudinal survey. Tracing Ukip supporters’ vote choices back, we need to return to the pre-Blair days to find an even Labour-Tory defection pattern. An important Ukip segment are Labour supporters who voted Tory in the late 90s and early 2000s, attracted by their stance on Europe and immigration, transiting into Ukip in the late 2000s and 2010s.

A second problem concerns the class basis of the analysis. The BES and UKHLS confirm that Ukip voters come disproportionately from the middle, rather than lower, rungs of the income spectrum. They are more likely to be homeowners, employed and politically conscious than the average white adult. True, older voters, and younger voters without qualifications, are overrepresented in the party. But this points to status rather than class, culture as opposed to economic position, as the motor of Ukip support.

In the BES, 18 per cent of White British people intend to vote Ukip in 2015. Among the 5500 whites polled who have university degrees but are poorer than average, support drops to just 11 per cent. For the 7300 whites in the sample lacking university degrees who are wealthier than average, it jumps to 21 per cent. The archetypal Ukiper is a successful plumber, comfortable retiree or construction foreman, not an unemployed, deskilled casualty of globalisation. They are ‘left out’ of the status elite, and therefore resentful, but are not left behind by the modern economy. This is why economic palliatives will not lure them back to the mainstream. Finally, what distinguishes Ukip supporters more than anything else are their views on immigration and Europe, irrespective of class.

Ford and Goodwin are right to draw up a Ukip profile, the ‘left behind’, in order to communicate rigorous research to a wider audience, but the nuances and grey zones need shading in as well. We should remember that an important minority of Ukipers don’t fit the stereotype: according to the UKHLS, 18 per cent are university-educated and 22 per cent are managers and professionals. The book implies the median voter in Britain is a university-educated urban professional comfortable with immigration. In fact this segment represents less than a fifth of the electorate. The reality is that the ‘left behind’ are no more of an outlier than the ‘impatient transformers’. The nation’s centre of gravity lies between these poles, not at the modernising end, as the book suggests.

So while I commend the book’s attempt to translate difficult quantitative research into a language the public and policymakers can grasp, shorthands can, in the wrong hands, solidify into a distorted version of reality. If we are to devise a Ukip profile, better to focus on English nationalists than economic losers, ‘preservers’ rather than ‘changers’. Preservers tend to be white, older than average, and strongest among secure non-degree holders. Most voted Tory in 2010, were unlikely to return to Labour, and it is this subgroup which is fuelling Ukip’s rise.

Ford and Goodwin are nevertheless correct in an important sense, and herein lies the ultimate value of their work. If my analysis is correct, Ukip’s emergence will damage the Conservatives by hiving off an important Tory demographic. As with the rise of Canada’s populist Reform Party in the early 90s, this could cast the Conservatives into the political wilderness for a decade or more. During this period, Ukip may, like Reform, mobilise new voters into the electorate and shift the political culture to the right. If a British version of Canada’s ‘unite the right’ movement succeeds, Labour could subsequently find itself out of office for many years. Ford and Goodwin’s thesis that Ukip poses a threat to Labour rings true, but for the mid-2020s rather than 2015.

 

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London and, with Gareth Harris, author of the recent Demos report, Changing Places.

 

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Indian-Caribbean Test Cricketers and the Quest for Identity

by Frank Birbalsingh

In his introduction to Michael Manley’s A History Of West Indies Cricket Clive Lloyd wrote in 1988 that ‘cricket is the ethos around which West Indian Society revolves.

All our experiments in Caribbean integration either failed or maintained a dubious survivability, but cricket remains the instrument of Caribbean cohesion – the remover of arid insularity and nationalistic prejudice.’

Both Lloyd and Manley glossed over an uncomfortable fact. Around one-fifth of the population of the Caribbean’s cricket-playing islands are so-called ‘East Indians’, with their family roots in the Indian sub-continent. But they have supplied only 11 per cent of West Indian Test cricketers. None at all appeared for West Indies in their first 31 Test matches, from 1928 to 1949. The first to be selected made a sensational impact: Sonny Ramadhin, the spinner who mystified English batsmen in 1950. Other great Indian-Caribbean players were Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharan and Shivarine Chanderpaul. But they disappeared from West Indies teams for twelve highly successful years, from 1982 to 1994. This led Viv Richards to hail his ‘African team’, a stereotype reinforced by the brilliant but tendentious documentary film Fire In Babylon.

Only five Indian-Caribbeans played more than 50 Tests. Half of the 34 selected were discarded after fewer than ten Tests.

Frank Birbalsingh, a celebrated literary and cultural scholar, has addressed this under-representation in an important book Indian-Caribbean Test Cricketers and the Quest for Identity, published by Hansib Publications. He traces its roots to the complex social and racial divisions established under British colonial rule.

After the original Amerindian inhabitants of the West Indian islands were eliminated by disease or depression (or took flight into deep forest), their conquerors imported millions of African slaves to work on their plantations. In the British colonies these became the largest ethnic group, followed distantly by white British settlers and so-called ‘brown’ (mixed-race) people. When slavery was fully abolished in 1838, the British obtained a new labour force from indentured workers. Some were from China and (Portuguese) Madeira but the great majority (close to half a million over the next 80 years) were recruited from the Indian sub-continent. Although in principle free to return to their homelands, the majority settled and established families, particularly in Trinidad and British Guiana.

From the beginning, the indentured Indian plantation labourers, and their descendants, were treated as an underclass by all the other Caribbean ethnic groups. They were characterised as backward and unskilled, and as transients who made no contribution to the emerging local and national Caribbean identities. Birbalsingh gives some vivid examples of how Indian-Caribbean history and culture was ignored in school curriculums. At one school in Trinidad, the image of a white Jesus in the school chapel was replaced at independence by a black one. If anything, independence heightened the cultural prejudice against Indian-Caribbeans because they were seen as a threat to African-Caribbean political supremacy, particular in Guyana and in Trinidad and Tobago.

Birbalsingh, himself an Indian-Caribbean originally from Guyana, rightly wants to achieve recognition for the contribution of Indian-Caribbeans to the brilliance and excitement of West Indian cricket, which continues to catch the world’s imagination even after a long period of decline. He hails the day, in 2012, when over half of the West Indies side were Indian-Caribbeans. He develops his case in profiles of the great players already mentioned, as well as the nearly-great Ramnaresh Sarwan. However, his most successful profile is the less-known Joe Solomon, whose two superb run-outs produced the first tied Test match, between the West Indies and Australia in 1960-61. Solomon himself attributed his success to early training as ‘an East Indian country boy from Berbice in the sticks’, stealing ripe mangoes by throwing sharp stones at their stalks.

Birbalsingh’s book is marred by a few slips. He repeats the myth that Colin Cowdrey faced the West Indian paceman Wes Hall with his arm in plaster in 1963: in fact Cowdrey was at the non-striker’s end and the England spin bowler, David Allen, took all of Hall’s thunderbolts in the final over. More important, he glosses over his subjects’ achievements in one-day cricket and in English county cricket. This gives a one-dimensional view, especially of Kanhai, who was more than a romantic swashbuckler. He accumulated over 11,000 runs for Warwickshire at an average over 50, which included grafting performances worthy of Chanderpaul. It would also have been interesting to compare the reception of Indian-Caribbean cricketers in English society with that in West Indian.

He might also have looked at the economics of West Indian cricket, and the frequently-advanced argument that young African-Caribbeans now seek sporting careers in soccer, basketball or athletics in preference to cricket. If this thesis is true, West Indies cricket will become progressively more dependent on Indian-Caribbeans. It would be a great service if his book encourages them to value their cricket history.

 

Richard Heller is a writer and journalist.

Peter Oborne is chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph and associate editor of the Spectator.

 

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