The Politics of the Absurd in the Age of LARPing
In the late 80s and early 90s, the UK anarchist group Class War were a stalwart presence at demonstrations and protests. Like the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), they seemed happy to join with almost any expression of political discontent. It could be about nuclear disarmament, South African Apartheid, or animal cruelty. They were both fringe groups. Each had only a small number of dedicated followers, and each had a mindset that was too extreme to garner mass appeal.
The presence of such groups could give protests a pantomime feel. It seemed almost rehearsed when they turned-up and took their positions amongst the crowd, like characters entering an Elizabethan comic drama. Plays from this period often have a hot-headed young man who meets an ignominious death on the battlefield at the first charge. The SWP were similarly single-minded about the imminent workers’ revolution, but they were also similarly impotent and absurd. The plays also tend to have a heavy-drinking old man, a bit of clown-like figure, who is highly adept at avoiding having to do very much at all; like Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Class War were very much like Falstaff.
They revelled in their status as ‘dole bludging wastrels’, and were always carrying grocery bags filled with cans of strong lager. They had a reputation for intimidating more moderate demonstrators with their punk attitude and aggression. The high point for Class War was the London Poll Tax riot of 1990. Margaret Thatcher’s government had changed the tax-system so many of the poorest suddenly had to pay a great deal more than they could afford. The change was nicknamed the ‘Poll Tax’ after a similar levy from 1381, which is largely credited with provoking the Peasants’ Revolt that same year.
Resistance to the Poll Tax was widespread, and growing in the run-up to the riot. Local demonstrations at town halls around the country had already erupted into vandalism and violence in the preceding weeks. With the biggest demo of them all happening in London, the agitation was building momentum. Class War were determined to make this a riot to remember. They were successful. The fighting between mounted police and rioters was serious enough for 113 people to be injured, fires were started and nearby buildings burned, numerous shops and banks were smashed to pieces, and 339 people had been arrested by 3 am that night.
Class War handed out a leaflet at the demonstration before it descended into chaos. It described two groups among protestors during political actions: the moderate and conciliatory ‘fluffies’, and hardcore, aggressive ‘spikies’. The leaflet didn’t really explain these terms itself. But, by way of background, fluffies wanted peaceful protest, an orderly demonstration, followed by some speeches and appreciative applause. Spikies wanted a riot. They were there to brawl with the police, damage property, and cause as much mayhem as possible.
Fluffies favoured negotiating with the authorities, gaining consent for the route of a march, and agreeing a timeframe by which the protestors would disperse. Spikies would see a licensed protest as a contradiction in terms. They would often strike around the time the dispersal had been arranged, when dusk was near and intoxication levels high. Breakaway groups would charge about enacting spontaneous eruptions of anger, ready to enter into battle as soon as the riot-gear clad police entered the fray.
The leaflet gave practical tips for people who might find themselves caught-up with the rampage of the spikies. Once they were head-to-head with a line of police, it said, it was important to throw objects only when at the front of the battleline, or your missile might inadvertently hit a fellow rioter on the back of the head. The importance of masking-up was also highlighted. This was pre-CCTV, and before a time when protests were all carefully filmed by the police throughout the day so any masked warriors who went on to cause trouble could later be identified with the footage filmed earlier. Rioters were also warned to be as aggressive to journalists and photographers as there were to the police, because it was said the media regularly provided intelligence to the police so unruly people could be prosecuted.
The term ‘spikies’ didn’t have any lifespan beyond that leaflet — but their ranks did get referenced frequently on TV and Radio news reports whenever they’d successfully launched major disruption: “a small minority of protestors intent on disrupting an otherwise peaceful demonstration.”
Protests of recent years could not be classified in such terms. In the first place, fluffies generally assented to the status-quo of liberal or social democracy. Their concern was about a particular issue only. Some might be committed to a different status quo in principle, but this always took second place to a pragmatic concern to stay focused on the specifics of what is being demanded. They would not cloud the issue with some great big statement of discontent against ‘the system’. In contrast, spikies considered the entire system so hopelessly debased that any opportunity to make known your disquiet had to be seized upon as vociferously as possible.
Secondly, fluffies weren’t usually die-hard regulars on the protesting scene. These weren’t the usual characters, arriving sure enough on cue with all the usual costumes and props. Their numbers included the ‘good citizens’ that were moved for the first time to forming a campaign group after a particular circumstance was perceived to be so unjust it must be resisted. Spikies, like Falstaff, always turned-up whenever there was chance it might ‘kick-off’, and always had their usual props about their persons.
There were very few protests back then at which spikies would not be seen. Direct action was at this time largely the preserve of the left. The right didn’t really demonstrate, except at its most extreme, minority fringes. A rare exception to this was seen in London in 2002 when there was a massive demonstration against laws forbidding fox hunting. The usual spikies would not have dreamed of joining-in under any circumstances – this was a conservative demonstration. And the conservative groups certainly had no spikies of their own. The ‘conservative spikie’ is a new mongrel lifeform, and it had then not yet been born. The conservative spikie can only be conceived if ‘the system’ no longer has anything deemed worthy of conserving. Only then can the paradoxical figure of a disruptive and revolutionary conservative appear.
With the most high-profile instances of direct action and/or disorder in recent months, it would not be possible to delineate fluffies and spikies. The BLM riots of Summer 2020 did not demand one specific, concrete outcome, but a range of things from defunding the police, to abolishing all instances of white supremacy, along with the family and capitalism. The thinking behind the events is proximate to critical race theory. This posits an amorphous and generic problem, namely ‘whiteness’. It is difficult to discern a primary specific outcome that would defeat this, as it is understood — exhibiting an unseen, surreptitious, and pervasive influence upon everything it touches. “Dismantling whiteness” has certain outcomes in view, but no obvious endstate by which whiteness will have been dismantled.
The same broad principle applies to the storming of Congress in January 2021. Try to entertain for a moment a situation whereby, through abject fear among congressmen and women, or if a semi-naked man in animal skins had found a file on Nancy Pelosi’s hardrive showing how an electoral fraud had been planned, it had been announced later that day that Donald Trump would have another four years in office after all. This would have destroyed the system at the root. But not through showing how a specific democratic process had been undermined, rather through corroborating the view that there is a cabal of evil globalists controlling the entire system.
Today’s protests are anti-systemic; untethered from a specific demand like that of the fluffies who wished only to repeal the Poll Tax in 1990. Moreover, they have developed that same pantomime feel once associated with the spikies. Always the same old characters come out from waiting in the wings, and take their positions in the crowd. Antifa and BLM enter stage left. Pro-Trump supporters, stage right. Footage of events like the rally at the University of Berkeley in 2017 show the tribes on each side dressed as if to attend a cosplay convention — dressed as comic book heroes and action men, and with faces hidden behind protective headgear and body armour. It is hard to tell the difference between LARPing and larking about.
Preposterous as it would have seemed 30-years ago, the spikies have triumphed. There is no space now for the fluffy who doesn’t want to cause too much upset, who is not taking to the streets to dismantle everything in just one day. The fluffy concern for fair and open procedures surrounding a right to peaceful protest is nowhere to be seen. The notion that democratic societies each have a neutral apparatus enabling different voices to be heard — when a particular circumstance demands people speak out — has almost vanished. This is why commentators could take such wildly opposing views to the events of Summer 2020 and January 2021 respectively. It is no longer that the guiding principle of the fluffy holds sway — that violence and disorder are always bad things to unleash. The issue is now more often about which instance of disorder, about who committed it, and why. On each side, the entire system is at fault, mired in unseen and hidden forces of injustice and evil.
Yet there is something the spikie brings to the table that some decades ago was simply too unpalatable to be ingested. Now might be the time it is ripe for consideration. This surrounds the idea of there being neutral processes and procedures in the political sphere at all, things which are themselves somehow beyond good and evil. The apparatus of the neutral liberal state is harder than ever to see as a mere stage upon which people argue their respective cases for how things should be. Proceduralism is now being exposed as part of the drama.
The stage upon which a play takes place sets the scene, it configures the experience of the audience, as do the set and the characters’ clothes and accoutrement. Similarly, we see in recent months that constitutional machinery cannot simply recede into the background and go unnoticed with an assumed legitimacy. It has to reveal itself as part of what is at stake. This means ‘the system’ is now required to nail its flag to the mast of what a society holds specifically as good. This means society has to arrive at a commonly held good. A shared understanding of the common good can then guide its business. No longer can such business be seen as a merely transposable framework upon which competing goods and evils can be transposed at will, as circumstances demand.
As long as ‘the system’ is not anchored in the common good, the drama on the stage will continue to become ever more unreal, ever more absurd. As long as the scene upon which a play takes place is questioned by the audience, the more it dominates what takes place upon it — so people cannot focus on the unfolding narrative, only the surreal impression that can’t be computed or processed. An ‘effective’ stage is one the audience do not see. Neither do shared assumptions about the good always need to be articulated in healthy societies. In a well-functioning world, they recede into the background, so people can forget they are there, and concentrate on living. Christopher Lasch wrote that “the sources of social cohesion” are found “in shared assumptions so deeply ingrained in everyday life that they don’t have to be articulated.”
At present, those assumptions are held in question, and so are being clumsily voiced in wildly conflicting ways, like the earliest attempts at speech by young children. The triumph of the spikies involves scenes like the QAnon Shaman raising his arms in victory in Congress. What was once considered the holy of holies of democratic stability itself became a stage for a spectacle, an absurd comic farce. Then the audience can no longer embark on the willing suspension of belief in good or evil required to render it legitimate — but maybe this clears the way for people to glimpse what is to be considered good from here on.