The Left needs orators

It was oratory that brought me to politics. Or Patrick Stewart’s deep, resonant voice splitting the infinitive in ‘to boldy go where no one has gone before’, the grammatical rebellion the prelude to my own rebel politics. Star Trek stood – in a naïve and contradictory way – for something. The solemn intonation ‘to seek out new life and new civilisations’ was a call for pluralism, a tacit endorsement of multiculturalism and an understanding that all people were essentially the same.

But it was the voice that sold the values; the solemn style of delivery matched with the intellectual gravitas of Picard, the educated “renaissance man” who captained the Enterprise. The ideological seduction lay in the marriage of the two. It’s hard to tell whether that initial monologue ran away with my imagination because the truth it expressed imbued the Shakespearian grandeur of Stewart’s voice with a deeper resonance, or whether the artifice itself robed the ethos of the words in my own pathos. Perhaps one day the language will moulder and fall away and I’ll leave radical politics behind me.

I doubt it. It’s only Star Trek. In a sense, it’s true I’ve left the political aesthetic created by the timeless, metatronic infinitives of that monologue, saturated as it was with the universalism of enlightenment liberalism, behind. But it was oratory that brought me to politics and oratory, I think, that will keep me there. Gone from my political aesthetic are the angelic resonances of space, to be replaced with the swell and roar of the crowd.

I began writing this post a day or so after the 48th anniversary of the assassination of one of the greatest political leaders – and orators – of the 20th century, Malcolm X. Like my childhood hero, X spoke slowly, but with intensity and urgency. This was language in the round, the words ‘justice by any means necessary’ joining with the rising clatter and clamour of those who crowded to the Oxford Union to hear him speak.

Nothing seemed further from the extraterrestrial echoes of Picard’s universalising soliloquay. Unapologetic and unabashed, X was gladitorial. His polemic raged against the brutality of white supremacy, Jim Crowe and the Klan at the same time as he drew a line in the sand between himself and the white liberal establishment. X didn’t speak to the universal; he questioned its very existence. The rhetoric, delivered in a style closer to religious sermon, divided the room into those who stood on the right side of history and those who – being too invested in a system of white privilege or too weak in character to protest against it – blocked the march of progress.

X’s was a combative polemic the cadences of which rose and fell to the crash and swell of heckles, whoops and applause. It was visceral. When you listen to those audio clips, the noise carries you with the language. You’re a part of something that is as much physical as it is political.

I admired others for their uncompromising polemic. My teenage self was drawn to the irreverent rhetoric of the New Atheists. I basked in the cultivated rage of the late Christopher Hitchens. But as I grew older, the speeches seemed hollower and meaner. In their criticism of religion, Hitchens and his kind spoke the language of human rights but it seemed divorced from the social movements that had provided the bite and throaty roar resonating just underneath the rhythmic rise and fall of X’s voice.

For me, the best speakers are imbued with the romance of the barricades. Even in Spanish, Hugo Chavez, on a shard of stage jutting from the sea of people who would come to see him speak, crackled with energy. I’m told by those who met him that he was electric. He was what Gramsci called the ‘organic intellectual’; an intellectual created in the midst of political struggle against oppression. Unlike Hitchens, who formed eloquent phrases in the debating clubs of Oxford, and – in later life – the bars of Manhattan, this was oratory and argument picked up in the heat of combat with deadly foes: provisional, desperate, and above all emotional.

And why not “emotional” when the stakes were – and are – so high? The best oratory – the resonant kind; the kind that wrenches the chest and haunts the memory – can’t be reduced to clever words and pithy phrases. There’s no form without content and no content without form. To separate the two is impossible. Good oratory is political. It’s speech that speaks to and channels the oppressed and the downtrodden.

At heart, I can’t shake the view that oratory – indeed, art – has to have some relationship to truth, or at least to what we perceive as true. To speak well is to speak ethically, and it’s to speak out. To ignore the power of good oratory is to say that it is somehow extrinsic from the message, but the words are the message; the politics.

Words aren’t said by disembodied voices, projected into the timeless vacuum of space. They’re visceral; they resound; they bounce off walls and ceilings and they’re literally absorbed by people. Words have an affect (and a cause). They intervene in the world – speech is action – and, if the cognitive scientists are to be believed, they can change the neurological make-up of our brains. Whether they guild the lilly or the garden weed is important.

Today, the political right possess a range of good political communicators. The economic crisis is explained deftly with metaphors comparing the economy to a household budget: the Labour government ‘maxed out’ their credit card; early in the crisis, they ‘failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining’. On the Left, we have so far failed to communicate a convincing alternative to the austerity agenda, an agenda that is wrecking the lives of millions.

This is an important failure because, for the Left, the economic crisis requires more than professional communicators. Owen Jones is right to argue for a new form of Left-wing populism that looks beyond the narrow horizons of the old managerialism and dreams of implementing popular policy proposals rejected by the establishment.

Such a break with the old politics demands orators – speakers who not only win arguments by skillfully repeating a political line, but stir the imagination as well. Words brought me to politics. To beat back this assault on the living standards of the majority requires that they bring millions more.