Andrew Neil talks to the left-wing writer and contributing editor at Novara Media about why she’s “literally a communist”, her support for Jeremy Corbyn and how she deals with the abuse she gets on Twitter
Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them.
In this episode I’m joined by an activist who rose to prominence on social media, TV and radio as a vocal backer of Jeremy Corbyn.
Ash Sarkar describes herself as a communist, which we discuss in the interview, and is a contributing editor at left-wing website Novara Media.
We also talk about her support for the former Labour leader, her relationship with the party now… and the tone of debate on Twitter, where she has faced abuse.
This is The Backstory from Tortoise.
Andrew Neil: Ash Sarkar, you told Piers Morgan that you were, quote, ‘Literally a communist’, what do you mean by communist?
Ash Sarkar: What do I mean by communist? I think that means that everything that we need as humans to survive should be collectively owned, collectively managed and that we should have access to them on the basis that we have a right to them rather than simply that we’ve been born into a fortunate enough position to be able to afford them. I don’t believe that markets are the most efficient method of distributing resources and I think that one way in which we see that is with the climate crisis and I think collective stewardship, particularly in this age of climate crisis, to me it looks like our way out.
Andrew Neil: Very few people opt to be communists these days; why have you? What propelled you in this direction, who propelled you?
Ash Sarkar: Who propelled me? I suppose it started when I read Black Skins, White Masks by Franz Fanon. It was a book that my mum gave me and she gave it me because she wanted me to be able to understand life as a person of colour and as you read Fanon, there are words like lumpen proletariat and I didn’t know where it came from so I then got my hands on a copy of the Communist Manifesto and I was a teenager at this time so I must have been like 13, 14 and the impact that the Communist Manifesto had on me was exactly the one that Marx and Engels intended, it’s this phenomenally rousing text, it’s very gothic, very dramatic and I was like, ‘My God, this makes a lot of sense’ and then I got to uni and I started thinking about it not just in an emotional way but in a more rational way. And it made sense for me of why democracies are so weak in the face of capital, why our media is the way it is, this idea of facing superstructure I found really compelling as an analysis and yes, it made sense to me on both an emotional level and as a way of making sense of the world I lived in.
Andrew Neil: It makes you though an outlier to have these views. Why now do so few people follow the route you have?
Ash Sarkar: Well, the reason was so few people follow the route that I have is because communism was largely defeated by the time you get to the 1990s. One, you’ve got communist parties across the world either being massacred or discredited or forcibly broken up; two, you’ve got the fall of the Soviet Union, of course that’s a huge deal and what you are left with are these rump authoritarian states where it wouldn’t be very nice to live. The exception of course being China, which is a sort of state capitalist bureaucracy in its own way and so the utopianism and the romance of communism really was diminished by that and in terms of being an outlier, I really don’t mind that. It would be very boring if everybody had to judge their opinions according to where they think the crowd is.
Andrew Neil: So, am I right in assuming from what you’ve said that you consider yourself a Marxist?
Ash Sarkar: Well, I consider myself a Marxist in lots of ways, yes, but I think there is sometimes a tendency to look at Marx as something as a prophet and you have to adhere to the revealed word of Marx and not think about the thinkers who took his work forward. Like I said, Franz Fanon is of course really important to me because he takes this idea of the lumpen proletariat, looks at it through the lens of colonialism. Gramsci for me is really important of how you make sense of what goes on in Western liberal democracies; Stuart Hall for the cultural component …
Andrew Neil: The British philosopher?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, the British cultural thinker. So, all of these thinkers, you trace it back to Marx but they are doing things with Marxist thought that Marx doesn’t get to grapple with.
Andrew Neil: Do I take it from what you said earlier then that your version of communism still involves the abolition of private property?
Ash Sarkar: Well, in terms of the abolition of private means of expropriating things which should be collectively owned, managed and stewarded, not in terms of you can’t own pieces of furniture or you can’t own your home.
Andrew Neil: You can own your home?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, I think that home ownership …
Andrew Neil: Even a big one?
Ash Sarkar: Even a big one? Well, put it this way, I think that the demise of council house building, the introduction of right to buy, it’s made the housing market worse for everybody. I think having a mixed housing economy would be quite a good thing. Ultimately it means that home isn’t what it is now, which is this sort of bubble of asset price appreciation, it’s doing something different but I’ve got no beef with private ownership of a home if it means that homes are available to everybody.
Andrew Neil: But you said earlier that you wanted the collective provision of everything.
Ash Sarkar: It’s the collective stewardship of everything and that doesn’t mean that you don’t have some level of private property but ultimately, you’ve got the state being responsible for making sure that you’ve got the supply side covered where private ownership isn’t getting the job done.
Andrew Neil: Would the state own the media?
Ash Sarkar: Would the state own the media? Now this is something that I think is really important; I believe in state regulation in the sense of …
Andrew Neil: Well, we have that.
Ash Sarkar: … things like Ofcom and IMPRESS, I really do believe in that. I believe in state-funded public service broadcast but state-controlled media? No.
Andrew Neil: But wouldn’t the state own the media?
Ash Sarkar: Not necessarily, no. I mean you do have models of communism where you’ve got room for things like cooperatives, right, and Novara Media for instance, we’re effectively a co-op, we’ve got a flat pay structure, if the media organisation goes bust tomorrow it’s not the two directors who get everything.
Andrew Neil: But you have that in a capitalist society.
Ash Sarkar: We have that in a capitalist society but I wouldn’t say …
Andrew Neil: Where is there a Novara in a communist society?
Ash Sarkar: Well, hopefully you’ll see in 20 or 30 years.
Andrew Neil: But where has there been?
Ash Sarkar: Well, the thing is, you have had – obviously not in Soviet Russia where you have an incredibly tightly controlled media environment – but you have had in, of course in Cataluña you had a hugely radical independent press as well during the Spanish Civil War, you had some really interesting experiments with radical left-wing and in some ways hostile to the communist governance at the time in Bologna, you had the autonomous media which is what we’re modelled on. I’m not looking for top-down, state-controlled everything, what I’m looking for is collective custodianship which does involve things like cooperative ownership. I would be very uncomfortable with the state owning or controlling all media but I also think this the reverse back to Uno card – I don’t think in an environment where you’ve got over three-quarters of the newspaper circulation being controlled by four billionaire families that we do have a free press. I think in some ways we have an entirely constrained and restricted press.
Andrew Neil: To get to where you want to be with your kind of communism, do we have to go through the dictatorship of the proletariat?
Ash Sarkar: I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t know. I go through this …
Andrew Neil: So, we might?
Ash Sarkar: I go through this all the time. I think about democracy versus command and control because I do believe there is something inherently emancipatory about the democratic process, democratic freedoms. That’s why I am very much not Leninist and I’m certainly not a Stalinist and I’m not a Trotskyist. I believe that the democratic process is important but how you form that counterweight to capital and how you deal with the brute force of the capitalist state – and this of course is stuff that Gramsci thinks about at length and is working through in the prison notebooks and my answer to that is a big I don’t know.
Andrew Neil: One of the things Marx advocated strongly was what he called revolutionary terror, which is part of the dictatorship of the proletariat and most of those who form governments based on Marxist doctrine were pretty keen on revolutionary terror, they carried it out – Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.
Ash Sarkar: Well, of course, the origins of the phrase revolutionary terror come from the French Revolution and Robespierre. Have you read A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel?
Andrew Neil: No.
Ash Sarkar: It’s a beautiful novel, one of my favourite novels, and she is really grappling with this question of revolutionary terror, the desire to keep the revolution going in the face of all enemies and whatever, and also bounce it against human life and she’s got a line which I think gets right to the heart of the contradiction which is: “What is one life in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. Of course, it means everything to its possessor.” And for me, when it comes to this question of political violence, whether that is the revolutionary political violence that you’re talking about in terms of Marx, whether you are talking about emancipatory political violence which is what Franz Fanon writes about in The Wretched of the Earth. For me there is this stubborn idea of the sanctity of the human life which I find hard to collapse or wave away in terms of the revolutionary impulse.
Andrew Neil: But isn’t that in conflict with all that we know about communist real-life experience where the sanctity of human life is often the last thing that matters?
Ash Sarkar: But I would say that the sanctity of human life under the system we have is often the last thing that matters.
Andrew Neil: Really? Where are our gulags?
Ash Sarkar: Our gulags? Well, we offshore them. I mean this is the thing about capitalist societies, is that we can have our lovely European social democracies but what goes on in Libya and at the borders of Fortress Europe is absolutely horrendous. When you look at the conditions for people working in coltan mines or coal mines or child labourers in India; what we do with global capitalism is we say, oh, we’ve got a lovely society here but over there, in the hinterland, in the periphery, it is absolutely strained with blood.
Andrew Neil: So, a textile factory in Sri Lanka paying very poor wages and turning out clothes that we in the west buy cheaply, that’s the equivalent of a Stalinist gulag?
Ash Sarkar: I’m not saying that they are equivalent, I’m saying that capitalism absolutely churns through human life and if you want to measure body counts – and this is the interesting thing which Amartya Sen does in his work on famines, you end up with an astonishingly high death rate from famines in democratic and liberal India after independence, absolutely grotesque.
Andrew Neil: Higher than Stalin’s treatment of the gulags?
Ash Sarkar: Well, that’s the research that Amartya Sen comes out with and Chomsky says if you apply the same methodology from the Black Book of Communism to India, you end up in one country alone with a higher death count.
Andrew Neil: But famines have happened in the non-communist world because of climate issues, because of government incompetence, because of over-farming, because of distribution issues. Famines have happened in communist regimes through direct intentional economic policy.
Ash Sarkar: Well, I think if you were again …
Andrew Neil: Isn’t that true?
Ash Sarkar: … to look at the colonial era … Yes, but I would also say the same has happened in the non-communist world. If you talk to somebody from Ireland and you talk about the Great Hunger, they would say this was an intentional British policy.
Andrew Neil: But that’s not true, but it’s not true.
Ash Sarkar: If you talk to people about the Bengal Famine … well, yes, you had the turning away of certain grain ships, you only had relief coming in like towards the end.
Andrew Neil: Ah, there’s two different issues here. The causes of the potato famine in the 1840s and the British government’s response to it, which everyone agrees was wholly inadequate but the cause of it was not an intentional … it was not intentional British government policy to starve the Irish to death.
Ash Sarkar: But you did have the continuing exports of grain from Ireland during the potato blight. You also had again, and I know I am talking about Amartya Sen a lot because I think…
Andrew Neil: It was a response; they didn’t cause it.
Ash Sarkar: But in terms of the impact of deaths, then yes, it did cause the deaths if not the blight itself.
Andrew Neil: I mean, given that every time people with your views come to power and the result is the same, which is authoritarian dictatorships and economic squalor, why do you keep going back to the same thing?
Ash Sarkar: Well, I would also differ with the idea that communists come to power you do have economic squalor and authoritarianism.
Andrew Neil: Give me an example where that hasn’t happened.
Ash Sarkar: Kerala. So, Kerala has had communist regional and local governments for absolute decades now and compared to the rest of India in terms of its literacy, healthcare outcomes, it does an awful lot better.
Andrew Neil: But it is not a communist society.
Ash Sarkar: But it is a communist government.
Andrew Neil: I understand that – well Bologna has had communist governments but it is not a communist city.
Ash Sarkar: Well, no, Bologna I’d also say, if you go back to the origins of Novara Media, we are very much about their tradition of …
Andrew Neil: I understand that but there’s a world of difference between local government being run by communists within a capitalist or non-communist nation state and a communist nation state which controls all the levers of power. Now when that has happened, where’s the success story?
Ash Sarkar: But I’m saying that one, there isn’t one form of communism, right …
Andrew Neil: Give me any.
Ash Sarkar: This is a long and rich political tradition of which the Leninism and Maoism is just one part and I do not associate myself with Mao, I do not associate myself with Lenin.
Andrew Neil: No, but I am trying to find any example of where when a nation state has ended up following the route that you want it to, that it’s been a success.
Ash Sarkar: The thing that I’m saying is I think the capitalist society that we have, the trajectory that the world is on in terms of climate change in particular, I think that in 40 years’ time we’ll be looking at that and going, well why did we prioritise the market above all else? Why did we trust the market to get us out of this when we could have had collective ownership, collective stewardship, which would have allowed us levers to solve this problem?
Andrew Neil: Except that it just results in poverty. Can I suggest that every country that moves to some form of market economy and, like your versions of communism there are many versions of the market economy as well, Singapore is very different from Sweden for example, Britain is different from America, France is certainly different from America, but they’re all versions of the market economy. Every country that adopts that approach ends up with rising living standards, rising educational standards, less poverty and rising per-capita incomes. Every country, whereas communism is the opposite.
Ash Sarkar: So, I take issue with that, I really do take issue with that. I think you are completely right to say that there are lots of different versions of a market economy, I think you are completely correct to say that.
Andrew Neil: But they all work better than communism, is the point I’m putting to you.
Ash Sarkar: No, I entirely … I entirely disagree with that. I think that …
Andrew Neil: Well, give me examples of where communist society has performed better than a market economy.
Ash Sarkar: Well, here’s one thing that I think, and again this is about climate change, if you…
Andrew Neil: No, no, no, I asked you a question.
Ash Sarkar: No, no, no, I’m answering your question, I’m answering your question.
Andrew Neil: Where has there been a communist society that has operated better than a market economy?
Ash Sarkar: Okay, I think that on certain metrics Cuba has operated better. Now it hasn’t been in GDP but if you want to look healthcare outcomes, Cuba when compared to other Caribbean nations has done much better, right, much, much better. I know that you don’t like the Kerala example but for me that is really important when you compare it to …
Andrew Neil: No, I think the Kerela example is very interesting, I’m not arguing with that but I’m just saying that communists being in charge of regional or local government is not the same as them running a nation state, that was my point there. I accept your example of …
Asha Sarkar: And then the third thing that I’d want to say, and this is looking towards the future, I think that China is obviously a bad polluting country at present but when you look at their ability to build infrastructure, when you look at things like high-speed rail and then if you look at the pace at which the decarbonisation is going to happen, I think that they are in a much better position to decarbonise very quickly than say America.
Andrew Neil: They are building a new coal-fired power station every week.
Ash Sarkar: I am not saying they are not bad polluters; they absolutely are, they absolutely are but …
Andrew Neil: But you just said that they are leading to decarbonisation.
Ash Sarkar: No, I’m saying if you look at their ability to decarbonise quickly …
Andrew Neil: But they’re not.
Ash Sarkar: … once they hit peak COP – no, I’m not saying it’s happening now but I’m saying their ability to do that is greater than America’s ability to do that.
Andrew Neil: But America has already substantially decarbonised by moving from coal to gas.
Ash Sarkar: Moving away from gas and getting rid of fracking in Montana …
Andrew Neil: But that could well be the next stage.
Ash Sarkar: American rail infrastructure … American rail infrastructure might as well be in the 19th century.
Andrew Neil: I understand that, America has major infrastructure problems which Mr Biden, so far without huge success, is trying to address. I don’t understand how anybody – although your colleague in Novara has – could argue that China is in the vanguard of decarbonisation.
Ash Sarkar: I am not saying it’s in the vanguard of decarbonisation, I’m saying if you want to project 20, 30 years in the future where I think that every single nation state on the planet is going to go, oh my God, what have we been doing all this time, and you are going to have to pull the levers to wean yourself off fossil fuels very, very quickly, which country is going to have the ability to do that rapidly? I think it will be China.
Andrew Neil: You weren’t a member of the Labour party but you were part of the campaign which won Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leadership.
Ash Sarkar: I wasn’t part of the campaign that won him the Labour leadership.
Andrew Neil: Well, you were in favour of him becoming leader?
Ash Sarkar: I must be honest with you; at the time I was a late adopter. At the time I was still a bit of a sulky anarchist and was like ‘Oh, the party-political form is dead’ and it took me a while to see the real opportunity. It wasn’t really until 2017 itself, shortly before the election, when I thought this thing is really important.
Andrew Neil: But you joined the Corbyn Labour party.
Ash Sarkar: I did.
Andrew Neil: And you hadn’t been before so there was some element of support there. I mean did you see him as a start on the road to communism or just a Labour leader who was at least roughly on the same planet as you?
Ash Sarkar: I saw him as a Labour leader who was capable of taking the concerns of my generation seriously, I didn’t see him as a starter on the road to communism at all and I didn’t necessarily see him as being on the same planet as me in lots of ways, particularly to do with drugs policy, particularly to do with policing policy, we were really, really miles apart but the reason why – you’d see those pictures of him on Holloway Road and he’d be surrounded by like, just like youths, do you know what I mean, teenagers wearing North Face jackets. It’s because he was speaking to their material conditions and even though I am at heart a kind of disappointed utopian, you can’t help but be moved by that and that was what got me to join the party.
Andrew Neil: If Labour was going to choose a leader more to the left than traditional, was he the right left-winter to choose?
Ash Sarkar: I don’t know, I mean then you get into these counter-factuals where you could pick a different MP, for example John McDonnell, and he would never have got on to the ballot because – am I allowed to curse on this?
Andrew Neil: A little bit, yes.
Ash Sarkar: All right, he pissed off everybody in the party including …
Andrew Neil: That’s quite mild!
Ash Sarkar: Including the socialist campaign group as well, so I think that it could have only been Corbyn because of the unique set of circumstances that were there and, I’ve said this before but Corbyn’s greatest strengths were also his greatest weaknesses. He couldn’t be anyone other than himself and people were drawn to him because of that, but it also meant when you had to be adaptive, reactive, responsive and to respond to things that maybe you think are unfair, he wasn’t well-placed to do any of those things.
Andrew Neil: Was there a time when you thought he could be Prime Minister?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, yes.
Andrew Neil: When was that?
Ash Sarkar: It was in the final, final run-up to the 2017 election, I thought this could happen.
Andrew Neil: Oh, you thought he might have won in 2017?
Ash Sarkar: I thought this really could happen.
Andrew Neil: Helped by the quality of Theresa May’s campaign?
Ash Sarkar: Well, people say that a lot but she added a lot to the Tory’s vote share, it just wasn’t distributed properly.
Andrew Neil: She lost a lot to the Tory parliamentary representation.
Ash Sarkar: She lost in seats and that’s because it was a crap campaign but …
Andrew Neil: That was my point!
Ash Sarkar: These were the warning signs for Corbyn really, which is he looked at where she was stacking up votes, that was the crumbling red wall, but no, I thought … it’s almost painful to remember it because I think, oh what could have been.
Andrew Neil: If he had become Prime Minister, what do you think Britain’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would have been?
Ash Sarkar: I think that in some ways it wouldn’t have been that different, I think he would have …
Andrew Neil: Do you think he would have sent weapons from day one?
Ash Sarkar: Not from day one, I think it would have been later down the line but I think he would have done that.
Andrew Neil: Do you think he would have sent heavy armour?
Ash Sarkar: I think that his … I think that his NATO scepticism would have been tempered by the nature of being in government.
Andrew Neil: He would have encouraged Finland and Sweden to join NATO?
Ash Sarkar: I don’t think he would have encouraged Finland and Sweden to join NATO but then again, I don’t think many of us would have thought that was where we’d end up right from the beginning. I thought that Finland and Sweden were …
Andrew Neil: No, but the British government has encouraged, they’ve been in the vanguard of encouraging these two Scandinavian countries to join. I mean, even not in power, Mr Corbyn hasn’t been able to say one kind word about President Zelenskyy.
Ash Sarkar: Has he not? I mean I’ve not been keeping up with his interviews if I’m honest with you, I really haven’t been.
Andrew Neil: He’s attacked, he said he was against the invasion but who isn’t against the invasion?
Ash Sarkar: He said I don’t know him, so I can’t speak to him.
Andrew Neil: Yes, exactly.
Ash Sarkar: I think that’s again a very Corbyn thing which is there’s an answer which is politic and then there’s the one that he wants to give and he gives the one that he wants to give.
Andrew Neil: It is pretty hard to argue that at our response would have been the same. Or anything like.
Ash Sarkar: I genuinely think that in power, when you are confronted with the day-to-day decisions of the deteriorating situation on the Ukrainian border, the scale of the Russian invasion, the devastation in Bucha and Mariupol, I think that ultimately the response would have been similar, in the same ballpark, purely because that’s what the situation demands.
Andrew Neil: And yet he has been almost entirely silent about it.
Ash Sarkar: I’m not his spokesperson, I don’t know …
Andrew Neil: I understand that but you did want him to be Prime Minister.
Ash Sarkar: I did want him to be Prime Minister, yes.
Andrew Neil: And you thought he could be, that’s why I’m asking you. The Labour left has taken control of the party twice in the past 70 years; both times it has taken Labour to catastrophic defeats. Isn’t it time to learn that lesson?
Ash Sarkar: Well, the question I would pose back is in the time of Blair’s three back-to-back election victories, the 1997 landslide, how many of those policy decisions are still with us? Sure Start got gutted, the Blairite social settlement which was a little bit more social democratic Thatcherism – that’s all gone. I’m not saying that I’m a particularly adept political strategist because I don’t think I am but what I would say to the moderate or the right wing of the Labour party is, why haven’t you been able to entrench any of your social programme? Why was it so easy to wipe away?
Andrew Neil: Well, the minimum wage is still there, the huge increases in spending in schools and hospitals that happened under Blair and Brown are still there.
Ash Sarkar: The minimum wage is still there and significant … But now look at what’s happened to per-pupil funding, what’s happened to the NHS and one of the things I think now interest rates are going up has been unforgiveable.
Andrew Neil: But that’s because you haven’t won elections!
Ash Sarkar: But no, in terms of what was happening under Blair, it’s not like he a massive council house building programme, it’s not as if you had an attempt to do what … I mean Margaret Thatcher, I think, is along with Clement Atlee, the two most visionary Prime Ministers that we’ve ever had.
Andrew Neil: Well, they were the two most transformative peacetime Prime Ministers.
Ash Sarkar: Exactly and in the same way, we are still living with remnants of Atlee’s Britain, I think we are living in Thatcher’s Britain in a huge way.
Andrew Neil: We have the welfare state …
Ash Sarkar: We have the welfare state, or what’s left of it.
Andrew Neil: We have the NHS.
Ash Sarkar: What’s left of it.
Andrew Neil: Well, we spend almost £200 billion a year on it so there is a fair bit left of it.
Ash Sarkar: What Thatcher understood and this is what Blair didn’t understand, and this is what I think Corbyn was trying to do – she famously said economics is the method, the object is to change the soul. She created an economic environment that pumped out Tory voters, that was what Right to Buy was about, that was the attacks on the unions were about, the demise of heavy industry – it pumped out Tory voters. Blair with his back-to-back election victories didn’t do that. He didn’t create those economic machines which create Labour voters and I genuinely believe that if even just a bit of that 2017 manifesto – so the commitments on council housing, education spending, empowering trade unions again – I think if those things had happened, they would have been comparable, perhaps not on the scale but comparable, on the same planet as the scale of Thatcher’s changes which meant we would have been with them for a really long time.
Andrew Neil: But voters aren’t forever, political parties don’t get to own voters forever and although Blair did create a huge coalition to produce two landslides plus a comfortable victory a third time, and Thatcher did reconfigure the way people voted during her time, millions of people who voted for Margaret Thatcher voted for Tony Blair.
Ash Sarkar: And that’s because, you know, Tony Blair … if you want my honest opinion, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first Labour leader in decades also happened to end up being the godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children, right. He had to make a deal with an incredibly right-wing media landscape. Before that when you had Labour Prime Ministers, that was when the Daily Mirror was the biggest selling newspaper in this country, the media environment was totally different. He made a bit of a deal with the devil, he said don’t go for us too hard, there are certain things we are not going to touch and it is not going to be hugely different to when the Conservatives were in power and they go, okay, that’s what we’re going to do. I’m not saying that party’s own voters; far from it. I’m saying that a party which is serious about its longevity and its legacy understands that the policies that you introduce have to produce the electorate which is most conducive to you winning power again. I think that Tony Blair, for all of his vision and his strategy, didn’t do that.
Andrew Neil: Is there a parliamentary route to your kind of communism?
Ash Sarkar: Probably not, probably not. I don’t know what the route is and I’m saying this with …
Andrew Neil: Well, that was my next question: if it’s not a parliamentary route, what is it?
Ash Sarkar: I absolutely do not know; I do not know and there have of course been different radical experiments. You’ve had the Paris Commune, you’ve had the Autonomists, you’ve had the attempts to build autonomous small communities, you’ve got the thing which my colleague Aaron Bastani writes about which is sort of going back to Marxist first principles and saying, look, technological change is going to bring this thing. I don’t know what it is; I don’t pretend to either.
Andrew Neil: You are with Novara, the website – how would I describe it? The left-wing activism? It is journalism with a purpose, isn’t it; journalism that you hope will change things.
Ash Sarkar: So’s the Daily Mail.
Andrew Neil: Yes, well, that may be a good or a bad comparison, I’ll leave you to make that. Is that a fair description of it?
Ash Sarkar: I’d say we’re left-wing. I wouldn’t necessarily call ourselves activists though we do try and cover social movements and activism because that’s something that’s often neglected in legacy media outlets. I mean, I know I’ve mentioned his name once already but I sometimes joke that we’re Rupert Murdoch ambition without Rupert Murdoch budget because the way Rupert Murdoch was like ‘This is a generation, I’m going to be responsive to you, I’m going to be moulded by you and mould you’ and it was Boomers and Generation X’s. We sort of seeing ourselves as that but for broke people.
Andrew Neil: Are you making progress or are you really on the wilder fringes?
Ash Sarkar: I say that as a media organisation we are definitely making progress and I can see that happening. In terms of being able to have an entirely donation and subscription funded organisation, we don’t require injections of capital like Vice Media, we don’t have a paywall, everything’s free.
Andrew Neil: You don’t have a bankroller behind you?
Ash Sarkar: So, we’ve got 6000 paying supporters and we have over 200,000 YouTube subscribers to the channel and we have something like 2 million views per month.
Andrew Neil: So, the funding is atomised, it is not coming from a Mr or Ms Big?
Ash Sarkar: No, I wish it was! No, it’s from …
Andrew Neil: Well, maybe after people listen, you will get one.
Ash Sarkar: We encourage people to give the equivalent of one hour of their wage per month but whatever they can is fine, so it’s not huge donations.
Andrew Neil: And you’re able to survive on that?
Ash Sarkar: Oh, we’ve been able to grow on that.
Andrew Neil: To grow on that too.
Ash Sarkar: And our best period of growth was actually post-Corbyn during the pandemic because my colleague, Michael Walker, took his live-streaming show to three nights a week. We nickname him the Sober Judge, he is very adept at processing large amounts of information and conveying it in a way which helps people find their way through it and young people are an underserved audience when it comes to news and current affairs media, they really, really are.
Andrew Neil: And not many of them watch the mainstream news and current affairs.
Ash Sarkar: Yes, and that’s because their viewing habits are different, they are in different places but also because they don’t see their reality being represented necessarily.
Andrew Neil: Twitter, you use it quite a lot, you use it a lot even though you attract a lot of personal abuse, none of it merited and some of it quite horrific. Is it water off a duck’s back or actually, does it get you down at times?
Ash Sarkar: I don’t think the human brain is designed to absorb that much violence and that much violent imagery. I also think that you have to be realistic and say if you think that social media is a worthwhile space of contestation, that is what’s going to happen, so I think you’ve got to do two things. One is you preserve as much as your mental wellbeing as you can …
Andrew Neil: Which is difficult when you are getting the abuse that you are getting.
Ash Sarkar: I’m really lucky in terms of the people I’ve got around me. I’ve got a group of friends who …
Andrew Neil: A support system?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, they are just really good at taking my phone off me! And just being like, just stop, just stop and instead why don’t you watch Tottenham Hotspur get battered by Chelsea to make you feel better!
Andrew Neil: I perfectly understand this, and this is not a criticism at all, it’s understandable but you can be quite spiky yourself.
Ash Sarkar: Yes!
Andrew Neil: And I guess that winds them up even more.
Ash Sarkar: I like repartee.
Andrew Neil: Repartee is great, there’s no problem with that at all and repartee also implies sometimes a bit of humour. A lot of the time you are dealing with anything but humour, you’re dealing with dark evil minds.
Ash Sarkar: Where it’s frightening is where you think it is going to have a real-world expression and there have been times when I’ve been chased by the far right, where I’ve been …
Andrew Neil: What, physically chased?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, yes, physically chased. There have been times when I’ve seen a tweet where somebody was standing behind me in the queue for a supermarket and it was like, ‘Should I punch her in the back of the head?’ and there …
Andrew Neil: So, it has a real-world manifestation?
Ash Sarkar: Yes, yes, it does but that’s … I don’t mean this in a dismissive way because it’s horrible and it shouldn’t happen, but that’s the name of the game and ultimately the thing I’m doing is I’m being paid, I make a living, to advance the left-wing perspective and I’m part of a movement of people who are doing that for free and so I think that while you can say this really sucks, it’s horrible and I wish it didn’t happen but I think it can get a bit, you know, the world’s tiniest violin when you say, oh my God, I’m such a victim. No, ultimately, I have a privileged position within a movement and I think you have to take that seriously.
Andrew Neil: What do you think, since you’re on the receiving end of it, what do you think makes people so horrible on social media? Is it the anonymity, does that help?
Ash Sarkar: No, I think that the studies done of it, for instance around the Euros finals exit which showed that the majority of people sending racist abuse to the three players who missed their penalties, they did so under their real names.
Andrew Neil: Oh, they did?
Ash Sarkar: They did, so I don’t think that anonymity is as much of a problem …
Andrew Neil: So, we must know where they live!
Ash Sarkar: I am going to say, what did you say about my boy, Bukayo Saka? The one time you’ll ever see me standing up for an Arsenal player.
Andrew Neil: So, it’s not all anonymous is what you’re saying?
Ash Sarkar: No, it’s not all anonymous. I think there’s a really good book about this called The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour and one of the things that he talks about is that it has an addictive structure, so it is literally modelled to give your brain these little dopamine hits, it fosters neurotic attachment and all of us are in some way involved in it, and I use all of us quite deliberately because while me and you might not be the most egregious abusers of Twitter-crack, we are also addicts who are trying to distance ourselves from the worst part of it.
Andrew Neil: And it can also drag you down in the sense that when – and I think you are of the same frame of mind – that if someone is really egregiously rude to you or unpleasant, you are of a mind just to whack them back!
Ash Sarkar: I think that you … you’re always going … it’s almost like the same rules as a fist fight. Whoever wins a fist fight is whoever has got the greatest capacity for violence, right, and who doesn’t care how much they are getting hurt as long as they are hurting the other person and ultimately, in a Twitter slanging match, that’s the rule as well so you have got to have a cut=off in your own head of how far you are going to go.
Andrew Neil: And if it’s a fight you can win.
Ash Sarkar: It’s a fight that you’re not willing to win and I think that’s a different thing. For me I think repartee is one thing, I really like having a clap-back and it’s because I grew up listening to pirate radio. So, pirate radio was all about clashing and having the last word and saying something witty and I’m just like, ‘I can’t help it, I want to do this all again’ but you ultimately have to draw a line and go, this isn’t an argument which anyone is going to win in a meaningful sense. Ultimately, whoever will prevail is the person who is able to inflict the most damage to the other because they don’t mind how much they are damaging themselves.
Andrew Neil: What next for Ash Sarkar?
Ash Sarkar: A nap.
Andrew Neil: Do you mean after this interview?
Ash Sarkar: Oh my God! Yes, a Valium please.
Andrew Neil: You are hugely active, you have a strong view of the way the world should be, you promote that view with an articulate way of doing it but you are in the political wilderness. Are you content to stay there?
Ash Sarkar: I think that my job, my job has changed and I’m glad that it has changed. I think between 2017 and 2019, because I really wanted this thing to happen, right, I wanted council housing, I wanted to end to homelessness, I wanted to stop seeing the food bank that’s around the corner from my house, I wanted to stop seeing that queue get longer every day. I thought my job was just, oh my God, get this thing over the line and now there isn’t a project of that nature and now I think what my job is – and in some ways I’m really grateful that I have the opportunity to do so – is just take a step back and go, okay, so what’s really going on? So, I’m working on a book at the moment and it’s called Minority Rule and it’s looking at how culture wars are an outgrowth of what’s happened to media over the last 40 years, what’s happened to class composition over the last 40 years and then going, so what’s going on behind that? What is actually going on with class? What actually is going on with the economic settlement which shapes our society? And it’s a luxury to be able to do that, it’s a luxury to be able to go I’m just going to step back and do a vibe check of British politics and society and I think that that’s my job. Afterwards, I don’t know. I’m really bad at making future plans and sticking to them, I just see where I end up and go, okay.
Andrew Neil: Ash Sarkar, thank you for being with us today.
Ash Sarkar: Thanks for having me.
Andrew Neil, narrating: Tortoise members and subscribers to Tortoise Plus on Apple Podcasts can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series.
This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella.
The executive producer of The Backstory is Lewis Vickers.
Thanks for listening.