Death of a Paper Tiger: Reflections on Class War

    From Aufheben no. 6 - Intakes: Autumn 1997 - (with a few minor typing corrections.)

The Class War federation have recently announced their decision to dissolve themselves. The last issue of their paper (Summer 1997) gives some reasons why and also serves as a post mortem on the history of Class War. This prompted the following reflection by some comrades, which we have included as the Intakes article for this issue.

(Note: although the article dwells on the aspects of Class War we feel need to be most criticised, this is partly to counter act the somewhat self-congratulating boastful attitude that lies alongside the more useful self-critical insights in the final issue of the paper. But we do recognise that some people joined Class War out of a sincere desire to challenge this society and did some things to further that goal while in Class War. Our point is that the effectiveness of such actions was not determined by their membership in the publicity machine called Class War (except on those occasions when the group orthodoxy became an obstacle to action); their participation was not necessarily any more effective than others trying to achieve the same goals. Organisational loyalties only become relevant in struggles when they become a hindrance and a cause for separation.)

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    On the level of appearances, which was always their main form of existence, Class War was essentially a marketing concept of the 80s - a kind of anarcho-Saatchi and Saatchi. Like the Tories under Thatcher, they invented a new way to sell politics to the working class. Thatcherism achieved a crushing victory in the arena of class conflict, and its tactics have been copied by ruling classes across the globe. Politically it has even succeeded in redefining its opposition; Tory Blair's New Labour is only the most obvious example, but we can also see Class War as the bastard child of Thatcherism. At a time when Thatcherite policies were destroying or radically restructuring the industries and communities that had been the strongholds of class struggle (and therefore the old forms of struggle) Class War responded by publicising themselves as the defenders of the working class values of these communities. This took the form of various kinds of opportunism such as the Bash the Rich marches; media spectacles designed only to publicise the organisation and keep its personnel occupied.

    The Hampstead Bash the Rich march was not allowed into the area and was instead diverted by the cops through the back streets of Camden. It was ironic to see council tenants watching from their balconies as a couple of hundred predominantly anarcho-punk types marched down their streets with a banner proclaiming 'Behold Your Future Executioners'! Publicising a Bash the Rich march in advance is like informing the law beforehand of your intention to hold up a bank. Other opportunisms included their adoption of archaic cockney slang - denouncing swanky toffs etc - the sub-Chas 'n' Dave mockney style betraying the London-centrism of the 'national' paper. Logically, to be really populist, they should have done other regional dialect issues of the paper - perhaps an 'ee by gum' Yorkshire issue or 'De Cluss War' in Jamaican patois to be truly patronising?

    Class War's other main stereotype was of the typical proletarian rebel as young, white, living on an estate and swearing a lot; like all organisations looking for a constituency to recruit from and sell to, ClassWar reduced all the individual and collective diversity of real people down to a convenient lowest common denominator.

    Class War always projected an anti-intellectual pose as part of their identikit working class image; in effect this meant being generally anti-theoretical and ahistorical. This denial of an historical perspective led them to define the working class, its interests and consciousness in terms of their most immediate, temporary and shallow manifestations. This was the basis of Class War's adopted tabloid style.

    Obsessed with the powerful social influence of the content of the media, and constantly prostituting the organisation as a public image, Class War failed to grasp any real understanding of the social function of the media form. Populist journalism was an invention of middle class tabloid hacks which claimed to speak for and represent the working class - but like all media representatives, the real function was to pacify and manipulate. Its intention was to mould working class identity, not merely to reflect it. The desired effect of all populist journalism (of whatever creed) is to suspend critical thought on the part of the reader and to reduce choices of opinion down to a simple duality - good/bad, black/white - through a simplistic representation of reality. Constant repetition of this tends to numb thought and encourage predictable (Pavlovian) responses.

    Class War failed to see tabloid populism as a historical trend needing to be ridiculed, but instead took it at its face value and embraced it. As the mass media came to invade daily life more and more, this and other factors combined to close off areas within working class culture where people could find time and space to think, read, reflect, discuss and debate social questions and organise struggle around their needs. There has been a massive and unprecedented decline in class struggle in the UK since its high point in the 70s. A working class under attack and in retreat from Thatcherite monetarism, a more repressive architecture and policing changing the use of public space, new more isolated forms of leisure consumption etc. - all this contributed to a withering of a combative proletarian culture. More than ever before, opinion is no longer created but only received.

    We live in the age of the sound-bite, where carefully constructed pre-arranged fragments of words and images are constantly recycling in the media. (The average length of a Party leader's sound-bite in the 1992 election was 18 seconds.) As always, the media is a one way transmission belt from Power to the passive spectator, offering only various impotent false choices. The whole process is a closed circuit, completely stage managed, denying the possibility for collective discussion and development of complex ideas and realities. An historical development of the repression of critical thought or cretinisation process - influencing the whole of society - is at work here. With their anti-theoretical attitude, Class War unconsciously became a part of this process.

    Class War's anxiety and awkward self-consciousness about using long words, abstract concepts, political terminology etc. was a symptom of the retarding effects of their populism. (It was sometimes implied that being theoretical was 'elitist' or 'middle class' - a patronising insult to the self-educating efforts of the historical working class movement. This was quite dishonest, as many Class War members had studied for degrees, and many were well read in what they might call 'difficult theory' - the Situationists, left communism, Barrot, Blob and Combustion etc. The assumption seemed to be that while politicos like them could grasp it and were influenced by it, your mythical average prole couldn't or wouldn't be interested. )

    This retarding influence meant that Class War's analysis and coverage of events was usually quite limited and shallow, avoiding dealing with the real contradictions within the working class; especially the conservative aspects of working class culture, e.g. the internalised and conditioned values, attitudes and practices that are an obstacle to liberation.

    'Apart from opportunism, they also embody the other side of practical anarchism, elitism. Witness the weirdly affected tone of articles with titles such as "Why I hate the rich", written as though throughout our lives we only experience poverty because we are bossed about and because we have less money than the rich. There is no doubt that readers of Class War are supposed to be recruited opportunistically. The perfect reaction would be for Joe Worker or Joan Housewife to say, "Class War is the only paper which really puts the verbal boot in against the rich in real working class language; they really know the business."' (Anarchism Exposed, London 1985.)

    Underlying this populism were certain patronising assumptions about what the 'average prole' was capable of comprehending and what projected image of Class War would make them most popular to the largest number of 'average proles'. While ClassWar remained on the terrain of wanting to escalate class struggle, their chosen methods only reinforced certain tendencies of existing society. Being basically anarchist, there could be no hierarchical leader figures to worship (although inevitably there was some informal internal hierarchy) but the real star of the show was the media image of the Class War organisation itself - and all those associated with it could bask in its reflected glory. This was the source of the boring arrogance often displayed by Class War, along the lines of 'Class War is the bizness and does the bizness'.

    For most of the history of the proletarian movement, a demanding critical thought was not seen as alien or elitist. In fact research into the use of union libraries, workers' book collections, radical publishers etc shows that 'deep' theoretical works were often far more widely read amongst sections of the proletariat than the upper classes. Knowledge was something that had to be fought for collectively and did not come cheap to the poor, and was therefore all the more highly valued. Proles were open to theory if it could be seen to be useful and related to their own reality and struggle. There were also many lectures, debates, meetings and workers educational events regularly held; 'it can be estimated on the basis of published speakers' lists in various journals that between 1885 and 1939 there were approximately 100 street corner meetings per week throughout London.' Self-educated artisan/worker theoreticians produced by this international culture include; Weitling, Proudhon, Dietzgen, Bill Haywood, B. Traven, Paul Mattick, Lucy Parsons, Makhno, Arshinov, Jack Common, Fundi the Caribbean Situationist etc.

  All this is mentioned not in the interests of romantic nostalgia, but to show how much autonomous working class culture has been repressed, and the consequences of its loss that we have to suffer today. Class War's resort to tabloidism could never be a solution; you could never cure the problem by using the very form that had helped to create it.

The contradiction between Class War's stock- in -trade populism, which was their basis of existence, and the growing need of some members for greater theoretical clarity could not be resolved and ultimately it killed off Class War. The tabloid form, although a dead-weight, could not be abandoned without robbing Class War of its only identity and character. But this form was, by its very design, simplistic and reductive; wholly inadequate for and incompatible with theoretical expression and development.

    'Class War's main fault, and it includes all the others, is to be a political organisation as hundreds have existed in the world before, imbued with ideology, unable to look at the past and gain knowledge from it, more concerned with denouncing this society than with searching for its weaknesses and go on the offensive in a considered and coherent manner.' (A view on Class War by a former member, op. cit.)

    In any future proletarian social movement channels of direct collective communication will need to reappear as practice; in exactly what forms remains to be seen. Class War's populism pandered to the anti-intellectual/anti-theoretical tradition within British culture; as one of them put it, 'We want action not theory' - a slogan fit only for headless chickens. Many of the criticisms in this article were shared by some of Class War and were voiced internally; but these contradictions were never allowed to surface publicly, so as to preserve a 'sussed' group public image. This is the opposite of what is necessary - rather than the working class itself searching for an adequate theory and practice by confronting openly its own contradictions, instead a political faction attempting to recruit people around a false image of unity which is the result of repressed contradictions. If these criticisms and contradictions are worth mentioning now in the final post mortem issue of the paper, why were they not worth sharing with their readers when Class War was a functioning organisation?

    At the Anarchist Bookfair in 1985, when Class War were in their ascendancy, intoxicated by media attention and believing their own hype, a Class War celebrity got on stage and drunkenly announced to the assembled anarchoes, 'You pacifists and liberals have had the anarchist movement for long enough - now its our turn. And if we haven't turned this place into rubble within five years then you can have it back.' Well, 12 years on and its Class War that are in ruins, with little but a collection of fading newspaper cuttings to show for it, while this society carries ruthlessly on. Testimony to the fact that you can't fight alienation with alienated means.

Sept 1997
Dedicated to Julian


 [Edited version of a reply to a reply to the previous article.]


The Animal remains a Paper Tiger                       

Reply to the reply from Animal. 

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       For a start, Animal's whole response is written as if the article is the work of Aufheben - yet this is obviously not true, as its clearly stated at the top of the page that this is an Intake - coming from outside their group. So all criticism based on the idea that Paper Tiger was written by an intellectual is mistaken; like everyone else I have an intellect that I sometimes use, but that does not make me an intellectual. Its not my job or defining social role. Its not even true that Aufheben are just intellectuals uninvolved in real struggles (but they are quite able to defend themselves and I'll deal with my own criticisms of them further on). But even if it had been written by an "intellectual" that wouldn't in itself invalidate all criticisms; you can't try to dodge difficult questions by tagging dismissive labels on to those who ask them or assume that CW's supposed working class pedigree always ultimately wins the argument. Which is not to say that intellectuals don't need criticising...

     The "stillborn" article is written as if only middle class intellectuals would make these kind of criticisms - ignoring the fact that some of them were also made inside CW during its history (but were not allowed to surface publicly).

     The Animal reply continually distorts what I actually said in my article; or asks me to defend things I never said. It also asks questions whose answers can easily be found in my original article. Some examples; Animal asks for an example of "occasions when the group orthodoxy became an obstacle to action". Well, one example is given in the first footnote on the first page in the quote from an ex-CW member;"... the leadership... managed to impose its diversions: At the end of the miners' strike... no revolutionary critique of the NUM was published for fear of putting off the miners... " even though there were those in CW who saw the necessity for such a critique. And the Bash The Rich March was another example; a pretended attack preventing a real one occurring. They ask "Do you really think you can organise anything effectively without publicising it?" Of course you can - if CW really wanted to go into Hampstead and do some bashing they could have quite easily have secretly organised it amongst themselves, gone in and done it and disappeared into the night.[1] But instead they organised a big publicity stunt, thereby forewarning the cops and media, and were prevented from even entering Hampstead - as CW must have known would happen. But the real goal of the event was achieved - CW's lifeblood, publicity of the organisation and the organisation of publicity. [... ]

          But the most revealing thing about the Animal reply is that as they try to refine and justify the logic of their position they only expose more of their own contradictions; for instance, while claiming that CW have always encouraged the working class to realise that "the rich are always greedy selfish gits" CW were always ready to suck up to and praise various soap (Lofty) and pop stars such as Joe Strummer - whose early presence in Notting Hill encouraged the gentrification of the area - as long as CW could gain more publicity from it. "The Rock Against The Rich Tour" starring the extremely rich bastard Strummer trying to revive both his and CW's flagging career and fading pseudo-rebel image - pathetic. And a recent issue of Animal continues this with an article slavishly praising super rich footballer Eric Cantona, basically because he mouthed a few vague liberal sentiments saying that poverty and inequality are bad. No criticism is made of his extreme wealth and exclusive lifestyle, his advertising appearances  (for products of Third World sweatshops) and his readiness to play his part in the star system that reinforces this hierarchical society. Where do CW think these celebrities invest their vast fortunes? In business and trade, meaning investing in the exploitation of the working class. Presumably CW are happy to ignore all this because one of their present campaign bandwagons is for a better deal for football supporters - and they don't want to alienate potential recruits from the terraces by dissing their heroes. Footballers (along with many other sport and music stars) get much of their influence from the fact that most of them are from working class backgrounds and therefore represent one of the few escape routes to wealth and fame. You can't say anything very meaningful or useful about football (or the rest of culture) without dealing with these kind of contradictions. But CW, so desperate to popularise themselves, are too afraid to criticise what is popular with the sections of the working class they want to recruit from, so instead they opportunistically ignore these contradictions. But by pretending they don't exist they reinforce them... "It's the old con. Present yourselves as allies of what's going on (which means opportunistically refraining from what you know to be its weaknesses), and hope to add your "political dimension" once you've won confidence and been accepted as knowing the business."  (Anarchism Exposed, London 1985).

     According to CW, "if you're not popular you're nothing."  So their politics are always going to be led and defined by the other far stronger forces in society that determine what is immediately popular. Tail-ending the dominant media and cultural forces is not much of a recipe for autonomous class struggle or a radical critique of such forces.[2]
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     CW's tabloid populism was a triumph of style over substance and form over content. Creating genuinely subversive relationships amongst even a minority (whether through writing or whatever activity) is ultimately worth far more than all CW's fleeting moments of media attention and popularity. The theory that has been shown to have any lasting value is not at all that which was immediately the most popular - when times of upheaval arrive this becomes clear. CW seem to think about tabloidism and fame the same way others mistakenly think about Parliament  - that it's a neutral form which, if it only had the right people installed in it with the right ideas, then it would cease to have any harmful effect and become beneficial. But the form to a large degree determines the content and traps people in pre-determined, static social relationships. Which leads to CW's simplistic analysis, opportunism etc.

     Of course we should try to express ourselves as clearly as possible. But there is a contradiction that has to be dealt with - much of what is known as "common sense" is the medium or currency for the circulation of the taken-for-granted dominant values of this society. To express the subversive through language it is sometimes necessary to use words that have retained a clearer meaning through less use. Everyday language is a terrain largely occupied by the enemy: we tend to speak the language of our masters. (A beautiful example of a counter-tendency to this occurred in the 1992 LA Riot when the rioters coined the phrase "image looters" to describe the media: a neat reversal of perspective.)

     In a world where appearances and the truth of things almost never coincide theory is necessary to penetrate the lies. This society encourages a fragmented consciousness that craves only immediacy in its consumption (e.g. tabloidism). But a partially understood text that resists complete immediate understanding may not be just unnecessarily dense and wordy. It may be that it has a depth, subtlety and value that is worth pursuing. And it may grasp and reflect   more accurately the real complexities of class society. "I assume of course they will be readers who will be prepared to think while they are reading." - Marx on 'Capital'.        

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     Animal say we are wrong to say that "the desired effect of all populist journalism (of whatever creed) is to suspend critical thought on the part of the reader and to reduce choices of opinion down to a simple duality - good/bad, black/white - through a simplistic representation of reality... " because, according to Animal, "it implies that people are already capable of critical thought which is gradually closed down (can younger people immediately read well?)... " This is more of CW's patronising attitude revealed - why is the ability to think critically automatically identified with being able to already read well? A strangely elitist intellectual view.

      CW's idea of theory/critical thought as something separate and external to the working class that they have to learn from reading and more "educated" people (such as CW of course) is influenced by Paulo Freire, whose book they quote from at length. CW are always ready to throw the accusation of  "intellectual" at those they see as their rivals and critics in the political arena, yet they rarely if ever attack the role of the professional intellectual and their ideas.[3] Freire puts a libertarian gloss on his ideas by saying that educators and educated should work together in creating "educational projects"; the educators are middle class radicals and/or the "the revolutionary leadership" and the educated the ignorant masses incapable of liberating themselves by their own efforts alone. Freire praises the Stalinist regimes of Cuba and China as fine examples of his theories being practiced! (p. 36, p. 75, p. 145-6 - Penguin 1996 edition.) And according to Animal, "what Class War does is in the same league as Paulo Freire", this great friend and defender of these butchers and dictators. Freire, the Stalinists - and apparently CW - all share the belief that they are the necessary bearers of consciousness that the working class lacks.[4] The Stalinists and other leftists use this belief as a justification for their leadership and authority over the working class. Animal are using it as a justification for CW's populist style - either way, it's elitist bullshit.

     CW seem unaware that throughout their lives people use critical thought to make decisions and form opinions - the schoolkids who turned their school chemistry labs into Molotov-cocktail factories during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 didn't need to "read well" to be "capable of critical thought" and practice it. Neither did the peasants, mostly illiterate, who created the Mexican Revolution. And the slave revolts?

     The working class can use various sources critically in the development of its own theory - but it has to be a process located in people's own activity and circumstances. Theory is not a product of intellectuals that can be taken ready-made off the shelf of the ideological supermarket. Nor can theory and consciousness be reduced to verbal and written forms of expression. Acts of solidarity and subversion, writing and discussions, spontaneity and reflection - all are components of the expression and development of theory.

     Animal talk about theory as if it is a body of written knowledge that can be learned off by heart and mastered - a typical bourgeois and leftist assumption. This "theory" is really only ideology - a set of fixed ideas, congealed eternal truths - "ideas that serve masters" very well as party lines and group orthodoxies.

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     The letters from prisoners that Animal quotes show that CW is doing some useful prisoner support work. Animal preface the letters with a long quote from the Freire book. (The quotes are not actually Freire's words at all, but are from the foreword by R. Shaull.) They say that CW, like Freire, work on the basis of "dialogical encounters with others" where these others, when provided by CW "with the proper tools for such encounter, the individual can gradually perceive ... reality as well as the contradictions in it, become conscious of his or her own perception of reality, and deal critically with it". A very touching image of CW kindly providing us all "with the proper tools" for " becoming conscious".[5] Bet you weren't so explicitly patronising in your "dialogical encounters" with the prisoners whose letters you quote.

     The letters show that the prisoners are grateful for the help and support that CW provide - and all due respect goes to CW for doing so. But if CW are trying to claim that the letters are examples of how, in a Freire-like fashion, the prisoner "comes to a new awareness" and how their "eyes have been opened" due to their contact with CW then this is just unconvincing (and probably gives a worse view of CW's prisoner support work than it deserves). Having read the full letters you sent to us, its clear that the prisoners' hatred of authority, the rich, the system etc is a result of their real experiences, the struggles they have lived - and are positions they had developed long before they had any "encounter" with CW. Most other groups doing similar work could produce similar letters. The letters prove only that the prisoners are grateful and see CW as being on their side - and nothing else. And there's little evidence of a "critical dialogue" going on.

     It seems odd that CW should choose these letters as supposed evidence of their educating efforts and popularity. After all, prisoners mainly doing long stretches, (armed robbers and the like), in isolated conditions whose main form of contact with the outside world is via letter writing - these are hardly the most typical representatives of the working class. But then even in the heyday of its 15 minutes of fame the CW paper was always a bit short of letters from their readers. CW even felt obliged to sometimes make them up - as was admitted in their Internal Bulletin (no. 18, Minutes of delegate meeting). Again, creation of the right image being more important than honesty.

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     Even on its own terms, the populist strategy has failed. Most of the shrinking CW Federation were eventually forced to admit the absurdity of a populism that is less and less popular. The decline and split of CW is a reflection of the double-edged apathy towards politics amongst the working class; a healthy cynicism towards all the political rackets that claim to represent others[6] - but also a resignation and acceptance of conditions born of the defeats of the past 15 years.

     CW could at least be seen as a (voluntarist) attempt to assert a collective class identity and subjectivity when all such subjectivity is being crushed under the weight of isolation and uniformity being imposed on social relations. (In this sense society is more totalitarian now than ever). To retain any meaningful subjectivity is to retain a point of view - and the ability to act on it. The old forms of struggle and communication have been outmanoeuvred and the working class have yet to adequately create new ones. The tragedy is that CW have tried to resist these developments by adopting the same methods that created them - marketing of politics, simplistic "analysis", tabloidism etc. (Described in more detail in my original article).

     CW constantly compare themselves favourably to the rest of the Left. Yet Militant in the 1980's and early 90's had a far better claim to the popularity, influence and membership among the working class that CW dreamed of and still seek - and their politics were still total crap. Which only goes to show the limits of populism and the appeal of simplistic solutions and mechanical activism. [... .]

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- ACATAC  - Summer 2000                                                   

A Class Act To Abolish Classes

[1] Obviously this can't be misunderstood as support for the dominance of conspiratorial politics. But you use the tactics most appropriate to achieving the goal.

[2] "Like the Leftists they are, Class War has recently proposed a strategy of entrism into these [Neighbourhood Watch] para-State bodies. They dream of kicking out the cops from these cop-initiated Neighbourhood Watch Schemes, a vanguardist fantasy doomed to failure but which may help to boost the image of these Schemes amongst the poor and confused. Such entrism is an imagined short-cut a substitute for the harder task of initiating some anti-mugging, anti -cop, anti-heroin, anti-rapist etc project completely independent of the State. It's about as subversive as the Trots whose delirium leads them to believe the labour party can be turned into a Bolshevikh party; that the State can be turned into a Workers' State." (Once Upon A Time There Was A Place Called Nothing Hill Gate; BM Blob, London 1988.)

[3] Ironically, despite their dismissal of Aufheben as intellectuals and detached theorists, Animal/CW  seem to share some of their attitudes with regards to intellectuals and academics: both are too uncritical and respectful of academia. Aufheben's best articles are the ones about recent events (e.g. LA Riot) or struggles they've been involved in (anti-roads, anti-workfare etc) and the worst are the ones where they abstractly theorise about other theories (USSR, Decadence) to no real practical consequence - except, perhaps, to gain some kind of acceptance from a few boring lefty hackademics. The worst articles in Aufheben are only relevant to the academic study of class struggle - and not to the practice of the real struggle. Which is ironic considering how active the Auf's have been in various struggles (on occasion alongside CW members!)

[4] In essence, Freire's ideology boils down to replacing the ideological dominance of the present rulers over "the oppressed" with the ideological dominance of the educated Leninest leadership, with the willing co-operation and participation of the oppressed (Freire, p. 144, op. cit.). The religious overtones of his servant of the people/ guide to consciousness role are shown by one of his enthusiastic quotations; 'German Guzman says of Camilo Torres: "... he gave everything. At all times he maintained a vital posture of commitment to the people - as a priest, as a Christian, and as a revolutionary."' (P. 144, footnote). Freire's libertarian brand of Leninism is plain naive; idealising from afar the heavenly Cuban and Chinese regimes and taking their leader's pronouncements as the gospel truth, he believes these regimes are practicing his libertarian educational theories. Yet in his descriptions of the "libertarian" equality (really a hierarchical benevolence) he seeks to create in his educational projects, Freire describes everything social relationships are not under the Stalinist regimes. And in 30 years of various reprints of the book, Freire has never felt the need to revise his opinion of Stalinism expressed in it. Maybe Freire lacks a "dialogical encounter" with himself and the educator himself needs educating... Freire's ideas are so threatening to the ruling class that he has for years been funded by those well known organs of subversion, the United Nations and the World Council of Churches.

[5] The quote goes on to say that eventually  the paternalistic teacher-student relationship can be overcome - but Freire's theories never doubt the need for the professional educational specialist and/or revolutionary leadership in their role as deliverers of consciousness and the tools for it. (Free Brains for the working class, anyone?)

[6] The decline of the Left as well as in numbers of people voting are evidence of this.