Ian Parker takes a tentative peek at Hamja Ahsan’s Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert (3rd Edition, 2019, Bookworks).
This book is no joke. Or, it is a joke that erupts, as George Orwell once said all jokes should, into a tiny revolution, giving birth and voice to a new movement of ‘sensitive introverts that you dare not fuck with’. I love this book, and that’s why I want to tell you about it. It was written, Hamja Ahsan says, ‘on the back of a lifetime of resentment’, and it throws a sharp unsparing light not only on the ‘Extrovert Supremacy’ but also on left practices that prop up the ghastly loud world of celebrity, extravagance and self-promotion that is the excessive unsustainable stuff of consumer capitalism.
We are inducted into this loud world from the earliest possible moment, with the schoolroom being one of the arenas in which we are forced to participate in all manner of extrovert-based games in order to show that we really are ‘learning’. And what we learn along the way is how to enjoy in this Day-Glo world, and show that we are enjoying to others, which includes micro-aggressive complaint when we are not smiling all the time, team-building away-days and compulsory small-talk around the water-cooler. The book shows us how we are made to accept that flashier is better and so that the more you spend the more successful you
must be. The book is clearly about late-stage capitalism, but it is also about the way that the oppressed so often respond to that by resisting in such a way that buys into some of the underlying ideological assumptions about what is good and right in this world. No to pronouncements from platforms, and no to the many ways that existing self-help books have commodified shyness and allowed it to be recuperated, absorbed and neutralised by the extrovert-capitalist state. The task must be to construct ‘zones of tranquillity’, which left group meetings are so often not. Against brash arrogant ‘leaders’, and for doing politics differently, more kindly.
Good news for the left is that, against the current trend to compulsive mass participation and noisy rally-politics, there was, perhaps, something positive in intense well-organised discussion of close reading of texts: ‘Party discipline was latent Shy Radicalism’. Che Guevara can be claimed as a proto-Shy Radical; notice how the iconic photo-shots of him have him avoiding eye-contact: ‘His eyes are somewhere between that look that Extroverts mistake for aloofness, Autism, self-absorption, and dreaminess’. Good news for the ‘Sensitive White Man’ whose time came with Edward Scissorhands and which makes him one of the many possible allies for a form of Black-Black ‘Vanguard Melancholia’. The extended interview with Amy Littlewood, a Shy Radical political prisoner, is moving, as are the interviews with patients and carers in Introvert Crisis Centres.
I think the book misses a trick in lamenting the way that kids need for ‘self-esteem’ is overlooked in compulsive happiness-training; surely self-esteem itself is one of the problems, one of the touchstones of celebrity culture that forces us to value ourselves as if we are autonomous little celebrities. And the book has some disturbing consequences for those who like to connect their lives with others on social media, with a particular unfortunate down on sharing images of cats on Facebook.
This is all, at the same time, deadly serious. After a while reading the book you stop giggling and start realising that the critiques and connections that Hamja Ahsan is making are not only about the shy but also about sexism and racism. This struggle, he writes, is intersectional; it must link with and speak to every other form of oppression. So the playful turning around of received wisdom to find other readings opens the space for rethinking what we are doing.
For example, he comments on Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that ‘silence will not protect you’, to point out that, no, there is a sense in which silence is exactly what can protect you. And, against Emma Goldman, it argues that her well-known anarchist demand that ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution’ must be subverted; leave us in peace not to dance. What kind of world do we want if not a world where we can be left in peace?
There is sensitivity to the global dimension of the ‘introfada’ that threads its way through every section of the book, whether that is championing of the hikikomori and otaku of Japan – youth who isolate themselves at the family home who are then pathologised and tech-geeks who spend their time pouring over anime who are then conjured into the popular imagination as potential killers. Aspergistan itself has a precise location, with territories requiring a ‘shy identity-based partition’ on the Indian subcontinent which will consist of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan and semi-autonomous regions, the caves and mountainous regions of Afghanistan, excluding Kabul and the Islamic Republic of Iran, excluding Tehran. The capital will be Qom. This is but the first step, acting as a beacon of hope for all Shy, Introvert and Autistic Spectrum peoples, opening the way for an extension of ‘Shyria Law’ to purge the ‘socialite-class’. This is ‘identity politics’ with a difference, or, rather, the most radical form of identity politics, that welcomes in everyone who, to different degrees, experience the destructive injunction to ‘enjoy’, to be always explicitly publicly happy.
Hamja Ahsan knows well this international context – he mines it for cases of oppression and resistance – and he knows well how globalisation under capitalism is accompanied by border control and the intensification of imperialist power. He has been active in the international campaign to free his brother, the award-winning poet Syed Talha Ahsan, extradited to the US on trumped-up charges. And Hamja has recently joined the editorial collective that produces the radical mental health magazine Asylum.
His vision of Aspergistan in this book is surely one of authentic asylum. One of the radical texts he cites in his book is the Socialist Patients’ Collective classic text ‘Turn Illness Into a Weapon’. This is a book about all of us who suffer in a our different ways in a culture that demands that we must always want more and that we should show everyone else how much we are enjoying it, enforced participation in the nasty brash discotheque universe of ‘Trendy Club’.
While I was finishing reading this book, the quiet guy who comes to fix my computer came round. He is, I guess, one of the as yet un-politicised inhabitants of Aspergistan, and usually says little. But this time he commented that he had seen me on a demonstration recently, and that set him off on a hesitant but passionate rant about Brexit. This guy dislikes planes, prefers to travel by train, they are quieter, and there is less border control and security bother, and he worries about the ramping up of control as well as the looming chaos of de-alignment
of trading standards, particularly about computers, but then more; he panics about the rapid unpredictable shift from comparatively smooth movement of people and goods to officials barking about who can do what. He complained about racism and exclusion and the end of toleration of difference that, he thinks, Brexit betokens. He is becoming a shy radical, and I hope he might read this book and join the dots, and that the left can build movements that are less shouty and more welcoming to people like him, and me.