The Unsound Kingdom: Oswald Mosley would have loved Clubhouse

Mosley needed a personal army to silence his detractors. Imagine how convenient he’d have found a block button and an unassailable stage.

Almost 87 years ago, Sir Oswald Mosley, then the leader of the British Union of Fascists, took the stage at the London Olympia. The Guardian called it “Mosley’s circus at Olympia” and wrote:

Sir Oswald Mosley provided close to 10,000 people in Olympia tonight with an entertainment which [circus proprietor] Mr. Bertam Mills might at once have envied and deplored. For while Mr. Mills must certainly have envied Sir Oswald the number of his audience and the excitement he and his hecklers provided, he must have deplored the violence with which the excitement was obtained. For what is described in the talk of gangsters as ‘rough-house work’ no meeting in these islands within memory can have shown anything like it.

Inside the great hall, it was seen that Sir Oswald Mosley had nothing of theatricalism to learn from either Hitler or Mussolini. There was a massed band of Blackshirts, the Union Jack, and the black and yellow flag of the British Union of Fascists. There were arc-lamps, and there was an aisle lined with Blackshirts.

Exactly thirty-five minutes after the meeting was due to begin the band dropped in a Low German march, the arc-lamps swung on the Blackshirted aisle, and Sir Oswald appeared — preceded by six men carrying Union Jacks and the British Blackshirt flag. The march proceeded to the platform while some people … raised their arms in a Fascist salute.

Sir Oswald began his speech. Almost at once, a chorus of interrupters began in one of the galleries. Blackshirts began stumbling and leaping over chairs. There was a wild scrummage, women screamed, black-shirted arms rose and fell, blows were dealt.

Sir Oswald stood to attention in the half-darkness, making unintelligible appeals through the amplifiers. For close on two hours, the meeting dragged on like that, interruption and ejection. Suddenly, as Sir Oswald was speaking, a voice sounded high up in the girders, ‘Down with Fascism!’…

Despite securing a huge venue with a massive stage and ensuring he was protected by his personal army of goons, Mosley was not able to press his fascist rhetoric without challenge. It didn’t matter that he was famous, a former MP now leading his own party, with significant family wealth behind, and connections to many of the most powerful people in the country.

Mosley would have loved Clubhouse, the audio chat app which allows speakers to hold a virtual stage, decide who joins them on it, and bounce anyone from the room that they don’t even want to listen in.

On Clubhouse — which is in the ‘growing obsession for a small class of influencer and tech journalists’ stage of its lifespan — powerful users can monologue without fact checks or dissent. And when the room is gone, so has the evidence that the performance even happened — especially when venture capitalists and ‘stars’ ensure journalists are blocked.

If Mosley had grown up in the age of social media, he might not have bothered trying to achieve his aims in Parliament at all and instead have jumped to building his ‘movement’ earlier. Twitter, Facebook, and Clubhouse would’ve been like catnip to a man of Moseley’s feline cunning and elephantine ego. His society beauty second wife, Diana (née Mitford) would be much-followed on Instagram and Sir Oswald would luxuriate in the fandom of his followers on 4Chan, Reddit and in Clubhouse rooms where the Blackshirts could hammer the block button to keep the interrupters out.

Angry egg-man and major Clubhouse investor, Marc Andreessen — who I am in no way suggesting is a fascist — has made ample use of the block button. Blocking on Clubhouse works rather differently from the process on other social apps; if a user who blocks you is promoted from the audience and onto the stage in a public discussion, you’re booted from the room.

In an edition of his newsletter Platformer, actually writing in defence of Clubhouse blocking, Casey Newton, noted the result of Andreessen carrying his mass block of journalists across from Twitter to the newer app:

This phenomenon was most visible during Elon Musk’s Jan. 31 appearance on the app. While the show he appeared on was created by its hosts, Sriram Krishnan and Aarthi Ramamurthy, Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Marc Andreessen was made a speaker — and, as a result, many journalists found themselves shut out of the room. For reasons he has never really explained, Andreessen has blocked most of the press corps on Twitter and now on Clubhouse, myself included.

“It is one thing to block people from sending you messages,” tweeted Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information, in a short thread about the issue, “but listening to public conversations?”

The name Clubhouse is appropriate and deliberate. It’s an as yet iPhone-only place where the establishment can come together to set the bounds of debate and who gets to listen to those conversations — a virtual recreation of the kind of private clubs that people of Mosley’s class still frequent (Covid permitting).

Clubhouse’s creators promise that they’ll be bringing it to Android soon and throwing its gates open to more users to “build a Clubhouse for everyone”, but they’ll only retain those ‘elite’ users if they keep the power to hold onto the mic and deny those they dislike the chance to heckle.

For now the modern Mosleys — and there are many — will continue to find a virtual stage they control completely, free from the mocking masses of Twitter and Facebook, desperately appealing. Still, I’m sure they’ll be fine with this post; after all, aren’t controversial opinions their thing?

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Writer, editor and internet arguer.

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