#NoVoteNoVoice? No thanks.

The Mirror are launching a new campaign, #NoVoteNoVoice, hoping to persuade a million people to vote in next year’s general election. Supporters include the pro-establishment anti-fascists of Hope Not Hate, as well as the National Union of Teachers and Unite the Union – apparently some of Britain’s largest and most active trade unions are happy to endorse the idea that there’s nothing people can do to make their voices heard other than by voting. To give credit where it’s due, Anna Leach’s “why YOU should vote in 4 charts” is a very good piece of propaganda – it’s nicely designed, and puts its case across in easily accessible terms. It’s also very wrong, and makes a dangerous and disempowering case.

While the campaign is not officially aligned with any political party, it obviously has Labour’s fingerprints all over it. Huge numbers of people recognise that the government don’t care about them, and is actively attacking us in all kinds of ways. The key question for Labour is whether they can channel the distrust of the government into active support for Ed Miliband, or whether that disaffection will take another form, like mass abstention or a rise in votes for the anti-establishment posturing of UKIP.

#NoVoteNoVoice is the left-wing of the political elite attempting to shut down any discussion of potential alternatives. They recognise that, faced with a choice between Iain Duncan Smith and Rachel Reeves – or, to put it in loaded terms that make it clear exactly how disgusting this “choice” is, a choice between the party of Cyril Smith, the party of Leon Brittan and Margaret Thatcher, or the party of Margaret Hodge and a minister in Blair’s cabinet who has not been named yet – many people will just stay at home. There’s no reason to be smug about this mass disaffection, since it’s not showing any sign of taking on any organised form, let alone a progressive, class-based one, but as long as politicians are widely loathed and distrusted, the potential for an alternative exists. And that’s why Labour’s friends in the media are rolling out #NoVoteNoVoice now, to try and close down the space needed for a genuine alternative.

It's possible I may have slightly altered this chart.

To examine their arguments in a bit more detail:

1. Politicians care more about people who vote

Who politicians don't care about - #novotenovoice

The problems with this claim are pretty obvious. As a full-time worker, I’m apparently one of the groups that politicians care about. They seem to have a funny way of showing it, seeing that they’ve been happy to watch the value of my wages fall by a massive amount while also bringing in huge tribunal fees that essentially charge workers large amounts of money for being victimised by our employers. The latest plans to ban strikes are another sign of how much politicians care about us. If this is what it’s like to belong to a group politicians care about, I wouldn’t mind a bit of indifference. Equally, the pensioners who were attacked by the state’s thugs for protesting against cuts to their travel allowances may not be feeling hugely grateful for the loving care lavished on them by those in power. Ultimately, whether you’re in full-time work, part-time work, studying, retired, disabled, or on JSA, this system doesn’t work for any of us, and we’re all facing attacks on our living standards. Drawing lines between full-time and part-time workers or pensioners and other claimants only hides the problem.

 

2. Older people have more power at the ballot box because they almost always vote

Another divisive attempt to portray OAPs as somehow getting an easy ride from the political elite. This is absolute rubbish. George Osborne has made vicious cuts to pensioners’ income, and now pensioners are being threatened with homelessness as a result of these cuts. Our rulers are even considering the possibility that those who are too old to work paid jobs should be forced into unpaid work by threatening to cut their pensions, describing retired people as “a negative burden on the state”.

There’s a further problem here: it’s true that young people are less likely to vote, but it’s also true that, as well as being less likely to vote, they’re the people most likely to vote Labour. Two graphs from the Ipsos MORI generations study, which defined “Generation Y” as anyone under 31, make this clear:

So, even if politicians in general don’t care about younger people, Labour should be bending over backwards to keep the youth vote, right? Except it doesn’t quite work like that. From introducing tuition fees in 1998, to introducing variable tuition fees in 2003, to commissioning the Browne Report that recommended scrapping the cap on tuition fees, through to their latest threats to scrap benefits for young people, Labour have always been happy to introduce policies that penalise the age group most likely to support them. This attempt to encourage people to vote by setting young against old really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

 

3. Wealthier people have more power at the polls

#NoVoteNoVoice renters vs mortgages - who votes more?

This comes a lot closer to making a worthwhile point, but it gets cause and effect all mixed up. It’s true that politicians are more likely to care about rich people, and richer people are more likely to vote, but that’s not the same as proving that the first fact is caused by the second. People who do most of their shopping at Harrod’s probably have a much higher average income than people who do most of their shopping at Aldi, but that doesn’t then mean that if you and I started to do our shopping at Harrod’s we’d end up being richer as a result of it. Equally, the fact that rich people are so much more likely to vote than we are is not a cause but an effect of the fact that politicians care about them and not about us. It’s completely backwards to blame working-class non-voters for not taking an interest in the question of which set of rich scumbags get the job of attacking our living standards.

 

4. The people who didn’t vote in 2010 could change everything in 2015

#NoVoteNoVoice

Ok, this one is actually 100% true, and an important point to make. There are a lot of us, and we’re an important group, and we really do have the power to change everything. But that’s not the same as proving that our power to change things lies in the ballot box. The 15.9 million people who don’t trust politicians to represent our interests could make our voices heard in all kinds of ways and still remain non-voters. It’s right to point out that renters, a group who overwhelmingly don’t vote, get a raw deal from the system, but instead of trusting a bunch of rich arseholes with two homes each to represent our interests, we could try building power collectively with other tenants, along the lines of the Bristol tenants who’ve come together to oppose the use of rip-off tenancy fees, the London council tenants organising to resist gentrification, the Nottingham tenants standing together to resist an upcoming eviction and other groups like Hackney Renters. Elsewhere, other organisations like Bristol Solidarity Network and Solidarity Federation groups in North London, South London, Brighton and Newcastle have managed to recover unpaid wages from thieving bosses, and Bradford Industrial Workers of the World are taking up the fight against zero-hours contracts. On a bigger scale, it wasn’t the election of a Labour government that got rid of the poll tax, it was scrapped by a Tory government terrified by the mass non-payment campaign. That might seem a long time ago, but more recent cases like the government’s abandonment of the pastie tax or Nick Clegg suddenly discovering that he opposes the bedroom tax show how it’s still possible to effectively pressure right-wing politicians without going down the electoral route. Unlike #NoVoteNoVoice, I’m not going to try and tell you whether you should vote or not, because in all honesty I don’t really care one way or the other; whether or not you make the choice to vote, there are a lot of other things you can still do, and I think that talking about all those other things is a much more interesting conversation to be having. From workplace organising to anti-racist football tournaments to feminist music festivals to mass creative direct action by disabled people, there’s a whole world outside the electoral process that’s worth exploring.

Whatever you care about, whatever matters to you, it is possible to make a difference, it is possible to make your voice heard. But that means getting together with the people around you and organising to build power collectively. No matter how appealing it looks, and how nicely it’s presented, #NoVoteNoVoice is an attempt to discredit the idea that we change things by acting outside of the ballot box. We can make our voices heard, but if we’re going to do it, we need to start by ignoring the liberal bullies who insist that if we don’t do things their way we don’t deserve to get a say.

Posted in bit more thinky, debate, labour, stuff that I don't think is very useful, the media, the spectacle | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

No such thing as a free ride? Pensioners and disabled people take direct action against transport cuts

The cuts continue up and down across the country, chipping away at useful services in an endless series of local attacks. We’re still a long way away from seeing any kind of large-scale, generalised anti-austerity movement, but specific cuts are still capable of provoking very impressive reactions.

One such example is the scrapping of free travel for elderly and disabled people in South Yorkshire. At first glance, this might seem no different to many other similar stories: distressing, and certain to make life worse for vulnerable and impoverished people, but likely to pass without much effective resistance. But South Yorkshire pensioners and disabled people haven’t taken it lying down, and they’ve not just used the standard campaign tactics of lobbying and petitioning either: they reacted to the cut by launching a sustained campaign of direct action, organising mass faredodging sessions where large groups ride the train for free. Now, after an embarrassing stand-off between pensioners, disabled people and cops at Barnsley station, the local transport executive have suddenly decided to reconsider their decision, and are looking at bringing back free travel for disabled people, and half-price travel for pensioners. Of course, no-one should claim victory before a deal’s been fully worked out, and I hope that they keep up their actions until the transport executive are forced to fully reinstate free travel at the same conditions as before (if not better). But even at this stage, the fact that those in power have been forced to back down from their initial position is very encouraging, and the attempt by Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, to “stress this is not a result of people who have been breaking the law” is obviously laughable.

Focusing on resistance and small victories is not an attempt to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses: obviously, the overall situation is very bleak right now, on both a national and international level, and there’d be no point trying to deny that. But the important thing is to keep focussed on the stuff we can affect. Nothing that you, or I, or some pensioners from Barnsley, say or do can have a serious impact on the worsening situation in the Ukraine. But if we follow the example of the retirees and disabled people in South Yorkshire who identified a problem that seriously affected their day-to-day life, and joined forces with other people around them to take audacious, brave, determined action outside of the law, then we can change things – perhaps only small things at first, but aiming higher as our collective confidence and solidarity grow. Sometimes individual issues can spark something much bigger. Most of the time they don’t. But they more experience of collective action and power we have, the better off we’ll be when large-scale crises do erupt.

Posted in disability, protests, stuff that I think is pretty awesome | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How do you solve a problem like Nigel?

So, it’s happened. That moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived: an ever-growing number of people are turning their backs on the business-as-usual politics offered by the mainstream parties and are pledging their support for an explicitly anti-establishment alternative. The bad news, of course, is that this alternative is the rabidly nationalist populism offered by UKIP, who currently look set to take more votes than any other party at the upcoming European elections. This has generated a huge amount of attention among the mainstream media and most of the left, but there seems to have been very little serious discussion of it among libertarians, especially when compared to the amount of energy that goes into countering much more marginal nationalist projects like the March for England.

To some extent, this reluctance to seriously engage with the rise of UKIP is entirely understandable, in that it reflects a very justified suspicion of electoral politics. Nationalist gatherings like the March for England or EDL protests take place within our “comfort zone” – which isn’t to say there’s anything comfortable about anti-fascist activity, but it is an arena where direct action methods obviously make sense. There’s a long tradition of militant opposition to fascist street marches, so the tactics and principles of militant anti-fascism are fairly  well-defined by now. In contrast to fascist street groups, UKIP operate much more on the terrain of electoral politics, an arena that’s much harder for anarchist to engage with. If we can’t block them in the streets, and voting for the mainstream parties to stop them gaining seats is an unpalatable option, what else is left?

But while working out an anarchist strategy to counter UKIP is difficult, it’s also important. The idea of a “three-way fight”, as promoted by the blog of the same name, is useful here: “we believe that fascists and other far rightists aren’t simply tools of the ruling class. They can also form an autonomous political force that clashes with the established order in real ways… We believe the greatest threat from fascism in this period is its ability to exploit popular grievances and its potential to rally mass support away from any liberatory anti-capitalist vision.

Leftists need to confront both the established capitalist order and an insurgent or even revolutionary right, while recognizing that these opponents are also in conflict with each other.”

While UKIP definitely aren’t fascists, the basic thinking behind this analysis seems relevant. If UKIP are allowed to define what it means to be angry at the political elite – if they become the voice for all those who are angry about our daily grind funding the celebrity lifestyle of politicians and bureaucrats – then there’s no room for an alternative based on class solidarity to emerge. At the same time, we also need to firmly distance ourselves from the kind of liberal anti-UKIP campaigning that ultimately serves as a defence of the established political elite. The Third Estate and Suzanne Moore have both written good criticisms of the limits of most opposition to UKIP, and the Thurrock & Basildon Heckler has made a good start at putting across a class-based argument against UKIP.

Looking at the history of campaigns against the BNP gives us some examples of how to oppose a radical nationalist party without defending the political mainstream: the Hereford Antifa leaflet against the BNP is still worth a look as a classic piece of populist anti-fascism from a clearly defined working-class perspective, as is the old Anti-Fascist Action leaflet that branded the BNP as “the Ultra Conservatives”. Whether it’s explicitly linked to a positive alternative, as with the “blaming immigrants just lets your boss off the hook” defacement of a UKIP poster in Swansea, or just a purely negative message that UKIP can’t be trusted, we should be able to find ways to attack UKIP without endorsing the rest of the political class.

 

 

But what should the content of our anti-UKIP propaganda be? It’s clear that just highlighting the bigoted statements that various UKIP members have come out with isn’t enough. Instead of the standard “anti-extremist” message that ultimately seeks to undermine UKIP by showing how far they are from the political mainstream, I think the most useful thing to do is to try and undermine their anti-establishment appeal by highlighting how far they represent business as usual, and in particular how far they’re just a continuation of Thatcherite Toryism – a point that UKIP make no effort to deny. Of course, not everyone hates what Thatcher stood for, and many UKIP voters will be very happy to back a party that wants to continue her legacy, but then these people were never going to listen to anything anarchists have to say anyway. What’s important is that UKIP are seeking to make gains in Labour heartlands, as shown by their visits to places like Sheffield and Gateshead. Crucially, Nigel Farage says both that UKIP are “the true inheritors of Thatcher” and that “Two thirds of our voters would never vote Conservative anyway”, and that is a contradiction that is ripe for opening up. We may not be able to prevent disaffected tories from drifting further right, but we should be able to engage with angry working-class people looking for an alternative to the status quo and argue that class solidarity, not Thatcherite nationalism, is the answer. It won’t be easy – international solidarity is a tough sell to people who have little or no connection to the traditions of the old workers’ movement, and have no actual experience of the power of direct action – but it’s got to be better than sitting on the sidelines while nationalist conservatives sell themselves as the only alternative to the political establishment, or lining up with our Labour and Tory enemies in defence of the status quo.

Posted in bit more thinky, racism, the right | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

April round-up: workplace, housing, and other news

For various reasons, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to post much on here. I still don’t have a huge amount to write about at the moment, but I thought I’d throw together a few links to things that look interesting:

Internationally, 60,000 Chinese workers at the world’s largest sports shoe maker have walked out, and in the US, prisoners in Alabama are organising towards a strike, a project that’s being supported by the IWW, although the latest news I’ve seen suggests that they’re experiencing difficulties. Still, Chinese garment workers and the forced labour of American prisoners both play a hugely important role in the economies of their respective countries, and both countries are pretty central to the global order as a whole, so it definitely sounds like the situation’s worth keeping an eye on.

Closer to home, low-paid workers at the Ritzy cinema in London have launched a campaign of strike action, and care workers in Doncaster are waging an incredibly determined struggle against a 35% pay cut, and have taken 20 days’ worth of strikes so far, with a further two weeks planned for May. Messages of support can be sent to their facebook page, and the strike has attracted the support of other care workers from as far away as Port Talbot, where a similar strike is brewing. From my own personal experience, care work seems like a field where anarchists and other radicals appear to be disproportionately concentrated, so there could be strategic potential here.

Away from the workplace, struggles over benefits and housing are still a live issue: the Focus E15 Mothers are continuing with their campaign, and the hard, unglamourous but hugely important work of appealing against the bedroom tax is still producing a continuous trickle of small victories, including one on human rights grounds that could set a precedent for a huge number of wins by disabled people.

Workers’ Memorial Day is coming up soon, the international day of remembrance for all those killed by their jobs, (Harpymarx writes movingly here about the importance of health and safety in the workplace) and it’ll be closely followed by May Day. May Day events around the country include one organised by Solfed in Newcastle, a Teeside Solidarity Movement event in Middlesbrough, a 3-day anti-fascist music festival in Manchester, and a carnival starting from Senate House in London.

Finally, a look at recent developments among anarchists and the left: Brighton Solidarity Federation report that a campaign of direct action was able to force a multinational hotel chain into coughing up unpaid wages, Plan C have recently published a brilliant article about anxiety which is well worth reading and discussing, and the London-based Angry Workers of the World have got itchy feet and would like to go wandering this summer and maybe visit your town for a discussion about what they – and you – have been up to. Speaking of you, the Kate Sharpley Library would also like to hear from you – if you want to tell them your life story, they’d be happy to hear it.

And finally, a few more contentious issues: the Marxists Internet Archive have been ordered by Fisher & Wishart, who hold the copyright on Marx & Engels’ collected works, to take down all material they own the copyright on. Of course, you can remove material from a single site, but it’s a lot harder to remove it from the internet, so those of us who want to keep radical theory freely available can and should share other ways to access the relevant material – for instance, by posting up zip files like this one, or this archive copy of the MIA Marx-Engels page before the copyright order was served. And, much more seriously, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition have decided to select Steve Hedley as a candidate in Newham in the upcoming local elections, despite his ex-partner publicly accusing him of assault and the Crown Prosecution Service only deciding not to prosecute due to the amount of time that had passed between the original incident and the allegation being made, a loophole that’s been seized on by his supporters to try and clear him of all blame, along with other incidents of sexist behaviour. There’s a petition you can sign if you don’t think it’s OK for Hedley to pose as a public face of the working-class movement with this kind of record.
That’s all for now. Happy May Day, everyone!

Posted in America, anarchists, disability, gender, strikes, the left | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

March round-up – news on the war against women, workers and welfare

This was meant to be an International Women’s Day post, but my computer crashes a lot. Nevermind, if this stuff is worth thinking about on March 8th, then it’s worth thinking about on March 9th.

This post doesn’t really have a specific focus as such, it’s just another round-up of developments in ongoing struggles in the UK. To start off on a topical note, women in Liverpool chained themselves to the railings of Liverpool Town Hall yesterday to highlight the impact of cuts and austerity on women.

Another group of women fighting back at the moment are the Focus E15 Mothers, who are campaigning for social housing so they can afford to continue living in London after Newham Council evict them from their current homes. Johnny Void and Kate Belgrave have both written well about the campaign, and they continue to hold weekly stalls in London, as well as directly confronting the politicians responsible for the decision to make them homeless.

Continuing on the International Women’s Day theme, Police Spies Out of Lives is a group supporting women who’ve been harmed in a deeply personal way by the state: the partners of undercover policemen who systematically lied to them for years in order to preserve their cover. They’re planning to picket the Royal Courts of Justice on the morning of Tuesday 18th March, as part of a broader week of action running from the 17th-21st. If you can’t make it down to join their picket, there’s still a number of other ways you can support their fight for justice, such as signing up to their basic statement.

While the eight women bringing this case are perhaps those who’ve been hurt most deeply and intimately by spycops, they’re definitely not the only people to have been affected by police surveillance and repression. The recent Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance launch meeting in London brought together a number of different groups affected by this issue, including the family of murdered teenager Stephen Laurence, anti-racist and climate change activists, and workers who were blacklisted after raising concerns about health and safety at work at sites such as Crossrail. This week brought a tragic reminder of just how vital workplace safety is, after a worker lost their life in an accident on the Crossrail project. The Site Worker blog has a very moving piece by Stewart Hume on the true cost of industrial accidents, as well as some ideas on how to raise the profile of workplace health and safety on International Workers’ Memorial Day, which falls on Monday 28th April this year.

International Women’s Day wasn’t the only notable date this past week; it was also the 30th anniversary of the great miners’ strike, an event which in many ways shaped the Britain we live in today. The Durham Community Support Centre have a listing of many events commemorating the occasion, and the 30th anniversary facebook page is also worth a look. Those of us who were born after the miners were defeated have never seen a struggle on the scale and intensity of what happened in 1984-5, so it would be good to try and get to some of these to hear some of the lessons that were learned when a previous generation entered into open conflict with their employers and the state.

In more contemporary workplace news, care workers in Doncaster have staged a determined seven-day strike against pay cuts and plan more action to come, and Brighton Solidarity Federation report that their organising among hospitality workers is paying off – literally paying off, as several workers have managed to force their employers to cough up unpaid wages.

Finally, a look at upcoming actions over three key issues in the ongoing fight over welfare “reform”: Boycott Workfare are calling for a week of action at the start of April to coincide with the introduction of Community Work Placements, the new plan to sentence claimants to six months of unpaid work. The organisers of last month’s stunningly successful national demonstration against Atos are planning to keep the pressure up with a day of action on April 1st aiming to ensure that the Work Capacity Assessment is not just handed over to a different contractor but scrapped altogether. And finally, the start of April will also the be the anniversary of the introduction of the bedroom tax. It’s not been a great first year for the bedroom tax, and more successful appeals are coming in all the time, so hopefully a good turnout for local demos across the country could help make sure that it doesn’t stay around for too much longer, especially if they’re not just about venting anger at the politicians in Westminster but also focus on the councils and housing associations implementing the policy on a local level. As ever with the bedroom tax, the lack of national co-ordination makes it hard to tell exactly how much is going on across the country, but there’s definitely events planned for Leeds, Huddersfield, Greater Manchester, Milton Keynes, Bristol and London, so there may well be something going on in your area as well.

That’s all for now. Happy day after international women’s day, everyone!

Posted in disability, gender, police, repression, strikes, the unemployed | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Self-organised claimant resistance to Atos: a success story for our time

An assessment centre closed by protests in Archway, North London

This week saw an important and encouraging development in the ongoing resistance to welfare reforms and austerity: a national day of action, largely organised by claimants themselves with little input from any larger permanent organisation, was successful in provoking Atos, the unpopular “healthcare” company that assesses disability benefits, into announcing their intention to pull out of the Work Capacity Assessment. Given the generally poor state of the class struggle at the moment, a win on this scale is a rare thing, definitely worth taking notice of. Apart from anything else, it’s worth examining the claimant-led protests against Atos just to see how far they differ from business as usual on the left.

The anti-Atos protests – which probably reached their high point in Southend, where Atos staff apparently walked out and joined the protestors, but also managed to close a number of other offices including Wimbledon -  lack a number of the features that the left usually seems to see as essential for any campaign: there’s never been a national anti-Atos trudge from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, ending in a series of speeches from the usual worthies, and no left organisation has managed to set up a front group called something like Youth Fight Against Atos or Unite the Resistance to Atos to “co-ordinate” the protests on a national level. The absence of these things doesn’t seem to have done the campaign any harm.

Looking at the relationship between Unite and the day of action last week is interesting for anyone interested in the relationship between older established institutions like unions and parties and newer, horizontal internet-based networks. I think the support of Unite’s community section was certainly important to the success of the protests; in my area, it was only through Unite that flyers for the demo were produced at all, and the resources of an institution the size of Unite can’t be written off or ignored. On the other hand, this certainly wasn’t a case of Unite’s leadership setting the agenda, but rather them scrambling to catch up to developments outside of their control.

There’s possibly a comparison to be drawn here with the relationship between the PCS leadership and the rank-and-file civil service network, and there’s definitely lessons to be learnt for anyone hoping to push the unions into action on any issue: if the organisers of last week’s demo had followed the traditional route of lobbying union leaderships, submitting motions to annual conferences and running for executive positions, they’d still be waiting for a national day of action now. By simply organising independently without waiting for anyone’s permission, they were able to set their own agenda, meaning that Unite had to go along with them in order to remain relevant. Of course, for every call for independent action that succeeds in spreading and catching on in this way, there’s probably about twenty that just fizzle out without getting anywhere, but those odds are still better than the grim track record of attempts to push the unions to the left from within. Likewise, the leadership of the party that introduced the Work Capacity Assessment in the first place have now been pushed into trying to distance themselves from it: it’s unlikely that a strategy of trying to change Labour’s policy from within would have had anything like the same success.

It’s important not to overstate the importance of this news. Atos wanting to get out of their contract to administer the Work Capacity Assessment is not the same as the WCA being scrapped altogether. But considering the lack of resources available to claimants, the fact that they’ve got this far is hugely impressive, and I think the decision to focus on the company administering the tests rather than just the DWP themselves has shown itself to be justified. Governments can be very resistant to pressure, but by targeting assessment centres, the claimants resisting Atos have managed to hit the government’s welfare reforms in a vulnerable spot, just like the tenants and their allies fighting the bedroom tax through the appeals system or the workfare campaigners who’ve managed to pressure company after company into withdrawing from the schemes.

The WCA contract will be a much less tempting prize for rival companies now that Atos is fleeing it in terror, and the policy as a whole is tainted by the fact that even Atos admit it’s not working. This victory is still just a small ray of hope at a time when we’re still losing badly overall, but the self-organised protests that’ve shamed Atos, together with the ongoing appeals victories over the bedroom tax and the strategies and tactics that were shared at the recent Boycott Workfare gathering, are one small contribution towards the wider task of building a claimants’ movement that’ll be capable of leaving Iain Duncan Smith’s dreams in ruins.

Posted in disability, protests, stuff that I think is pretty awesome | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Against liberalism, for intersectional class politics

Whenever controversies around issues like race, gender or sexuality erupt in the left, they always seem to produce a fairly predictable set of responses. As if by clockwork, a certain set of male leftist writers spring into life to churn out another attack on “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, eager to defend what they claim is the purity of class politics against the dangers of contamination. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that the arguments of the diehard anti-intersectionalist warriors, when examined, don’t actually seem to offer that much in terms of practical suggestions for how to take the class struggle forward. Instead, in their eagerness to attack “identity politics”, they tend to abandon the basic perspective which antagonistic, materialist class politics is based on, and instead ground their arguments on a set of straightforwardly liberal principles.

For the benefit of readers who might not have encountered these arguments, a quick introduction to a few of the more noisy and visible anti-intersectionalists: there’s Ross Wolfe, a valiant opponent of identity politics who writes articles about subjects like “Marx called Bakunin fat, so that means that there can’t possibly be anything problematic about publicly shaming women for their weight” along with other weighty issues facing workers in the age of austerity, such as early Soviet architecture; James Heartfield, a member of Brendan “look at me look at me LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!” O’Neill’s bizarre Trot-turned-tory clique; and the CPGB, a small and almost entirely male group of Kautsky enthusiasts and leftist trainspotters with a knack for the fine art of unintentional self-parody, who regularly publish articles defending Marxism against the feminist menace, alongside other topics of pressing concern to workers everywhere, like how the Socialist Platform of Left Unity’s refusal to exclude the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty demonstrates their lack of principles, or attacking the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain for their failure to write more articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party.

As representative examples of the genre, I’ll take James Heartfield’s rants against intersectionality and Charlie Winstanley’s article on a recent row about race and sexuality within the International Socialist Network, itself a recent, libertarian-leaning, split from the SWP. These pieces aren’t identical, but they share enough common ground that, taken together, they can be treated as fairly representative of the anti-identity camp.

These articles always tend to be a bit short on suggestions as to how to deal with the actual problems that intersectional approaches aim to address – most notably, the issue of people with certain privileges, and especially men, acting in ways which completely devastate the organising efforts they’re involved in. From Gerry Healy to Tommy Sheridan* to Julian Assange to Martin Smith, the behaviour of powerful men becomes an issue time and time again, and if the approaches suggested by intersectional feminists aren’t sufficient to deal with it, then we urgently need to find a more constructive alternative. Sadly, the anti-intersectionalist warriors don’t seem to have a huge amount of time or energy for this particular task, preferring to concentrate on other issues, like explaining why they think feminists are silly.

When dealing with critiques of “intersectionality” and “identity politics”, it’s important to address the truths that they’re based on. It is certainly the case that many people influenced by these perspectives tend to have a habit of getting into quite heated and vicious arguments on the internet, particularly on twitter (of course, this is to be contrasted with the behaviour of everyone else on the internet, where people just have calm, rational and respectful exchanges). Watching, let alone taking part in, these arguments is often quite tiring and depressing, and it’d be ridiculous trying to pretend that everything said in them is in any way justified. But if we’re to judge ideas by the behaviour of the people who hold them, then anarchism’s tainted by Proudhon’s anti-Semitism, Kropotkin’s support for WWI, and the CNT’s collaboration with the government, Marxism’s fatal flaws can be identified by looking at the jaw-droppingly stupid positions held by at least 99.9% of all Marxist groups that have ever existed, from defending the USSR as a workers’ paradise to insisting that it’s possible to reclaim the Labour Party in 2014, and intersectional feminism is discredited by the fact that some of its supporters are unnecessarily abrasive on the internet, so we might as well just junk all the ideas gained from past efforts to abolish exploitation and oppression and start over from scratch. For myself, I think that a society without government is still desirable no matter how many anarchists say stupid or embarrassing things, I think that historical materialism is still a useful way of trying to understand the world despite all the repressive dictators who’ve claimed to be inspired by Marx’s ideas, and I think it’s worth trying to understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other even if some other people who share my ideas are unhelpfully rude when they get in arguments on the internet.

But the Heartfield/Winstanley camp aren’t just offended by the tone of the intersectionalists: they also seek to attack the intersectional project on a more basic level. For Heartfield, the problem “is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism… The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality.”

In his post-script to Heartfield’s article, Wolfe complains about people who  “hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.” Similarly, Winstanley objects to “the intersectionalist assertion… that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics.” In short, these gentlemen seek to object to the idea that people are shaped by their experiences, and that having different life experiences can lead people to form different ideas.

For the likes of Heartfield, Wolfe and Winstanley, individuals are not the products of their environments, and there’s no need to look for material factors to explain the course of human affairs: we’re all just pure, abstract citizens engaged in a reasonable discussion of ahistorical, universal truths. This is, of course, the classic position of liberalism, but it isn’t the only way of seeing of the world. Against the liberal position, there are those who believe that a genuine human community is possible and desirable, but it cannot exist within this society, so it needs to be created by the active, conscious destruction of all the structures that separate us from each other. This is the perspective on which intersectional feminism is based, but there’s an older name for it: this idea has gone by a number of names, but it has sometimes been referred to as  “communism”.

Antagonistic class politics always relies on the insight that the truth is not a simple, objective thing, but reality always looks different depending on the perspective you approach it from. The pyramids meant different things to the pharaohs and to their slaves, just as Britain today looks different depending on whether you’re viewing it from Downing Street or Benefits Street. Class politics is all about seeking out the perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been denied a voice. It’s about viewing World War I through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it rather than the generals who ordered the slaughter, the USSR through the eyes of the Kronstadt sailors or the Hungarian rebels rather than the various ideologists and central committees, and the reality of free-market liberalism from the perspective of those who’ve always paid the price for it, from the slaves and industrial workers whose blood and sweat laid its foundations to those being exploited by neoliberalism today, not the abstract, free-floating individuals dreamt of by liberal theorists. And it’s this insight – both the project of seeking out and amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been repressed and ignored, and the realisation that these perspectives exist at all – that also defines the approaches that get labelled as “intersectionality”.

But my problem with the hard-line anti-intersectionalist approach isn’t just that I find its theoretical foundations to be questionable. I also find it difficult to work out how exactly this vision of a pure class struggle untainted by questions of race or gender plays out in practice. A note of humility here: I’m not claiming to be an unsung hero of anarcho-syndicalist organising. I’m not Big Bill Haywood or Lucy Parsons or Durruti: I’m a young(ish, even if not quite as young as I used to be) worker who, like most people of my generation, hasn’t taken part in any mass workplace struggles comparable to things like the Miners’ Strike, and I’ve spent most of my working life alternating between more-or-less insecure temporary work and periods of unemployment. But by now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time within workplaces trying to think about how to strengthen my fellow workers’ sense of solidarity and self-organisation, and I’ve played a minor part in a few attempts at community organising: again, I’m not talking about campaign that beat the Poll Tax here, but I’ve tried my best to do what I can.

In my experience, it’s fair to say that, in most cases, workplace organising consists of trying to identify the informal groups and networks that always already exist, and then trying to strengthen their internal sense of solidarity and confidence to challenge management, as well as trying to break down barriers between the different informal groups that exist and bring them together. In other words, it’s about paying attention to other people, and thinking seriously about who they talk to, how they talk to each other, who they look out for, who’ll stick their necks out to protect other people and who they’re prepared to do it for, and who has whose back.

To me, it seems unimaginable that anyone could spend any time paying this kind of attention to their fellow workers and still think solely in terms of class, without at the very least taking gender into account. Depending on where you work, you might have an all-white workforce or a workforce with no workers who are openly, visibly not straight, but there is at least some gender mix in the vast majority of workplaces, and, in my experience, the composition and behaviour of these kind of informal social groups is always heavily gendered. To go into a workplace determined to only see workers and bosses, without seeing the way that gender intersects with these relationships and plays out in all kinds of ways, is to blind yourself to a crucial part of the ways that power operates within a workplace, and to ignore a whole set of challenges and opportunities that are deeply relevant to the task of building workers’ power at a grassroots level. If you don’t want to use the language of intersectionality to talk about these things, then that’s up to you, but these issues are worth thinking about for anyone seriously concerned with class struggle.

Likewise, let’s say that your organising project, whether in the workplace or the community, is going well, and starting to make some ground. You can more or less guarantee that, very early on, your opponent will seek to divide you by buying some people off. This may or may not take place along the lines of “identity” – divisions like permanent versus temporary workers are just as useful for the bosses – but if you’re interested in trying to build a movement that won’t just collapse at the first hurdle, you need to think about the potential faultlines that exist within the group you’re trying to organise, and the ways that your opponents can exploit these to turn people against each other by giving some of you access to limited benefits. In other words, to think about the kinds of questions that people who talk about privilege are talking about. Again, I don’t care that much about whether you find the language of privilege useful for discussing these questions, but if you display the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth hostility that some leftists do to even thinking about the idea of privilege, then you’re not going to be able to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.

On closer inspection, the whole question of “serious class politics versus post-modern liberal identity politics” is a false one. The crusade against intersectionality means abandoning class politics for liberalism in theoretical terms, and it has nothing useful to say about practical questions of organising for class struggle. It’s not about class politics versus identity politics: it’s just a choice between an approach to the class struggle that starts from people’s lived experiences, which in turn means taking into account all the different identities which affect those experiences, or a toothless, abstract liberal universalism.

*to be clear, by including Sheridan in this list, I’m not trying to say that his behaviour is the same as that of Julian Assange or Martin Smith, but if we’re considering “powerful leftist men with big egos who act in damaging ways” as a category, then I think a strong case can be made for including him.

Posted in bit more thinky, debate, gender, racism, stuff that I don't think is very useful, the left | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments