The recent Manchester & Salford Anarchist Bookfair saw some slight disruption when some people who hadn’t been able to book space turned up, gave some literature out, and then got chucked out. That minor kerfuffle thankfully doesn’t seem to have generated as much drama as the one in London last year, but I thought it might still be worth making a few comments on one of the texts they were apparently giving out – and in particular the contrast between the stated politics of the text, the strategy of getting oneself thrown out of bookfairs, and the allies cheering on the people giving it out. A lot of what follows will probably be retreads of things that have been discussed before, because the whole debate’s fairly stale at this point and there’s not much new to respond to.
The bulk of the “woke anarchists” text, “Against Anarcho-Liberalism and the curse of identity politics” is essentially the same as the last critique of “identity politics” you’ve seen, and the one before that: some points which are fair, if banal, and some weird claims that left me scratching my head to work out who they were meant to be on about, as in the classic tradition of critiques of identity politics, they mostly refuse to say who they’re actually talking about or what specific things the people they’re talking about are meant to have actually done. There’s also a lot of stuff about the need to be outward-looking and focused on the class struggle rather than petty movement drama, which is an admirable goal, although I can’t work out how turning up at bookfairs, telling everyone that they’re doing it wrong, and then getting slung out is meant to achieve it.
Although it’s not immediately obvious from the online text, the pdf version, which I’d guess would be what was actually handed out, starts off with “Cops on Pride is collaboration. Female soldiers are still imperialist tools. Black screws & Asian landlords are just as much the enemy.”
And there, to a certain extent, you have the problem with the whole thing in miniature: not that these points are wrong as such, but that, unless I’ve really missed something major, starting off what’s meant to be a critique of the anarchist scene by pointing out that cops and screws are bad is a bit like making the stunningly provocative argument that the moon is not actually made of green cheese. It’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, presented as if it’s some important point that the rest of us are too dim to grasp.
But let’s dig down into this, and get deeper into the question of cops at pride, who opposes them and who doesn’t. As I’ve pointed out before, the most notable recent attempt to contest the presence of cops at pride was made by the Anticapitalist Queers in Glasgow, but – and this is pure guesswork, since the “woke anarchists” are so tightlipped about who they’re actually aiming their critiques at – I’d guess that the ACQ might be the kind of people the “woke anarchists” would slate for doing identity politics? Similarly, the only time I’ve seen the ACQ get stick from people who think that cops being at pride is a positive thing, it was from a particularly nasty “gender critical” blog,* so it would make sense if the point of this stuff about how cops at pride are bad was meant to remind everyone of the importance of keeping trans-exclusionary feminists away from anarchist spaces… but I don’t think that’s what the leafleters had in mind.
A very similar point applies to the bit about how screws are bad – I don’t know who the imagined audience of black screw-loving anarcho-liberals are meant to be, but the last time I saw someone try to claim screws as an oppressed group, it was, once again, “gender-critical feminists” pushing the line that screws are being oppressed if they have to lock up and search trans prisoners.
And, to bring things full circle, in the aftermath of the Manchester bookfair incident, it didn’t take long for the people professing their outrage at the “woke anarchists” getting chucked out to start coming out with the same pro-cop lines:
It’s completely beyond me how anyone can support Helen Steel and the cops at the same time, but that’s not my problem to solve. The point here is that, if you start out by trying to explain to the (presumably) confused identitarian anarcho-liberal hordes that cops and screws are the enemy, and then find yourself being applauded by people who think that cops and screws are great, here to protect us, and being oppressed by the trans people they strip-search, then something has gone seriously wrong somewhere.
Anyway, onto the text itself: at one point, it asserts that identity politics operates by “dividing the world into two broad groupings: the Unquestionably Oppressed and the Innately Privileged. There are few grey areas allowed in practice and conflict is continually stoked between these two groups.”
This is a weird assertion, and one that sounds more like a caricature of old-school class reductionism than of intersectionality, which, if anything, you’d think would be criticised for making things too messy and making it harder to draw neat lines (are white women Unquestionably Oppressed or Innately Privileged today?) Compare, for instance, the famous IWW preamble:
“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”
Or this from the Platform:
“There is no one single humanity
There is a humanity of classes
Slaves and Masters
Like all those which have preceded it, the bourgeois capitalist society of our times is not ‘one humanity’. It is divided into two very distinct camps, differentiated socially by their situations and their functions, the proletariat (in the wider sense of the word), and the bourgeoisie.”
Or indeed Marx and Engels‘:
“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”
Another weird claim is that “Things that muddy the simple binary of oppressed vs. privileged, such as personal life experiences or traumas (which cannot be neatly summed up by one’s identity as a member of an oppressed group), or things that people may not feel comfortable talking about, such as mental health or class, are often wilfully ignored by identity politicians.”
As ever, I find it hard to tell who this is actually meant to be aimed at, but the claim that the idpol enemy ignore things like traumas and mental health issues feels like a strange fit with the standard critique of safe-space-loving snowflakes, a script which the “woke anarchists” text mostly reproduces faithfully.
Indeed, a few paragraphs later, “a certain fragility” is listed as part of the evidence that the nameless identity politicians are lacking proper working class credentials, which again makes it feel like the “woke anarchists” are meant to be having a go at their opponents for talking about trauma and mental health too much, not for ignoring them.
Another bizarre moment comes when the reader is reminded that being “unquestionably oppressed” is not the same thing as being working class, (fair enough in itself) because “many in the Unquestionably Oppressed espouse liberal values rooted in capitalist ideology rather than being truly liberatory”. Which seems to give the impression that the author believes all working-class people are 100% sorted anarchist communists and no working-class people ever come out with anything rooted in capitalist ideology.
Shortly afterwards, we get to a complaint about “the creation and use of loaded terms intended to provoke an emotional response (‘triggering’, ‘feeling unsafe’, ‘Terf’, ‘fascist’)”. Again, the complaint about people talking about “triggering” makes the earlier complaint that they don’t talk about trauma or mental health a bit nonsensical; but I think the real point at issue here is the inclusion of “terf” in the list of Bad Words. It seems an odd thing to include in a piece that’s claiming to be a defence of class politics against the identity menace, since “terf” is a word that is not primarily used to diss people for having class politics, but mainly to criticise followers of a specific, particularly reactionary strain of identity politics. Unless, of course, the point of all this is actually a defence of that kind of feminism which is primarily concerned with policing who gets to identify as what, but packaged as though it were an attack on identity.
They then bemoan how anarchism has been infected by identity politics, asserting that “Self-appointed leaders who do not agree with our politics should not be given a platform by us”. A point I’m very happy to agree with, but you can hardly argue that people running anarchist spaces need to be pickier about who they give platforms to, and then get all outraged when it turns out that actually people running anarchist spaces would prefer not to give you a platform.
They complain that “we have allowed groups with little or no radical politics to enter our spaces and shut down debate”, which again feels kind of contradictory, since one person’s “keeping groups with little or no radical politics out of our spaces” is another’s “shutting down debate”.
Then there’s a one-sided condemnation of the inflammatory language used “against radical feminists by trans rights activists” – the choice of language here is telling, since as far as I can tell the term “trans rights activists” is mostly used as a sly dig by trans-exclusionary feminists trying to associate trans people with the widely reviled world of “men’s rights activism”.
There is certainly a discussion to be had about whether the general verbal extremism often practiced by anarchists and other radicals is of any use at all, or whether it’s usually a self-defeating form of compensation for real-life powerlessness, but that would be a much more broad-ranging critique, taking in everything from “we have found new homes for the rich” and guillotine jokes onwards. Alternatively, if you don’t have a problem with verbal extremism and violent language in general, and are generally OK with anarchists using heated rhetoric about people they don’t like, but think they should choose their words more carefully when the people they don’t like are women – well, that’s a case that you can make, certainly, and it’s one I have some sympathy for, but it’s a form of politics based on a claim about identity, and the idea that women are, in the mocking terminology of the “woke anarchists”, “Unquestionably Oppressed”. If anything deserves to be described as “identity politics”, characterised by “a preoccupation with safety and language”, then this demand that anarchists criticising people who they think have reactionary politics need to be careful about choosing their language in order to avoid making those people feel unsafe, on the basis of their identity, certainly fits the bill.
More generally, if the point of all this is to argue that anarchists should be nicer and less hostile to trans-exclusionary feminists, then I’m confused about why they went to all the trouble of setting out a lengthy critique of identity politics, only to turn around and defend a group of people whose politics are based precisely on an obsessive focus on identity, and insisting that trans women are Innately Privileged, and so cannot share experiences with Unquestionably Oppressed cis women.
Similarly, they insist that “We still reject politicians of all stripes, whether Tories, Labour or those who see themselves as leaders of movements based around identity.” Which sounds grand, but I hope that rejection includes the likes of the Green party candidate for Hersham, or indeed Linda Bellos or Venice Allen.
Then there’s a bit about how anarchists should reject religion, which I can’t really understand what it’s on about, unless it’s intended as a veiled reference to the daft argument about that Active Distribution banner. But it could equally well be a dig at the Catholic Worker lot, or at the increased visibility of Jewish radicalism, I can’t really tell.
Next, they complain that “The destruction of anarchist projects is carried out and celebrated in the name of identity politics, simply to appease those who have no interest in anarchism itself”. Again, who’s celebrating the destruction of anarchist projects? Let’s take a look. Here’s Jen Isaacson:
At the risk of repeating myself, if you set out trying to defend anarchist projects against those who would celebrate their destruction, and then you find this kind of smug snidey prick cheering you on, it seems to be a sign that something’s got seriously mixed up somewhere.
At this point, they finally come out and name one of the targets of their critique, saying they want to “start by calling out Freedom News for starters, whose uncritical support of groups with little in common with anarchism is shameful”. The choice of words is unintentionally hilarious here, as usually no rant about safe spaces, language policing, fragility, identity politics, and so on is complete without the obligatory denunciation of call-out culture. But more to the point, while they’ve got half-way to making an actual, verifiable, fact-checkable criticism, they never quite make it there, since the problem is just left as Freedom’s support of unnamed “groups” – are they mad about Freedom fundraising for Palang Hitam Anarchist Black Cross? Publicising the situation faced by Russian anarchists? Writing about SolFed fighting landlords and letting agents? Who can say?
After this, we get “Anarchism is not just another identity as some like to claim”, which is just baffling – who even says that?
They tell us that “Identity politics at times mirrors the chauvinism of nationalism, with different groups seeking to carve out their own domains of power according to categories derived from the capitalist order”, apparently without noticing that this precisely describes the position of those “radical feminists” who they think are being so unfairly maligned, the people who seek to play the role of border guards in this kind of identity nationalism.
The piece ends with a rousing call to turn away from inward-facing scene strife and out towards the class struggle, which sounds great for the most part, and all I can say is “well, get on with it then”. I can’t believe I have to explain the connection between means and ends to anarchists, but just as you can’t fight alienation with alienated means, you can’t fight divisiveness and disruption with divisive, disruptive means either.
The bit that gets to me is that, a full year since last year’s bookfair drama, these people have had plenty of time to leave the “anarcho-liberals” behind them and get on with demonstrating the superiority of their approach in practice, but instead they seem stuck on staging a repetition of the same old events and arguments.
In true anarchist fashion, I have no mandate to speak for anyone but myself here, but as someone who fully agrees that “anarchism is cooperation, mutual aid, solidarity and fighting the real centres of power”, if you want to encourage anarchists to engage more with the RMT “keep the guard on the train” dispute (day 40 of the Northern Rail strike is this Saturday!), and you start up a train guards’ support group, I’d think that was great. If you want to encourage anarchists to engage more with the fight against Universal Credit and welfare reform, and you put your energy into starting a claimants’ group, I’d think that was great, and similarly for housing issues and starting a local tenants’ action group. But if you think the best way to make anarchism a relevant, outward-looking movement is to rock up at events you’ve not been able to book space at, give out texts denouncing everyone else for being wrong, and then sit back and wait for people to get outraged on the internet when things inevitably kick off – well, I’ll think you sound like a nuisance, but at least you know people who love cops and hate anarchists will carry on applauding you.
Here’s hoping that next year brings us all better, fresher, more interesting conflicts and problems.
*the blog itself has now been deleted by wordpress, the post in question has been archived but I still won’t link directly to the archive because I think the contents cross the line into targeting specific individuals in a way I don’t want to encourage. You can dig it up if you’re curious, though.