To start off with, a quick disclaimer: in case anyone’s worrying, this isn’t going to be a crass piece of meaningless lefty name-calling along the lines of “Blair said nasty things about muslims, therefore he’s the same as the EDL, or inspired them, or something”. Unlike idiots such as London’s deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, pompous Telegraph windbag Simon Heffer, and rubbish lefty blogger Andy Newman, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to try and smear everyone who I dislike as being somehow the same as the far-right. Instead, using some of the ideas I talked about in this old post, I want to try and think about the EDL as a product of the political culture of the last decade, and what that actually means. I realise that sounds a bit vague, but hopefully all will become clear.
But first, the usual quick round-up of recent stuff that I’ve found inspirational or interesting: a statement that some black bloc members got printed in the Guardian, an interview with some others, an occupation of BBC Radio Merseyside, the news that Cameron’s preparing a partial retreat in his attack on the NHS, and, perhaps most interestingly, an example of the Financial Times openly admitting what the entire spectrum of mainstream opinion is so desperate to hide about the effectiveness of direct action vs. peaceful protest.
Anyway, although this post is, at least partly, about the EDL, the original inspiration came from seeing this piece about the collapse of South Tyneside BNP. The conventional wisdom about recessions is that they’re meant to be good times for the far-right, as they can offer convenient scapegoats for popular anger, so I thought it was interesting that the BNP’s not made that much progress over the last year or so. However, I don’t really have that much to say about the BNP, since their growth mainly seems to have been stalled by a combination of vicious infighting (always reassuring to see that it’s not just us who have that problem) and financial and legal problems – I’d like to be able to say that they’ve been held back by a brilliantly powerful anti-fascist movement, but I don’t really think that’s true, since Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism are both seriously flawed groups that exist more to prop up the mainstream than to seriously try and challenge fascist ideas from a working-class perspective, and while there are some good local groups, there are many areas where independent militant anti-fascism simply doesn’t exist. However, while I think that, under different circumstances, the BNP could’ve done very well out of this recession, I think a case can be made that the EDL has inherent limitations that will make it very difficult for it to grow in this climate, and these limitations are related to the time when it emerged. (A disclaimer: I don’t necessarily stand 100% behind the analysis I’m exploring here, I’m more or less doing the internet equivalent of thinking aloud. In particular, I’m aware that this analysis rests on the idea that economic growth actually has some kind of positive impact on people’s lives, which is very debatable.)
When discussing the political culture of the recent past, I think one crucial starting point is the collapse of the Old Left when the USSR, and the Communist Parties that still supported it, imploded, and New Labour dropped the last of their social-democratic pretensions. Along with the general economic growth based on the housing bubble that led to Gordon Brown’s famous claim about having ended the cycle of boom and bust, I think it’s fair to say that, for most of the period of 1997-2010, it was hard to find voices seriously challenging the basic assumptions of neoliberal economics, and there was a general decline in politics based around economic class interest, and a rise of interest into issues that weren’t directly based around economics, and which often didn’t directly affect the people discussing them. The one major exception to this rule, the movement based around summit protests, still confirms my general claim about a shift from self-interested to other-directed politics: no matter how many of the people involved had a firm theoretical grasp of the fact that capitalism is a set of relationships between people that we are forced to re-create every day, the practice of that movement tended to suggest the idea that capitalism is some kind of object or creature that exists somewhere out there, and so we can confront it by tracking it down to a specific location, such as Seattle, Genoa, Gothenburg, etc. In addition, the movement’s rhetoric often tended to stress the dramatic ways that global capitalism oppresses and exploits people like South American peasants and East Asian sweatshop workers at the expense of discussing the subtler, but still important, ways it exploits workers in the UK.
In general, when thinking about the political issues of the last decade or so, it’s noticeable how much they were dominated by people talking about what other people were doing, rather than what was happening in their own lives: the Iraq War is the most glaring example, but the rise of green politics can also be understood in these terms (people talking about the future instead of the present), and, in retrospect, foxhunting seems like the kind of thing that can only become a big issue when there’s no more open and direct class conflict taking place. Of course, there were still groups and individuals that rejected the basic ideas of neoliberal economics, but many of them chose not to make it a central priority: the Socialist Workers Party, the largest group on the far-left and an organisation made up almost entirely of non-Muslims, spent most of the decade talking about Iraq, Palestine, the BNP, and anything else they thought was likely to attract Muslim support, and while many anarchists were involved with projects based around day-to-day economic issues, like the Industrial Workers of the World or London Coalition Against Poverty, many others were involved in things like hunt sabbing, Climate Camp, or the No Borders network, all of which can be fitted into my category of “other-directed” politics*. I’d argue that the EDL, who formed in mid-2009, a time when the financial crash had taken place, but before its effects had really trickled down to affect everyday life that dramatically, can be seen as a last gasp of the politics of prosperity: just as the relative stability underwritten by the housing boom meant that activists could take a benign interest in the lives of foxes or Palestinians or future generations, it meant that EDL members could take a negative interest in the lives of Muslims. One of the striking things about the EDL, and a clear difference between them and the BNP, is the way that they tend to neglect traditional economic concerns in favour of cultural worries. That approach may have worked for a while, but right now I’d say that the cuts are going to have enough of an impact in everybody’s lives that to ignore them is to be rendered irrelevant.
This isn’t to say that there’s no room for a racialised nationalist response to the recession, clearly there is. I’m no expert at thinking in far-right terms, but off the top of my head I can think of at least two clear options: following the tradition of classical National Socialism, they could adopt a “British Jobs for British Workers” position, blame the crash on greedy bankers, and more-or-less openly associate said bankers with the Jews, and argue for a populist and nationalist opposition to the cuts. Or they could offer a militant, street-fighting version of Cameron’s politics, blame the crisis on Labour’s “red” economics, insist that we all have to make sacrifices for the national interest, and attack anti-cuts protesters for trying to wreck the recovery. But, as far as I can see, they can’t just blame it all on Muslims for causing the crisis by not eating enough pork. This could just be me underestimating the wonders of the far-right imagination: in a world where a prominent political figure like Jerry Falwell can blame Islamic fundamentalist terrorism on feminists, gays and pagans, and long-defunct groups like the Wombles are still regularly accused of masterminding spontaneous riots, perhaps it’s possible to blame literally anyone for anything. But to adopt either of the narratives I’ve outlined, the EDL would have to go through a massive internal transformation and jettison their current strategy of being a single-issue anti-Islam group, and there’s no telling whether they’d be able to survive the pressures of such a big change, especially since their last demo, in Blackburn, was marked by violent infighting (see here for a post-demo catfight taken from facebook).
It’s impossible to say what will happen next. Even if the EDL does just continue ranting about other people’s religious practices while being totally ignored by a population more worried about their jobs and services, that doesn’t mean that another far-right group – either a revitalised BNP or a totally new player emerging out of nowhere the way UKUncut did – might not attract serious support, and it’s not like we have that much reason to be complacent, since anti-EDL mobilisations have had very mixed results – they’ve been totally humiliated every time they’ve gone up to Scotland, but it sounds like they easily outnumbered the anti-racists on Saturday. In general, I’d say putting too much emphasis on anti-fascism now would be putting the cart before the horse – our major priority for the foreseeable future needs to be rebuilding the bonds of workplace and community solidarity that’ve been devastated by 30 years of Thatcherite rule.
Still, there’s grounds for hope. No racist group could hope to attract anywhere near the number of people who marched in defence of their jobs and services on March the 26th. Against the politics of nosiness and imagined community promoted by the English Defence League, the anti-cuts movement needs to become the basis of an EDLDL – an Every Day Life Defence League, which would fight to solve the problems directly affecting our quality of life, while also recognising that our problems are inseparable from everyone else’s, so it’ll take a collective response to make any one person’s life better.
* just to be clear, the references to No Borders and other forms of solidarity politics are not intended as an attack on those groups and campaigns, many of which I have a lot of respect for. It’s simply because I believe that any campaign will find it difficult to attract much support unless it can explain how potential supporters would benefit from their success, so I’d argue that any campaign should always be thinking of ways to appeal to self-interest – for instance, anti-war groups can stress the shared class interests of British and foreign citizens, rather than just using humanitarian appeals about the effects of war on others.