Perhaps this is a terrible thing to admit, but when I first heard about what had happened in Woolwich – and, more to the point, when I began to realise the effect it would have on the wider political climate – the first thing I felt wasn’t really shock, or outrage, or horror or fear or any of the other things you’re meant to feel in these situations. It was exasperation – that kind of tired grumpiness best summed up by the phrase “oh, for fuck’s sake.”
While the overall political situation beforehand was already a bit grim, there were quite a few things I’d been feeling cheerful about. For one thing, although the level of electoral support for the hard right is worrying, the far-right’s ability to mobilise people in the streets seemed to be collapsing. And, on our side, the determined campaign against workfare’s led to the government getting increasingly nervous and secretive, some of the local campaigns against the bedroom tax sound really impressive, the campaign against blacklisting seems to have a good level of rank-and-file initiative, and the emergence of the Pop-Up Union as a body capable of taking real industrial action is one of the most exciting developments in workplace organising for a long time. None of these things are going to turn the world upside down tomorrow, but they’re all worthwhile and, given time and enough patient commitment, they could have some real effects. But, in the days and weeks to come, no-one’s going to be talking about those things, because racists are setting the agenda. Again. And yes, it’s scary and it’s horrible, but for anyone who lived through the last decade, it’s also starting to get a bit boring. We’ve been here before, so many times.
It’s definitely the case that we need to be mobilising in response to the high levels of racist street militancy that we’re seeing. When faced with racist attacks, pretending they’re not happening and carrying on as usual is not an option. But I think that, in situations where it’s tempting to drop everything else and make responding to the latest news our number one priority, it’s more vital than ever to keep a clear head. Lee Rigby’s death was a tragedy, and the fact that innocent people have been hurt as a result of the racist backlash that’s followed is another tragedy, and if we can do anything to stop more racist attacks from happening then that’s vital. But I can’t help worrying that, however many weeks or months later, when everything’s more or less died down and returned to normal, we’re going to emerge from this period of emergency mobilisation to find that the fragile fledgling community-based revolt against the bedroom tax has utterly died from neglect while everyone’s had their attention taken up by the EDL, and that evictions which could have been preventable are taking place with no opposition.
It’s no secret that many activists, from both the traditional Marxist groups and the more libertarian end of the spectrum, share a tendency to be a bit excitable, to put it mildly. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, and the kind of intense energy that comes with that excitability can be really useful for getting new initiatives off the ground. But, for almost exactly the same reasons, that activist urge towards urgency and excitability is no help at all when it comes to trying to sustain anything for an extended period of time, as the urge is always to drop whatever you were doing before in favour of this week’s hot issue. As I’ve said, the racist backlash is having a real impact on people’s lives, and so can’t be written off as just another bullshit distraction like the Royal Wedding or the Olympics. But if we focus all our energies on it, we’re still letting the racists set the agenda. In a debate about Islam, where all the options are defined by various anti-working-class political ideologies (“do you support Islamic extremism? how about British nationalism? Or do you oppose both of them and support the respectable moderate center ground? How about moderate Islam? What about moderate British nationalism?”), it’s very hard to articulate anything beyond a purely negative anti-racism, or a state-friendly liberal approval of “multiculturalism” and the moderate center. There’s not much space to articulate a broader vision of solidarity and taking back power over our lives.
In the days to come, we need to be acting as anti-fascists and anti-racists. But we shouldn’t let our activity be reduced to just that and nothing else. Difficult though it is, we should also try and keep up whatever we were doing before last week. The ongoing project of trying to rebuild a culture of solidarity and direct action is still as vital as ever, and having a clear, long-term strategy that we stick to is the only way we’ll ever be able to break out of this cycle of permanently running around trying to deal with the fallout from this week’s disaster.