Notes on the material basis of racism, nationality and solidarity

Derek Simpson with some friends.

The Angry Workers of the World collective (AWW) recently set out some thoughts on the legacy of the 1970s US-based group, Sojourner Truth Organisation (STO). I’d recommend reading their piece even if you don’t know the STO from a hole in the ground, because their thoughts on racial/national division and the material factors that produce “bad ideas” are really useful for anyone trying to get to grips with the situation we face at the moment.

Here are a few further notes on some of the points they raise:

One point that the AWW make is that “the major movements in the US have largely been by black Americans protesting against cop/state violence whereas protests, riots and demonstrations over here have not had ‘race’ explicitly as their focus… In recent years, street movements and violence against the cops/state in many European cities have been more explicitly a reaction to nose-diving living standards and unemployment after the bank bail outs and attempts to cut the social welfare bill (or ‘social wage’).”

This is broadly true as a comparison between the US and Europe in general, but misses the specific way in which the UK differs from the European context – we never really had a citizenist assembly movement, but we did get a “Ferguson moment” (or a Baltimore, Charlotte, Milwaukee, etc, etc) several years early in August 2011 after the police killing of Mark Duggan. How far that moment was based around “race” as compared to resentment of state violence, living standards or other factors is still an open question and one that could only really be answered with the input of actual participants in those events. Given the disconnect between “the left” and those who participated in that uprising, both at the time and in the aftermath, any attempt to ascribe meaning to those events is inevitably a kind of speculation about others’ motives. Still, it is a moment that’s always worth bearing in mind when drawing these comparisons.

One of the most interesting points the AWW draw out is the difference between the racial contexts in the US and here – whereas the black/white binary is more central to the American context (although it’s never been the only racial dynamic at play there, either), and fears about migration there are centered around Latin American immigrants who are racialized as not white, the current situation in the UK is more characterised by mass “white” migration from European countries, leading to tricky situations like Polish migrants being both victims and agents of racism, or the difficulty of saying whether white EU migrants have “more privilege” than black and Asian British citizens. In this situation, approaches and analyses developed in the US will have limited use, and, if applied in a reductionist way (as with the common internet-leftist trope that “racism against white people doesn’t exist”) can be actively counter-productive.

Talking about the EU’s “border/refugee/migrant crisis”, the AWW say that “the ‘oppressed subjects’, in both voice and action – have had little space to speak and act for themselves. Unlike the upsurges of anger on American streets by black Americans, it is mainly white, left-wing supporters who have taken up the refugees’ cause.”

I think it’s crucial to distinguish between “voice” and “action” here. Certainly refugees have had very little chance to speak for themselves, but their actions have involved all kinds of concerted collective attempts to improve their lives by practically subverting, sabotaging or avoiding the border regime. If we can see the “daily struggle” of workers’ quiet, unvoiced resistance to work as political, then I think the actions of refugees in dodging the borders and so on should be see as an equally important form of self-organisation.

In terms of more formalised, big-p Political action, I have very little actual experience of the campaign against Yarl’s Wood and the other detention centres, but it’s certainly my impression “from a distance” that the Movement for Justice is very much a migrant/refugee-led organisation, even if it isn’t capable of setting the agenda in the same way as Black Lives Matter in the US.

They also talk about the possible reactions of Polish migrants to the current wave of anti-migrant xenophobia. This is an interesting question, and it’d be really good to hear more from people with more substantial experience of Polish migrant “communities” in the UK to talk about what sort of forms of organisation and mobilisation already exist in those places, what the “exile nationalism” phenomenon looks like and how things like the anti-Stalinist/anti-Communist historical legacy affect the potential for mobilisation. (On a personal note, I live in a fairly “mixed” area and rarely if ever see British far-right propaganda in my neighbourhood, but quite often see Polish-language stuff with nationalist-looking or anti-communist imagery, although it’s hard to say whether this reflects anything wider or is just the work of one or two people).

They engage with the ways that racist ideas emerge out of and are reinforced by material realities – often material realities created as a result of deliberate choices by the bosses and the state – but only really take up one side of this, looking at the way racism grows out of perceived favouritism and privileges for a particular group, but not really the way it can equally be a response to the way more precarious migrants are seen as driving standards down by undercutting other workers. This is a particularly nasty vicious circle to try and address – state discrimination forces migrants into insecure positions where they can’t refuse or challenge crappy conditions, helping those conditions to become normalised, which furthers resentment, and so leads to calls for more state discrimination, worsening of the insecurity faced by migrants, and so on.

Trying to address this dynamic is definitely a crucial task when attempting to challenge the material reinforcement of racist ideas, but, of course, as with so many of these tasks, it’s a lot easier said than done.

In one of their most interesting assertions, AWW criticise STO for “an over-reliance… on a Leninist conception of raising class consciousness for workers to overcome the contradiction between losing out materially in the short-term and winning the communist lottery in the long-term”, and say that they don’t really expect “that the established working class can be ‘politically’ mobilised to fight for the (migrant, foreign, less privileged) lower ranks of the working class”.

This seems like quite a gloomy outlook, and it seems that one way around it would be to look for potential “levelling up” demands. At the risk of repeating myself, I would say that the dispute at Fawley oil refinery earlier this year sounds like a shining example of how these things should be done, and that disputes in construction and oil refineries over the last few years, going back to Lindsay in 2009, have been an interesting laboratory of more or less internationalist or nationalist approaches to these questions, but it’s always hard to generalise from these specific cases, since we don’t all work on oil refineries.

In general, though, I’d agree that the promise of “winning the communist lottery in the long-term” is not going to be much compensation for material losses, so it’d be good to try and look for approaches where the struggles of the most down-trodden for “a more equal position vis-a-vis the established working class” can be framed as being in the short-to-medium term interest of those established workers – so pushing the “exploiting cheap foreign workers is wrong, pay all workers the proper rate for the job and we’ll all be more secure” tendency as against the “exploiting cheap foreign workers is wrong, British jobs for British workers” reaction.

Along these lines, it might also be worth revisiting the IWCA manifesto position on refugees and asylum seekers, as a serious attempt to address some of these matters from a non-dogmatic working-class perspective.

While on this topic, it is always worth noting that, while racial/national divisions are one prominent way the workforce is segmented along hierarchical lines, they’re certainly not the only one. Things like the permanent/temporary worker division, the use of things like workfare to pressure claimants into becoming desperate cheap or even free workers, and even things like the wage gap between high wage, high cost of living areas like London and places in the North where much lower wages can still be liveable are all equally worth addressing as issues of class composition, especially as the worker/claimant divide has been so effectively exploited as a source of bigoted and reactionary attitudes.

AWW talk about the struggles they see as being most “interesting”, and cite the potential to generalise “across different groups of workers, different sectors, waged/unwaged work, to other marginalized groups e.g. the unemployed” as one key aspect. I’d broadly agree with this, but add another line it’s vital to find one ways of crossing: the London/not-London divide.

To put it another way: if we were to draw up a list of highpoints of struggle in recent years, we might cite the cleaners’ strikes organised through a variety of forms – mainly UVW of late, but also things like Justice for Cleaners at SOAS -, the UberEats and Deliveroo disputes, other IWGB couriers’ organising drives, housing struggles like Focus E15 and the Aylesbury Estate, the UCL rent strike, and then perhaps a few more mainstream union efforts like the Ritzy and Picturehouse cinema workers’ organisations, the London Unite hotel workers’ branch or the RMT dispute with Southern Rail. There’s a common theme here that may not be immediately obvious to someone living in London, but is very apparent when viewing from up here in Brexitland. If we expand the list to include, say, the Pop-Up union at Sussex and Brighton Hospitality Workers, the geographical focus still isn’t sifted all that much.

The difficulty of generalising struggles across the “national border” of the M25 – and the consequences of failing to do so – were perhaps most visible in the Deliveroo dispute, where a national employer, one that was clearly planning on imposing the new contracts on a national scale, was faced with an essentially local resistance. Not to knock the fine work done by those who did take up the fight against Deliveroo in London, but it is really worrying how little knowledge has been shared about the situation with Deliveroo drivers across the rest of the country – where else have the new contracts been imposed? Has there been organised resistance at any level anywhere outside London?

To make matters worse, there is also a definite tendency among much of the London-centric left to neglect those “exemplary struggles” that do take place outside London, as with the total absence of either practical support for, or theoretical analysis of, the heroic Doncaster Care UK strike, from pretty much anyone to the left of the SP/SWP.

For one example of this, I see that a recent meeting in London on free public transport had a speaker from the Swedish network Planka.nu. There’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to build this kind of international conversation in itself, but why is it that the London left finds it easier to get speakers over from Sweden than to contact the South Yorkshire Freedom Riders or Newcastle’s Checkywatch?

The AWW set out a criticism of organising within separate nationality or ethnic groups, as both divisive (setting one group of migrants against another) and promoting cross-class “community” alliances. There is certainly a fair amount of truth to their criticisms, but I think it’s worth thinking about questions like how broadly or narrowly autonomous groups self-define. If we think of the Asian Youth Movement of the 80s as a broadly positive development that largely managed to avoid these traps, and that allowed people affected by a shared experience of racism to organise autonomously without feeling the need to divide along the lines of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians – or, perhaps even more damagingly, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and secularists* – then it might be worth asking what identities or positions could serve as the basis for a similarly inclusive form of self-organisation today.

Also, without having a hugely in-depth knowledge of the history of London cleaners’ struggles, it’s my understanding that “ethnic” organisations like the Latin American Workers’ Association had played a very useful role in recent years. This seems like it could be a good starting point for an examination of the pros and cons of these forms of organisation, as well as raising the question of where the lines between “racial” and “economic” forms of self-organisation lie – if cleaners organise in a workplace or even a sector where all, or an overwhelming majority, of the cleaners are Latin American, is their organisation a Latin American organisation by default?

As a final note on the complexity of this issue, I’d suggest that the disabled groups like DPAC/Black Triangle/Winvisible/Mental Health Resistance Network, while certainly not racially/nationally based, are still worth considering as an another point where the lines between organising around an “oppressed identity” and organising around a shared economic position become blurred.

In closing, they look at the contradictions and potentials of Black Lives Matter. It’s hard to talk about this without recognising that BLM is not one coherent “thing” – it’s simultaneously a reformist organisation and also a broader slogan associated with moments of uprising and riots. For a further exploration of the issues around BLM, I’d recommend reading Viewpoint’s “Strategy after Ferguson” feature, as well as a lot of the stuff Unity & Struggle have put out.

*I’m fairly certain I remember hearing that the demise of the AYMs was at least in part a result of the rise of a politicised “Islamic identity” after the Rushdie affair, an argument which I think I associate with Kenan Malik.

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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