Angry Workers of the World, the West London-based collective who consistently produce some of the best contemporary analysis out of the UK at the moment, have just published a new piece reviewing a book on the Grunswick and Gate Gourmet struggles, and then using this as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion of what they see as the limits of “intersectionality” as a concept.
In the past, I’ve been very heavily critical of the level of discussion around critiques of “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, so it’s very refreshing to see a piece that avoids the common flaws that ruin most mainstream left critiques. In particular, criticisms of intersectionality often fall back on an appeal to a supposed universal subject, an imagined figure which is vague enough to appeal to centrist liberals, social democrats and some self-proclaimed communists, whereas the AWW piece is very clear about the need to start off from an understanding of class composition as it actually exists – so, real workers, who always exist in a specific context of some kind, unlike the abstract universal proletarian phantoms beloved of most anti-intersectionalists.
The other thing that often does my head in about critiques of intersectionality is that they often seem to get stuck at the moment of “don’t do that”, and never really arrive at the “do this instead” – which often seems to come across as saying “don’t do anything”. Again, the AWW piece is far, far better than most examples of the genre in this regard, but there are still a few moments where I really felt like the “do this instead” they advocate for could use some further discussion. So, a few notes on their article, mostly just saying “I’d like to see this bit explained in more detail”, and possibly repeating myself from previous discussions on similar subjects:
One possible point of disagreement is with their claim that “We are currently witnessing a problematic intersection [I can’t work out if the pun there is deliberate or unintentional] of state ideology and liberal leftist politics when it comes to race, class and gender – and ‘intersectionality’ will be a useless tool to question this.”
If I understand what they’re saying correctly, then I think that this is a point where different understanding of the concept of “intersectionality” diverge – so there are certainly forms of intersectional analysis that are open to this kind of state co-optation, but I’d think any version of intersectionality that recognises class as an axis can be used as a tool to pry open the kind of statist, top-down managerial ideology where, for instance, “the Jewish community” can be represented by the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies, “the Muslim community” are represented by the Muslim Council of Britain and so on.
But maybe that’s too simplistic, and it’s also necessary to acknowledge that, just like “intersectionality”, “class” is also used to mean different things, so the correct formulation would be more like “any version of intersectionality that recognises class as an axis – and understands class as a social relationship, not a fixed, unchanging identity – can be used as a tool to…” I’m sure there are some versions of intersectionality that would go along with idiocies like “ah, Sajid Javid, son of a bus driver – he can tick the working-class box”, but I don’t think that’s true of all of them.
Anyway, the main point I wanted to see expanded on is touched on in two sections: one talks about “the wider liberal left, which demands ‘open borders’ as some kind of human right and denounces local working class reaction against this as xenophobic or anti-migrant – the left should check their privileged position of not feeling potentially threatened by an increase of competition on the labour and housing market. The demand for open borders has to be solidly founded on working class politics that take up the enormous challenge of organising local and migrant workers against all odds of limited jobs, language issues between workers and so on.” Later on, this is echoed by “the way the Gate Gourmet workers were undermined through the employment of recently migrated agency workers from Eastern Europe confirms our critical position towards a liberal left that berates working class people who voted for Brexit as being complete wallies misguided by UKIP.”
I think this is a really important point, and it’d be good to see further discussion of this. Of course, there is a section of the (radical) left that’s vocally critical of the no borders position, what we could loosely call the RMT/TUSC/IWCA tendency (without wanting to collapse the differences between them), but as I understand it Lexit-leaning types tend to be opposed to open borders as such, even if most of them are shy about saying exactly what kind of border controls they’d like to see, whereas the AWW perspective seems to be more about approaching the demand for no borders from a different angle.
I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers on this question, that’s one of the reasons I’d like to see more comradely discussion of this point, but to sketch out what I’d see as a few starting points: I think, as the AWW hint at, the left dogma that migrants never have a negative impact on wages or working conditions is unhelpful, and that a better way of framing the argument is to acknowledge that there are circumstances where migrant workers will accept lower wages or worse working/living conditions, but that these circumstances are related to the insecurity created by the border regime itself. This then means that, rather than trying to stop migrant workers undermining wages by demanding increased border controls – and so more anxiety and less confidence among those migrants who do, legally or illegally, make it in – we can combat these negative effects by fighting against all the hierarchies and divisions that produce “migrant workers” as a distinct, separate group, cut off from the rest of the local working class.
The above is pretty abstract, but for a glimpse of what it can look like in practical terms, I still think the best example is the dispute at Fawley oil refinery, when workers reacted to migrants being employed on lower wages by striking and demanding their immigrant coworkers be paid at the same rate. More generally, there’s a long history, going back to at least the Lindsey dispute in 2009, of struggles in construction and oil related to the employment of migrant workers on lower rates, with both nationalist and internationalist working-class perspectives visible in these struggles at various points.
But looking at these struggles, while useful, can only be a starting point. After all, most of us don’t work in construction or oil, and don’t have the relatively high levels of (recognised) skill and organisation associated with those sectors, so “just react the way oil refinery workers would” is not always a practical piece of advice for us. Of course, there are also the rightly-celebrated struggles among migrant cleaners, who are making a commendable contribution to challenging the position of “low-waged migrant worker”, but here we can also see sectional barriers that militancy has not yet spread beyond, with almost all such struggles taking place at relatively high-profile employers in (central?) London.
As the above makes clear, I don’t have any kind of magic formula for joint struggles between local and migrant workers outside of very specific situations, but I think the AWW are right to highlight it as an important question, and in refusing to play down its difficulties – more discussion, and most importantly practical examples, on this point would be very welcome.
As a sidenote, when discussing the relationship between British Asian workers and EU migrants, they mention that “the ‘pool of disposable workers’ is also replenished by recent migrants from South Asia itself – a lot of our colleagues have arrived from Punjab, Gujarat, Goa, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Afghanistan in the last decade”. I was intrigued by this, since that definitely contradicts my understanding of how the current border regime works – I thought the points-based system made it pretty much impossible for non-EU “disposable workers” to get in, so I’d be curious as to whether they were mainly family members of established UK citizens, students who’d stayed after their courses (although even there I thought there were pretty strict restrictions), refugees or what.